Another Step Toward a Biblical Ecclesiology: Acts 9 on Baptism, Membership, and the Church

baptism_of_st_paul_-_capela_palatina_-_palermo_-_italy_2015-2The book of Acts is pivotal for understanding the nature and function of the church. It is also challenging, because it presents a church that is “born” on Pentecost, at first contained to Jerusalem, but later expanded to Judea and Samaria and finally unleashed the ends of the earth. At the same time, it’s founding members were believers before receiving the Spirit and yet the gift of the Spirit is one of the distinguishing marks of the church as it spreads from Israel to Italy. In four instances (Acts 2, 8, 10, 19), the Spirit is given, but in no two instances are the exact events the same. For instance, speaking in tongues accompanies the Spirit in Acts 2, 10, 19, but not Acts 8. Likewise, water baptism precedes the Holy Spirit in Acts 8, but follows in Acts 10.

From just a sampling of evidences, the book of Acts is both foundational and frustrating for understanding the nature of the church. It is foundational because of the patterns we see in how churches are formed—the Word of God is preached, Jews then Samaritans than Gentiles repent and believe, they are baptized, and then gathered into churches. Yet, it is frustrating because not everything in Acts is reproducible today. The personal visitations by Jesus, the miracles of healing, the speaking in tongues, and the survival of snake bites are all incidents that we might say have discontinued—unless one believes otherwise. For now my point is not to defend or deny cessationism, but to merely highlight how that debate among others finds difficulty in Acts.

Any point of ecclesiology, therefore, needs to be aware of Acts transitional nature. It should take into account how the Holy Spirit has given us this book to teach us about the founding of the church, but it is not a manual for every point of doctrine. That being said, where else do we turn in Scripture to find how to plant, revitalize, and shepherd churches? Therefore, we do need to watch for patterns and principles in Acts, but always with awareness of some discontinuity between Acts period of transition and our own day.

Clearing Up Two Points of Ecclesiology

With this approach to Acts in mind, I want to clear up two points of ecclesiology from Acts 9. From this chapter, I have heard two statements about the church:

  1. Paul’s baptism by Ananias suggests a local church is not (absolutely) needed for a legitimate baptism.
  2. The Church is fundamentally a universal concept, as Acts 9:31 describes the church regionally, not locally (i.e., in one spatio-temporal location).

While there is truth in these statements, ultimately I think we are on more solid ground to say

  1. Paul’s baptism was unique, but not so unique as to break from the normative pattern of the New Testament. We should exercise caution when making application from his experience, but at the same time, we can see how his unusual experience fits the larger pattern of baptism and “church membership” in Acts.
  2. The universal Church “throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria . . .” is a located in spatio-temporal “locales” (something I’ve tried to describe elsewhere).

In what follows, I will argue that Paul’s baptism is both a unique point in redemptive history and one that follows the pattern of baptism and church membership (i.e., association with other disciples in a local church). Exploring the relationship of Paul’s baptism to the churches in Damascus and Jerusalem will also prove the corollary: life in the universal church is experienced through local assemblies. In the end, I will list seven points of application from this chapter related to ecclesiology.

The Uniqueness of Paul’s Baptism

Saul’s conversion is nothing short of miraculous. Acts 9 recounts how on the way to Damascus to persecute disciples associated with the “Way” (vv. 1–4), the risen Lord confronted and converted Paul. Saul’s violent opposition to the first disciples, combined with Jesus’ personal evangelism, and God’s eternal choice to make Paul an instrument to the Gentiles (see v. 14) make his salvation experience anything but normative. One on hand, he comes to faith in the very same way as every other disciple, by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. On the other, the circumstances surrounding his conversion are absolutely unique. He is the only apostle whose conversion we have recorded in Acts. Therefore, as the apostle untimely born (1 Corinthians 15:8), we should give pause before making his experience of salvation normative. This includes baptism.

Adding to the uniqueness quotient is Paul’s experience of baptism, also recorded in Acts 9. In verse 10, Luke records Ananias’s vision, when the Lord sends him to greet Paul, a newborn believer in Jesus Christ. Understandably, Ananias requires assurance that this evil-doer (see v. 13) is no longer breathing out threats and murdering (v. 1). Jesus informs Ananias of God’s plans for Paul—Saul is God’s chosen instrument to suffer greatly as he brings the gospel to the Gentiles (vv. 15–16).

