SPECIAL REPORT: Born-Again Baptists?

The forebears of modern-day Baptists aimed for something above all else, and it had nothing to do with abstaining from drink or dance or wagering.

It wasn’t even what they were most known for?the notion that New Testament baptism was plunging a new Christ-follower into and out of water to identify him with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

The primary mark of the early Anabaptists and later the English Baptists was the attempted gathering of regenerate?or born again?members. In short, Baptist churches aimed to be believers’ churches.

In fact, the principle of a regenerate church is “the Baptist mark of the church,” asserted John Hammett, a systematic theology professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a paper presented at the second conference in the Baptist Distinctives Series, held Sept. 28-29 at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth.

What Hammett and others lament is that Baptist churches in the last two centuries have largely lost their claim to being believers’ churches. In fact, judging by church attendance figures, academics like Hammett and pastors such as Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. say the membership rolls of Southern Baptists may be filled significantly by unconverted souls.

Baptist historian Leon McBeth, writing in his 1987 book “The Baptist Heritage,” noted: “Perhaps the origin of Baptists is best explained as a search for a pure church. They sought a church composed of ‘visible saints,’ that is, true believers.”

The early baptistic movement, Hammett explained, served to distinguish the gathered, baptized believers from the state-sponsored churches, which they saw as a mixture of saints and the unconverted, who were sprinkled as infants but often were never born anew despite their membership in the churches.

Hammett quoted the Somerset Confession of 1656, drafted by English Baptists, that 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.”

In gathering a body of believers, Hammett wrote in an academic article in 2005, the church “has power given them from Christ for their better well-being,” a quote from The First London Confession.

Hammett states that in the book of Acts, “churches are composed of those who ‘accepted his [Peter’s] message’ (Acts 2:41), those who ‘believed’ (Acts 4:4), those who were ‘won’ to discipleship (Acts 14:21).”

More than 60 times in Paul’s letters he refers to those in the churches as “saints” or “those set apart as devoted to God,” Hammett wrote.

“How could the church be ‘the body of Christ’ if the members of that body were not, in fact, joined to Christ?” Hammett asked.

Hammett wrote in his paper delivered at Southwestern: “Baptist churches in the South in the early 19th century typically had attendance well in excess of the number of their members. The children of members were present, but rarely were seen as fit subjects for baptism and church membership prior to their teenage years. Moreover, many adults would regularly attend but not seek church membership, because the standards associated with membership and a regenerate life were daunting to them.”

Baptists in the early South, characterized by constructive and sometimes corrective discipline, “maintained high rates of growth, growing at a rate twice that of the population, while in later years, as their discipline fell, so did their growth,” wrote Hammett, quoting from Gregory Wills’ book “Democratic Religion.”

TEXAN Correspondent
Jerry Pierce
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