A regenerate church membership is an ancient Baptist principle based on clear biblical teaching, and it was practiced by most Baptist churches in America until the beginning of the 20th century.
The Somerset Confession of 1656 stated,
“In admitting of members into the church of Christ, it is the duty of the church, and ministers whom it concerns, in faithfulness to God, that they be careful they receive none but such as do make forth evident demonstration of the new birth, and the work of faith with power.”
The Charleston Summary of Church Discipline of 1774 said,
“The temple of the Lord is not to be built with dead but living materials, 1 Pe. 2:5. None have a right to church membership but such as Christ will own as his sincere followers at the last decisive day, whatever pretensions they may make to an interest in his favor, Mt. 7:22, 23. ... None are fit materials of a gospel church, without having first experienced an entire change of nature, Mt. 18:3. ... By nature we are dead in trespasses and sins, and Christ does not place such dead materials in his spiritual building. It is certain the Ephesian church was not composed of such materials, Eph. 2:1. ... The members of the church at Colosse are denominated not only saints, but faithful brethren in Christ, Col. 1:2, or true believers in him. None but such have a right to ordinances, Acts 8:37. Without faith none discern the Lord’s body in the Supper, and consequently must eat and drink unworthily, 1 Co. 11:29. ... Their lives and conversations ought to be such as becometh the gospel of Christ, Php. 1:27; that is holy, just, and upright, Psalm 15:1, 2; if their practice contradicts their profession they are not to be admitted to church membership. ... Persons making application are to be admitted into the communion of a church by the common suffrage of its members; being first satisfied that they have the qualifications laid down in the preceding section; for which purpose candidates must come under examination before the church; and if it should happen that they do not give satisfaction, they should be set aside until a more satisfactory profession is made 1 Ti. 6:12.”
In 1859, Edward Hiscox wrote,
“Church members are supposed to be regenerate persons bearing the image and cherishing the spirit of Christ, in whom the peace of God rules, and who walk and work in the unity of the Spirit, and the bond of peace’” (The Standard Manual for Baptist Churches).
In 1867, J.M. Pendleton’s influential Church Manual Designed for the Use of Baptist Churches emphasized a regenerate church membership:
“Let it never be forgotten that the only suitable materials of which to construct a church of Christ, so far as spiritual qualifications are concerned, are regenerate, penitent, believing persons. To make use of other materials is to subvert the fundamental principles of church organization. It is to destroy the kingdom of Christ; for how can there be a kingdom without such subjects as the King requires? ... Great care should be exercised in receiving members. ... There is much danger of this, especially in times of religious excitement. Pastors should positively assure themselves that those who are received for baptism have felt themselves to be guilty, ruined, helpless sinners, justly condemned by God’s holy law; and under a sense of their lost condition have trusted in Christ for salvation” (Pendleton, Church Manual, 1867).
In 1874, William Williams wrote,
“The members of the apostolic churches were all converted persons, or supposed to be converted. In the various epistles they are addressed as ‘saints,’ ‘faithful brethren,’ ‘the sons of God,’ sanctified in Christ Jesus. The many exhortations to a godly life and a holy conversation presume that they are ‘new creatures in Christ Jesus’ ... This--a converted church membership, a membership composed only of persons who are believed to have exercised personal repentance and faith--is, of all others, the most important peculiarity that characterized the apostolic organization of the church” Williams, Apostolic Church Polity, 1874).
At the Baptist World Conference in 1905, J.D. Freeman said,
“The principle of regenerate Church membership more than anything else, marks our distinctiveness in the world today. ... both logic and experience teach its importance as a safeguard to the Church from intrusion of unregenerate life” (“Baptists and a Regenerate Church Membership,” Review and Expositor, Spring 1963).
As we saw in the chapter “The Disappearance of Discipling Churches,” the New Testament principle of a regenerate membership was destroyed in ancient times by the practice of infant baptism and the sacramental gospel (faith in Christ plus sacraments and good works). In the early centuries of the church age, churches became filled with unregenerate members who were brought in by infant baptism. This practice became a fundamental element of the Roman Catholic Church, and most Protestants brought this error with them when they departed from Rome.
