The Challenges to Regenerate Church Membership

R. Stanton Norman, in his book, The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church, shares an excerpt from an article written by Dr. James Leo Garrett in 1961 entitled “Seeking a Regenerate Church Membership” (published by Southwestern Journal of Theology vol. 3/2) in which he gives five challenges churches face in the recovery or implementation of the practice of regenerate church membership. Although Garrett’s article was written 47 years ago, we are facing the same challenges today (if not to a greater degree).

Garrett’s five points, summarized by Norman, are as follows:

1. New converts seeking membership in our Baptist churches are not longer required to give public confessions of their own faith or to provide public testimony of their conversion.

By this, Garrett and Norman are referring to the “superficial processes” such as simply saying “Yes” or other questions where the answers are self-evident. These inadequate processes of discerning the state of the baptismal candidate have truncated the public profession of faith or other credible evidences of regeneration.

2. Some Southern Baptist churches lack any serious doctrinal or ethical standards for membership.

While Norman does not give specific commentary on this point, one may assume he is referring to the need for a covenantal understanding of church membership so that members commit themselves to sound doctrine (doctrinal), godly living (ethical), and faithfulness to their local church (fellowship).

3. Southern Baptist life is immersed in a culture that measures ministerial and ecclesiastical success numerically.

Norman goes on to explain:

Pastors and other church leaders are overwhelmed with the pressure to produce results. Statistical growth has replaced biblical fidelity as the standard for ministerial excellence. This climate encourages churches to lower their membership requirements. The emphasis on regenerate church membership may diminish in order to “grow the church” or to “have a big church.” Church growth is typically defined in terms of multiplication to the exclusion of maturation.

4. Leading questions or semi-coercive methods may account for spurious professions of faith.

Again, Norman writes pointedly:

Manipulative tactics often target children, which accounts for the ever-decreasing age of conversion in many Southern Baptist churches.

5. The widespread method of voting on new applicants practiced in many Baptist churches.

For clarification, what Garrett and Norman are referring to is the voting of new applicants without having interviewed or examined the candidates prior to the congregational vote; ergo, the vote in favor of accepting new applicants are proceeded in ignorance or at best superficial knowledge.

Norman concludes with these solemn words:

Failure to heed these warnings will result in irreparable harm to our churches. The loss of the conviction of a regenerate church membership would be the abandonment of one of our crucial theological distinctives. We would in essence forsake one of our core tenets that has classically and theologically defined us as Baptists in the free church tradition. We would erase the line of demarcation between the church and the world.

Our churches would become more worldly and carnal and less holy and Christlike. We would witness and increase in the number of inactive, indifferent, uncommitted, and undedicated members in our churches. In our effort to have larger churches with greater numbers of members, we would contribute to the demise of effective evangelism and witness a decrease in the number of new converts. We would also lose our prophetic voice to speak with biblical convictions on the great moral and social issues of our day.

– R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 59-62.

Given our current circumstances, should we not be asking the question, “Have we not already succumbed to the forsaking the core theological conviction of regenerate church membership? Is this not evidenced in the high number of ‘inactive, indifferent, uncommitted, and undedicated’ church members? Have we not begun to see decreasing numbers in conversions and baptisms, reflecting a demise in effective evangelism and witness? Have we not lost our prophetic voice when there is an equal or greater percentage of members experiencing divorce, abuse, and immorality?

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8 Comments on “The Challenges to Regenerate Church Membership”

  1. Russell Langford Says:

    Although it is mentioned ever so often in small degree, I believe the main (really main) issue connected with renewing an understanding of regenerate church membership is the misunderstanding of the difference between a typical understanding of eternal security and the doctrine of perseverance of the saints. I’m not sure why more SBC guys aren’t talking about this, and am perplexed when certain people equate the popular understanding of eternal security with the traditional understanding of the perseverance (preservation) of the saints. Until “eternal security” is properly understood the typical SBC church will not “get” church discipline and therefore they will not “get” the idea of maintaining a regenerate church. SBC pastors and laymen are not comfortable “judging” another’s regeneration, and thus are not comfortable with church discipline whether you call it a ministry of restoration or not. For many there is not even a category of the professing believer who can prove to be actually a non-believer from the start (Matt. 7:21 – 23). I hope I am wrong, but as a pastor I don’t understand how this ecclesiological baptist reformation can take place unless SBC leaders and pastors not only call for “renewal” or “repentance” in lax membership accountability, but in an unbiblical understanding of “once prayed, always saved.” I hope these resolutions and the ensuing conversations move in this direction. If they do not, I’m not sure how much will happen at the local church level.
    Russell Langford

  2. Russell,

    I could not agree with you more regarding the distinction between eternal security understood today and the doctrine of perseverance of the saints as understood in years past. You made an important point–one I appreciate your bringing to the fore. The discussion of eternal security vs. perseverance of the saints is definitely one that needs to be had. Thanks again.

