While I am sympathetic to such thinking, it does not seem to enjoy the support of scripture whatsoever. Now, we may try to use our reasoning and logic and say "I think this" or "I think that," but I am not so concerned about what a person thinks, what a pastor says, or - to borrow a phrase from the apostle Paul - "even . . . [what] an angel from heaven" preaches (Galatians 1:8). I am interested in what the Bible teaches.
Over the past few years I have done quite a bit of study into this topic and just recently I explored it again. And, once again, the weight of evidence from scripture seems to indicate that some type of indoctrination and lifestyle change is required, and that church membership is tied into it.
So let's take a look at the scriptural evidence, addressing each subject one by one.
"Belief" the Only "Requirement"?
I have studied every usage of the word "baptize" (or a variation of it) in the New Testament and the weight of evidence is overwhelming. To begin with, in the book of Acts, anyone that is baptized before chapter 10 is already Jewish. Thus, the Ten Commandments (including the Sabbath), dietary laws, and even circumcision, were "non-issues" for such individuals. They very much had a firm grasp of the basics of the Christian faith since Christianity was grounded in the Jewish tradition and the Old Testament teachings.
One individual that many will point to as a shining example of "on the spot" baptism is the Ethiopian eunuch. On the surface, it appears as though Philip performed a kind of "shot gun" baptism with him. But context clears this up. Acts 8:38 tells us that he had "come to Jerusalem to worship," and upon his return he was sitting in his chariot, reading "Isaiah the prophet." Clearly, this is a pius man who had a pretty good grasp of the ethical and doctrinal basics of Christianity. We might say that all he was missing was Christ - admittedly, a pretty big component. Yet Philip obviously took time to clarify his questions about Christ because we read in v. 35, "Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him."
Obviously, if Philip "began" in Isaiah and preached about Christ, he must have continued on and gave him a pretty extensive Bible study on the subject. And it was only after all this that the Ethiopian was then baptized.
Now, when we come to Acts 10 we see a shift between those who were baptized. As I said above, before Acts 10 they were all Jewish; after Acts 10 there are Gentiles who are baptized as well. And yet, in no instance that a Gentile was baptized do we see a simple "all that matters is that you believe in Jesus." None. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
So let's look at all the instances of people being baptized from Acts 10 and onward and note how each person either received "indoctrination" or their lifestyle was in accordance with biblical principles.
1. Cornelius was the first Gentile convert. Before he was baptized we note that he engaged in the practices of fasting, prayer, and giving alms (10:30-31). He obviously also had some type of relationship with God because he recognized Him in vision and knew how to respond to His voice (vv. 31-33).
2. Lydia, the first European convert, was apparently a Sabbath-keeper who "worshiped God" (16:13-14). Yet it was only after "the Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul" that she - as well as her household - was baptized (vv. 14-15).
3. Many will point to the next person - the Philippian jailer - as an example of a "shot gun" baptism. If not him, then his family, who was baptized with him. This is because in response to asking Paul and Silas what must he do to be saved, they responded, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household" (16:31). But most people stop there!
To begin with, Paul and Silas do not say "believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you can be baptized." We need to recognize that. Even though baptism is vitally important, baptism does not equate to salvation.
But we mustn't stop at verse 31 either. After explaining to him the requirement for salvation (that being faith in Christ), it is only then that Paul and Silas prepare the jailer and his family for baptism. Notice what Luke goes on to record in the very next verse: "Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house" (v. 32). It is only after the word of the Lord is spoken to them - all of them - that they are baptized.
Admittedly, Luke says in verse 33 that after the jailer washed and cleaned up Paul and Silas that "same hour of the night" that "immediately he and all his family were baptized." But it is not clear what the antecedent to "that same hour" or "immediately" is. Was it their declaration in verse 31 of simply "believing" for one to be saved? Was it the same hour that "they spoke the word of the Lord to him" (v. 32)? If so, did they speak the "word of the Lord to him" for only one hour? We simply do not know.
Notice, too, that it says "immediately" after he washed their wounds that they baptized him. Luke almost implies that the baptism came in direct response to him caring for them. Thus, the fact that he demonstrated some type of "good works" demonstrated that he was ready for baptism.
4. In Acts 18 we read about people in Corinth that were baptized. We read of Justus, Crispus, his household, and "many of the Corinthians" that apparently took the plunge. But notice: Justus was "one who worshiped God" (v. 6); Crispus was the "ruler of the synagogue" (v. 8); and Paul "reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks" (v. 4). Thus, all of these people - whether Jew or Gentile - had some familiarity with Christian doctrine. They went to the synagogue every Sabbath and they obviously listened to Paul "reasoning" there for a number of weeks. The synagogue was Paul's venue to reach and persuade people of the Christian message. And both Jews and Gentiles worshiped there.
5. Acts 19 is one of the only examples of rebaptism, so it does not deserve much ink. Evidently, all those who were rebaptized by Paul had already been baptized into the "baptism of John." Whether this means they were baptized by John or one of his disciples, it is not clear. But as we will see below, being baptized into "John's baptism" was no "believe only" exercise.
So, quite astonishingly, those are the only five examples of Gentiles being baptized in the book of Acts (though the last one may not have even been Gentiles). All of them received instruction and bore "fruits" worthy of baptism. It wasn't a simple "I believe in Jesus" thing.
But there are also a few other things we need to note as it relates to baptism. That is, we need to recognize what baptism is a symbol of. It is a symbol of accepting Christ as your personal Savior, yes, but it is more than that. It is a symbol of repentance and a life change.
One example of this comes from John the Baptist's ministry when he actually refused to baptize some of the Pharisees and Sadducees because they were not bearing "fruits worthy of repentance" (Matt 3:8). In our day and age of "politically correct" Christianity, this offends our ears. Apparently, there is more to baptism than simply saying you "believe" or that you "love Jesus." There needs to be a noticeable difference in your life. There needs to be fruit that reflects the fact that you are having an abiding experience with Christ.
Because, the truth of the matter is, the apostle Paul tells us in Romans 6 that baptism signifies that we have been "buried with [Christ] . . . into death" and that because of this we should "walk in newness of life" (v. 4). Furthermore, baptism is a reflection of the fact that we are "no longer slaves of sin" (v. 6). Does this mean we need to be perfect and that we never stumble? Of course not. But it does mean that our lives should be fully surrendered to Christ and that we are not willfully living in sin.
Of course, beyond that, it is not as though - in light of this - that if I simply say that I have given up my past life from now on that this means I am ready to be baptized. Apparently, according to John the Baptist - the one who popularized baptism - I still need to "bear fruits worthy of repentance." In other words, my actions and behavior should be a reflection of my surrendered life.
Now, I also need to make sure we are all clear on one thing: that is, all of this may sound a little "legalistic" to some. It may sound like it is "too much" for such a simple thing. But this is not so for a few reasons.
One: it does not matter what we think it sounds like. What matters is if it is supported by scripture - which I believe it clearly is. Two: going to heaven and being baptized are not one and the same thing. There will be many people who have never been baptized that will be in heaven and vice versa. To deny someone baptism because they are not "bearing fruits" does not equate to keeping them out of heaven. This is something I think we unwittingly subscribe to. Three: if we truly understand what baptism really is - ie., a reflection of the fact that we have died to sin, by God's grace, and we are entering into newness of life - we will see that such an approach is very much a matter of righteousness by faith. And this is good news, not bad news.
Now, with all this being said, we will pick it up in Part 2 with what all this has to do with church membership.