Kanye West recently professed faith in Christ. Many understandably gave thanks. An artist known for all sorts of non-Christian beliefs and statements presented himself as a believer in the crucified and resurrected Son of God.
A more world-defying narrative than this you could scarcely make up.
Kanye’s profession has prompted much discussion. Here’s one element it drives us to think through: what should happen in the life of a new convert. Evangelicals today are accustomed to a privatized and de-institutionalized faith. We have felt the influence of our me-first culture in a profound way, and as a result often see faith in God as a private matter. But faith in Christ alone is never faith that is alone. In other words, those who love Christ love his people (see 1 John). They join his church. They link arms with it. They do not fall prey to the “it’s just me and God doing our thing” line that we hear so much today. They recognize that private faith must go public, and individual commitment to Christ must become institutional. The local church is not like an after-school study group for the high-achievers among us; the local church is God’s plan A by which to disciple his people and evangelize the lost (Matthew 28:16-20).
From a distance, it seems like Kanye is learning about these things. Praise God for that. My point here is not to critique Kanye or anyone who expresses happiness over his profession of faith; I frankly am following his journey from afar like so many other folks. We have no reason to distrust his claiming of Christ. No, my point is simply this: while celebrating a profession of faith, we also call professing believers to take the second and third steps of public identification with Christ mentioned above. Outside of this, we cannot and should not offer assurance of salvation (as much as we can offer, that is).
This is because a profession of faith is not in and of itself what God has given as the final mark of repentance. In the New Testament, sinners who publicly profess faith should undergo baptism (see Acts 8:36, for example). Following their baptism by (ideally) an elder of a local church, the professing Christian should then join a local church (see the expectations of 1 Corinthians 5:14-20, for example). This must happen for all of us. We must all learn of the call of Christ and its ecclesial connection—and it takes some time to learn these things. We should not hurry this education, but give professing believers time to think and learn, graciously seeking to shepherd them into all the truth.
We must teach as well that, contrary to the easy-believism gospel of Americana, following Jesus entails a cost. This is not an accident; it is exactly what Jesus said: “Count the cost” (Luke 14:28). Said differently, Don’t do this lightly. This is not cheap faith we’re talking about. This is not ritual religion. The costliness of the faith takes vivid expression in the ordinance of baptism. Baptism does not save a person in the least, but rather signals conversion to Christ. But baptism does not terminate the call of Christ. It leads to the final step of personal commitment to Jesus: joining the local church. (I’m fascinated by Kanye’s “Sunday Service,” but am speaking of something different.) We rarely show our newfound faith more than when we place ourselves under the care and instruction of a local body. The elders of this body have responsibility to shepherd our soul; the congregation itself represents the final dimension of accountability in our lives (Hebrews 13:17; Matthew 18:15-17).
What does all this mean? It means two things: first, that we avoid both grumpy doubtfulness with regard to professions of faith on the one hand and uncareful thoughtlessness on the other. We should neither play the cynic nor the uncritical booster. Second, we should celebrate a profession of faith as it comes and then encourage—without haste or pressure—the person to undergo baptism and, following that, to join a local church.
Emphasizing these biblical principles does not equal fussy theological fastidiousness. It represents love for those who profess faith, for it honors God’s clear teaching on the steps of obedience in the believer’s life. God wants believers to be protected from wolves (see 2 Peter 2). He wants us to have help and doctrinal instruction and personal accountability. He wants us to gain encouragement and blessing and love from the body.
We need careful attention to the ecclesiological shape of biblical Christianity. Our individuality-obsessed culture encourages us to ignore it. This is especially true in a celebrity-driven culture like ours that esteems those who are famous more than those who are not, and thus grants them different terms of obedience. While we rejoice over anyone who confesses Christ, including those from hard-to-reach groups, James warns us about thinking in celebrity-driven terms (see James 2). Indeed, there is no Bible verse that tells us to target with special care the high and mighty. By extension, it is not celebrity conversions the church needs. To the contrary, the church is not dependent in the slightest upon the conversion of the learned and the gifted. The church is dependent solely and wholly on Christ.
You could fine-tune the point. Christ and the Father he serves seem to care very little for worldly categories. (They almost seem determined to undermine them.) Jesus grew up in Nazareth squarely in the middle of nowheresville. He recruited a bunch of no-name disciples. His apostles evangelized anyone they came across, creating in some cases churches that were decidedly not filled with the global influencer class, but boringly ordinary people (see 1 Corinthians 1-2). All who professed faith were to be baptized and then placed under local church oversight, a steep and costly call for many.
In conclusion, professions of faith like Kanye’s understandably get our attention. They remind us that God delights in saving those we would never think are reachable, and in uniting those who have nothing in common but Christ. For Kanye and for the local homeless guy, for a celebrity and for an awkward college freshman, for a famous athlete and for the local janitor, we offer the Christ who saves and the Christ who unites. We offer the baptismal waters symbolizing newness of life. We offer the fellowship of a blood-bought people. We offer, in other words, what the world does not want, but every person desperately needs.
To read more on the local church and its role in the life of the believer, I recommend the books listed here.