For example, the Church of England baptized infants with the following prayer by the officiating minister:
“We yield thee hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased thee to regenerate this infant with thy Holy Spirit, to receive him for thine own child by adoption, and to incorporate him into thy holy church.”
So long as the baptized person attended church and did not live a scandalous life, he was accepted as a true Christian.
When a baptized person died, so long as he had not been excommunicated or committed suicide, the minister said at the funeral:
“Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God, of his great mercy, to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, therefore we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through Jesus Christ.”
This practice destroyed the power of the church because it filled it with unregenerate people, from the Sunday School to the Pulpit.
Regenerate church membership is being corrupted in Baptist churches today, not by infant baptism and a sacramental gospel, but by shallow evangelism and hastiness and carelessness in receiving members. This is usually done in the pragmatic rush to have a bigger church regardless of its spiritual health.
Today, the unregenerate church member doesn’t trust his infant baptism and confirmation; he trusts his “sinner’s prayer.”
As we saw in “A Discipling Church Begins with Caution about Salvation,” the Southern Baptist Convention has been called “an unregenerate denomination” because in a typical SBC congregation only 30% of the members attend Sunday morning services and only 12% “participate in any further aspect of church life.”
The same has been true of a large number of Independent Baptist churches of the past 50 years.
If we love God’s Word, we will want a church of disciples, not a mixed multitude. We will, therefore, be very careful about receiving members, as this is the most fundamental thing in building a spiritual church.
In his book on church discipline, James Crumpton divided discipline into constructive church discipline, corrective church discipline, and punitive church discipline, and he said that constructive church discipline begins with care in receiving members.
“A very important measure in constructive church discipline is that of exercising care in receiving members into the church. The devil could tuck his horns behind his ears, walk down the aisle of the average church, ask for membership, and be received without one dissenting vote. ... To bring the person seeking membership in one of the local churches of our Lord Jesus Christ face to face with what church membership really means is for his good, the good of the church, and the glory of the Saviour. Many churches receive members, never telling them that they have a covenant. With too many of our day, church membership has degenerated into a trivial ceremony that has absolutely no place of value or lasting interest in their lives. Folk by the hundreds and thousands join the church yet never support it with their testimony, time, money, talents, presence, influence, labor, or prayers. Therefore, the purpose of constructive church discipline is to so change this sad state of affairs that being a church member will really have a vital meaning” (James Crumpton, New Testament Church Discipline) which is a free eBook at www.wayoflife.org.
Charles Spurgeon’s Care in Receiving Members
Charles Spurgeon began pastoring the Metropolitan Tabernacle of London, England, in 1853 at age 19, and was the senior pastor until his death in 1892. His superlative preaching drew massive crowds, and the church grew from two to three hundred to a membership of over 5,300.
Spurgeon believed in a regenerate church membership and was very careful in this regard.
He didn’t give invitations to come forward after his sermons. Instead, he invited seekers to meet with him at his office on Monday morning. He wanted to deal with seekers carefully and properly.
Prospective candidates for baptism and membership went through a multi-step process.
1. The enquirer met with one of the elders or deacons to share his or her testimony.
Following is an account of this from Wonders of Grace: Original testimonies of converts during Spurgeon’s early years (compiled by Hannah Wyncoll, copyright 2016 by Wakeman Trust).
“On a weeknight evening each week church elders would see enquirers at the Tabernacle. For each one they would write an account of their spiritual journey. Often the discernment they exercised can be seen in the advice given, and in further visits over weeks or months until they were sure that the enquirer was truly saved. The core of the testimony would need to show that the person was relying only on the blood of Christ for salvation. They would also be asked if they understood the need for the imputed righteousness of Christ. They would talk about the doctrines of grace and whether they would-be member was looking only to Christ rather than their own merit. If the applicant was not quite clear on some things, the elders might give further questions to be answered, Bible passages to be read and prayed over, or as one elder put it, he ‘prescribed her some pills of precious promise with a little draught of sympathetic experience to wash them down.’ They might be given the Baptist Confession of Faith to study, or be directed to attend one of the Bible classes to help them further. ... The Sword and the Trowel of 1865 says that elders look for four things: Tenderness of conscience, attachment to the means of grace, desire to come out of the world, and deep interest in the unconverted.”
