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Spring 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 1 · pp. 60–69 

Summary Report on the Baptism and Membership Study Conference

Ken Peters

Through prayer, biblical study and the practice of community hermeneutic, the Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church arrived at what it thought to be a cohesive and comprehensive understanding of the New Testament (NT) teaching on the relationship between baptism and membership. These teachings are given official expression in the Confession of Faith, Article 8, the Board of Faith and Life (BFL) pamphlet Baptism and Church Membership: A Converted and Baptized People, and pp. 93-96 of the Confession of Faith: Commentary and Pastoral Application that deals with Article 8 “Christian Baptism.”

Members or not, Christians ought to come to know the church as that place of belonging where the faithful struggle on together in mission, where relationship is stressed over and beyond institution, and where each believer is called to that privileged place in Christ wherein he or she is able to serve God, God’s people, and God’s world with the gifts and talents endowed to us and discerned by the community.

The portrayal of our historic theological understanding of believers baptism and membership is also captured in narrative form in such books as Who Are the Mennonite Brethren? by Katie Funk Wiebe (1984) and its 2002 sequel, Family Matters (especially pp. 34-45) by Lynn Jost and Connie Faber. As well, the Fall 2002 issue (31:2) of the MB academic journal, Direction, is largely dedicated to this topic.

In recent years local congregations have introduced innovative {61} views and practices that have separated believers baptism from membership. These run counter to established MB theology and practice which views baptism as the act which initiates membership into the universal church as given expression by the local congregation.

As there is no single contributing factor to the current variance in practice, the Canadian Board of Faith and Life convened a study conference held in Winnipeg, Manitoba, May 22-24, 2003, with a desire to (1) affirm our Confession of Faith, (2) hear stories of alternative practice, (3) enter into honest debate and reflection, and (4) walk forward into the future together in conviction, belief, and practice.

This summary report does not provide an exhaustive evaluation of what was presented and shared at the study conference concerning baptism and membership but attempts to speak into the center of the issues presented. It is important to clarify that this report is not meant as an evaluation of the events—its organization, promotion, structure, scheduling and itinerary, learning process, leadership, shared occurrence, or statistics. The information contained in three other BFL documents—Evaluation Summary, Statistics, and the Findings Committee Final Report—is procedural and will contribute to the planning of future study conference events. Neither is this report an experiential assessment containing opinion and speculation. For these interests one can turn to the 1 August 2003 Mennonite Brethren Herald which provided highlights and personal reflections of the event.


The practice of believers baptism remains strong within the MB Church, though the ordinance can be experienced in a range of meaning depending on local congregational values and teaching. For instance, to name but a few, believers baptism as described by participants at the study conference is understood as

  • a public proclamation of the private journey of repentance and cleansing through the acceptance of Christ as Lord and Saviour,
  • a declaration of one’s present personal (mystical) relationship with Christ,
  • a reaffirmation of parental intentions of pedobaptism (and confirmation) as a means of inclusion in and belonging to the people of God,
  • a commissioning of gift-endowed, Spirit-infused ministry and mission and/or an inclusion into the people of God, and
  • inclusion in the timeless invisible universal church given expression through the temporal visible local congregation. {62}

Even within our diversity there is a strong commitment to understand conversion-baptism-membership in a covenant community as a contiguous process of discipleship (Jost 2003).

While various theologies and practices of believers baptism “work” at the local level, it was evident through presentation, response, and table discussion that the core meaning(s) of the NT practice of believers baptism require our attention, clarification, and teaching at congregational levels. Lynn Jost, echoing David Esau’s fall 2002 Direction article, states that we practice believers baptism because Jesus commanded it, Jesus modeled it, and NT believers practiced it. He states the obvious: our starting point in understanding baptism is the authoritative teaching of the Bible.

Jon Isaak’s treatment of the baptism motif in NT literature and the writings of the early church demonstrate baptism’s colorful depth of meaning (Isaak 2003). Isaak shows how baptism was practiced as an initiation rite in the Mediterranean world during the time Christianity was emerging, though it was self-administered and lacked eschatological meaning. In distinction, John the Baptizer taught a baptism of repentance that prepared people for God’s end-time judgment and salvation, a practice which Jesus and his disciples continued. Jesus emerges as the “more powerful one” who will baptize with water and the Spirit (Mark 1:7-8). Jesus uses baptism to symbolize the challenge of faithfulness when he asks his disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38b NRSV passim).