Satisfied, Ananias obeys the Lord’s command. He goes to Saul’s residence, lays hands on him and addresses him as a newborn believer: “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (v. 17). Like in Acts 5:12, Saul’s physical healing comes at the hands of this “sent one.” Likewise, just as the Holy Spirit came when John and Peter laid hands on the disciples in Samaria (8:17), so now Ananias’ hands bring the Holy Spirit. As Acts 8:18–19 teach, this laying of hands followed by the giving of the Holy Spirit is not something men can acquire. Rather, it is a time-sensitive function of this apostolic period. Hence, Ananias’ role in Saul’s recovery is as unique as Saul’s conversion.

The uniqueness of this whole episode hints at the fact that Paul’s baptism cannot be used as an example that overturns the normative pattern of baptism in a local church. For instance, anyone who looks to Paul’s baptism by Ananias as an example of and precedent for one believer (apart from the church) baptizing another believer must take into consideration the transitional nature of Acts and the incredible uniqueness of Paul’s experience. Does it follow that Paul’s baptism is a reason to unhinge water baptism from the local church?

I think not. In fact, a close reading of Acts 9 actually indicates the role the disciples in Damascus (and elsewhere) played subsequent to Paul’s conversion. And hence, it is most likely that Paul’s baptism follows the normative pattern—a local church baptizing a newfound believer, or at least the baptized believer is immediately immersed in the life of the church. Let’s look.

The ‘Locale’ of Paul’s Baptism

As soon as Ananias laid his hands on him, Paul regained his sight (v. 18a). The next thing Luke records is Paul’s baptism: “Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened” (v. 18b). A couple questions are worth asking.

  • Where was Saul baptized?
  • Who gave him food?
  • Would Ananias have gone to visit Paul alone, without the knowledge of anyone?
  • Would their exit from Saul’s residence, or their journey to the place of baptism be unseen by Ananias fellow disciples? (Remember, he was visiting the home of the notorious persecutor of the church).
  • Is it realistic to conceive of this episode between Saul and Ananias only involving Saul and Ananias?

To be clear, we do not have information to answer these questions. But unless Saul was baptized without any witnesses in the home where Ananias visited (an unlikely location because ἀνίστημι, “arose,” is often used to speak of getting up and walking, cf. 5:6; 8:26–27; 9:6, 11), fed by Ananias himself, and unseen by any other of the disciples, there would certainly be the presence of other church members involved in this situation (as the the above painting from Palermo, Italy suggests).

Moreover, verse 19 identifies a plurality of disciples in Damascus. And verse 13 suggests that there were “many” concerned about Saul’s arrival in Damascus. Were these “many” all disciples of Christ? The best guess is that the ones most concerned with Saul’s arrival would have been followers of Christ, men and women of “the Way.” Thus, while Luke highlights Ananias in verse 10, it is important to see him as one of many disciples in Damascus. Could he have been the pastor? He certainly bore the credentials of a pastor, for Paul says of him in Acts 22:12, “one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there.” If not a pastor, he was a leader in the church at Damascus, and thus his role in the baptism was that of a trusted figure among the disciples there. However you slice it, the best reading of the surrounding context of Paul’s baptism was conducted among the disciples of the local church.

Receiving the Apostle Paul: The Churches of Damascus and Jerusalem

What reason do we have to assign Paul’s baptism to the local church?

First, immediately following his baptism, Paul is found spending many days with the disciples in Damascus. This furthers the regular pattern of baptism and church “membership.” (I’m not making a case for membership as we know it in 21st C America, but rather “membership” as Paul speaks of it—as a family member in the household of God; a part of the body of Christ there at Damascus). As soon as Saul was baptized, Acts 9:19 states, “For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus.” However many there were at Saul’s baptism, the result was acceptance in the church at Damascus.

In fact, so powerful was his change and so trusted was his conversion, that Acts 9:25 speaks of “his disciples” helping him escape Damascus when the Jews sought to kill him. All in all, there is nothing about Saul’s experience in Damascus that was experienced outside the community of disciples. While never called a “church,” it is evident Saul spent his days with the gathering of disciples in Damascus, which only gives more weight to the close relationship between his baptism and “membership” in the local church.

Second, Luke contrasts Paul’s immediate acceptance in Damascus with the suspicion of the disciples in Jerusalem. After fleeing Damascus , Acts 9:26 reads, “And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.” Like Ananias before Jesus’ explanation, the disciples in Jerusalem (another way Luke describes the church in Jerusalem) feared Saul.

