Although Baptists have always been convinced that regenerate church membership is the biblical standard, they have worried since the 1600s that the standard is eroding in churches, say several Southern Baptist seminary professors and pastors.
Regenerate church membership is the doctrine that all members of a local church should be born-again believers who have been baptized by immersion following their conversions to Christ.
“The concept of a regenerate church membership reflects the idea of a believers’ church,” said Jason Lee, associate professor of historical theology and assistant dean of theological studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
“Throughout the New Testament, the church is seen as a group of believers intentionally gathered together for the purpose of worship and ministry. This worship includes hearing the Word of God proclaimed, partaking in the Lord’s Supper and baptizing new believers. These activities should only be done by those who have experienced the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ.”
Lee explained that when non-believers are allowed to become church members, other areas of the church such as the ordinances, church discipline and unity are compromised as well.
Christians began to compromise regenerate church membership in the Middle Ages, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and everyone was baptized as an infant and considered a member of the church, said Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
During the Protestant Reformation, leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin challenged the idea that the true church was made up of all citizens in the secular state, said Nettles, who taught church history at Southwestern from 1976-1982 and co-authored “Baptists and the Bible” with the late L. Russ Bush. Yet the Reformers did not go far enough because they saw the true church as a secret group within the state church, he said.
Anabaptists were the first group to argue that local churches should be comprised only of people who give evidence of being born again and have been baptized, he said. While he does not believe Baptists descended from Anabaptists, Nettles said the first Baptists adopted regenerate church membership based on the influence of the Anabaptists.
From the inception of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, Southern Baptists were committed to the idea of having a church of believers only. William B. Johnson, the first SBC president, defended regenerate church membership in his 1846 book “The Gospel Developed.”
“What then are the scriptural materials of a church of Christ?” Johnson wrote. “Evidently penitent, believing sinners, baptized upon a profession of faith in Christ, conscious subjects, capable of being taught all things which Christ commands.”
William Williams, another early Southern Baptist and one of the founding professors at Southern Seminary, endorsed the same doctrine in his 1874 work “Apostolic Church Polity.”
“The members of the apostolic churches were all converted persons, or supposed to be converted,” Williams wrote. “In 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;’ and the motives by which they are enforced are such as could be expected to have no force upon any other presumption.”
THE ‘NEW MEASURES’
As early as the 17th century–the same century in which the very first Baptists lived–Baptists began to feel concern over the decline of regenerate church membership. However, Nettles believes the greatest threat to regenerate church membership emerged in the 19th century when the evangelistic methods of Charles G. Finney came into popularity.
The “new measures” sought to draw sinners to salvation through the use of emotional and social pressures along with the preaching of the gospel. For example, Finney asked people feeling convicted of sin during revival meetings to sit in a designated place known as the “anxious bench.” During a worship service, the preacher would appeal directly to the anxious bench and other attendees would focus their attention on praying for those seated there.
Baptist state newspapers from the mid-1800s recount stories of how the new measures resulted in unsaved people being added to church membership roles, Nettles said. The practice of accepting those who profess faith during the emotionalism of a revival meeting–without further counsel to sense whether their decisions are credible–continues to encourage acceptance of unregenerate church members, he added.
When scores of people are reported to have been converted through evangelistic efforts, but few remain committed church members months later, such methods “pervert our churches,” Nettles said.
In his 1879 commencement address at Southern Seminary, President James P. Boyce expressed concern that Southern Baptists had impure churches because they were admitting people to membership who gave no evidence that the Holy Spirit had changed their hearts and saved them.
Boyce told seminary graduates that a successful pastorate was one where nearly all church members evidenced their salvation by daily commitment to Christ.
In their book “Firefall: How God Has Shaped History Through Revivals,” co-authors Malcolm McDow and Alvin Reid acknowledge that the evangelistic methods introduced in the 1800s “have been the source of controversy from Finney’s day until ours.” While noting Finney’s use of separate meetings to give counsel as to how one might be saved and house-to-house visitation where instruction was given concerning personal salvation, the authors agree that Finney’s views gave impetus to a more man-centered focus on revival.
“Finney himself admitted later in ministry he overemphasized the role of man in salvation,” Reid told the TEXAN. “No doubt the long-term impact of the new measures was to lead to manipulation of people by more than a few and an unintended consequence of Finney’s ministry was a rise in unregenerate members.”
Reid said he finds fault with both extremes–those who taught that God would have to send revival if steps one, two, and three were followed, and those who so opposed the emphasis as to not call people to salvation.
“Although some have swung the pendulum too far the other way in our day, I do think many times we have watered down the gospel in our well-intentioned evangelism, and I do think our church rolls are absolutely filled with lost people,” concluded Reid, who said he agrees with the call for a resolution on the subject at this year’s SBC.
