Accepting New Church Members: A Biblical/Baptist Perspective
Robin Foster, Pastor, Immanuel Baptist Church, Perkins, OK
In discussing the restoration of integrity in church membership, there has been a great resurgence in the biblical practice of church discipline. Not that many Southern Baptist churches are initiating this biblical practice in their churches (personally I don’t know of any in our association), but there has been a grand discussion and even a resolution on church discipline (http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/amResolution.asp?ID=1189) offered at the 2008 SBC convention concerning this vital ministry to help a wayward brother or sister find their way back to Christ and full fellowship with the body. I for one applaud this and hope it will take root and continue to grow. But, as a pastor, I believe there is a bigger concern with how we accept members in the first place. In other words, can we take care of any issues before someone becomes a member of the church? It is my contention that many problems in our churches today are the result of poor admission traditions that have been practiced by our churches for at least the last 100 years.
The typical custom for accepting members among Southern Baptist churches is for a candidate to walk forward during the invitation. Of course the normal questions are asked: “Have you received Jesus as your Lord and Savior and trust Him for the forgiveness of your sins?” and “Where and how were you baptized?” all the while checking the person for a pulse on their wrist. While this parody is a bit of tongue in cheek, unfortunately, this short method of Q & A is often used as the congregation sings several verses of “Just as I Am.” If the candidate correctly responds to both questions, the pastor then turns to those attending that morning (unfortunately, in most cases, some voting are non-members) for a vote on accepting this person as a member in good standing of the church. In a sizable number of cases, the person has no idea of the church doctrines, covenant, order, or responsibilities of church membership. What is most tragic is that the person says yes to these questions as a matter of rote and may not truly understand the gospel or salvation. After all they were baptized as a kid, right? Surely they are saved. Unfortunately, I am finding more and more that people are looking to their baptism as their point of salvation, rather than to their conviction of sin before a Holy and Just God, seeking His mercy and grace through the atoning death of His Son, Jesus.
What’s the answer to this dilemma? Baptist churches have not always been this way. At one time, Baptist churches used to examine a candidate. In 1774, a section of the Charleston Association’s “A Summary of Church Discipline” addresses how persons should be received into church membership. Below is an excerpt:
“They should be persons of some competent knowledge of divine and spiritual things; who have not only knowledge of themselves, and of their lost state by nature, and of the way of salvation by Christ; but have some degree of knowledge of God in his nature, perfections, and words; and of Christ in his person as the son of God, of his proper deity, of his incarnation, of his offices as prophet, priest, and king; of justification by his righteousness, pardon by his blood, satisfaction by his sacrifice, and of his prevalent intercession. And also of the Spirit of God; his person, offices and operations; and of the important truths of the gospel, and the doctrines of grace; or how otherwise should the church be the pillar and ground of truth?
Their lives and conversations ought to be such as becometh the gospel of Christ, Phil. 1:27 that is holy just and upright, Psalm 15:1, 2; if their practice contradicts their profession they are not to be admitted to church membership. Holiness becomes the Lord’s house forever, Psalm 93:5.
They ought to be truly baptized in water, i.e., by immersion, upon profession of their faith, agreeable to the ancient practice of John the Baptist and the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, Matt. 3:6, John 3:23, Rom. 6:4, Acts 8:36-38. It is allowed by all that baptism is essential to church communion and ought to precede it; there is not one instance in the Word of God of any being admitted without it . . .”
While I’ll agree that some of these items may be a bit extreme, this example shows that Baptist churches have been on a downward path since 1774 concerning the acceptance of church members. Not only did a candidate need to know essential doctrinal matters, but it was also observed how a person’s life measured to their confession. From this example, there are some practical points we can derive.
First, after someone indicates his or her desire to become a member and before a vote is taken, the candidate ought to be required to complete an orientation class.
I believe a good time frame for this would be 6-8 one-hour sessions. This orientation can include explaining such items as the gospel and salvation, the church’s statement of faith, her covenant, purpose and vision statements, the responsibilities of a church member, introduction of the staff and their responsibilities, various ministries of the church, church structure, a brief summary of church and Baptist history, the church budget, and how things work in the church concerning decisions and business meetings. It would only be after this time of orientation and the candidate’s agreement with church doctrine, covenant, and order that the person would be admitted by a congregational vote.
Second, new member candidates can also be “yoked” with a mature church member or family during this time to help the new members become better acquainted with all aspects of church life and encourage them during these crucial first steps.
While some may ask if this is truly biblical (after all, didn’t the new believers at Pentecost all become members of the church that very same day?) I believe that this process of church membership is not only biblical, but is essential for healthy growing churches that glorify Christ. Pentecost was a special event that initiated the church. If we want to hold ourselves to all that happened then, we would then sell all we have and share with others, and we would stay primarily in house churches and attend the Jewish temple or local synagogue. While Pentecost was truly a God-inspired, God-powered event and that there are biblical truths to be gained from it, we also must look to the whole of Scripture. As we read from the biblical account of problems and issues the early church faced as it grew, we find many warning passages against drifting away doctrinally, warning us against false prophets by commanding us to “test the spirits” to see “whether they are from God” (Matt. 7:15-20; Rom. 16:17–18; Gal. 1:6–9; Acts 20:28–31; 1 Tim. 1:3–7, 6:3–5; 2 Tim. 4:3–4, 1 John 4:1).
What is found in Scripture is that after the church was first birthed and then scattered, the Apostles’ ability to keep the church doctrinally pure was greatly diminished. The New Testament wasn’t complete in the first century. This fed aberrant practices and beliefs that were promoted by those who were either uniformed (as was Apollos in Acts 18:24-26) or conceited and depraved (1 Tim. 6:3-5). Although the New Testament has been completed for 1900 years, we still face these same battles. A casual perusal of TBN should be sufficient to find many of these charlatans competing for viewers’ money and attention through false promises. Some of these television preachers have a great influence on many pastors and churches and as such hold to beliefs that are more in line with 21st century “name it and claim it” than 1st century toil, struggle, and suffering. We are also faced with the fact that many members are just mentally lazy. They expect the pastor to constantly feed them with milk rather than the meat of digging deeper into God’s Word. Because of busy lives, their own time of study and meditation on the Word of God is sorely lacking. Also, pragmatism has become our first love in how we practice our faith. I am finding more and more that many of my generation and even the generation ahead of me are biblically illiterate, not understanding the basics of our Baptist faith and practice. Therefore, because of this, many problems in our churches can be traced to an unbiblical understanding of church, church membership, and salvation. The pat answer of, “We are Baptists and this is how we’ve always done it” has never sufficed and it can’t now.
One final note, trying to do this will most likely be hard. The traditional way of accepting members has been carved into stone for many. Numerous members won’t see the need for this change because they consider it judgmentalism. Consequently, understanding why this needs to be done may not happen for another generation, when those who are left look around and see more empty seats because of strife, division, and apathy towards the lost. I hope and pray this is not the case. But if we can start a nationwide discussion on how we accept church members and open our Bibles to this issue, maybe we can begin to build up healthy church members who are plugged into the teaching ministry of the church and are themselves fulfilling their own calling through their spiritual gifts as part of the body of Christ. This is my hope and prayer for our future.