The Community of the Gospel: Regenerate Church Membership

[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on July 22, 2008.]

This is the third post in a series dedicated to the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. My previous post argued that Baptists should primarily embrace a Protestant Christian identity that is nuanced by a cluster of ecclesiological distinctives that have historically been associated with the Baptist tradition. Beginning with this post, the rest of the series will address those historic Baptist distinctives.

The foundational theological distinctive among Baptist Christians is a commitment to a regenerate church membership. My colleague John Hammett goes so far as to call regenerate church membership “the Baptist mark of the church.”[1] Proponents of this position argue that a local church’s membership is to be comprised only of individuals who have been born again and placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

Why Regenerate Church Membership?

It is worth asking why Baptists consider regenerate church membership to be such an important doctrine. There are at least two reasons. First, as Protestants, Baptists adhere to the Scripture principle and believe that biblical doctrine and practice trumps all religious traditions, creedal documents, and private theological opinions. This means that Baptists believe in a regenerate church membership because we honestly believe this practice is both taught and modeled in the New Testament.

But there is a second reason for our commitment to regenerate church membership. Simply put, Baptists believe that a church that practices regenerate membership is more consistent with the gospel than a church that grants any form of membership to non-Christians. Baptists believe that the local church is the community of the gospel, and as such it ought to be comprised of individual “gospel people” who have voluntarily covenanted together as a local expression of the body of Christ.

Alternatives to Regenerate Church Membership

There are several alternatives to regenerate church membership. It is worth briefly discussing two of these alternatives: pre-Christian and non-Christian membership.

A form of pre-Christian membership is practiced in many pedobaptist churches whenever an infant is sprinkled and declared to be baptized or christened. Whether the child is considered a “covenant child,” a child of the Roman Catholic Church, or the pedobaptism is considered the first step in the child’s (presumptive) regeneration, the result is the same: a membership-like status has been conferred on an individual who has not confessed personal faith in Christ.

To be fair, most pedobaptist groups employ some type of confirmation or other spiritual right-of-passage before an individual can become a full member of the church. But by “baptizing” infants and making a distinction between the spiritual status (or at least the spiritual potential) of the children of Christians versus the children of non-Christians, a quasi-membership status has been granted to an individual based upon something other than that person’s faith in Christ.

Many mainline churches practice an openly non-Christian membership. In some congregations, faith in Christ is not a prerequisite to church membership. Many liberal churches do not even affirm the concept of a personal faith in Christ, instead opting for vague concepts like following their interpretation of Christ’s ethical teachings. Some even totally jettison traditional Christianity and opt for some form of soteriological pluralism. Non-Christian membership is generally not practiced among evangelical congregations.

Baptist reject both pre-Christian and non-Christian membership. We do so because these practices both fail to reflect the New Testament pattern and undermine–and sometimes sever–the relationship between the gospel and the church. Only those who claim to embrace the gospel are to be included in the community of the gospel.

Preserving Regenerate Church Membership

Although some other Christian groups affirm a regenerate church membership in principle, Baptists argue that baptistic Christians most consistently adhere to regenerate church membership. Though we may fail at times, we honestly try to “practice what we preach” when it comes to this ecclesiological distinctive. We do this through at least three practices, two of which are discussed below (the other is discussed in the next post).

The first practice is the adoption of local church covenants. Historian Charles Deweese defines a church covenant as “a series of written pledges based on the Bible which church members voluntarily make to God and to one another regarding their basic moral and spiritual commitments and the practice of their faith.”[2]

Baptists churches have been adopting church covenants since our inception in the 17th century, having imported the practice from our English Separatist forefathers. Among Southern Baptists, most churches drafted their own covenants until the latter half of the 19th century. In the years after the Civil War, many churches simply adopted the covenant that was included in J. Newton Brown’s Church Manual of 1853 and reprinted in J. M. Pendleton’s Church Manual of 1866.

Comparatively few Southern Baptist churches placed great value on church covenants for most of the 20th century. Most churches included a covenant in their legal documents; often the Brown/Pendleton covenant. Some churches, especially newer churches, did not even bother adopting a covenant. Fortunately, in recent years many churches have reemphasized the “owning” of a church covenant as a precondition of membership and an aid in promoting meaningful church membership.

The second practice, which often accompanies the adoption of local church covenants, is the exercise of redemptive church discipline. Church discipline has received a great deal of attention in recent years among both pastors and scholars. In 2008, the SBC adopted a much-discussed Resolution on Regenerate Church Membership and Church Member Restoration at the annual meeting in Indianapolis.

According to Theron Price, church discipline is intended to help preserve three principal concerns of a local church: [3]

  1. The purity of her doctrine, which is threatened by heresy
  2. The holiness of her members, which is threatened by sin
  3. The unity of her fellowship, which is threatened by schism

Church discipline is not intended to be punitive, but rather is meant to be redemptive. To say it another way, church discipline is intended to be a means of grace in bringing about conviction and repentance in the life of the offender. This is true of both Christians and non-Christians. Church discipline helps to convict and correct genuine believers who are promoting doctrinal error, engaging in ongoing, unrepentant sin, or undermining the unity of the church. Church discipline also helps to remove potentially unregenerate people from church membership by excommunicating incorrigible individuals, thus providing one important safeguard against non-Christian membership.

