Though Baptists are most often identified with believer’s baptism, I would argue that our view of church membership is our core distinctive. Baptists affirm the doctrine of regenerate church membership, which is the principle that a church’s formal membership should be comprised only of professing believers. My colleague John Hammett calls regenerate church membership “the Baptist mark of the church.” The goal of a regenerate church membership is a believer’s church, an emphasis that has always been a hallmark of the wider Free Church tradition.
Of course, it is impossible to know with absolute certitude that a church’s membership includes only regenerate individuals. Historically, Baptists have emphasized two practices that help to safeguard a believer’s church, insofar as this is humanly possible. The first practice is the adoption of membership covenants that spell out the expectations of the church’s members. (You can read my church’s covenant at our website.) The second practice is the exercising of corrective church discipline against members who engage in patterns of unrepentant sin or heretical beliefs.
While church discipline is commanded in scriptural passages such as Matthew 18:15-18, Galatians 6:1 and James 5:19-20, church covenants are more a matter of prudence based on general biblical principles. Historically, a covenant-like view of membership was assumed by many Continental Anabaptists, was advocated (inconsistently) by English Separatists and was characteristic of the earliest generations of both General Baptists and Particular Baptists in seventeenth-century England. Though not biblically commanded, covenants were a biblically responsible contextual practice; I believe they remain so today.
More recently, many Baptist churches have embraced another practice as a means of safeguarding regenerate church membership: new member classes. Like church covenants, a new member class is not biblically commanded, but rather represents a biblically responsible contextual practice. My friend (and SEBTS alum) Matt Capps lists five benefits of a new member class in a recent blog post on this topic:
- Membership classes help guard the purity of the church
- Membership classes help people understand the church
- Membership classes help people plug in to serve the church
- Membership classes help guard the unity of the church
- Membership classes help assimilate people into the church
I have periodically taught new member classes at my church. I agree with Matt’s assessment. I have found that new member classes are great way to promote “truth in advertising,” making sure that prospective members understand our church’s culture before they covenant with us in membership. The class has also provided opportunities to share the gospel with non-Christians who are interested in the church, but are not yet believers. If you are a current or wannabe pastor or other church leader, I would encourage you to read Matt’s post, wherein he elaborates on each of the five aforementioned benefits.