Rejection Actually Hurts
Perhaps what we need in the baptism and church membership discussion is a bit of anecdotal evidence. Certainly a story cannot solve all the ins and outs of a theological debate, but it can add weight to it by reminding us that where we come down on this issue really does affect people.
Jeremy Archer shares the story of how being rejected from church membership is having practical and painful consequences for him and his family. The church he is excluded from is Bethlehem Baptist.
I'm a member there; almost everyone who works for DG is a member there; DG is owned by Bethlehem; we happily operate under the authority of its elders. Along with all the rest of Bethlehem's ministries and members, we are Bethlehem. And we are hurting our brother in Christ.
When I think of who is "church" for me, Jeremy is certainly included. And others would say the same. Nobody who knows him would say he is outside the body of Christ, but unfortunately we continue to keep him outside the body of Bethlehem. And what we sometimes forget as we discuss whether this is a legitimate decision is that this really does matter in his family's life.
If it's our inclination to deny church membership to genuine believers, we should put ourselves in the shoes of the one being rejected, and make our decision from that perspective. If we feel loved and accepted in our church, we are hardly the ones who have the right to say that being shunned is no big deal because we can still be united in Christ. You will not feel "united" with other believers when you live your life trying to be in fellowship with them and they continue to refuse to accept you as a member.
Perhaps we don't feel the burden of this rejection because we say to ourselves, "There is always another church that the person we reject can go to." But this does not work in Jeremy's case, because we really are his family at Bethlehem—he just can't be a member. To say that he could easily go somewhere else and become a member would minimize the bond churches have as brothers and sisters in Christ. I would never want to say to my brother, "Go find another family."
Moreover, multiple-choice church-going is the luxury of living in an ultra-evangelized country. A church on every corner is God's grace to us, so it is backwards to use it as an excuse to not have grace on others. Sending genuine believers who do not match our membership profile to the church down the street does not solve anything; it just passes the buck and eases our conscience. Whether we mean to say it or not, what we communicate is, "We don't have to accept them as Christ does because someone else will."
It's all too easy to take a side on this issue without thinking about how our ideas will play out in real people's lives. As we discuss these questions, and regardless of how we answer them, let's make sure that we are theologizing in a way that will help us serve and love all our brothers and sisters.