Introduction - Baptism, Call, and Membership

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Book: Introduction - Baptism, Call, and Membership
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Date: Tuesday, April 23, 2024, 11:24 AM

Before leaders are called to serve within a congregation in ordained ministry, they profess their faith and make commitments about becoming a member of Christ’s church reflected in their community. Within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), membership includes promises about living within the congregational community.

The PC(USA) Book of Order says this about membership, “In Jesus Christ, God calls people to faith and to membership in the Church, the body of Christ” (G-1.0301). The Book of Order also states:

... A faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace and promises to be involved responsibly in the ministry of Christ’s Church ...

proclaiming the good news in word and deed,

taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation,

lifting one another up in prayer, mutual concern, and active support,

studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life,

supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents,

demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church,

responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others,

living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life,

working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment,

caring for God’s creation,

participating in the governing responsibilities of the church, and

reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful. (G-1.0304)

F-1.0301 The Church Is the Body of Christ

The Church is the body of Christ. Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body. The Church strives to demonstrate these gifts in its life as a community in the world (1 Cor. 12:27–28):

The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.

The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things. The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation.

The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.

The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.

Letty M. Russell, a twentieth century Presbyterian theologian, recognizes that some churches do not take seriously the purpose of the church or the call of individual members when they do not affirm the full humanity of all people. She envisions a church that empowers members and recognizes Christ as the host. The metaphor she uses is that of a round table in a “household of freedom”[1] where all people gather around as partners in ministry connecting to the world and each other in faith and for a life of reflection and action. The table is “a symbol of hospitality and a metaphor for gathering for sharing and dialogue.”[2]

Photo of a round table surrounded by chairsRussell describes leadership around that table in terms of 1 Corinthians 12 and a Pauline understanding of a distribution of spiritual gifts in the community of faith. Each gift comes with power, not one greater than the other.[3] Leaders, in this interdependent paradigm, have authority of purpose rather than authority of position. The community identifies and empowers leaders and “assist(s) members of the congregation in making use of their gifts in the service of Christ’s love in the world.”[4] The power the leader with purpose exercises, in this model, is in personal relation. It is power that is grounded in concepts like interdependence, intentionality, and persuasion.[5] Leaders with authority grounded in purpose humbly recognize that they are servant leaders not leaders with servants.[6]

For Reflection and Discussion:

Think about some of the roles that you have held in your life, volunteer and paid, chosen by self and chosen by others, and the stories remembered vividly from those roles. Consider some abilities or learnings in one or more of those roles.

Identify a time in your life that clearly embodies when you have “come alive” and/or pleased yourself and God. What did you notice? What stands out to you about that experience?

[1] Letty M. Russell, Household of Freedom: Authority in Feminist Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1987), 25–26.

[2] Letty M. Russell, The Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.), 17.

[3] Ibid., 55.

[4] Ibid., 66.

[5] Anna Case-Winters, God’s Power: Traditional Understandings and Contemporary Challenge. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 211–12.

[6] Russell, The Church in the Round, 67.

Baptism is the Reformed theological affirmation that each person is a gift from God, beloved and chosen for service. Through baptism we become a part of a priesthood of all believers, a concept developed by Martin Luther during the Reformation. A priesthood of all believers might now be best understood as an interdependent network of people of faith, each commissioned for service for the common good.

Photo of a baptismal fontG-1.0301 The Meaning of Membership and Baptism

         In Jesus Christ, God calls people to faith and to membership in the Church, the body of Christ. Baptism is the visible sign of that call and claim on a human life and of entrance into the membership of the church. The baptism of children witnesses to the truth that God’s love claims people before they are able to respond in faith. The baptism of those who enter the covenant of membership upon their own profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior witnesses to the truth that God’s gift of grace calls forth a response of faithfulness. Thus, the triune God, incarnate in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, gives to the Church not only its mission but also its understanding of membership.”

The Sacrament of Baptism, pp. 404–406 in the Book of Common Worship

Obeying the word of our Lord Jesus,

And confident of his promises,

We baptize those whom God has called.


In baptism God claims us,

And deals us to show that we belong to God.

God frees us from sin and death,

Uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection.


