A recent post at SBC Today has generated significant conversation (yet again) about the proper relationship between the ordinance of baptism and the local church. No reason and no desire (on my part) exists to duplicate either their post or their comment experience over here—SBC Today is a great blog, and if you wish to jump into their discussion, then that's what the link is for
I do, however, always read with interest the differing perspectives that people bring to this topic every time it arises. It ought to be evident to the online world by now that I'm a guy with an interest in ecclesiology. So my ears perk up when I hear our missionaries describing themselves as living overseas bereft of any church with which to baptize their children. When I hear our missionaries describe themselves as baptizing several new converts in an area but being too far away from the "nearest church" to get "authority" to baptize them, the very sentiment is disconcerting to me.
Reading these things only reinforces in me the need for a renewed focus upon the teaching of sound ecclesiology among Southern Baptists. Might I offer a few basic thoughts here, tonight?
Every Christian Everywhere Always Needs to Be a Member of a Church. The Bible presumes that, whenever a Christian is living for any substantial time in one community, a Christian will be in fellowship with other believers in a church. Just as the Bible presumes that all believers will be baptized, the Bible presumes that all believers will be a part of a local body of believers.
And indeed, so much of what the New Testament presumes about the Christian life cannot take place apart from a church. How does a Christian fulfill the command to "bear one another's burdens" while remaining aloof from any church? Indeed, there are so many "one another" directives in the New Testament that presume a reciprocal covenant relationship with other believers! How can Christians relate properly to church leadership when they are not a part of any body of believers?
To be without membership in any local (to you) congregation of believers is a defective existence.
Any Christian Anywhere Can Start a Church. A great many of the blog comments on this topic seem to presume something akin to an Essential Mother Daughter Authority (EMDA) view of the church. Distilled to its essence, EMDA is the presumption that a church gains its "churchly" authority from the mother church that officially votes to start it. I believe that Christian baptism ought to be performed in connection with a biblical local church. Somebody somewhere reading those words thinks I mean that, if I were marooned in the Galapagos Islands and led one of the natives to Christ, I couldn't baptize them unless I could first build a boat and sail off to somewhere to gain permission from an existing church. They seem to presume that I'm talking about EMDA.
In such a case I'm going to start a church in the Galapagos Islands, and all of those who received Christ and were baptized in the Galapagos Islands would be added to that church. People point to Phillip's baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch. You know, the Ethiopian church claims that Philip's encounter was the birth of the church in Ethiopia.
In other words, the "authority" of a "mother" church is not necessary to the formation of a "daughter" church. If it is, then Roger Williams and his band in Providence is in trouble. As is John Smythe and his group in Holland. Indeed, both Williams and Smythe eventually endured personal spiritual angst over this very point—wondering whether they were wrong to form local churches without the authorization of an existing church. Those of us who remained Baptist concluded that they hadn't done a thing wrong and that any group of believers can form a church.
The Church Is Not the Building. Inevitably in these discussions, somebody makes the startling claim that linking baptism with the church is the same thing as requiring that you find a baptistry, a wireless microphone, and a water heater or you can't have a baptism. Nobody with a brain is saying any such thing. To say that baptism ought to take place in connection with a local church is to say absolutely nothing about WHERE baptism ought to take place. It is to say absolutely nothing about WHEN baptism ought to take place (although we ought to have a discussion about that sometime). It is merely to say WITH WHOM baptism ought to take place: with the people among whom a disciple will grow and by whom he will be held accountable to his profession if possible. And if there are no such people—if he is the first— then he is baptized as the disciple who will witness the baptism and discipling growth of others yet to be born into the church that he is forming.
Conclusion. When I read stories about people who have to baptize their children in swimming pools apart from the encouragement and support of any local believers, my very first thought is NOT, "Warning! Warning! Ecclesiological Error! Citizen's Arrest! Citizen's Arrest!" Rather, my first thought is, "How terribly sad! How unnecessarily isolated! How unlike the life of Paul, for example, who seemed to be right in the middle of a local church anywhere that he lingered for more than forty-eight hours."
Christ called me to Himself in 1975, just before I turned 6. I've been an active member of a local body of Christian believers continuously since that moment...32 years and counting, now. Cut off from the body of Christ, I think I'd feel completely disoriented to life. I'd be (not in the eternal, spiritual sense) profoundly lost. Anyone facing the presumption of ongoing, lengthy Christian existence without a church has my profound and sincere pity and my prayers.