One of the crucial marks of what it means to be Baptist is that we believe the local church, so far as we are able to discern, is made up of members who have been born again. Historically, Baptists have believed in regenerate church membership.
Regenerate church membership is a precious and biblical belief worthy of being fiercely guarded by both pastors and church members. If we want to see churches that are doctrinally sound, and Christ exalting, our stance here must be non-negotiable. In too many Baptist churches it is “too easy” to get in and “too hard” to get out.
For example, a 4-year old who can say yes to the right questions can get baptized in many Baptist churches. That same 4-year old can grow up, live with three different women, become an alcoholic, not attend any service for five decades, die, and still have his obituary read, “Member of First Baptist Church.”
Brother pastors, this is not the New Testament understanding of the local church. Jesus loves the local church, and so must we; so much so that we are willing to pursue regenerate church membership seriously. I want to share three ways to safeguard regenerate church membership in today’s post.
Jesus gave the local church the keys to the Kingdom (Mt. 16:19). Not that we should mimic everything in the few centuries after the closing of the New Testament canon, but some churches in that era would catechize people up to three years before admitting them to the baptismal waters.
Why? Because baptism unites believers to the membership of the local church and these churches wanted to make sure the church consisted of regenerate members. It’s biblical to do so.
I don’t mean that we go beyond Scripture to make people jump through hoops that Jesus never intended for the church. But, it is imperative we stop letting every person that walks down an aisle and says they are a Christian to enter the baptistery the next week, especially in a culture like ours where what it means to be a Christian has been watered down (no baptistery pun intended) the last few decades. It not an unreasonable goal to make sure the people we baptize are genuinely converted (as best as we are able).
Each person who wants to join the church must have sufficient counsel with the pastors of the church to ensure, as best they can, that he or she genuinely profess faith in Christ. This counsel requires spending time with the person—maybe an hour, or an evening, or three weeks, if that’s what it takes to make sure he or she understands the gospel and possesses a genuine desire to follow Christ in obedience through baptism.
Folks can say the right words and still be unconverted. They don’t have to pass a written exam before we baptize them, but it wouldn’t hurt for us to be more careful about this on the front end so that we don’t have people on our rolls who don’t really belong there.
Baptists think of church membership as a covenantal relationship, and for centuries have expressed this in formal written covenants for the church. Covenants are not meant to exceed the bounds of Scripture. Instead, they are meant to clearly define what membership in the local church is to look like practically and to clearly define expectations for church members.
In some Baptist churches, a Church Covenant hangs on the wall and that’s about it. In others, the Church Covenant is missing altogether. In too many places there is an informal agreement that says, “membership here means you get voted in by the church and try to come when you can but there really won’t be any accountability from us to you or for you to us.” Of course, that’s not actually written down anywhere—it’s just implied.
Church Covenants are extremely helpful because they show what sort of lives are expected of the members of the church. They define what the church’s understanding of holiness is. They express the church’s expectations regarding accountability—both to one another and to the leadership of the church. A Church Covenant sets down the parameters of how the local church interprets particular aspects of Scripture’s teaching.
Of course, when you have people desiring to join your church and you walk through a Church Covenant with them, they may balk. But it comes back to what we think the church is to be. And if the local church is to be comprised of regenerate members, we should expect them to live accordingly.
To maintain regenerate church membership, it’s important to recover corrective church discipline. Some churches don’t practice corrective church discipline because they don’t want to come across as unloving. The irony is, not to warn people of sin is the epitome of being unloving. If more local Baptist churches resolved to be serious about church discipline it would reinforce our membership rolls—not destroy them. Pastors must labor to teach on this subject and, when the time comes, be willing to practice it.
Gathering with the local church is Christianity 101. Hershael York writes, “The easiest act of obedience for a Christian is gathering with the church for worship on Sunday. It only requires that you get up, get dressed, and get there.”
It’s disheartening that so many people are listed on a church roll somewhere but not actually attending. According to a recent study, 34% of members in Southern Baptist Churches. This illustrates one of the reasons a Church Covenant can be so helpful. The covenant should state that members are expected to regularly gather (see Hebrews 10:25, 1 John 3:14).
Of course, if Jane Doe misses a week this doesn’t mean you “kick her out”. But it does mean her absence is noted, and it is loving to check on her.
Members who persistently miss must be gently and lovingly confronted and called back to the fold. Pastors must handle each case wisely, lovingly, graciously, and with a focus toward Christ’s glory. Those who are insistent on not regularly gathering with the local church over time must be removed from the membership roll and treated as an unbeliever (Mt. 18:15-20).
This is not done to merely “punish” a person, but in the desire that the Holy Spirit will convict him and bring him back into the fold through this process. Many times this procedure does just that.
Sadly, some do not respond to the pleadings of the church. When they go against what they have covenanted to do (see point #2), it is time for church discipline. This also helps to ensure the purity of the church and becomes a demonstration of how the gospel transforms a group of individuals into the likeness of Christ together.
It is true that church discipline can be abused. However, the troubling issue in many churches isn’t that church discipline is being abused but that it’s completely absent! Some may think this practice is mean and outdated, but in the context of the Bible, it is clear that this is to preserve the integrity of the church and lovingly snatch our members from the fire, when needed. This restoration is God’s method for returning the straying lambs to the fold. It is not a scandalous to remove someone from our rolls—but it is shameful when a local church chooses to not submit wholly to Scripture.
Church discipline is a great benefit to churches, individual believers, and the Kingdom at large. No person who has his or her name on your church roll is guaranteed to keep that name there no matter what until they die. Regenerate church membership is meaningful church membership.
However, the issue is more sobering than that. Some who have their name on a church roll do not have it in the Lamb’s Book of Life. This is why it’s so important to recover a regenerate church membership. The evidence that a person is regenerate is that he or she lives a lifestyle of repentance. Believers still sin. But when they are confronted with sin, the expectation is that of repentance.
Some will double down and hate when they are confronted and even wander off forever when disciplined. But others may perhaps be lead to true repentance and faith in Christ! And in either case, the local church can rest in Scripture’s sufficiency.
Baptists don’t advocate for a sinless church. However, we do advocate for a regenerate church. Three ways we can help sharpen our fidelity to regenerate church membership are protecting the baptistery, formally covenanting with new members, and practicing biblical church discipline.
May Christ be glorified in our local churches through our safeguarding regenerate church membership.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and has been adapted from Appendix 3 of From Death to Life: How Salvation Works (2018, Free Grace Press).