Theologian suggests three things for more meaningful membership


TEXAN Correspondent
Jerry Pierce
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FORT WORTH—Carl J. Bradford, assistant professor of evangelism and occupant of the Malcolm R. and Melba L. McDow Chair of Evangelism, has been appointed dean of Texas Baptist College, the undergraduate school of Southwestern Baptist Theological …

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John Hammett, professor of systematic theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., said churches could do three things to make membership more meaningful: drafting unique church covenants, reforming baptism and membership requirements, and restoring redemptive discipline.

Hammett’s suggestions were published in his paper “Regenerate Church Membership: The Baptist Mark of the Church,” during the Baptist Distinctives Series held at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in September.

Return to church covenants

Hammett cites Charles DeWeese’s assessment that a “commitment to church fellowship, an acceptance of the authority of the church’s discipline, a pledge to support the worship of the church and personal devotion, and a commitment to mutual care one for another appear in virtually all Baptist church covenants.”

“These documents are different from confessions of faith in that conduct is emphasized more than doctrine, though doctrine is often mentioned secondarily.”

Many parachurch organizations and Baptist bodies have offered model covenants?something Hammett warns against.

Instead, he encourages a conversation about what commitments Scripture requires of the local church members followed by a drafting of a new church covenant, and if necessary, the reconstituting of the church membership.

Hammett said a similar binding agreement is described in Nehemiah 9 and 10 as a covenant for Israel.

“Adopting a church covenant is one way God’s people today can say, ‘We will not neglect our church.'”

Hammett said once a new covenant is adopted, members should be asked to renew their commitment annually.

“In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the practice of covenanting declined,” Hammett wrote. “A number of factors contributed to this decline, among them the sacrifice of the ideal of regenerate church membership to the ideal of numerical growth, the general secularization of American society, and the unwillingness of church members to hold one another accountable.”

Reform baptism, church membership

Hammett wrote that early Baptists were confident in the local church’s ability to search for evidence of regeneration in the testimonies of prospective baptismal candidates. Fear of appearing judgmental keeps modern churches from doing this effectively, he contended.

Noting that human judgment is fallible, he wrote that “there are some measures churches may take to be responsible as well as hospitable in baptizing and welcoming new members.”

First, Hammett said, a clear separation must exist between welcoming someone who applies for membership and the granting of membership.

“In most Baptist churches in North America today, what happens when someone comes forward at the end of a service and asks for membership? There may be a few moments of whispered conversation but after a few perfunctory questions the person is presented for a church vote. The problem is the church members have no basis for voting on such a person. No one would think of opposing their request for membership and so the vote becomes a meaningless gesture, a relic of an earlier time when churches took membership more seriously.”