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Fall 1986 · Vol. 15 No. 2 · pp. 9–20 

A Converted and Baptized People

Raymond O. Bystrom

A recent sociological study of the faith, life, practices and institutions of the Mennonite Brethren indicates that about 25 percent of the people surveyed did not consider church membership to be very important. (“Mennonite Brethren Church Membership Profile 1972-82,” Direction 14 [1985]: 16).

Baptism is . . . an individual rite administered before God’s people; the Lord’s Supper is a community rite . . . involving God’s people.

To be sure, the larger Christian community also cannot agree on the significance of membership in the church. Positions range from the institutionalists who view it as essential for salvation to the minimalists who take it with “a grain of salt.” However, the concept of a regenerate church membership has always been a distinguishing mark of the Mennonite Brethren. Together with other Mennonite bodies, MB’s have historically maintained that church membership is an integral part of one’s Christian experience and “something never to be taken lightly or loosely” (Wiebe, 35).

Whatever the reasons for the current tendency by some to minimize its significance, {10} it is clear that we need to rediscover the biblical basis for church membership. Indeed, if we are to change attitudes, it is essential that professional theologians, pastors and lay Christians alike reflect together upon what it means to be a member of the body of Christ. The following discussion attempts to make a small contribution to the recovery of the importance of church membership.


In the New Testament the word “church” is used in two distinct yet interrelated ways. It is frequently used to refer to a community (Acts 11:26) or communities of believers in a specified locality (Acts 15:41). Its primary stress on actual gatherings of Christians within definable geographical limits is especially clear in a Pauline phrase like, “when you come together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18). In fact, in the majority of instances in Paul’s writings, the word “church” refers to a regular, local gathering of God’s people. According to Australian scholar Robert Banks, Paul’s use of the word has

a distinctly dynamic rather than static character. . . . The word does not describe all the Christians who live in a particular locality if they do not in fact gather or when they are in fact not gathering. . . . Its chief importance lies in the way it stresses the centrality of meeting for community life: it is through the gathering that the community comes into being and is continually recreated (41,51).

Secondly, the word church is used to refer to a non-local heavenly community (Banks, 43-51). In Colossians and Ephesians, for example, Paul regularly speaks about a heavenly reality to which all Christians belong (Col. 1:18,24; 3:1-4; Eph. 1:3; 2:5-6). Writing to the Ephesian saints, Paul says that God “has made us alive with Christ . . . and raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:5-6). Metaphorically speaking, all Christians are gathered around Christ and enjoying fellowship with him, even as they go about their ordinary daily tasks.

According to Paul, who gave the word “church” its definitive shape in the New Testament, Christians belong to both a heavenly church and to a local church. If we were to ask Paul about the relationship between these two churches, he would probably say that each gathering together of each group of Christians in a given locality for the purpose of worship, edification and service {11} is a tangible expression of the heavenly church, “a manifestation in time and space of that which is essentially eternal and infinite in character” (Banks, 47).

What, then, does it mean to be a member of a church conceived as a dynamic gathering of God’s people for community life, that is, a regularly-assembling community that is a visible expression of a heavenly community to which all Christians belong?

By “member” we usually mean one who has been formally received into the fellowship of a local church. But the New Testament knows nothing of “church members” only “members of Christ” (1 Cor. 6:15) and “members of the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27). As British theologian J.I. Packer notes,

our usage stemmed from Scripture, but has parted company with both the Bible’s grammar and its meaning. In Scripture, Christ’s body is essentially ordinary folk living together a new and extraordinary life because the risen Lord has touched and claimed and now controls them (Packer, 153).

The word “member” fits perfectly the idea of the body because the body has many members, many limbs. Even a cursory reading of Paul’s use of the body metaphor, which emphasizes the identification of believers with Christ and with one another, indicates that “living together” means “living within a network of inter-personal relationships that both lay their claims upon us and invite us to contribute our best” (Martin, 1979, 15).

Therefore, as Paul traveled the Mediterranean proclaiming the good news about Christ, communities sprang up and multiplied. He intentionally brought people into an intimate relationship with God which, simultaneously, connected men and women to one another as well as to God. The gospel is not a purely personal affair; it is a communal affair that leads people into meaningful and responsible relationships with God’s people in a specific locale.

Why, then, does Paul, together with the other New Testament writers, insist on the corporate nature of the Christian faith?