They had not seen him since he left to persecute the church in Damascus, and thus they had not seen his faith and repentance, his baptism, or his transformed life. Rightly, the apostles protected the disciples from this once-ravenous wolf, until a testimony from Barnabas about Paul’s conversion changed their views. Acts 9:27–30 reads,

But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. 30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

What changed the apostles’ views about Saul was his conversion (with baptism) and evident commitment to Christ. All sorts of applications about how churches welcome disciples from other churches can be made from this. In Damascus, Saul was immediately accepted because his evident faith led to his baptism—the initiating ordinance of Christ. In that day, any Jew would despise and reject this baptism unless they were willing to sacrifice all for Lord Jesus. By contrast, the Jerusalem church had not witnessed his baptism in Jerusalem, and thus, the apostles knew not the sincerity of his profession. Was Paul’s profession of faith a ruse to infiltrate the church, or the genuine article?

Only after Barnabas befriended Saul and the church in Jerusalem heard his story would the apostles permit this “new man” to be a part of their church—i.e., go “in and out among them at Jerusalem.” Barnabas role as mediator between Saul and the apostles is still needed today, especially in cases of radical conversions like Saul’s. At the same time, this sort of mediation only really matters when churches actually take membership seriously.

Again, I’m not saying the church in Jerusalem had a system of membership like Western churches do (or should). Rather, churches who take membership seriously are trying to approximate something of what we see in Acts 9—only disciples who are recognized by the church are permitted to go in and out among the brethren. In Damascus, this recognized status is given to Paul by the church through his baptism. In Jerusalem, he did not need to be re-baptized. He needed someone like Barnabas to recount his story (including his baptism, we must assume) and take the lead in welcoming this new believer.

From the actions of these two churches—the church in Damascus; the church in Jerusalem—we can discern much about Paul’s baptism and the church.

The Contribution of Acts 9 to Biblical Ecclesiology: Baptism, The Church, Church Membership

First, Paul’s baptism is unique, just like his conversion. Thus we should use caution in using it as an example.

Second, in light of the whole book of Acts, Paul’s baptism does fit the pattern. He was baptized as a believer, not before. His baptism came from someone in the church. And his baptism led to his association with and inclusion by the church at Damascus.

Third, the church at Damascus recognized Paul’s baptism as sufficient. In Damascus the church recognized his status as a Christian, meaning his baptism proved his identity. And in Jerusalem, his testimony was equally sufficient.

Fourth, Paul’s conversion conjoins baptism and church membership. Paul was not baptized by an individual to follow Jesus as an individual. Rather, his baptism began his life with the others disciples. Thus, there is in Paul’s baptism an intrinsic connection between church and baptism, baptism and membership (defined as the identification with the disciples of Christ in a given location).

Fifth, every individual “disciple” is locally identified with “disciples.” While disciples can and do exist on their own. Paul’s Christian life is always rooted and grounded in the church. For him, there is no autonomous Christianity. Always, the disciple does life with a local gathering of disciples, i.e., a church. (See Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, to name two passages).

Sixth, the universal Church in Acts 9:31, which is experiencing peace and upbuilding is made up of local churches: “the church in all Judea and Galilee and Samaria.” Yes, it is one church—unified by the same Spirit, same Lord, and same Father—but it is also many. And thus, before Saul could be welcomed in the Jerusalem assembly, there was the appropriate step of questioning his faith and proving his testimony. His personal testimony required evaluation by the local church in Jerusalem; there is no evaluation or affirmation given by the universal church.

Seventh, in the un-persecuted West, churches easily forget that their are imposters who would intentionally (or unintentionally) seek to infiltrate the church. As Jesus said, not all who cry “Lord, Lord” know the Lord. Thus it is the local church’s responsibility to baptize those who demonstrate faith, and it is the local church who must again test the faith of men and women who come from other churches. This rightly comes by testimony of that other church, or by the time it takes to get to know a professing believer. Either way, Acts 9 gives us a clear vision of how individuals relate to the Church universal, through submission to local churches.

All in all, these details enhance the precision with which we understand the local and universal church. In truth, some may see them as overbearing, but for those who long to see Christ formed in the local church, and for elders who take seriously the charge to guard the flock, such precautions are necessary. The goal is not to set up rules for rules sake, but like the elders in Jerusalem spiritual leaders are called by God to rightly discern who is and who is not apart of God’s family.

May God help his church and its local pastors rightly understanding the nature of the church, the seriousness of baptism, and the counter-cultural mandate exercise the authority invested in the local church. And may individual disciples see more clearly from Paul’s example in Damascus and Antioch how we can shepherd converts and the churches called to welcome them.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

[photo credit: Wikimedia Commons]