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?