2. If the elder or deacon was satisfied with the testimony, the enquirer was recommended to meet with Spurgeon.
“If satisfied, an interviewing elder would give a card, with the number matching the report, for the enquirer to see C.H. Spurgeon” (Wonders of Grace).
3. If Spurgeon was satisfied, he nominated someone to visit the candidate “to enquire as to the moral character and repute.”
“Spurgeon would spend several hours every Tuesday afternoon seeing many such people, taking a brief interval to compare notes with his elders. He would then appoint an elder or deacon to visit to ensure the applicant was living a consistent, godly life at home. Attendance at as many meetings as possible on Sundays and during the week was seen as a sign of true Christian life. Many were in service and had very little free time away from their work, but their new Christian instinct should be seen--to assembly together whenever possible. ... [A] theme which shines out distinctly in the vast majority of records is the forsaking of worldliness at conversion. All is changed for the convert. Worldly pleasures are given up and the life devoted to Christ and his people from that time on. Pursuits such as the penny theater, public houses, music parties, the use of popular songs, and gambling are spoken of repeatedly as holding no pleasure for the new believer. The markedly different life of believers is often mentioned as instrumental in bringing others to enquire into Christian things. The change was not limited to church attendance, but extended to all areas of life” (Wonders of Grace).
4. If the home visitor was satisfied, he invited the candidate to attend a special congregation meeting to appear before the church family. There the candidates would again give their testimonies and answer any questions from church members. These meetings were not rushed and could last several hours, beginning at 2pm and sometimes “lasting till a late hour at night.”
5. The church then voted whether to receive the candidate as a member.
6. If approved by the vote of the church, the candidate was baptized and received into membership and participated in the next communion service.
This process began during the earliest days of Spurgeon’s pastorate at Metropolitan. During the first six and a half years, there were 1,442 new members, most by baptism. “That’s 1,442 membership interviews by a deacon, 1,442 meetings with Spurgeon, 1,442 membership visitations, 1,442 testimonies before the congregation, and 1,442 approvals by the congregation (not to mention over a thousand baptisms, as most of these were new converts)” (“Meaningful Membership at Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle,” The Spurgeon Center, Feb. 8, 2018).
To maintain church membership required faithfulness to the Lord’s Supper. “Upon joining the church, members were given a communion card, divided by perforation into twelve numbered parts, one of which was to be delivered every month at the communion. These tickets would checked by the elders and if any member was absent more than three months [they would be removed from membership]. “This enabled the church to work towards meaningful membership by providing better care and discipleship, or by removing those members” (“Meaningful Membership at Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle”).
Spurgeon preached against the practice of puffing up the church’s membership roles with people who are not present and active. “Let us not keep names on our books when they are only names. Certain of the good old people like to keep them there, and cannot bear to have them removed; but when you do not know where individuals are, nor what they are, how can you count them? They are gone to America, or Australia, or to heaven, but as far as your roll is concerned they are with you still. Is this a right thing? It may not be possible to be absolutely accurate, but let us aim at it… Keep your church real and effective, or make no report. A merely nominal church is a lie. Let it be what it professes to be” (Spurgeon’s final message to the Pastors’ College, cited from “Meaningful Membership at Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle”).
Our Standards for Church Membership
Acts 2 gives us the preeminent biblical example for church membership.
“Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:41-42).
We don’t believe that this biblical pattern can be ignored or weakened. People with a shaky testimony of salvation and who are not faithful after the fashion of the members at the church of Jerusalem are not qualified to be church members.
Following are the things we look for in receiving members into our church:
1. A clear testimony of salvation and a changed life to back it up, whether joining by profession and baptism or from another church.