The New Testament’s most basic teaching regarding baptism is its symbolic value of purifying and cleansing. Baptism “in the name of Jesus” (Acts 2:38; 10:48) carried the freight of being aligned with his death and resurrection, being included into the family of God, being ordained to the mission of God, having one’s allegiance transferred to God, becoming a member in the body of Christ, realizing one’s true humanity and experiencing the regeneration and outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Isaak rhetorically asks, “To which ‘body’ does baptism give entry: to the local or universal church, to the visible or the invisible church?” He replies, “It is unlikely that Paul and the early Christians would have understood such a question. Why? Because the church is the visible manifestation of the people of God, whose life is ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Col. 3:3).” Further to the point, Isaak notes how New Testament authors used the language of baptism to argue for the new eschatological and collective sense of identity for the Christian. Baptism is, in {63} Isaak’s words, “the great ‘hinge’ on which the ages turn. One enormous step toward becoming truly human together had taken place—toward accessing true life, the life God intends for all people.”

The question emerges, “Are our congregations and baptismal candidates receiving in their teaching, preaching, and practice the theological depth and breadth of meaning of the baptismal event?” The Findings Committee Final Report states in point twenty-two,

Our practices have been formed less by a carefully constructed theological framework than by interpretation of specific Scriptures plus a heavy overlay of “what seems to work in growing our new churches” and a desire to reach our neighbors in today’s culture. As a consequence, when it comes to conversion, confession of personal faith, baptism, communion, and membership, we find ourselves with several logical inconsistencies that will not be easily resolved.

In this regard, Isaak cautions,

Evidently, the early Christians used baptism to express the new reality they had come to experience in Jesus. However, nowhere in the NT is there direct teaching on baptism. Instead, the NT writers mostly discuss the implications and consequences of baptism. It is, therefore, risky to try to reconstruct a “theology of baptism”. . . . (Isaak 2003)

The Board of Faith and Life has no delusions that local church practices will simply or even willingly conform theologically to the prescriptive nature of our Confession of Faith simply because the Confession exists. That said, however, widespread congregational practice contrary to the Confession does not threaten it with irrelevance; rather such practice illustrates how needful the Confession remains. There has been until now a felt need to have a required consensus regarding the theology and practice of believers baptism which is grounded in Scripture and not merely reflective of experiential values, valid as they may seem at the moment for pragmatic reasons. It is the BFL’s conviction that the Confession continues to act as that plumb line for our belief and practice that can enable the church to proceed into the future.

We are led into the future by a combination of our history, our theological convictions, and our hermeneutical approach to and appropriation of the biblical teachings. These all contribute to a dynamic rather {64} than static attempt to engage the seeker, the convert, the new believer in our present age, complete with its myriad of cultures and worldviews. The Confession is a constructive tool, a means of education and discipleship that ought to be approached as a liberating rather than restrictive summary of our belief. Through these challenges the Confession remains the centered statement of our faith and life together, giving us common language and providing us with much needed accountability to the truthfulness of Christian doctrine as prayerfully discerned together.

Isaak states, “Even though cultural forces (such as individualism and a distrust of institutions) push to separate [baptism and membership], to give in to these forces would be to say something about the gospel that is fundamentally untrue—namely, that it is possible to live as a Christian apart from the body of Christ” (Isaak 2003). Lynn Jost adds, “One cannot belong to Christ without belonging to the church” (Jost and Faber, 37). Also, “Baptism incorporates the baptized person into the new reign-of-God community” (Jost 2003).


While our current practice of baptism provokes hermeneutical, soteriological, developmental, ecclesiological, and liturgical questions (Isaak), it is the recommendation of the Board of Faith and Life that all constituent churches affiliating with the Mennonite Brethren Conference revisit, reconsider, and recommit to the Confession of Faith’s Article 8 summary teaching on believers baptism, even as churches move forward together to create a more “carefully constructed theological framework” in willing partnership with, not independent of, the Board of Faith and Life (Findings Committee Final Report, point twenty-two).

There is much to be gained by learning from various congregations who have measured some success in removing perceived barriers to believers baptism for young converts with a view to facilitating this most important step in their journey as disciples of our Lord. Constructive ideas on how we can celebrate the rite include, among others: educative pamphlets, the systematic offer of baptismal classes, the designation of special services, the practice of relationally connected, baptized disciples baptizing disciples, the acknowledgement and presence of the baptizand’s community that may or may not resemble the local congregation offering their practical help in proclaiming the individual’s confession and the gentle teaching of believers baptism at all services.

We encourage all churches in their practice of believers baptism to emphasize the commitment of the baptizand’s—as well as the entire congregation’s—witness to the gospel by word and deed. “Recovering {65} baptism as ordination or deputation or commissioning probably holds the most promise for renewing the church today” (Isaak 2003).


