The Community of the Gospel: Regenerate Church Membership

[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.”[1] 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.”[2]

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: [3]

  1. The purity of her doctrine, which is threatened by heresy
  2. The holiness of her members, which is threatened by sin
  3. 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.

Conclusion

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.

————

Notes:

[1] John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Kregel, 2005), 81.

[2] Charles W. Deweese, Baptist Church Covenants (Broadman, 1990), viii.

[3] Theron D. Price, “Discipline in the Church,” in What is the Church? A Symposium of Baptist Thought, ed. Duke K. McCall (Broadman, 1958), 164.angry race mobilecjplfybt cfqnf

Book Notice: “That His Spirit May Be Saved” by Jeremy Kimble

WIPFSTOCK_TemplateThough often passé in contemporary churches, the practice of church discipline is vital to the health and mission of the church. Jeremy Kimble, recent SEBTS PhD graduate and current Assistant Professor of Theology at Cedarville University, has published an important book that demonstrates the vitality of this oft-forgotten doctrine. In That His Spirit May Be Saved: Church Discipline as a Means to Repentance and Perseverance (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Kimble provides biblical, historical, and theological warrant for church discipline. His thesis, and the defense of it, holds significant implications for scholars and pastors alike.

In this published version of his SEBTS dissertation Kimble argues, “one purpose of church discipline is to serve as a declaration of potential eschatological judgment both to warn offenders of their need to repent, and, by implication to exhort the church members to persevere in faith” (pp. xv, 2). To argue his thesis, Kimble examines the biblical, historical, and theological evidence for such a claim. Significantly, he finds no lack of evidence for it.

The first chapter contains his assessment of “The Need for Discipline in the Church” (pp. 1–15). Anecdotal evidence of this need comes in the form of the absence of and/or fear of church discipline in many contemporary churches. Also, however, a survey of recent theological studies indicates the need for Kimble’s proposal (pp. 3–6). He then defines church discipline, eschatological judgment, and the perseverance of the saints, terms that appear again and again in his study. Significantly, he rightly points out that all humans will face eschatological judgment though not all will share the same eternal destiny (p. 9).

In chapter two, Kimble provides a “Biblical Analysis of Church Discipline” that demonstrates a biblical-theological respect for the continuity and discontinuity between the OT and NT. First, he identifies Old Testament trajectories on the subject, namely, the exile from Eden (pp. 20–24), expulsion from the camp (pp. 24–29), and ejection from the land (pp. 29–33). Key phrases like “purge the evil person from among you” in key texts (e.g. Deut 13:1–5; p. 26) illuminate God’s concern for holiness in and among his covenant people. Second, Kimble notes “the shift in discipline” present in Ezra 10:7–8 that aligns with God’s desire for repentance and restoration in his people (pp. 34–35). Kimble then explores the key NT texts (Matt 16:13–19; 18:15–20; 1 Cor 5:1–13; Gal 6:1) that build upon the trajectories set in the OT. He finds that, across the Bible,

God deals with sin in a direct and indirect manner, sometimes bringing consequences upon people himself, and at other times allowing the people of God to mete out discipline. Regardless of the means God uses, his aim is to persevere his covenant with his people, maintain holiness, deal with sin, and persevere his people in their faith (p. 61).

So Moses, Jesus, and Paul each cared about and taught “church discipline” because God cares about his people.

In chapter three, Kimble explores the historical precedent for the practice of church discipline. He finds such precedent in the life and work of Martin Luther, Balthasar Hubmaier, and Jonathan Edwards. The survey indicates the key theological and ministerial role played by real church discipline. He shows how, for example, Edwards’s understanding of “visible sainthood” stems from a tight connection between the doctrines of salvation, sanctification, and church discipline (see pp. 102–7). While these historical figures evince differences, they each held that “ecclesial discipline was a sign of eschatological judgment” (p. 110). They also, though, practiced it so that by repentance the sinner might be renewed and restored.

Chapter four contains Kimble’s “Theological Analysis of Church Discipline.” In this discussion he reiterates the connection between eschatological judgment and discipline (pp. 117–22), perseverance and discipline (pp. 123–31), and the interrelationship between all three. Helpfully, Kimble shows that such a conception is part and parcel with the church’s mission (pp. 133–35). He then addresses questions, or potential objections, to his study (pp. 135–44): does the fallibility of a church affect this view; does a different view of perseverance affect (undercut) his thesis; what sins require discipline and what sins require the cover of love; and what is the process for restoration after discipline? His answers to these questions produce a clear, concise, and convicting presentation of this vital doctrine and practice.