Southern Seminary’s Nettles said organizational unity took precedence over rigorous membership standards or the practice of church disciple for fear of causing division in the early decades of the 20th century. Even the well-intentioned development of the Cooperative Program in 1925 emphasized united support of missions and less attention to enforcing a regenerate church membership, Nettles said.
“Anything that would diminish membership, anything that would create division or had the potential for schism or controversy within congregations was seen as detrimental not only to the Baptist witness in that location, but the Baptist witness worldwide,” Nettles said. “So the concept of a disciplined church membership began to fall even more with the necessity of having the right numbers for the support of the Cooperative Program as it developed.”
Nettles stressed that the Cooperative Program was not to blame for the decline in regenerate church membership.
“I’m not blaming the Cooperative Program,” he said. “I’m a full supporter of it. What I’m saying is there did not seem to be a sufficiently confident mentality that whatever we’re going to do as churches, we need to do as churches composed of regenerate members. We need to do it as people who are concerned about the members demonstrating the power of the gospel in their lives first and foremost and progress and holiness.”
The SBC’s “A Million More in ‘54” campaign to baptize a million people in 1954 was another occasion when Southern Baptists admitted to church membership people who did not give evidence of true conversion, according to James Bryant, senior professor of pastoral theology at Criswell College in Dallas.
“I tend to think the problem with unregenerate members is a denominational shortcoming going all the way back to ‘A Million More in ’54,’ when 4- and 5-year-old children were reported as baptisms on annual letters. Also, before Billy Graham, there was no personal counseling at the front of the church,” Bryant said, suggesting that quick counseling sometimes encourages acceptance of unregenerate members who have not been thoroughly examined.
Still, there are some encouraging signs that regenerate church membership may be making a comeback. Mac Brunson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., and former pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, said he cleaned the rolls in Dallas so that people who had not attended church for decades were not counted as members.
“When I arrived at FBC Dallas, everyone knew that the rolls were not accurate, so I had them cleaned,” he said. “We took off thousands upon thousands. We began to reflect honestly what we ran, that is who was actually in Sunday School on a Sunday morning. Then we listed separately those that were in the missions.”
Brunson added that he tries hard in Jacksonville as well to keep on the church roll only those who give evidence of being regenerate members.
“For too long we have equated size with greatness,” he said. “That is a misnomer. We have also divided churches up and labeled some as megachurches. Any church that is actively preaching the gospel, seeing people saved, doing the work of the church is a megachurch. The reason is because it is mega-work to carry out the work of the kingdom.
“I doubt that God is very impressed with our rolls anyway,” Brunson added.
An unregenerate church membership ultimately affects the progress of the gospel around the world as the integrity of that witness is compromised, Gordon Fort, International Mission Board vice president for overseas operations, told IMB trustees meeting in Texas in April. Fort said polls reveal little difference between attitudes of believers and non-believers regarding moral behavior.
“Where do these people live? They’re in your churches,” he answered.
Missionaries recruited from local churches that fail to uplift a high standard of Christian conduct are likely to carry that attitude with them overseas, he explained.
“Who is responsible for that?” he asked, placing the responsibility with pastors, church leaders, Sunday School and discipleship leaders.
“Have we become so engrossed in our culture that we are afraid to address with our congregants the issue of holy living lest we offend?” Fort asked. “The reason why you and I were a part of the Conservative Resurgence was because we believed it was important that the Word of God, his inerrant Word, would be our sole guide for life. When was the last time you sat in a congregation where God’s Word as it deals with sin was preached?” he challenged.
Lee of Southwestern Seminary suggested that churches guard regenerate church membership by implementing membership classes, interviews for prospective members, church covenants and church discipline. Lee further encouraged churches to maintain contact with those inactive members.
“If churches were serious about membership, they would make every effort to see that all church members were somehow or another contacted on a regular basis,” stated Robert Mathis, associate vice president for institutional assessment at Southwestern Seminary.
He recommends utilizing Sunday School as the basic means of “keeping up the church membership and the foundational place for ministry.”
At one time the Sunday School roll was “exaggerated to good effect,” he said. “And this would not be a problem since Sunday School was supposed to be an entry point to the church. But then it got to where it was harder to enroll in Sunday School that it was to join a church. Often you had to attend Sunday School three times in a row before you could enroll. Whereas church membership only required a trip down the aisle.”
At least three resolutions have been announced for consideration by this year’s SBC Resolutions Committee.
Nettles said he hopes a resolution “could be adopted in such a way as to indicate that the convention as a whole is concerned about that—it wants to give a witness to our historic understanding of that as a means of saying. ‘We think the gospel is powerful. And when a person is converted by the gospel, they love God’s people, they love God’s Word, they love the church, and they’re holy people.’”