Those who joined the church at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost had gladly received the gospel. There was no manipulation or coercion. Their salvation was clear and was evidenced by the fact that they publicly confessed Jesus as the Christ before an antagonistic Jewish nation and by the fact that they continued in the things of Christ.
In seeking to maintain a regenerate church membership, we are following the Bible and we are following in the footsteps of sound Bible-believing churches through the church age. Consider the ancient Waldensians:
“We believe that in the ordinance of baptism the water is the visible and external sign, which represents to us that which, by virtue of God’s invisible operation, is within us--namely, the renovation of our minds, and the mortification of our members through [the faith of] Jesus Christ. And by this ordinance we are received into the holy congregation of God’s people, previously professing and DECLARING OUR FAITH AND CHANGE OF LIFE” (Third Waldensian Confession of Faith, AD 1544).
We, too, look for the evidence of a changed life. We look for a life-changing conversion experience, as we have discussed in the chapter “A Discipling Church Begins with Caution about Salvation.”
We don’t look for any kind of sinless perfection or “100% lordship” or anything like that. We simply look for salvation, believing that salvation is a miraculous, life-changing thing.
We want to see the reality of the following Scriptures in the lives of those we baptize and receive into membership:
“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Co. 5:17).
“Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Ti. 2:19).
“And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3-4).
We simply look for the type of salvation that we see in every case in the New Testament, whether it be the woman at the well, Zacchaeus, Cornelius, the Ethiopian Eunuch, the Philippian jailer, or Lydia.
We would gladly and readily accept into our membership any individual described in the New Testament as a saved person. As soon as we see this type of salvation, we proceed to baptize the individual.
We don’t want to receive an empty profession, because Scripture warns about that in the plainest manner:
“They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate” (Titus 1:16).
We do not allow a person to join our church if he is still living in gross sin, such as fornication, adultery, homosexuality, drunkenness, drug abuse, theft, extortion, and idolatry.
It would be confusion to bring an individual into membership who is committing the type of sin that should be the subject of discipline.
“But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat” (1 Co. 5:11).
Some years ago, a man wanted to join our church by baptism, but he owned a liquor store and refused to promise that he would find a way to give it up. We did not baptize him, and subsequently he has demonstrated that he is not saved by ceasing to attend services and showing no further interest in the things of Christ.
2. Scriptural baptism (Acts 2:41)
Scriptural baptism is baptism by immersion as a public testimony of one’s saving faith in Jesus Christ.
If a person was baptized before he was saved, that is not scriptural baptism.
If a person was baptized by sprinkling or pouring, that is not scriptural baptism, because it is not a picture of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Ro. 6:3-4).
If a person was baptized by a church with an unsound gospel or otherwise identifies itself as an unscriptural church, that is not scriptural baptism. For example, we do not receive baptisms performed by Pentecostal or charismatic churches or other churches that do not believe in eternal security. Not believing in eternal security is to pervert the gospel of the grace of Christ.
3. Faithfulness (“continued steadfastly” Acts 2:42)
We don’t receive an individual into the church’s membership until he or she has demonstrated faithfulness to the services and to the general “program” of the church.
One man wanted to join our church from another church, a weaker church, because he wanted his children to serve the Lord and he had seen good fruit in our young people. But he didn’t want to attend all of the services at our four-day missions conferences. These are held during the largest Hindu festival of the year, and each year he had made a lot of money selling various things from his shop at that time. He sought advice from a preacher who is a close friend of our church, and the preacher said, “If you don’t want to be faithful, you need to stay at the weaker church.” He determined to obey God’s Word (Heb. 10:25); we received him into the membership; and he has been perfectly faithful ever since and has grown a lot, together with his entire family.
Charles Spurgeon said, “Oh to get a working church! The German churches, when our dear friend Mr. Oncken was alive, always carried out the rule of asking every member, ‘What are you going to do for Christ?’ and they put the answer down in a book. The one thing that was required of every member was that he should continue doing something for the Savior. If he ceased to do anything, it was a matter for church discipline, for he was an idle professor, and could not be allowed to remain in the church like a drone in a hive of working bees. He must do or go” (“Meaningful Membership at Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle,” The Spurgeon Center, Feb. 8, 2018).
