Regenerate Church Membership | Baptist Distinctives

Lesson 7: Regenerate Church Membership

Thus far in our treatment of the Baptist distinctives, using the acrostic B-A-P-T-I-S-T-S, we have discussed the B – our view on the Bible, the A – the autonomy of the local church, the P – the (individual) priesthood of the believer, the T – the two ordinances Baptists recognize and practice, and the I – individual soul liberty. Our next study deals with regenerate church membership (sometimes called saved church membership).

Definition: Regeneration (i.e., salvation) is a prerequisite to church membership. The church is composed of immersed believers, banded together for the purposes of evangelism and edification, the exercise of the spiritual gifts, and the performance of the ordinances. Unbelievers or those who cannot give a satisfactory testimony of salvation may not become members of a Baptist church.


Regenerate church membership is a far more important issue than it may appear at first glance. Although it may come as something of a surprise to some, one of the chief distinctive characteristics of a Baptist church is that Baptists insist on a regenerate church membership. Baptists demand that – to the degree this policy is feasible – membership in a local Baptist church be limited to those who have professed to trust Christ as personal Savior. This is in stark contrast to many other denominations and groups and sharply differentiates between Baptists and most churches of the Reformed tradition. In addition to most mainline churches, there are many Bible-preaching churches which make little or no effort to screen those desiring membership. Most churches in the Lutheran and Reformed tradition grant children at least some membership status regardless of whether or not they have made a profession of faith.

Biblical Support for a Regenerate Church Membership:

  1. The general tenor of the New Testament epistles, which are largely addressed to local churches, obviously speak to the people of the churches as believers.
  2. The meaning of the Greek word translated “church” (ekklesia) is basically a group of people called out of the world and dedicated to God.
  3. The example of the first church, that in Jerusalem, shows that the church is composed of believers (Acts 2:41-47).
  4. The express prohibition of uniting believers and unbelievers in the same context (2 Cor 6:14) argues for regenerate church membership. It would seem very strange were the Lord himself to do in the local church what he forbids believers in the local church to do themselves.
  5. Unity within a church is based on a common salvation experience.
    1. The universal church is composed of all believers. The local church is a meeting together of such believers.
    2. The congregational form of church government requires a regenerate church membership. The participation of unregenerate people in church business is inappropriate and dangerous.

Biblical Support for Church Membership

Acts 2:41, 47 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. . . . And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

1 Corinthians 1:10 Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.

1 Timothy 5:9 Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man.

Hebrews 10:25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.

The above verses strongly suggest that the early churches acknowledged the concept of membership. They had membership rolls, they were supposed to be united within each church, and they were supposed to assemble periodically. NT church life is dependent upon the idea of membership. Membership implies more than simple association or assembly. Those who join a church as members are making a significant commitment to one another and to the body as a whole. Church covenants, which members subscribe to, generally list several commitments to which members agree. Read several from church covenant. Those who refuse to become members are not really a part of the local church, even though they may attend faithfully.

Some churches don’t emphasize or require membership. At such churches, anyone can fully participate in church life regardless of his or her spiritual condition. However, the Bible teaches that the church is composed of believers only, and that believers should be committed to a certain local church. A church is a called out assembly of believers who have committed themselves to follow the Bible and to support one another. Those who do not enter into such an agreement remain outside the fellowship and cannot function as they should. Churches that do not require membership have no means of discipline, nor can they screen out those who should not participate in church ministry.

It’s common today, when many towns have several good churches, for believers to become “church hoppers,” moving from one church to the next whenever it suits them. Rather than committing themselves to a particular church and supporting that work through thick and thin, they refuse membership and move from place to place. Unfortunately, churches often welcome such people with open arms. It’s also common for one church to accept into membership a person who was excommunicated from, or under discipline of, another church of like faith. Such a practice undermines the authority of all churches. Church hopping and sloppy membership administration obviously run counter to the Bible’s general teaching on church life.

The Benefits of a Regenerate Church Membership:

1. It provides the potential for a united membership. It’s hard enough to get a group of supposedly regenerate people to pull together. The task is made hopelessly difficult when some members of the church are not even saved.

