Andy's comment about baptism making us ecclesial beings is quite helpful. I think baptists have tended to separate baptism and church membership to an unhealthy degree.
If that sounds odd, let me explain. In our church, ministers prepare candidates for baptism and carry out baptisms; membership is handled by the church meeting on the advice of interviewers appointed by the leaders. It means that while I can baptise someone into Christ, I can't at the same time declare that person by virtue of what's happened in the pool, to be a member of the local body of Christ where he or she has been baptised.
I think this is a nonsense and Andy has given the language with which to talk about it. Thanks.
His other comment and quote from Colin Gunton is also important. Joining a church is not another consumer choice we make between moving house and buying a three piece suite. It is important to realise that in joining a church, we are joining people we don't choose, people God says are our brothers and sisters. Part of our commitment in joining is that we're saying we are going to be family to and for and with these people we didn't choose. this is why I'm so keen on some kind of renewable covenant forming the basis of how we do membership.
Graham's point about there not being much distinction between members and non-members in terms of commitment or levels of discipleship is spot on. We have non-members who attend more frequently, give more sacrificially and volunteer more effectively and energetically than a good many of our members. And this raises a major issue about what 'membership' is and what it means.
I guess a parody of the traditional Baptist view suggests that membership is about belonging to a club of people like us which confers special privileges - most notably telling the minister how to do his job! This is probably why some churches have abandoned membership altogether; they feel it bears no relationship whatsoever to discipleship and just forms unhelpful fault lines in the church.
I hope that basing membership on an annually renewable covenant would help us deal with this issue. It says to everyone who's attending the church regularly that membership is about being committed to God, to one another and to the mission and ministry of the church; it says that the commitment being made is up-to-date - that is, it's not based on where I was with God 10, 20 or 30 years ago - which means that it's commitment to be in accountable and supportive relationships with the people who are currently gathering with this church.
It's probably not the whole answer. we'll probably still have members who rarely attend and active attenders who don't become members. But it could well lead to us having a membership that better reflects the current committed core of the church.
I'd be interested to know what people think.
I think Graham's point about our practice giving us ecumenical headaches is answered by Sean Winter's article on ambiguous genitives in Romans. I appreciate that this article is not yet in the public domain - but will be soon, I gather. One point he makes is that Baptists can't be part of ecumenical relationships while at the same time arguing that all forms of baptism that don't involve the total immersion of believers are invalid.
He argues from Romans 6 that we all need to pay greater attention to the relationship between grace and faith, laying more emphasis on God's prevenient grace. In Baptism we participate in what Christ has done for us rather than do something ourselves that has salvific significance. This means that we can acknowledge various forms of baptism administered at various stages in people's life of faith.
I think that works for me. What do others think?