Kimble concludes his very important book with some practical implications. The practice of regenerate church membership, the role of pastors as stewards and shepherds, and the significance of the ordinances show the important place of church discipline. Inevitably, this chapter will aid pastors and elders as they pray through and apply church discipline. Indeed, this is the great achievement of Kimble’s book. He has produced a rigorous academic work that at the same time feeds and equips the church. That His Spirit May Be Saved will be a valuable resource for all, especially teachers and pastors, who desire to see the church spotless and unblemished before Christ (Eph 5:27).google adwrods

Pastorally Speaking: Micah Fries on “Disciplined Tragedy”

[Editor’s Note: This blogpost continues the “Pastorally Speaking” series. Micah Fries is Pastor at Frederick Boulevard and he writes about the important but neglected aspect of pastoral ministry: church discipline.]

Church discipline is among the most painful, and ignored, topics in the evangelical church today. Unfortunately this has led to creeping, massive sin problems that have increasingly found a comfortable home in the church – the church which by most other indices is bible believing and gospel preaching. Thankfully the issue appears to be making a bit of a comeback in some circles, specifically Southern Baptist ones, in recent years. Thanks, in no small part, to the resolution approved at the 2008 SBC annual meeting , ‘On Regenerate Church Membership and Church Membership Restoration’ this issue has gained prominence and validity in the eyes of many SBC churches. Southern Baptists who are committed to the practical application of God’s word owe an enormous debt of gratitude to men like Dr. Tom Ascol and Dr. Malcolm Yarnell for their tireless work in this effort. Work that has again reminded us of the importance of believing and practicing all scripture. Work that does not allow us to simply disregard passages like Matthew 18:7-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, and so many more. All of this has served to stir hearts in respect to this issue and nowhere is it more prominent than in the conversations of pastors, denominational leaders and seminary students. Buzzing in hallways and sanctuaries from one pastor to another, this issue continues to build steam and for that I am grateful. Students and pastors are increasingly excited about fulfilling their biblical mandate in this regard, and for that I am also thankful. However, having served as a pastor at two churches that are trying to practice this biblical exercise, I am concerned with the bravado that seems to accompany its application.

Allow me to say this clearly. I hate the practice of church discipline. I take no joy in its practice, and would love to see it go away for good. There is no more heartbreaking exercise in the fulfillment of my pastoral duties than that of confronting the existence of persistent, and unrepentant sin, particularly in people whom I have grown to love. It is emotionally draining for a number of reasons, none more tragic than the issue of the one who claims to be a believer and yet gives consistent allegiance to the power of sin by failing to confess and repent. It is the ultimate gospel contradiction; claiming to be part of the spotless bride of Jesus while prostituting oneself with Satan. Confronting it, however, is not something to take joy and/or pride in (Galatians 6:1-2), which is something that I see all too often in those who like to frequently discuss it. Confrontation over sin is rarely ever anything but painful and humiliating. It almost always leads to strained relationships and severed trust, and that is true whether the one engaged in sin repents or not.

Church discipline is never an issue which we can approach flippantly, or with excitement. It reflects the tragic and fallen nature of humanity, specifically those who have claimed the blood of Jesus. It is necessary because of the persistent and abiding nature of sin and it always leads to a black mark on the bridal gown of Christ’s church. While we plead and hope for repentance and restoration, in my experience that is not often the end result. And yet all of that, and my own discomfort with it, must not keep us from its practice.

Some might wonder if all of these factors would lead me to be less committed to the practice of biblical church discipline. I will be honest, in light of the tragedy and pain associated with it, I would love to give up on it. However, I cannot. I love Jesus and his church far too much to forfeit the vitally important, and biblical I might add, commitment to the purity of Christ’s bride (Ephesians 5:25-27). At the same time, I would not be truthful if I did not say that my heart is increasingly burdened as we practice it at Frederick Boulevard. So, no, we are not giving up on it at our church. We are as committed to it as we have ever been, probably more so. We are, however, committed to practicing it through the tears in our eyes and grief in our hearts. I hope the same will be true for you.

I am thankful when I hear the increased commitment to church discipline because it reflects a people who embrace the biblical mandate, who respect the covenantal relationship of the church and her members and who care more about the spiritual condition of the ones they are called to serve than they do their own comfort or even superficial, spiritually dry church growth. However, I equally despise the casual manner in which I often hear people discuss church discipline. The cavalier attitude among many is tragic and reflects either a lack of experience or a calloused heart, both of which give away a needed heart correction and growth in maturity.

In closing, let me plead with you to go ahead and embrace your commitment to church discipline. However, please leave the bravado and excitement behind. Let us endeavor together to be a people that pursues the purity of Christ’s bride, but let us do so with humble, heavy hearts as we hurt with hurting people, and lovingly correct the sinful ones. I cannot imagine that Jesus would expect any less.