4. Agreement in doctrine and practice (1 Co. 1:10)
We require that the individual read our covenant, including read every Scripture that is referenced, and acknowledge agreement with it 100%.
Our church covenant is very extensive. See the chapter “A Sample Church Covenant.”
We have had people attend faithfully for a long time without joining, because they don’t agree with everything we hold in our church covenant. Usually it is something having to do with separation.
Non-members are welcome to attend and benefit from our church’s ministry, as long as they don’t cause trouble, and we do our best to minister to them as we do to our own members, but they cannot partake in the Lord’s Supper, participate in church business, or hold any type of ministry.
We are planning to require the members to read the covenant again once a year as individuals and families, to discuss the covenant and write down questions, and we will have a business meeting to answer the questions. The church will use this occasion to make any desired adjustments to the covenant. Unlike the Bible, our church covenant is not infallible and not “settled in heaven.”
5. Submission to authority (Heb. 13:17)
God requires submission to authority, and so should the church.
We don’t want to receive rebels into our church family, whether they are young or old. If we detect stubbornness toward authority, we hold off on receiving that individual as a member.
We want to help rebels if possible, but we want to help them before membership. We don’t believe that a rebel is a proper candidate for membership in a New Testament church. We see no such people in Acts 2:41-42.
Caution and Patience
We are careful and patient when it comes to baptism and church membership.
Before an individual is baptized and joins our church, he must be known to us, meaning we don’t baptize and receive strangers. We want to know the testimony and life of the individual.
When we believe that a person we have been working with is saved, we invite him to go through a short baptismal class that deals with salvation and the purpose of baptism.
After that, the individual appears before the church leaders and their wives to give his testimony and to answer any questions we might have. Remember, these are people we already know.
If we don’t have 100% agreement among the leaders, we don’t baptize the person or receive him into membership. We kindly ask him to wait until the next baptism so that things will be clear in everyone’s mind. It is harmful to the individual and the church to baptize someone who isn’t saved.
Most recently, for example, we interviewed four and baptized three. Prior to that, we interviewed 15 and baptized 13.
This practice is in accordance with old Baptist churches, as witnessed by David Benedict who traveled nearly 7,000 miles on horseback in the early 19th century to write a history of the churches of his day.
Benedict’s history frequently mentions the caution with which the churches received members. They had a custom called “hearing the experience” which preceded baptism. The following, for example, is a description of a revival that took place in 1807 in Argyle, Nova Scotia:
“Twenty-four have TOLD THEIR EXPERIENCES, who are not yet baptized, and a number of others are under hopeful impressions. The work is still going on in this place, and spreading rapidly in different parts of the province” (Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination, vol. I, chapter 8, 1813).
In Baptists on the American Frontier, 1820s, John Taylor describes the same procedure.
“At the May church meeting at Clear Creek was among the most pleasing days of my life, for while we were sitting hearing experiences, I recollected that just that day fifty years ago I had related my own experience and been received into the church” (p. 217).
Observe how these churches received members. They required a plain testimony of salvation of those who would be baptized. They required that the professors “tell their experiences” before the church. It is obvious that they were looking for more than mere lip service. And they did not confuse “hopeful impressions” with genuine salvation. They knew that a person can be very interested in Christ and can be convicted of his sin without being genuinely saved. We see many examples of this in the Gospels, and we have witnessed this type of thing hundreds of times in our own ministry.
After appearing before the church leaders and being accepted for baptism and church membership, the individual is recommended to the church by the leaders. He then gives his testimony to the entire congregation, and afterwards he is baptized and received as a member. We have our baptisms on the same day as the Lord’s Supper so new members can take the Lord’s Supper as soon as they are baptized.
A large number of Baptist churches are not this careful and would even disagree with our policy, but I can see that our caution in receiving members has made our congregation much stronger spiritually.
Ninety-five percent of our people are totally faithful, including faithful to the prayer meetings. The vast majority of our young people who are church members are actively seeking God’s will for their lives and separating from the world from the heart.
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