Taking Church Membership Seriously

By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor

One of the most significant contributions made by Baptists in church history is their clear emphasis on the doctrine of the church. And that includes church membership. For one, (1) Baptists have confessed their belief that Scripture teaches the church should be comprised of Christians only—those who are born-again (regenerate). Of course, this was a natural extension from the Baptist belief that the New Testament clearly teaches the doctrine of believer’s baptism—a doctrine which we Baptists all hold dear.

Founding covenant of First Baptist Church in Swansea, MA, 1663

As you know, before this Baptist emphasis on regenerate church membership, churches were made up of a mixture of believers and unbelievers because both were included into the church by rite of infant baptism. Back in colonial America, New England Congregationalists had a real struggle with people who were members of their local church, but who showed no signs of faith in Christ whatsoever. These people held onto their church membership, often because they had to do so in order to vote in political elections, or because it helped them in their business ventures.

Baptists had a clearer vision of what the local church was to be according to Scripture. Its membership was to include only those people who had given credible evidence (outward and visible signs like believer’s baptism and their personal testimony) of their inner faith in Christ.

Of course, we understand that these signs are no guarantee that one is truly born-again. We know, for example, that Judas deceived the other disciples for three years! But the ideal of regenerate church membership should not be cast aside just because of deceivers and the self-deceived. In Scripture, regenerate church membership is established as both a goal and as a guiding principle.

In addition to a commitment to regenerate church membership, (2) most Baptist churches in early America saw the need for a church covenant as well—a statement of mutual responsibilities and benefits between the individual committed member and the congregation as a whole. The covenant was to be signed at the time of membership by the prospective member to show a hearty agreement with the doctrine and mission of the local church.

Also, prior to membership, (3) many Baptist churches would employ classes and meetings with the pastors of the church to help instruct the prospective/new members about Baptist beliefs and to draw them into productive and fruitful membership by the use of their spiritual and material gifts.

For years, however, many Baptist churches have neglected some (or all) of these steps, often in the interest of attracting as many people as possible into membership. Perhaps this was done in an effort to show tangible progress, for an ever-increasing membership roll is easily measured and gives one a good feeling of advance.

Whatever the case may be, Christ has called us to make disciples, not just converts, and a membership roll which is three or four times as large as the average attendance for services on a Sunday morning should be a source of embarrassment for a local Baptist church. I would certainly suspect our Baptist forebears wouldn’t approve!

In our own local fellowship, FBC Durham, the early generation of leaders made a provision for a careful membership process in the constitution and by-laws, and in recent years the elders and membership of FBC Durham have taken steps toward attending to those provisions. It is my hope in writing this that it might encourage other churches to take similar steps to glorify God in taking church membership seriously.

What did this look like on a practical basis in our local church? For one, some Baptist churches have made a habit of accepting a prospective member into their fellowship immediately upon their first indication of interest. Our practice, instead, has been to lead them through a membership weekend in order to explain our beliefs and our covenant, and then to begin to lead them into active service in our church following their commitment to church membership. We still recognize our new members at a special service following our prospective new member weekend course. And, as we have followed this practice, we believe this process adheres well to the spirit of our founding leaders who saw a regenerate church membership as a most powerful tool for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.

Image credits: (1) The Organizing Covenant of the Founders of the First Baptist Church in Swansea, Massachusetts, 1663; (2) members joining together.

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