Historically, church discipline was greatly valued by Baptists; one only needs to read local church minutes or associational minutes from the 18th and 19th centuries to see that church discipline was a priority. Like church covenants, church discipline was largely ignored during the 20th century but has been reemphasized among many Southern Baptist churches over the course of the last generation.

Conclusion

Baptists believe that New Testament churches were covenanted communities of individuals who had embraced the gospel. And we believe our own churches should be as well. As the Baptist mark of the church, regenerate church membership is the central Baptist distinctive. The other historic Baptist distinctives only function correctly and consistently when churches are comprised of genuine believers. When this is not the case, the other distinctives are misunderstood, corrupted, or ignored. Many of our own contemporary problems in local churches can likely be traced to a failure to seriously maintain a regenerate church membership while practicing, at least in theory, other Baptist distinctives.

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Notes:

[1] John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Kregel, 2005), 81.

[2] Charles W. Deweese, Baptist Church Covenants (Broadman, 1990), viii.

[3] Theron D. Price, “Discipline in the Church,” in What is the Church? A Symposium of Baptist Thought, ed. Duke K. McCall (Broadman, 1958), 164.

On Covenantal Church Membership

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on March 20, 2013.]

During the Reformation era, different Christian groups were wrestling with the best way to think about the biblical covenants and their relationship to ecclesiology. Though there was some diversity early on, as a general rule Reformed thinkers argued that all of the biblical covenants were historical administrations of a single covenant of grace. From this presupposition, most of the Reformed argued that covenantal infant baptism was a better baptismal theology than the sacerdotal pedobaptism of Catholics and many Lutherans. Covenant theology continues to be the dominant view of Reformed pedobaptists and, with some significant baptismal variations, some Calvinistic Baptists.

Orthodox Anabaptists took a different route than the Reformed pedobaptists. Most Anabaptists denied the existence of a covenant of grace and focused on the uniqueness of each individual biblical covenant. Some Anabaptists also advocated a form of covenantal credobaptism by arguing that confessor baptism represented a binding covenant between the believer and God wherein the believer pledges himself to God and His church through the obedience of credobaptism. Though the covenant language is rarely invoked, the spirit of this idea lives on in many Free Church traditions, including among many Southern Baptists. (I’ve often heard baptism referred to as the new Christian’s “first act of obedience.”)

The English Separatists embraced the covenant theology of the wider Reformed tradition, but they were more radical in their ecclesiology because the earliest Separatists rejected the concept of a state church. (Unfortunately, they snuggled up with Caesar after migrating to New England.) This rejection helped contribute to the development of a covenantal ecclesiology among the Separatists. The Separatists agreed with the Anabaptists in advocating a believer’s church comprised of presumably regenerate individuals, though unlike the Anabaptists the Separatists continued to embrace covenantal pedobaptism. The unique Separatist contribution was organizing their churches around written covenants that obligated members to walk together under the lordship of Christ for the sake of their individual and collective sanctification.

A growing number of Separatists began embracing credobaptism in the generation between 1609 and 1650. These Separatists-turned-Baptists maintained their commitment to a covenantal ecclesiology, including the General Baptists who rejected belief in an eternal covenant of grace. By the mid-seventeenth century, there were at least four distinct groups of English Baptists: the Calvinistic Particular Baptists, the Calvinistic Independent Baptists (who embraced open membership), the Arminian-leaning General Baptists, and the soteriologically diverse Seventh Day Baptists (who worshiped on Saturdays).  Each of these groups advocated not only a regenerate church membership, but following their Separatist forebears they also embraced a covenantal membership.

A commitment to a regenerate church membership organized around a written covenant also characterized most Baptist churches in America, especially by the turn of the eighteenth century. Though early on most churches adopted their own unique covenants, after the publication of J. Newton Brown’s Baptist Church Manual in 1853 (still in print today), the model covenant he included in his influential volume became the most widely used covenant among Baptist churches in America. This is the church covenant that Broadman Press reproduced in poster or plaque form that still adorns the sanctuaries and fellowship halls of thousands of Southern Baptist churches. Unfortunately, the very ease of adopting Brown’s standard covenant contributed to the downplaying of a covenantal ecclesiology among two or three generations of Southern Baptists.

Over the past decade or so, my own church, First Baptist Church of Durham, has reemphasized a covenantal view of membership. This is demonstrated several times a year during our corporate worship gathering when a new group of prospective members stands before our church body, introduces themselves, and publicly expresses their desire to join our church. At some point prior to the gathering, these individuals have already met with one of our pastors and participated in a prospective member class. After the introductions, all of our members stand and recite our church’s covenant in unison while the prospective members publicly sign a copy of the covenant. It is always a meaningful time in the life of our church. Within a couple of weeks after the public covenanting, we have a member’s meeting where we vote to formally receive these brothers and sisters in Christ into our church’s membership.

I’ve been greatly encouraged in recent years to see the recovery of a covenantal, regenerate church membership among many other Southern Baptist churches besides my own. I suspect that even more Southern Baptist churches will (re-) embrace a covenantal ecclesiology as we continue to emphasize greater clarity in gospel proclamation, the centrality of both evangelism and discipleship, and the importance of redemptive church discipline. By God’s grace, these seem to be areas where Southern Baptists of many different stripes and emphases are in substantial agreement. We should rejoice in this trend and labor together to advance it further for the sake of the health of our churches.

(Note: This post is also published today at Christian Thought & Tradition.)