  3. kevin Says:

    Sorry to impose in this conversation, but maybe a resolution that is inspired by articles 4 and 5 of the BFM2000 needs to be drawn up for submission in 09, defining perseverance of the saints, reminding Southern Baptists that “All true beleivers endure to the end. . . . will never fall away . . . but shall persevere to the end. . . . Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation . . . yet they shall be kept by the power of God through FAITH unto salvation.”
    Russel, you bring to the light a good point in that so many Baptists have rested on once saved always saved without any biblical understanding of God still saving us as we live through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit. They reason, though wrongly, that just as publicly committing to a church by way of joining is a one-time event, so too is salvatioin a one-time event. They fail to realize that God is still saving us who believe and we WILL bear the fruit. The Good Shepherd calls us, and we WILL heed His voice by and large. Christ explicitly states that those who belong to Him, they will NOT follow a stranger, but will flee from him, “for they do not know the voice of strangers” (Jn 10:5). Either Jesus is lying here, or the people who seem to have followed the voice of strangers are lying when they profess Christ to be their Shepherd yet their sheep pen seems to be the world and not the Kingdom of God.
    Just by talking with Baptists, there is a misunderstanding about eternal salvation. Much attention is afforded to God’s grace, though very little attention is afforded to the professing Christian’s responsibility to live by faith, to walk by the Spirit, to bear good fruit, to hear and follow the Good Shepherd. Though I am not a legalist when it comes to church attendance, (i.e. attending just to attend) I believe that if one is born of the Spirit, he cannot refrain from resting, serving, and worshiping in the household of God. If he is of the Good Shepherd’s flock, he will by and large graze with His sheep.
    I could see how, if the Regenerate Church Membership resolution is passed, a resolution defining the doctrine of eternal salvation could serve to be both complementary to the RCM resolution and helpful to SBC’ers as it would remind them of the biblical doctrine of the infamous “once saved, aways saved.”

    Sorry for the rambling . . . I hope I made sense!
    P.S. Timmy, though I have only commented once prior to this post, I read your blog regularly. I appreciate what you report. Keep up the faithful work!

  4. Kevin,

    I think a resolution on perseverance in 09 is a great idea. I think we need more exposition and clarity on the issue of eternal security that accounts for salvation in all of its tense (have been saved, am being saved, and will be saved). Unfortunately, we have develop low expectations of Christians today and furthermore some have given up on the idea that a community of believers can discern if a person is regenerate. When Jesus tells us that we will know them by their fruit, do we really take that seriously?

    Of course, some will think that a robust teaching on perseverance will lead one to believe that you are teaching a salvation by works (Piper can attest to this). But that couldn’t be further from the truth! The God who works salvation and gives the gift of justification and righteousness also works in us to do what is pleasing to him–a working that is said to be with fear and trembling.

    I appreciate the comment, Kevin, and I hope that perhaps I would hear from you again in the future.

  5. Bill Nettles Says:

    Isn’t another part of the problem with the common local church member in the USA a lack of a sense of accountability? I’m not talking about a “lower-class” of Christian, but an unwillingness on the part of non-elders to be submitted to the oversight of an elder, along with the unwillingness of leaders/elders to take the responsibility of “oversight of souls.”

    I know there are situations of abuse, but that, too, is a lack of submissiveness on the part of the abuser. It also speaks to the necessity of a plurality of elders, none of whom are autocratic, and have been proven trustworthy.

    It’s a long process that’s not going to get fixed by a resolution, and won’t change in less that a decade. But it IS time to start. I believe Ernie R., Tom A., Tom N., and others are good examples of patient Biblical practicality in bringing needed change. _By His Grace and For His Glory_ is over 25 years old.

  6. Bill Nettles Says:

    Second sentence should read: “I’m not talking about being a “lower-class” of Christian…”

  7. Marc Says:

    The five points above describe my former church like he had been there before!

  8. Bill,

    I think you are on to something. Especially here in the West, there is the “rugged individualism” that cuts against the idea of community and corporate responsibility. We want *our* religion, *our* faith, *our* spirituality and don’t want to be bothered with whether it comports with what the church believes. I think this is where Barna has sought to explain in his last two books (which are horrible BTW); he says that since the 21st century Christian is so individualistic, then we need to give up on the necessity of the local church altogether! Go with the flow of culture . . .

    Furthermore, there is the protest of authority. We are raising generations of children who rarely see authority as protective and good; families are fractured, society is fractured, and leadership with power and authority are seen as corrupt and self-serving. Bruised, beaten, and broken down, I think that the young generation would rather not have to deal with another authority figure but would be well content to be left to themselves.

    I think the way to overcome the individuality and unwillingness to partake in community responsibility and accountability is the gospel and the love of Christ. I think also, as you have stated, having the proper structures and government in the church is important as well. Personally speaking, I have witnessed and experienced abuse of power and authority in the church–enough that at one point I said I would never go back to serving in the local church again. God’s grace kept me though, and I am grateful for the lessons I learned, though I would never want others to experience them.

    But ultimately, having been made in the image of God (of which we all are), there is innate within us a desire for community, for relationality that seeks to belong, to associate, and to commune. The marring of sin and the devastating consequences of the Fall are continually manifested, and as you stated, the work of patient, persevering ministry is to daily bring the change that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring.

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