[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on July 22, 2008.]
This is the third post in a series dedicated to the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. My previous post argued that Baptists should primarily embrace a Protestant Christian identity that is nuanced by a cluster of ecclesiological distinctives that have historically been associated with the Baptist tradition. Beginning with this post, the rest of the series will address those historic Baptist distinctives.
The foundational theological distinctive among Baptist Christians is a commitment to a regenerate church membership. My colleague John Hammett goes so far as to call regenerate church membership “the Baptist mark of the church.” Proponents of this position argue that a local church’s membership is to be comprised only of individuals who have been born again and placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Why Regenerate Church Membership?
It is worth asking why Baptists consider regenerate church membership to be such an important doctrine. There are at least two reasons. First, as Protestants, Baptists adhere to the Scripture principle and believe that biblical doctrine and practice trumps all religious traditions, creedal documents, and private theological opinions. This means that Baptists believe in a regenerate church membership because we honestly believe this practice is both taught and modeled in the New Testament.
But there is a second reason for our commitment to regenerate church membership. Simply put, Baptists believe that a church that practices regenerate membership is more consistent with the gospel than a church that grants any form of membership to non-Christians. Baptists believe that the local church is the community of the gospel, and as such it ought to be comprised of individual “gospel people” who have voluntarily covenanted together as a local expression of the body of Christ.
Alternatives to Regenerate Church Membership
There are several alternatives to regenerate church membership. It is worth briefly discussing two of these alternatives: pre-Christian and non-Christian membership.
A form of pre-Christian membership is practiced in many pedobaptist churches whenever an infant is sprinkled and declared to be baptized or christened. Whether the child is considered a “covenant child,” a child of the Roman Catholic Church, or the pedobaptism is considered the first step in the child’s (presumptive) regeneration, the result is the same: a membership-like status has been conferred on an individual who has not confessed personal faith in Christ.
To be fair, most pedobaptist groups employ some type of confirmation or other spiritual right-of-passage before an individual can become a full member of the church. But by “baptizing” infants and making a distinction between the spiritual status (or at least the spiritual potential) of the children of Christians versus the children of non-Christians, a quasi-membership status has been granted to an individual based upon something other than that person’s faith in Christ.
Many mainline churches practice an openly non-Christian membership. In some congregations, faith in Christ is not a prerequisite to church membership. Many liberal churches do not even affirm the concept of a personal faith in Christ, instead opting for vague concepts like following their interpretation of Christ’s ethical teachings. Some even totally jettison traditional Christianity and opt for some form of soteriological pluralism. Non-Christian membership is generally not practiced among evangelical congregations.
Baptist reject both pre-Christian and non-Christian membership. We do so because these practices both fail to reflect the New Testament pattern and undermine–and sometimes sever–the relationship between the gospel and the church. Only those who claim to embrace the gospel are to be included in the community of the gospel.
Preserving Regenerate Church Membership
Although some other Christian groups affirm a regenerate church membership in principle, Baptists argue that baptistic Christians most consistently adhere to regenerate church membership. Though we may fail at times, we honestly try to “practice what we preach” when it comes to this ecclesiological distinctive. We do this through at least three practices, two of which are discussed below (the other is discussed in the next post).
The first practice is the adoption of local church covenants. Historian Charles Deweese defines a church covenant as “a series of written pledges based on the Bible which church members voluntarily make to God and to one another regarding their basic moral and spiritual commitments and the practice of their faith.”
Baptists churches have been adopting church covenants since our inception in the 17th century, having imported the practice from our English Separatist forefathers. Among Southern Baptists, most churches drafted their own covenants until the latter half of the 19th century. In the years after the Civil War, many churches simply adopted the covenant that was included in J. Newton Brown’s Church Manual of 1853 and reprinted in J. M. Pendleton’s Church Manual of 1866.
Comparatively few Southern Baptist churches placed great value on church covenants for most of the 20th century. Most churches included a covenant in their legal documents; often the Brown/Pendleton covenant. Some churches, especially newer churches, did not even bother adopting a covenant. Fortunately, in recent years many churches have reemphasized the “owning” of a church covenant as a precondition of membership and an aid in promoting meaningful church membership.
The second practice, which often accompanies the adoption of local church covenants, is the exercise of redemptive church discipline. Church discipline has received a great deal of attention in recent years among both pastors and scholars. In 2008, the SBC adopted a much-discussed Resolution on Regenerate Church Membership and Church Member Restoration at the annual meeting in Indianapolis.
According to Theron Price, church discipline is intended to help preserve three principal concerns of a local church: 
- The purity of her doctrine, which is threatened by heresy
- The holiness of her members, which is threatened by sin
- The unity of her fellowship, which is threatened by schism
Church discipline is not intended to be punitive, but rather is meant to be redemptive. To say it another way, church discipline is intended to be a means of grace in bringing about conviction and repentance in the life of the offender. This is true of both Christians and non-Christians. Church discipline helps to convict and correct genuine believers who are promoting doctrinal error, engaging in ongoing, unrepentant sin, or undermining the unity of the church. Church discipline also helps to remove potentially unregenerate people from church membership by excommunicating incorrigible individuals, thus providing one important safeguard against non-Christian membership.
Historically, church discipline was greatly valued by Baptists; one only needs to read local church minutes or associational minutes from the 18th and 19th centuries to see that church discipline was a priority. Like church covenants, church discipline was largely ignored during the 20th century but has been reemphasized among many Southern Baptist churches over the course of the last generation.
Baptists believe that New Testament churches were covenanted communities of individuals who had embraced the gospel. And we believe our own churches should be as well. As the Baptist mark of the church, regenerate church membership is the central Baptist distinctive. The other historic Baptist distinctives only function correctly and consistently when churches are comprised of genuine believers. When this is not the case, the other distinctives are misunderstood, corrupted, or ignored. Many of our own contemporary problems in local churches can likely be traced to a failure to seriously maintain a regenerate church membership while practicing, at least in theory, other Baptist distinctives.
 John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Kregel, 2005), 81.
 Charles W. Deweese, Baptist Church Covenants (Broadman, 1990), viii.
 Theron D. Price, “Discipline in the Church,” in What is the Church? A Symposium of Baptist Thought, ed. Duke K. McCall (Broadman, 1958), 164.