It is safe to conclude that membership, not the practice of baptism per se, emerged as the focus of concern and at times contentious debate during the study conference. Among other matters, it became painstakingly clear that the term membership requires definition, and that the nature of membership requires revitalization.

Jost states a rather profound ontological reality, “Baptism into the body of Christ is nonnegotiable. Membership definitions are modern conveniences.” In other words, regardless of whether churches choose to separate membership from baptism, ontologically and existentially persons are members upon receiving believers baptism.

In his response to Walter Unger’s paper, Bruce Guenther offers us a denominational soliloquy when he reflects on how we have come to consider the meaning of membership.

Some suggest it is the influence of a docetic impulse within transdenominational Evangelicalism that prioritizes a “spiritual” unity over commitment to denominational distinctives. Others suggest that it is a reflection of both North American individualism—salvation is a private matter between the individual and God thereby eroding the place of the local church, and consumerism—“customers” everywhere are characterized by waning loyalties and the demand for freedom to pick and choose their commitment. (Guenther 2003)

We recognize the truth in Guenther’s assessment when we consider the contrast between today’s pathway into community, and the older paradigm of spiritual journey where it was taught (and often experienced) that the Christian first believe, then belong (through some marker such as baptism), and then behave (in ministry and mission). The journey of many seekers today is exactly reversed: people engage themselves in ministry and mission—often without believing, bringing about a sense of belonging that may or may not lead to baptism and only along the way come to believe what they are already practicing. The overarching principle is that the individual’s hunger for community and felt sense of belonging is what drives their motives, not a desire to affiliate with an institution, the power and authority of which they remain somewhat skeptical. {66}

Guenther illustrates how the term “membership” has multiple nuances, how it was and is understood through at least five distinct frames of reference that include the political, the social, the organizational and legal, the sacramental, and the theological perspectives of membership—all operating simultaneously, organically, and intentionally but at times subconsciously.

At present, membership in relation to believers baptism is ill-defined, lacking meaning at denominationally structured levels such as the training and commissioning of our church planters, at congregational levels as regards the lack of distinction between members and adherents, but most importantly at the existential level of the individual and their relationship to the community in which they find themselves.

The diversity of theological interpretation and the perception of the pragmatic value of membership within the Mennonite Brethren appear to be specific to age, generation, ethnicity, culture, and worldview. We interpret scripture and life based on our “unique window” or “cultural context.” Regardless of category, there appeared to be consensus that each individual has a need to experience community and to attain a felt sense of belonging.

David Falk, then interim pastor of The Meeting Place, a congregation that has elected to separate believers baptism from membership, nevertheless stated, “We believe that it is inconsistent to be a Christ follower and not be committed to a local body of believers.” Respondent Bruce Enns writes, “We inherently are part of a significant community because of whose we are. We cannot be alone in God’s family. So much of Scripture speaks to being in community. You cannot experience the ‘one anothers’ without community, you cannot discern and use your spiritual gifts without community, and so much of what we understand of God’s love is experienced in community” (Enns 2003).

Both Enns and Isaak endorse the philosophical shift of raising the bar from membership to covenant community. Enns’s position is based upon research with young adults who do not value membership as currently defined and comprehended, yet desire more not less accountability in their faith walk. Ironically, accountability has been one of the primary concerns which has driven the Mennonite Brethren concept of membership from its inception and which remains a concern for today.

Enns voiced concern over our loss of the radical nature of covenant community which he believes we have replaced with the tired word membership. He believes this shift provides an incorrect focus and an inaccurate impression of our intention to be a missional people whose trademarks ought to be sacrificial servanthood and commitment to each {67} other, not privileges, rights, rules, and regulations.

Still, a rather surprising discovery was that younger generations viewed “membership” as weak in terms of relational accountability. In this regard, Walter Unger’s work attests to the well-documented increased leniency in church discipline and accountability. In terms of early Anabaptist ecclesiology, this represents a move away from Menno Simons’ orientation to the more generous proposals initially offered by fellow Anabaptist architects Balthasar Hubmaier and Pilgram Marpeck who sought to combine the restorative and the missional aspects of the church. For the latter, Unger states, the church was a place of healing for members who, in their weakness, could minister to the world. Thus the church gives “teaching, wisdom, and information, the prescribed medicine and remedy of the true Master, to their fellow members and, in its infirmity and deficiency, to the world,” wrote Marpeck (Marpeck, 87).