By water and the Holy Spirit,

We are made members of the church, the body of Christ,

And joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice.


Let us remember with joy our own baptism,

As we celebrate this sacrament.


On behalf of the session,

I present N., (son, daughter) of N. and N.,

To receive the sacrament of Baptism.


(to Parents) Do you desire that N. and N. be baptized?

Relying on God’s grace,

So you promise to live the Christian faith,

And to teach that faith to your child?


(to Congregation) Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ,

Promise to guide and nurture N. and N.

By word and deed,

With love and prayer,

Encouraging them to know and follow Christ

And to be faithful members of his church?


For Reflection and Discussion:

Think about your own baptism. This may be based on stories you have been told about the day or you might have been of an age to be able to recall the day.

In what ways is the Sacrament of Baptism the beginning of our call to service in Christ?

How do your baptism and church membership connect directly to the call and ordination as a ruling elder or deacon in the church?

I Corinthians 12:4–12

This Scripture reveals an understanding of vocation as the gifts each person is given that are needed for common good. The audience of 1 Corinthians was quite diverse economically, socially, ethnically, educationally, theologically, and, therefore, culturally.[1] On numerous occasions in the letter, Paul addresses conflict in the Corinthian church by appealing to the metaphor of the body of Christ.[2] Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is clear: the church is the body of Christ, not like the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27).[3] The church is one body with many members (1 Cor 12:12). Each member is needed and each needs the others.[4] C.K. Barrett highlights that the allotment of the gifts is done with great intention. According to Barrett, when Paul uses the Greek word diairesis in 1 Corinthians 12:4, “differences” or “varieties” are not as helpful a translation as “distribution.”

Paul thinks of the gifts as given. … The main point is … gifts are shared out among Christians; all do not receive the same gift, but all the gifts come from the Spirit, so that there is no room for rivalry, discontent, or a feeling of superiority. … Gifts are not occasions for boasting, but opportunities for service, to the community and through the community to the Lord.[5]

Presbyterian pastor, Gary Charles, reveals the possibilities of an interdependent community of faith, grounded in baptism and connected with vocational discernment of spiritual gifts. He thinks that 1 Corinthians 12:1–13 is a call to “all baptized who drink of the same Spirit”[6] to break down hierarchies and cultural norms of individualism and to create a community of diversity able to establish an enduring unity by believing that “each member is gifted and invaluable to the spiritual health of the community.” [7] Charles reaffirms vocations theological grounding in baptism and the discernment or calling forth spiritual gifts of each community member.

Reformed Theology of Vocation: Discerning God’s Call in Community

Vocation and the journey it implies are understood in a variety of ways. The word vocation is derived from the Latin vocare, meaning to call or to summon; it “suggests that vocation is a calling from someone to someone for some purpose.”[8] Taking seriously the distinctiveness of this term in contrast to language of careers, occupations, placements, or even jobs, we are invited “to reflect on the theological meaning of our chosen daily work by emphasizing how we serve and give … rather than on what we receive for our labors.”[9]

Humanists understand vocation as a question of identity or integrity. Hasidic Jews call this a search for the spark of the divine. Buddhists talk about exploring our original nature or big self. Quakers describe the journey of discovery of the self as seeking the inner light or inner teacher. Catholic theologian Thomas Merton encouraged students and readers to find their true selves.[10] Reformed theologians like John Calvin urge persons to search for their vocation;[11] the searching, the journeying, the seeking, the exploring and the discovering all constitute a process of discernment.

Discerning one's vocation is not merely an economic inquiry, nor is it fully addressed as an educational problem. Discerning vocation is a personal, spiritual, religious, and theological journey, and, for Reformed Christians, it is a communal process. Ideally, each member of the community travels with the others. God’s call begins as we are called into life as infants. In the Christian community, our first call is publicly recognized in baptism. Through the Presbyterian practice of infant baptism, the Christian community vows to nurture each child’s call, including her or his faith in Jesus Christ. God’s call is something lived out in solidarity. Christians live out their call in discipleship wherever they find themselves at work and at play, in word, in thought, and in deed. So where do we hear God’s call? God’s call is to be experienced through life and worship in the community of faith. Our call is by God through our community and into community.

