Baptism and Church Membership

What does Grace Church of Philly believe about Baptism and Church Membership?

The constitution of GCP states the following as one of the requirements for membership at Grace Church:

Article 4.B. 3: Christian baptism administered by a church with an evangelical commitment to the gospel is a prerequisite for membership at GCP. We administer only believer’s baptism by immersion.

In light of our commitment to believer’s baptism by immersion several questions arise regarding baptism itself and church membership:

We believe that the clear command of Scripture is to baptize those who confess Christ as Savior and Lord (Rom 10:9-10; Matt 28:19-20) and that this ‘believer’s baptism’ is also the most apparent pattern in the New Testament (Acts 2:42). We recognize that many of our brethren who share a similar commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ disagree with us in that they baptize the children of believing parents. They do so, based on a commitment to the covenantal unity of the Bible and what they see as a parallel to circumcision of infants in the Old Testament and what they believe is ‘household baptism’ in certain New Testament passages (Acts 16:31-32). Though we agree on many aspects of the covenantal unity of the Bible, we recognize that the New Covenant introduces some discontinuity and with it a new sign of the New Covenant.

The Old Covenant sign was largely ethnic, placed upon children unwittingly, was associated with a revocable covenant, and was gender specific, i.e. males only.

The New Covenant sign crosses all ethnic barriers, is willingly received by believers, is associated with an irrevocable covenant, and recognizes the spiritual equality of men and women.

We practice’ household baptism’ in those cases where all in the household believe together and rejoice together, as is the indication of the New Testament passages where it occurs.

Clearly, if your parents had you baptized because they believed that water could wash away your sins, your parents, though sincere, did not understand the gospel. Also, if your parents had you baptized believing it to be a sign of a covenantal promise of eventual salvation, though they were sincere and well-meaning in their commitment to Scripture, we believe they misunderstood aspects of the Old Covenant and New Covenant. We believe it should be your personal joy to publicly declare your commitment to be a disciple of Jesus Christ by receiving believer’s baptism, the sign of the New Covenant.  If at some point you become persuaded by Scripture regarding believer’s baptism, we would share in your joy by administering this ordinance to you.

The sequence of baptism to faith is a greater theological issue than the amount of water (mode) used in baptism. Nevertheless, we practice baptism by immersion for a number of reasons.

  • Though the Greek word for baptism is used in instances where immersion is not demanded, the normal usage of the word is to submerge, dip, immerse.
  • Though pouring or sprinkling water offers a picture of anointing or cleansing, immersion offers a clearer picture of the Spirit’s work in the gospel bringing us into union with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:1-4). This is not a divisive issue with us but we choose this mode as that which we believe best represents the teaching of the New Testament.[1]

We understand that the biblical pattern is for one’s public confession of discipleship in baptism to precede the privilege and responsibility of church membership (Acts 2:41-42).

  1. It commits you, the Christian. It’s good to commit yourself to love and serve others. You will grow as a Christian as you commit to encourage, build up, strengthen, serve, rebuke, and pray for other Christians.
  2. Others are committed to you. Becoming a member of a church means joining with an entire group of Christians who have now covenanted to watch over you spiritually. If you’re a member of a church you have an entire church full of people who are publicly committed to loving you and serving you and watching over you.
  3. Elder protection. If you’re a member of a church, that church’s elders and pastors should care for you, pray for you, and personally counsel and teach you. As a member of their church, they are accountable to God for how they lead you (Heb. 13:17).
  4. Safety net. In his book Stop Dating the Church, Josh Harris points out that it’s comforting to know his church would kick him out rather than tolerate his unrepentant sin. Being a church member means that a whole church full of people are committed to helping you live a life that’s pleasing to God, even to the point of excluding you from the church if you stop repenting of sin. While this sounds harsh to some, to those of us who know the deceitfulness of sin, this is an immensely comforting and encouraging reality (Heb. 3:12).
  5. Assurance. Membership is the church’s affirmation of the validity of someone’s profession of faith (Matt. 16:1918:18). The church looks at a person’s life, hears their explanation of the gospel and how they came to believe it, and says, “You look like a Christian to us. So join us. Watch over our lives and we’ll watch over yours.” So while membership in a church doesn’t guarantee that someone is a Christian, it should assure believers of the genuineness of their faith.

We are a church that believes in welcoming people wherever they are in their spiritual journey toward Christ. The gospel of God’s grace in the person of Christ defines our relationship to all people. Whether you are a member of Grace Church, a non-member who is Christian, or a non-member who is considering the claims of Christ, we desire to accompany you on your journey. We want both members and non-members to participate in the life of the church in a manner appropriate for where they are in their relationship to the gospel and its implications for life.  Participation in most activities is open to all, member or non-member. For example, non-members may participate in the instrumental aspect of public worship and serve in nursery and children’s ministries under the leadership of a GCP member. Non-members can be involved in community service and other missional projects. Appointed or elected positions of leadership and teaching positions of a durative nature are reserved for church members.

We welcome into full membership and partnership in ministry those sincere and mature believers who hold a commitment to baptism as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith.  This does not diminish our belief in what we understand to be the Scriptural practice of believer’s baptism, but rather gives fellowship in the gospel priority over other aspects of faith. In so doing we affirm that the gospel is the basis of our fellowship in Christ and service to Christ. The Elders will admit to membership those who believe that their infant baptism is both Scriptural and a matter of conscience before God, yet at the same time setting forth clearly the teaching of believer’s baptism as practiced by Grace Church of Philly.

[1] In all things we should be gracious and patient toward those with whom we disagree. We should be careful not to magnify disagreements, particularly in the area of ecclesiology and eschatology, above their Scriptural importance and/or clarity. Consider the words of J. L. Reynolds concerning his opposition to infant baptism:  “On the subject of infant baptism, and what seems to me to be its legitimate tendencies, I have recorded my sentiments without reserve, and, I trust, without offence.  I impeach no man’s motives; nor do I question the piety and sincerity of those of my Christian brethren who believe that the practice is sanctioned by divine command…. It is impossible not to admire and love men whose faith and practice associate them with Baxter, Leighton, Edwards, and Martyn, and who breathe their heavenly spirit.”