Church membership has a derivative significance. It derives its importance from two different but closely related biblical views of the church. {12}

First, membership in the church is important because God needs a special people to witness to the world. Indeed, the church as a community of people, a corporate body, is crucial to God’s plan in human history. The whole of biblical history testifies to the fact that God has not chosen to work with people in isolation, but rather with people in community. In this regard a very important passage is 1 Peter 2:9-10, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. . . .” By applying four Old Testament titles of Israel to the church, Peter stresses that there is a continuity between the Old and the New Testament people of God. Indeed, there is only one people of God. The congregation was the basic working unit in God’s relations with the Hebrew people. Indeed, to be disconnected from the community was the worst punishment in their legal system. You were not a whole person if you were forced to exist alone in exile. Three basic ideas surrounding the concept of the people of God underscore the importance of community life for the Christian.

Peter underlines the truth that the church is a community of people who owe their existence and uniqueness to one fundamental fact—the call of God. This call is the heart of the New Testament understanding of the church (1 Cor. 1:9; Rom. 1:6; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Thess. 4:7). The church is a group of people whom God has called together. Therefore, there is only one sufficient reason for gathering together with God’s people and that is to worship God.

Peter also emphasizes the truth that the church is a community of people who are bound in covenant relationship with God and with one another—God’s own people. Theologically speaking, a covenant is a promise binding two people or two parties to love one another unconditionally. God has made a covenant for us (unilateral) in Christ; he has freely bound himself to us in covenant love (“I will be your God and you will be my people”). But God’s covenant of grace demands a response; love brings its obligations (“I have loved you; I have redeemed you; therefore, keep my commandments”). Today, the church is the covenant people of God, that is, a people who have responded to God’s covenant of grace by accepting his offer of forgiveness through Christ and by openly promising to be loyal to him.

Now since this is the nature of the relationship between God and his people, it should surely be the paradigm for relationships {13} within the Christian community itself. God’s people should openly commit themselves to one another (bilateral), undertaking to be faithful to one another, to love and to serve one another, and to stand by one another always. In my view, the current tendency to minimize the importance of church membership reveals a profound lack of biblical covenant thinking.

Further, Peter highlights the truth that the church is a community of people who exist for the world—a chosen people. In the New Testament the concept of election is rooted in the person of Jesus Christ. Our election is only by virtue of our union with Him. We are not chosen as isolated individuals, but as members of his body, the church (1 Thess. 1:4-5). Election stresses the quality of life the Christian community is called to exhibit before the watching world (Eph. 1:4). The Christian community is mandated to mediate the mercies of God to those who are without mercy (1 Pet. 2:9; Matt. 28:19-20). Leslie Newbigin makes this point forcefully when he writes:

Whenever it is forgotten that we are chosen in order to be sent;  . . wherever men think that the purpose of election is their own salvation rather than the salvation of the world; then God’s people have betrayed their trust” (111).

Unfortunately, many Christians, handicapped by an individualistic view of salvation, see the church only in terms of personal advantage—what can I get out of it? But God has called a special people into existence and it is his purpose to use it for the salvation of the world.

Second, membership in the church is important because the believer needs a family in which to grow. Indeed, the church as a community of people, a corporate body, is central to God’s purposes for the individual believer. The book of Acts contains the story of the birth of the church. The new community of which Jesus had spoken (Matt. 16:18; 18:15-20) became a reality with the coming of the promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Peter’s message about the crucified and resurrected Christ pierced the hearts of his hearers and compelled them to ask, “What shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). And then we are told that “those who accepted this message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). {14}

The coming of the Holy Spirit meant the emergence of a new society as Jesus had anticipated. “The apostle’s word,” writes Ralph Martin, “is not primarily, ‘Come, catch our enthusiasm and share our joy.’ It is rather, ‘Come, join God’s new society and take your place in its ranks.’ There is an identifiable body of men and women, not just an amorphous collection of individuals, each professing a religious experience. . . . Any notion that believers in Jesus could or would live in ‘solitary splendor’ or apart from the group receives scant support from these chapters in Acts” (Martin, 1979, 29-30). Acts gives us, then, a timeless reminder that the church is more than an informal fellowship of saved souls; it is a community of faith to which members are added because the new life in Christ requires a social context for its maintenance and maturity. Three images for the church underline the importance of community life for Christian maturation: the body, the family, and the fellowship.