In addition to affirming that God’s call is discovered in community, Presbyterians have also noted that it is a way to overcome barriers, including cultural ones. “The Confession of 1967,” one of the twelve confessions in the PC(USA) Book of Confessions, confirms these theological and practical beliefs.

… The church is called to bring all [persons] to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. [12]

When Presbyterians fail to uphold one another in all relationships; when the community of faith fails to “bring, receive, and uphold” one another in our vocational process, we are refusing to practice what we say we believe about who God is and who God intends for us to be. When the church does not distinguish the gifts of marginalized peoples it is missing the mark and falling short of a summons by God.[13]

Illustration of a venn diagramA Presbyterian Ecclesiology: A Community of the Called

The Reformed Tradition has a communal ecclesiology. Throughout our history, this point has been reaffirmed. The sixteenth-century Reformers defined church as “an assembly of the faithful called or gathered out of the world; a communion, I say, of all saints … .”[14] They assumed that church was a community of people who were called. Thus, our Reformed notion of church is interwoven with questions of vocation, what God calls or summons us to do and to be as individual members of a larger community.

H. Richard Niebuhr grappled with the relationship of ecclesiology to vocation. In The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, he defines church and what it means to be called by God. For Niebuhr, the Church is more of a community directed to God through Jesus Christ. The Church is local and universal, Protestant and catholic.[15] All seeking Christians find their call as they learn from the church to love God and neighbor. The individual Christian’s quest is linked to the church being able to fulfill one’s call.[16]

The New Testament vision of community is of koinonia, that is, a community of belonging, not a society of opposition and competition. A Reformed theological perspective of the church as a community of believers values each person’s individual gifts and helps each member of the community to express her or his gifts fully and freely to the betterment of the whole.

The 216th General Assembly (2004) commissioned a study on the relationship of baptism and ministry.[17] Specifically, the assembly approved an overture to “create a study document that would set forth [a] Reformed-Presbyterian understanding of the relationship between Baptism and the ministry of all church members both ordained and not ordained. …”[18] The rationale for the action states that

Vocation—our God-given calling—is not measured by the particular occupation we choose or by the so-called “productive years” of our lives. Our baptismal vocation encompasses our whole lives for our whole lives.

 The New Testament teaches us that gifts are given to each for the common good. Each of us is an important part of God’s mission in the world regardless of whether we are an ordained minister or a non-ordained minister. Every Christian is a minister by virtue of his or her baptism into Christ Jesus. A greater awareness of our baptismal vocation of being Christ’s ministers is deeply needed within our church. We need to again contemplate what it means to find our identity in our belonging—in body and soul, in life and in death—to the God revealed in Jesus Christ made known by the Holy Spirit. This would be greatly assisted by a biblically informed and theologically grounded understanding of our baptismal vocation as the basis of our common ministry as Christians. …[19]

For Reflection and Discussion:

Look at what our own Book of Order says about participation in Christ’s ministry and the ordered ministries of the church by reviewing and reading G-2.0101, G-2.0102, G-2.0103, and G-2.0104.

What does it mean to be called as a ruling elder or deacon in the body of Christ, the Church?

Identify a mentor who has served as a spiritual leader in your life. What are some qualities that they possess? How can you keep these qualities in mind as you go out to serve as a ruling elder or deacon, serving in the leadership of Christ’s Church?

[1] Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim, United by Faith: The Multicultural Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race (Oxford: University Press, 2003), 30–31.

[2] Charles B. Cousar, The Letters of Paul (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1996), 142–43.

[3] George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 10: Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians (New York: Abingdon Press, 1953), 156.

[4] C.K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 283–84.

[5] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[6] Gary W. Charles, “I Corinthians 12:1–13,” Interpretation 44 (Ja 1990): 68.

[7] Ibid., 67.

[8] Richard M. Webster, “Considering Your Call and Vocation: Study to Enrich Inquirers and Candidates” (Louisville: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A. ) SEIC Resource #101, 1992), accessed August 2, 2005, available from; Internet, 1.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Thomas Merton discusses this also as vocation. The “root meaning of spiritual direction … [is] … a continuous process of formation and guidance, in which a Christian is led and encourage in his special vocation, so that by faithful correspondence to the graces of the Holy Spirit he may attain to the particular end of his vocation and to union with God.” Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1960), 5.

