What would you say if your neighbor asked you “What makes a Baptist church different or distinctive?” Most Southern Baptists would likely begin by explaining that Baptist churches administer baptism exclusively on the basis of personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This, I believe, is a perfect place to begin, but we could rightly take one step further. With this conviction about the nature of baptism comes a conviction about the nature of the local church and its membership. Specifically, the practice of believers’ baptism means that a local church, as far as is possible, is comprised of believers. Theologically, this conviction is summarized in the doctrine of “regenerate [i.e. born again] church membership.” While the phrase “regenerate church membership” may sound theoretical and impractical, it is a doctrine of intense practical importance. Three key aspects of importance should be noted.
First, regenerate church membership provides a common ground for fellowship and for fulfilling the “one another” commands of the New Testament. This is visible in two ways. On the one hand, regenerate church membership means that we can encourage one another through difficulty by pointing each other to the author and perfector of our shared faith (Heb 12:3). Such encouragement can be offered in confidence that our fellow member has, by faith, “been raised up with Christ,” and can rightly be called to “set [his or her] mind on the things above, not on the things [below]” because his life is “hidden with Christ” (Col 3:1-3; NASB). When hope is needed, members can boldly encourage one another with the words of Christ (John 14-16) and direct one another to hope in Christ now (John 16:33) and in his future return (Titus 2:13). When a fellow member is discouraged by besetting sin and questioning her standing with God, we can exhort her to persevere (Heb 3:13-14) with the shared gospel truths that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1) and “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
On the other hand, regenerate church membership means that we can also lovingly correct and rebuke one another on common ground. “Brethren,” Paul writes, “even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one . . . Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:1–2). Bearing one another’s burdens may involve acts of service in a variety of forms. However, Paul here calls us to bear one another’s burden of sin. Paul helpfully reminds us that such an endeavor is a humble one, for we do so “in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so you will not be tempted” (v. 2). These conversations are unquestionably difficult, but the doctrine and practice of regenerate church membership provides stable ground for them. Further, in the context of regenerate church membership, someone (including ourselves) is much more likely to receive such correction and rebuke positively.
Second, the doctrine of regenerate church membership protects the witness of the church in the world. To be clear, no church will be absolutely pure nor will her witness be absent of stains. Hypocrites will infiltrate (e.g., “false brethren”; 2 Cor 11:26; Gal 2:4), and genuine believers will falter (“forgive us our trespasses”; Matt 6:12; KJV). Local churches should lovingly address these sorts of situations in obedience to Christ’s command (Matt 18). However, when regenerate membership is the norm, such cases will be far less frequent. The net effect of regenerate church membership is, therefore, a sanctified, corporate witness within the world.
Finally, regenerate church membership unifies corporate worship. With personal faith in and devotion to Christ at the center, corporate worship radiates from this point. Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16). Here, “the word of Christ” most likely refers to the “word of truth, the gospel” (Col 1:5). This gospel message is the shared center of a congregation’s worship and life together (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-3). Standing together on the gospel promises, members sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God as redeemed persons who have heard and responded to the gospel call (Mark 1:14-15; Rom 10:17). In this way, regenerate church membership unifies corporate worship.
These are only a few of the practical implications of the Baptist distinctive of regenerate church membership. May the Lord grant our churches grace to hold on to this doctrine in our confession and our practice for His glory and the clear proclamation of the gospel to a lost and dying world.
NOTE: This post first appeared in April 2017 edition of The Courier, the periodical of the South Carolina Baptist Convention (https://baptistcourier.com/)