Paul’s favorite metaphor for the church as the body of Christ serves to stress the believer’s identification with Christ (1 Cor. 6:15) and with other believers (1 Cor. 12:12, 27; Rom. 14:7; Eph. 4:25) in order that each member and the community as a whole will mature. We depend on others both for our knowledge of Christ (Rom. 10:17) and our growth into him. Mutual gifts and responsibilities are bestowed by God’s Spirit to every member for the edification of Christ’s body (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 14:12, 19, 20). The only conclusion to be drawn is that the Christian life is possible only in a community of fellow believers “without whom we fail to achieve our full stature as men and women ‘in Christ’ (Eph. 4:13)” (Martin, 1979, 15).

The New Testament also compares the Christian community with a family in which mutual relationships are inescapable.

The church at its best reflects all that is noblest and most worthwhile in human family life: attitudes of caring and mutual regard; understanding of needs, whether physical or of the spirit; and above all the sense of ‘belonging’ to a social unit in which we find acceptance without the pretence of make-believe. . . . God’s house shares this character when its worship and fellowship create an atmosphere in which there is free expression of our true selves, always in the hope that we can learn from one another and mature as we grow into our Elder Brother’s likeness (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:13-15)(Martin, 1979, 124).

The letter to the Hebrews may well have been written to a {15} group of believers in danger of isolating themselves from their fellow Christians in the local church. Since the Christians to whom the author writes are brothers in the same family (Heb. 3:1; 13:1,22) and members of the same household (Heb. 3:6; 10:21), he urges them to nurture their precious gift of community, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25).

The New Testament often uses the word “fellowship” to convey the nature of our relationship with God and with other Christians. The root idea of fellowship is “taking part in some thing with someone.” As God’s people, Christians “participate” in God’s good gifts: fellowship with Jesus (1 Cor. 1:9), fellowship with the Spirit (Phil. 2:1), fellowship in the gospel (Phil. 1:5). Fellowship also speaks of mutual support and comfort. But the Scriptures indicate that any claim to partnership with others must come to expression in generosity and community (2 Cor. 9:13; Acts 2:42; Gal. 6:10).

One of the constants in the New Testament, writes Charles Kraft,

is the need for the conversion-maturation process to take place in community. . . . This need constitutes one of the major reasons for the institution of God’s groups that we call churches. . . . In this context one’s relationship with God becomes vital, habits of Christian behavior are developed, spiritual gifts discovered, and spiritual maturity developed. Woe to the Christian who is not a part of a vital, tightly knit, sociologically healthy group of God’s people, for they are one’s spiritual family. Without them one cannot expect much spiritual growth (338).

These, then, are some of the reasons the New Testament knows nothing of the solitary Christian. In the New Testament God’s people are always members of a Christian community. How, then, does one enter into the Christian community called the church? What are the prerequisites, conditions, or qualifications of church membership?


Conversion and baptism are the two prerequisites to church membership. Although the themes of conversion and baptism belong together like treble and bass in music, we will consider these two aspects of the same reality separately. {16}

Basic to the New Testament is the command of Jesus: “Be converted!” (Mark 1:15; Matt. 18:3). Conversion denotes turning, changing direction, reversing the direction in which one is headed so that one’s fundamental loyalties are shifted toward rather than away from God (Acts 26:18; 26:20; 14:27; 15:3; 9:1-30; 8:27-39; 10:22-48; 16:27-34). It is essentially a commitment to God in response to mercy from God and consists of repentance and faith. Repentance signals a radical about-turn in one’s thoughts, aims, actions, and loyalties, so that service to God and fellow-man replaces the “me-first” outlook on life. Faith, which is not merely believing Christian truth, although it includes believing in the truth about Christ, is trusting completely in Christ and his cross for forgiveness, peace, and life, and it results in a life lived in joyous, grateful, obedient response to God’s faithfulness and love.

Conversion sometimes occurs suddenly and sharply as in the case of Saul of Tarsus. At other times, conversion is gradual and quiet as in the case of Lydia who was already moving in God’s direction as a “God-fearer” but who one day quietly and calmly “opened her heart” to the gospel message (Acts 16:11-15). Conversion

need not be dramatically sudden or emotional, nor does one have to be fully aware of what is happening. . . . What is crucial, however, is that the marks of conversion—faith and repentance as principles of daily living—be present. . . . Thus, the converted life-style is more significant than any conversion experience (Packer, 121-122).