[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia : The Westminster Press, 1960), 725.

[12] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “The Confession of 1967” in the Book of Confessions (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 1996), 9.44, 294.

[13] Mary R. Sawyer, The Church on the Margins: Living Christian Community (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2003), 4–9.

[14] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “The Second Helvetic Confession” in the Book of Confessions, 5.125, 109.

[15] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1956), 17–27.

[16] Ibid., 64.

[17] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Minutes of the 216th General Assembly (2004) (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 2004), Item #08-11, 618.

[18] Ibid, 618.

[19] Ibid. 619. Emphasis added.

An Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor—Chapter 6: “The Practice of Encountering Others: Community” and Chapter 7: “The Practice of Living with Purpose: Vocation”

Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for Searching People, edited by Dorothy Bass, Chapter 9: Shaping Communities by Larry Rasmussen.

1)   In 1937, the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., published a poem by the Reverend Howard Thurman, an African American Baptist minister, professor of theology, and dean of the chapel at Howard University. The title of the poem was “O God, I Need Thee.” Thurman poetically describes our need of God’s sense for time, order, and future.

“O God, I Need Thee”

I Need Thy Sense of Time

Always I have an underlying anxiety about things.

Sometimes I am in a hurry to achieve my ends

And am completely without patience. It is hard for me

To realize that some growth is slow,

That all processes are not swift. I cannot always discriminate

Between what takes time to develop and what can be rushed,

Because my sense of time is dulled.

I measure things in terms of happenings.

O to understand the meaning of perspective

That I may do all things with a profound sense of leisure–of time.

—Howard Thurman (1899–1981), in Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans


In 1953, Thurman published Meditations of the Heart, the second in a volume of meditations that were originally written for personal and congregational use at Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, where he served as co-pastor from 1944–1953 with Alfred G. Fisk, a European American Presbyterian minister and professor of philosophy. Both Thurman and Fisk were deeply concerned about building bridges of understanding among varied races, cultures, and faiths, and their multicultural congregation embodied this hope. The purpose of the meditations is, as Thurman puts it, “[T]o focus the mind and the heart upon God as the Eternal Source and Goal of life.” One hundred and fifty-two short meditations in this 210-page book provide a significant source of insight, centering prayer, and nourishment for faith journeys. Meditations are the type of sustenance that fed civil rights leaders, including the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was mentored by Thurman.


2)   A community of discernment/mentoring community:

Sharon Daloz Parks, a faith development expert and director of leadership for the New Commons, discourages competition in the discernment process and encourages communities of support and nurture as opposed to communities that adopt competitive models for vocational discernment. Families, churches, and even worksites can be mentoring communities. She believes that a mentoring environment and culture is essential for young adults to discover their vocation.[1] Mentoring environments provide “network[s] of belonging … [and] promise a place of nurture for the potential self.”[2]

According to Parks, young adults in 2005 understand the church as local and not as a national entity. She makes this point in Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith. Drawing on the best sociological, psychological, and faith development theories, Parks boils down the adult questions to one of trust.[3] Answering this question of who and what is authoritative in life is the journey into young adulthood. In fact, she says, “One becomes a young adult in faith (at whatever age) when one begins to take self-conscious responsibility for one’s own knowing, becoming, and moral action, even at the level of ultimate meaning making.”[4] In other words, adults in search of purpose and meaning and, ultimately, vocation, have to decide for themselves whom they will trust. They cannot be told in whom and what to trust. Parks is convinced that young adults trust mentoring communities such as colleges, professional educators, workplaces, travel, the natural environment, families, and religious faith communities. In other words, a whole culture of mentors already exists with the potential to nurture the Christian vocational discernment of young adults.

[1] Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 126.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 53.

[4] Ibid., 64.


Lee Hinson-Hasty is senior director for Theological Education Funds Development at the Presbyterian Foundation, in support of future ministers and our PC(USA) seminaries. A former campus minister, pastor, and college administrator in Virginia and North Carolina, Lee builds bridges between the church and academy including on his Leading Theologically podcast and Theological Education Matters blog. A graduate of Wake Forest University, Louisville Seminary, and McCormick Theological Seminary, Lee welcomes invitations to preach, partner, and lead workshops.

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