With the idea of membership meaning less and less in American culture and its churches, the Rev. John Burgess today suggested rethinking the theology of baptism as the key to recasting what membership means in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

“Attention to baptismal theology and practice can lead us into a more faithful understanding of church membership,” Burgess ― professor of systematic theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary ― told the second Moderator’s Colloquium on Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) today (Dec. 9), hosted by Princeton Theological Seminary with financial support from the Presbyterian Foundation.

“For too long baptism has been understood simply as a precondition to full, active membership in the church,” Burgess said in his paper “Is There Any Good Reason to Join a Church?-Baptism, Mission and Life Together.” “If, however, baptism is a commissioning to ministry in the church and the world, it requires full and active entry into a community that exercises encouragement and accountability for this ministry.”

Burgess proposed that that language of “active membership” be eliminated from the PC(USA) Book of Order. “If our baptismal theology is correct, we will understand that all who are baptized are by definition full, active members of the church,” he said.

Burgess also suggested elimination of “public profession of faith” from Presbyterian practice. “Those who were baptized as infants but have not yet made the kind of ‘public profession of faith’ for which the Book of Order calls nevertheless have been making public profession of faith every time they receive the Lord’s Supper and whenever they have joined the congregation in reaffirming the baptismal covenant.”

Because baptism “identifies one as belonging to Jesus Christ and to the community that he has called to give witness to him by word and deed,” Burgess said, this shift in the church’s thinking and practice must “interpret baptism as entry into a community of mutual encouragement and accountability.” Those who will be baptized, he added, “must know that after their baptism they will not be left alone.”

Considering baptism as membership will also require a different scriptural emphasis, Burgess said. “The church has normally turned to passages in Acts and the Epistles for its understanding of baptism,” he noted. A better starting point might be Jesus’ calling of his disciples, he continued.

“The Gospels make a special point of naming the twelve, just as the church gives those being baptized a ‘Christian name,’” Burgess said. “Jesus calls the twelve to give up everything and follow him, just as the church calls those being baptized to break with the past and begin a new life.”

This baptismal recasting can dispel perceptions that church membership is only about pledging money and voting at congregational meetings, Burgess added. “Membership numbers have never told us much about faithfulness to Jesus Christ anyway,” he insisted. “Our challenge today is less about beefing up the rolls and more about how to shape congregations that are disciplined by care of one person for another and by common witness to the world.”