Unger cites earlier dateline corrections in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s where the MB Conference sought to soften its historically harsh stance on discipline of errant members to the point where at least in some believers’ views they questioned the very worth of membership if there was no inherent level of accountability.

Decades later, we now find ourselves in the complex aftermath of, on the one hand, those who celebrate the progressive discarding of a highly accountable definition of membership complete with its negatively stated restrictive codes of conduct, and, on the other hand, a new generation that is stating its desire for more accountability even as its peers perceive accountability in the covenant community a formidable barrier to baptism.

In his response to Unger’s paper, Gerry Ediger calls for membership that is “grounded in relationship and fellowship.” He states, “Baptism was a validation of an organic social relationship in the making. Again, it may be time to free our imaginations to conceive of forms of membership that express covenant and relationship and association but with less of the modern connotation of being on one side of the congregational boundary or the other.” Speaking from the floor, John Neufeld suggested a definition of membership as “an engagement in intentional discipleship relationship. I am being intentionally discipled, and I am intentionally discipling someone.”


Based on our reading of the NT church that included people with a variety of levels of spiritual maturity, and sensitive to our culture’s need for a sense of belonging, the Board of Faith and Life encourages all {68} congregations to be mindful that conversion is an ongoing process. Congregations ought to not erect barriers that isolate those who may be “weaker” among us, by blessing only the “strong” with church membership.

The Board of Faith and Life along with churches will seek to define membership with greater clarity and precision in order to determine which meanings we want to retain and those from which we want to separate ourselves. As Guenther observes, “Clarity and precision in our language will . . . help us identify the common ground among those who disagree” (Guenther 2003).

The Board of Faith and Life calls all MB Churches to encourage Christians (members or adherents) to participate in a caring, nurturing, relationship-building environment. Members or not, Christians ought to come to know the church as that place of belonging where the faithful struggle on together in mission, where relationship is stressed over and beyond institution, and where each believer is called to that privileged place in Christ wherein he or she is able to serve God, God’s people, and God’s world with the gifts and talents endowed to us and discerned by the community. The quest, however, is for every believer to embrace the community.

Baptism will involve accepting a new identity. Members of the new community remove unnecessary barriers but accept the scandal of the cross. Resident aliens live out eschatological purity without falling back into judgmental legalism. Peculiar people live as salt and light, disciples who shine with good works. Our motivation? To proclaim God’s reign in the world as a witnessing, faithful, countercultural community. (Jost 2003)


  • Board of Faith and Life. 2000. Confession of faith: Commentary and pastoral application. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred.
  • Board of Faith and Life, Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference. 2004. Rite and Pilgrimage: Baptism and Membership Study Conference. Evaluation summary, statistics, and findings committee final report.
  • Bystrom, Ray. 2002. Baptism and church membership: A converted and baptized people. Faith and Life pamphlet series. U.S. Conference of MB Churches. {69}
  • Coggins, Jim. 2003. Discerning theology in community. Mennonite Brethren Herald, 1 August, 3-9.
  • Ediger, Gerry. 2003. Affirmation of “The church without spot or wrinkle.” Baptism and Membership Study Conference presentation. Winnipeg, MB.
  • Enns, Bruce. 2003. Affirmation of “Baptism and membership: An alternative perspective.” Baptism and Membership Study Conference presentation. Winnipeg, MB.
  • Esau, David. 2002. Dry times for believers baptism? Direction 31 (fall): 159-67.
  • Falk, David. 2003. Baptism and membership: An alternative perspective. Baptism and Membership Study Conference presentation. Winnipeg, MB.
  • Guenther, Bruce. 2003. Critique of “The church without spot or wrinkle.” Baptism and Membership Study Conference presentation. Winnipeg, MB.
  • Isaak, Jon. 2003. Baptism among the early Christians. Baptism and Membership Study Conference presentation. Winnipeg, MB.
  • Jost, Lynn. 2003. MB theology of baptism. Baptism and Membership Study Conference presentation. Winnipeg, MB.
  • Jost, Lynn, and Connie Faber. 2002. Family matters. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred.
  • Marpeck, Pilgram. 1978. The writings of Pilgram Marpeck. Trans. and ed. William Klassen and Walter Klaassen. Kitchener, ON: Herald.
  • Unger, Walter. 2003. The church “without spot or wrinkle.” Baptism and Membership Study Conference presentation. Winnipeg, MB.
  • Wiebe, Katie Funk. 1984. Who are the Mennonite Brethren? Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred.
Ken Peters, writing on behalf of the Canadian Conference Board of Faith and Life, is pastor of the Killarney Park Mennonite Brethren Church in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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