According to Martin Marty (in Context, 15 January 1986, 5), the Mennonite historian John Ruth tells this story:

There is a variously told story of a plain-dressed Dunkard accosted on the street of a Pennsylvania town by an evangelical young man who asked, ‘Brother, are you saved?’ The long-bearded Dunkard did not respond immediately. He pulled out a piece of paper and wrote on it, then handed it to the stranger. ‘Here; he said, ‘are the names and addresses of my family, neighbors, and people I do business with. Ask them if they think I am saved. I could tell you anything.

The conversion of Saul of Tarsus is a powerful New Testament illustration of the importance of life in community. He experienced a miraculous conversion through a personal encounter with the resurrected Lord who spoke his name (Acts 9:4-5) {17} and who then set him apart for his own service (Acts 26:16-18). Yet even Paul recognized his need for and dependence upon other Christians like Ananias (Acts 9:6,10-19; 22:12-16) and Barnabas (Acts 9:26). Paul’s story as related by Luke is an illustration of the New Testament’s insistence that conversion is the doorway to inclusion within the Christian community.

The New Testament unambiguously teaches that faith and baptism also belong together. Baptism followed a personal confession of faith (Rom. 10:9-10; 1 Tim. 6:12; 1 Pet. 3:21). While faith without baptism was possible (for example, the repentant thief of Luke 23:40-43) and while baptism was sometimes not accompanied with faith (for example, Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-24), these are exceptions to the rule. Normally, in New Testament times, a profession of faith was followed by baptism (Acts 16:25-34) in obedience to Christ’s command (Matt. 28:19-20). F.F. Bruce, commenting on Paul’s understanding of baptism, writes:

It is certain that he did not regard baptism as an ‘optional extra’ in the Christian life, and that he would not have contemplated the phenomenon of an unbaptized believer (Bruce, 1963, 136).

Therefore, two dangers are to be avoided: faith without baptism and baptism without faith. For faith demands baptism as its natural expression and baptism demands faith for its validity.

In the contemporary church there is often a temporal hiatus between the profession of faith and baptism. Such a situation is undoubtedly healthy in some cases, especially if baptism is being postponed until faith is conscious or until one’s conversion experience can be credibly confessed. To allow premature participation of very young persons in the ordinance of baptism is an open invitation to distort its meaning as the mark of one’s movement from darkness to light and its claims upon our lifestyles. Yet we recognize that the child who grows into faith in the context of a Christian family is in a very different situation from that of a child coming out of raw paganism. However, when professing adults with credible conversion experiences postpone baptism indefinitely, they are really declaring their unwillingness to submit to the Lordship of Christ. Faith without the good work of baptism is incomplete (James 2:22).

Baptism is also an act of initiation. The word “initiation” is from the Latin word meaning “beginning,” and means reception and entrance into committed membership. The early church {18} selected water baptism as its preferred form for symbolizing the passage of a person into church membership. It signals the believer’s entry into the fellowship of a local church and signifies his antecedent incorporation into the body of Christ.

The New Testament idea of initiation, is of becoming a Christian-in-the-church. There is no ‘flight of the alone to the Alone’; we are saved in company, as units in the body of Christ, or not at all (Packer, 149).

Matthew records Jesus’ post-resurrection commission to his disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). A sane reading of the text compels the conclusion that Jesus envisaged a community of people who would be linked to him by a common allegiance symbolized by baptism. Obedience to Christ demands that we join God’s visible community. Baptism is the doorway into the church. By means of baptism we are united with all who love the Lord Jesus and are therefore his people in a local church (1 Cor. 12:13).

Baptism, then, has necessary implications for community life (Rom. 12:4; 1 Cor. 12:4; Eph. 4:7-16; 1 Pet. 4:10). “Isolationism in church—sitting apart, not getting acquainted, dodging responsibility—denies the meaning of baptism”(Packer, 126). We know what baptism means and we show what it means when we actively love our fellow believers in the body of Christ.

Preparation for baptism is essential. Converts today do not have the advantage of early Christians who were familiar with the initiation rites for proselytes to Judaism and for entrance into the Greek mystery religions. Baptismal candidates were probably prepared for baptism by being given specific instruction about Christian belief and conduct (cf. Acts 9:9, 18-19). Traces of stylized Christian instruction for baptismal candidates exist in the New Testament epistles (1 Tim. 3:16 and 1 Pet. 2:11-3:7). Later, in the early centuries of the church’s history, it was common to require a year of instruction before baptism. The church I pastor requires eight weeks for everyone who seeks baptism and church membership. (In fact, such instruction ought to never to cease.)