2. It fits most readily into the concept of congregational church government. In fact, it actually validates that concept and makes it possible as well as practical.

3. It greatly facilitates the operation of the church, enabling it to focus its evangelistic efforts without fear of offending or being opposed by an unconverted element already in the membership.

Maintaining a regenerate membership is not always an easy task. People often respond with hostility to the idea that the church membership rolls are not open to some who may desire to be part of the church. Also, some see their spiritual condition as a purely private issue which no one else has the right to evaluate. Further, empty professions of faith are common, so it’s difficult to tell if one’s is truly saved or not. It is impossible for anyone to know the spiritual status of anyone else. Final knowledge is reserved by Scripture to the Lord.

It is critical that we remember that our efforts at maintaining the purity of the membership rolls are always conditioned by some kind of disclaimer, such as “to the degree that we are able,” or “as much as possible.” There are at least three approaches, however, that can contribute to keeping the membership spiritually legitimate.

1. Churches should demand a clear testimony of profession of faith in Christ. At some point in the process of membership, the leadership must ask the candidate about his spiritual condition. Such questioning should be pointed and blunt. Only those who relate a sound and accurate understanding of salvation and who have personally trusted in Christ may be considered for membership. This requirement obviously prevents infants and anyone else who cannot give a reasonable testimony of salvation from joining the church. They may attend, but they cannot join.

2. Some sort of new converts program or class will help both the church and those desiring membership. Through such a class those seeking membership come to understand what the church teaches and requires of its members. All members of the church would have a common understanding of what the church stands for and teaches.

3. No church should accept anyone into membership who is under discipline from another church of like faith. Doing so is detrimental for both the person and for the churches involved. This is why it is necessary for the church to evaluate each candidate for membership to insure that he is not carrying any “baggage” from a previous church experience.

While it is true that the early church baptized people the very day of their profession, it is dangerous and shortsighted for a church to fail to evaluate all those who seek membership. If a person is seeking to join a church through transfer of membership from another church, it is wise for the receiving church to investigate the status of his membership in the previous church. The fact that someone was a member at another Baptist church does not guarantee that the person is really saved or would be a suitable member for the church.

Qualifications for Membership:

Although various methods and procedures might be involved, most Baptist churches require a clear testimony of conversion, immersion in water after conversion, and essential doctrinal agreement. Because of their belief in both the priesthood of the believer and soul liberty, Baptists have tended to allow at least some small room for divergent views in their membership. It’s interesting to note that some churches demand absolute agreement on certain side issues (e.g., Bible versions, dress standards), yet tolerate those who diverge from the church’s official position on important doctrinal matters (e.g., eternal security, eschatology).

Church membership is voluntary, but it is not optional! That is, membership in the local church appears to be clearly commanded in Scripture, but the decision of whether or not to obey this command rests with the individual. God expects every believer to identify with and participate in the ministry of a Bible-believing local church. The church is ordained by God, and it is His church. It is not up to each individual believer to decide whether or not he will identify or even become involved. The Bible makes no room for believers who are not affiliated with a local church.

Some believers attempt to substitute other things for a local church. Parachurch organizations often fill this role. Some people watch religious programming on their TV and think of this as their church participation. But such practices are out of order and ignore the NT directives that believers assemble together for worship and instruction.

Conclusion: One of the essential Baptist beliefs is that the church should be composed only of believers, those who have trusted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Those who cannot give a reasonable testimony of salvation may attend a Baptist church, but they cannot be members.

Discussion:

1. What does the word “regenerate” mean? Saved

2. Why must churches insist that only saved people become members? That’s what the Bible teaches; practically speaking, letting unsaved people into membership would be a disaster.

3. What does the statement “church membership is voluntary, but it is not optional” mean? The Bible teaches church membership, but no one can force anyone to become a church member. It’s a matter of obedience.

4. Why should churches check into the background of those who desire to become members? To see if they have a genuine profession of faith; to see if they had any problems with their previous church; to see if they are carrying any theological baggage from previous teaching.

5. What’s wrong with being a church hopper? The practice is unbiblical; such people rarely contribute or serve; they are not subject to the authority or discipline of the church; they tend to be the first to complain and agitate (make trouble).