The Benefits of a Church Membership Class

FBC Raleigh

First Baptist Church of Raleigh, NC

Though Baptists are most often identified with believer’s baptism, I would argue that our view of church membership is our core distinctive. Baptists affirm the doctrine of regenerate church membership, which is the principle that a church’s formal membership should be comprised only of professing believers. My colleague John Hammett calls regenerate church membership “the Baptist mark of the church.” The goal of a regenerate church membership is a believer’s church, an emphasis that has always been a hallmark of the wider Free Church tradition.

Of course, it is impossible to know with absolute certitude that a church’s membership includes only regenerate individuals. Historically, Baptists have emphasized two practices that help to safeguard a believer’s church, insofar as this is humanly possible. The first practice is the adoption of membership covenants that spell out the expectations of the church’s members. (You can read my church’s covenant at our website.) The second practice is the exercising of corrective church discipline against members who engage in patterns of unrepentant sin or heretical beliefs.

While church discipline is commanded in scriptural passages such as Matthew 18:15-18, Galatians 6:1 and James 5:19-20, church covenants are more a matter of prudence based on general biblical principles. Historically, a covenant-like view of membership was assumed by many Continental Anabaptists, was advocated (inconsistently) by English Separatists and was characteristic of the earliest generations of both General Baptists and Particular Baptists in seventeenth-century England. Though not biblically commanded, covenants were a biblically responsible contextual practice; I believe they remain so today.

More recently, many Baptist churches have embraced another practice as a means of safeguarding regenerate church membership: new member classes. Like church covenants, a new member class is not biblically commanded, but rather represents a biblically responsible contextual practice. My friend (and SEBTS alum) Matt Capps lists five benefits of a new member class in a recent blog post on this topic:

  1. Membership classes help guard the purity of the church
  2. Membership classes help people understand the church
  3. Membership classes help people plug in to serve the church
  4. Membership classes help guard the unity of the church
  5. Membership classes help assimilate people into the church

I have periodically taught new member classes at my church. I agree with Matt’s assessment. I have found that new member classes are great way to promote “truth in advertising,” making sure that prospective members understand our church’s culture before they covenant with us in membership. The class has also provided opportunities to share the gospel with non-Christians who are interested in the church, but are not yet believers. If you are a current or wannabe pastor or other church leader, I would encourage you to read Matt’s post, wherein he elaborates on each of the five aforementioned benefits.

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Tell Me Your Story of Jesus: Testimonies and Church Membership

Southern Baptists have always treasured the doctrine of regenerate church membership. Insofar as it is humanly possible, a church’s membership should be comprised of authentic believers. Of course, there are a million different ways to undermine regenerate church membership, even in a congregation that affirms the doctrine in principle. It’s important that every church have certain policies and procedures in place to help gauge the spiritual state of prospective members, even if we never get it perfectly right on this side of eternity.

Over the years, I have been a part of a couple of churches where prospective members never had to share a conversion testimony as part of the membership process. In one of those churches, you literally just had to walk the aisle and verbalize to a decision counselor that you were a Christian who had been baptized. I eagerly acknowledged I was a baptized Christian, even though at that time I could not even explain a basic gospel summary. I just knew I had grown up in church, believed that God and Jesus were real, and hoped I would go to heaven when I die because I was a pretty moral kid.

In the ensuing years, I came to faith in Christ, was biblically baptized, and became a member of a healthy church that required all prospective members to share their conversion testimony. It wasn’t enough to answer a couple of questions; you had to tell your story of Jesus and summarize the good news. I can remember working as a decision counselor and being a bit embarrassed to be asking a seminary professor who wanted to join our church to share his personal testimony. I told him it felt a little awkward and apologized to him. He told me it wasn’t awkward at all, he loved sharing his testimony, and he was thrilled our church was asking that of him as a potential member. It was a great testimony.