So, to become a Christian is to become incorporated into the body of Christ. How, then, do we celebrate our common life in Christ and his body?


God’s people celebrate their membership in Christ and his {19} body through the two rites of believer’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The two rites together visibly portray the realities of our faith in God, although they differ in that believer’s baptism is celebrated once-and-for-all at the outset of one’s Christian life and the Lord’s Supper is regularly celebrated. Also, baptism is essentially an individual rite administered before God’s people, while the Lord’s Supper is a community rite involving participation with God’s people.

According to Paul all those who profess to follow Christ are invited to the Lord’s table (1 Cor. 10:14-22). Since, in New Testament times, profession was immediately followed by baptism, does this mean that baptism is an indispensable prerequisite to participation in communion? Perhaps the best way to respond to the question posed is with another question. If believers have not been baptized by immersion for reasons of age or health, would we close-off the communion table to them? Surely it is agreed that the Lord’s table is open to those who profess to belong to the Lord, for in the New Testament baptism is not prescribed as an indispensable prerequisite to participation in the Lord’s Supper.

Also, if there are other believers in our midst who were baptized as infants and who conscientiously believe that they have been Scripturally baptized, would we invite them to partake of the Lord’s Supper? F.F. Bruce, a British New Testament scholar, relates a story that pertains to this question:

A few years ago an Anglican bishop of my acquaintance invited delegates to a youth conference to participate in a communion service provided they were baptized members of a Christian church. When it was pointed out to him that some of the delegates belonged to the Salvation Army or the Society of Friends, he amended his invitation to include ‘all who consider themselves to have been baptized.’

Then Bruce adds these remarks:

I ought not to make it a condition of fellowship (including participation in the Lord’s Supper) that my brethren and sisters accept the same interpretation of the Scriptural doctrine and mode of baptism as I do myself, even if mine were the right one (Bruce, 1972, 224).

A third question concerning participation in the Lord’s Supper needs to be raised as well. Should we invite believers who are not members of a Mennonite Brethren church and who are possibly away from home or on vacation to participate in the {20} Lord’s Supper? I want to quote certain things I am afraid to say myself and I am going to let somebody else take the blame for it.

When our Lord instituted this memorial ordinance, he said nothing about his disciples’ continuing to remember him thus as members of a local church; nor did his apostles lay down any such rule. Naturally the breaking of bread will normally take place within the fellowship of a local church; but there is no Scriptural regulation confining it to such a fellowship. Unfortunately there is a type of ecclesiasticism which cannot tolerate the simplicity of New Testament liberty, but must be introducing its own legislation and restrictive glosses (Bruce, 1972, 224).

Nevertheless, the New Testament does place limitations on participation in the Lord’s Supper. Some who would normally be invited forfeit their right of attendance through immoral conduct (1 Cor. 5:1-13), through their disobedience to the commands of Jesus Christ or his apostles (2 Thess. 3:6, 14f), or through adherence to doctrinal error that causes division (Rom. 16:17; Titus 3:10-11; 2 John 9-11). Further, the New Testament encourages a celebration of the Lord’s Supper in a manner that is appropriate to its high privilege (1 Cor. 11:27-34).


To accept Christ is to accept and to love his people. When we participate in the Lord’s Supper we sit in union with one another as family members around a common table, anticipating the day of the final homecoming of all God’s people. Then “the dwelling of God (will be) with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21:3).


  • Banks, Robert. Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.
  • Bruce, F. F. The Epistle of Paul to the Romans. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963.
  • Bruce, F. F. Answers to Questions. Exeter: Paternoster, 1972.
  • Kraft, Charles. Christianity in Culture. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1979.
  • Martin, Ralph P. The Family and the Fellowship. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.
  • Newbigin, Leslie. The Household of God. New York: Friendship, 1954.
  • Packer, J. I. I Want to Be a Christian. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1977.
  • Wiebe, Katie Funk. Who Are the Mennonite Brethren? Winnipeg/Hillsboro: Kindred, 1984.
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    Ray Bystrom is pastor of the Killarney Park Mennonite Brethren Church, Vancouver, British Columbia.