Let’s Talk about Guarding the Purity of Church Membership

A 1993 study (holy cow! can that really be 25 years ago!) by the Home Mission Board (now termed, North American Mission Board) of the Southern Baptist Convention found that in that year, the majority (60%) of adult baptisms in Southern Baptist churches could be termed rebaptisms. While some were legitimately the baptism of those previously baptized as infants in other denominations, 36% of these adult baptisms were of people who had been previously baptized in Southern Baptist Churches! In fact, when asked why they sought rebaptism, many said that it was due to having not been regenerate believers when they were baptized the first time. (See Phillip B. Jones et al., A Study of Adults Baptized in Southern Baptist Churches, 1993 [Atlanta: Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1995], 5).

These numbers led theologian John Hammett to conclude, “Either these individuals were unusually deceptive or . . . some churches and pastors baptized these individuals without clear assurance that they were baptizing believers” (John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005], 112).

While no pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention would celebrate the discovery that he is unintentionally baptizing unregenerate people into the membership of the church, discerning the best manner in which to prevent such practices is difficult. Some pastors will opt to provide classes for those who respond to the gospel in their churches. This practice has historical precedent as far as the second century. Others see the narrative in Acts as determinative and regard it their responsibility to baptize as soon as possible after each profession of faith.

However a given pastor chooses to move forward, I offer these points to consider as they strive to protect the purity of church membership.

1. Offer a clear gospel presentation

We get excited to see someone respond to the gospel—we should! Scripture is clear that the angels in heaven rejoice with us. But sometimes even in my own ministry, I’ve seen people respond more to what they heard than to what I thought I said. So whenever someone responds to the gospel after a service, I ask them to explain the gospel to me. Do they understand Jesus’s Divinity? Do they understand his real death? Do they understand the reality of his bodily resurrection? Do they understand that they bring nothing to their salvation apart from the sin that makes it necessary? I want clear confidence in these things before moving forward.

*A note about children
Children of believers often demonstrate faith at early ages—this should not surprise us. Those raised in a home that opens the Word of God together, pray together, and go to church together should demonstrate faith early. But when they do, I look for a legitimate definition of sin. Do they understand sin? Even more importantly, are they convicted of their sin?

2. Provide a clear description of baptism

Baptism is the first step in obedience to the commands of Christ. Baptism is the means by which a person joins the local church. Baptism is dying to oneself and identifying completely with the Lord Jesus Christ. Baptism is not “sealing the deal” of salvation, nor is it the literal washing of sins. Counsel new believers to be baptized, but be especially sure that they understand exactly what it does and does not mean.

3. Explain church membership

Many pastors require premarital counseling before committing to officiate a wedding. (If you don’t, you should. We’ll have to talk about that another time.) It’s critical that expectations are laid out and that someone lead the prospective bride and groom to consider questions that may have been overlooked in the dating process. Whenever counseling someone before they join the local church, a similar process needs to take place.

Provide a safe place for them to ask questions about the church. Explain to them how joining a local church is different from joining a civic club or society. Explain how church membership is pledging one’s self to the health of the body. Explain what expectations exist for members of the local church. Explain the church covenant that lays out for them exactly what is expected of them.

4. Explain the church’s confession of faith

It is virtually impossible for a church to be healthy without a confession of faith. It does not need to be overly strict; in fact, many Southern Baptist churches simply opt for the Baptist Faith and Message. Without a confession of faith, however, there is no doctrinal line to discern who does and does not belong. There is no standard to which pastors and teachers are called to adhere. Anyone considering joining your fellowship needs to understand what the church believes.

5. Practice church discipline

For some, points 1–4 were sufficient. No one likes church discipline. And yet, unlike a new member’s class or catechumenism (the state of a person undergoing doctrinal instruction and testing before baptism), church discipline is clearly taught in Scripture. In Matthew 18, Jesus provides a means by which the church is to guard the purity of its membership.

If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two others with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he doesn’t pay attention to them, tell the church. If he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like a Gentile and a tax collector to you. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.
Matthew 18:15–20 (CSB)

Notice that goal of church discipline is not the removal of a believer from fellowship. Rather, the goal is that he would receive correction, repent, and be restored to the fellowship. Church discipline is the recognition that when someone refuses to acknowledge his sin and repent, he has hardened his heart against God. By removing him from fellowship, he will either demonstrate repentance and return, or he will continue to harden his heart and distance himself from the gathering of believers.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I don’t have all of the answers. If we’re being honest, none of us do. We’re all trying to live in light of our understanding of God’s Word. None of us, however, would be thrilled to learn that we have unwittingly been baptizing unbelievers and offering them an assurance of salvation.

So, if not these, what steps have you taken?

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

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