As one of the elders at First Baptist Church of Durham, it is a great privilege to regularly interview prospective members. Part of that membership interview includes hearing personal testimonies. I have heard some great stories of God’s grace in the past few years. One young lady grew up as a pastor’s daughter, was saved as a young child, struggled with a call to missions as a teenager, and is now married to a man who desires to be a pastor. One brother is a converted hippy who was radically saved in his mid-20s and has been teaching men’s Bible classes for many years. His wife, another converted hippy, grew up with terrible parents before she was introduced to a Heavenly Father who adopted her into his family.

One woman grew up in Brazil, was converted in college, but then was part of a quasi-evangelical cult for a couple of years because of poor discipleship; the Lord eventually rescued her from that group. Several brothers are former drug addicts or alcoholics, some of them homeless and living at a rescue mission before the Lord saved them. One husband and wife were both raised in Christian homes and have loved the Lord for the vast majority of their lives. Many folks came to America as international graduate students before they were introduced to the gospel through an ESL class. One young lady was raised in a very strong Christian home, became a teenager, and realized she had to own her parent’s faith as her own.

I have no doubt that some folks who are false believers occasionally join our church—such is life in a fallen world. But I am convinced that requiring prospective members to share their testimony with a pastor (and requiring public testimonies prior to baptism) helps to safeguard the principle of regenerate church membership. It also allows pastors to rejoice with prospective members at how God has manifested in grace in their lives. I would strongly encourage every church to require a full conversion testimony and gospel summary as part of the membership process.

What If He Can’t Be Baptized?

Recently, I received an email from a pastor friend asking advice about a dicey baptism situation. It’s not the first time a pastor has asked me about this issue. It’s also a question I get from students nearly every semester. What should we do if someone comes to faith in Christ and desires to be baptized and join our church, but she cannot be baptized due to some sort of medical condition?

I’m aware of at least four views held among different Baptists. There are probably others, but these are the ones I’ve heard over the years.

First, some Baptists argue that the individual should not be baptized and should not become a member of the church or receive the Lord’s Supper. After all, Baptists do not believe the ordinances and church membership contribute to one’s salvation; we are saved by grace through faith. To allow an unbaptized person to join the church and participate in communion is to act contrary to biblical precedent. (Some Baptists offer a variation of this view where the person can be invited to the Lord’s Table, but not join the church.) I reject this view because I believe all believers should be covenantally united with a particular local church for the sake of their own spiritual maturity and the health of the body they join.

Second, some Baptists argue that you should immerse the person anyway, claiming that there are no “real life” medical conditions that would prevent someone from being baptized. Yes, I’ve actually heard this view — several times. I reject this position because I believe it is medically ill-informed and lacks pastoral sensibility.

Third, some Baptists argue that you should “baptize” the person by sprinkling or pouring. Proponents admit this is without New Testament precedent, but argue that it is an exceptional circumstance and the person is still receiving an initiatory rite using water. Once the person has received this non-immersion “baptism,” they are of course free to join the church and participate in communion. I reject this view because I do not believe a practice other than immersion is ever a biblical baptism, even in exceptional circumstances.

Fourth, some Baptists argue that you should not baptize the individual at all, but should allow her to become an unbaptized church member with the full rights of membership (including communion). Should the individual reach a point where she could be baptized, she should be. But so long as the medical condition prevents it, the desire to be baptized is enough. As with the previous option, proponents admit this practice is without New Testament precedent, but argue that it is an exceptional circumstance. Unlike the previous view, proponents of this view do not believe that sprinkling or pouring is a biblical baptism, so they don’t advocate those measures — even in an exceptional circumstance. (Remember, I’m assuming a traditionally Baptist context that rejects other “modes” of baptism in principle.)

I hold to the fourth view as the least theologically objectionable, most pastorally sensitive practice in an admittedly exceptional circumstance. Perhaps there is another option I haven’t considered. But of the options I’m aware of, the fourth is the one I suggest to others and would practice if I were faced with this sort of scenario.

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