Tried and Deemed Credible: Mere Words Alone Do Not Suffice

Tim Brister —  June 17, 2008 — 9 Comments

On the heels of my previous post where Dagg argues that, while churches are not infallible in their judgment, they should consider the profession of faith and evidence of regeneration when assessing candidates for church membership, I want to present an argument in support of Dagg, providing excerpts and a brief commentary on this important subject matter.

First, Dagg’s quote, as referenced last week:

“The churches are not infallible judges, being unable to search the heart; but they owe it to the cause of Christ, and to the candidate himself, to exercise the best judgment of which they are capable. To receive any one on a mere profession of words, without any effort to ascertain whether he understands and feels what he professes, is unfaithfulness to his interest, and the interests of religion.”

John L. Dagg, Manual of Church Order (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1990), 269, emphasis mine.

John Hammett writes in his recent book on Baptist ecclesiology that “regenerate church membership began to disappear when Baptist churches in North America began to baptize and bring to members who gave no visible evidence of regeneration.”[1] If this is true, then Hammett (and others as will see) states that there is a direct relationship between the church’s responsibility to discern “visible evidence of regeneration” and a denomination today (SBC) where 2/3 of her members give no evidence of having been born again. This is far from the biblical model, as Mark Dever explains, “According to the New Testament, the church is primarily a body of people who profess and give evidence that they have been saved by God’s grace alone, for His glory alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.”[2] What Hammett and Dever are defending here is a practice that has long been upheld by Baptists but disappeared in middle to late 20th century. Consider the words of J.M. Pendleton in the popular Baptist Church Manual:

“In accordance with the first way (by experience and baptism), persons wishing to unite with a church give an account of the dealings of God with their souls, and state the ‘reason of the hope that is in them’; whereupon, if, in the judgment of the church they ‘have passed from death unto life,’ they are by vote of the church recognized as candidates for baptism, with the understanding that when baptized they will be entitled to all the rights and privileges of membership.”[3]

And again from Pendleton:

“Great care should be exercised in receiving members. Many churches err at this point. They do not observe the requisite caution; for they receive persons who give, to say the least, very imperfect evidence of piety. There is much danger in this, especially in times of religious excitement. Pastors should positively assure themselves that those who are received for baptism have felt themselves to be guilty, ruined, helpless sinners, justly condemned by God’s holy law; and under a sense of their lost condition have trusted in Christ for salvation.”[4]

The Baptist record of accepting members by way of profession and evidence of regeneration goes all the way back to 1656 as seen in the Somerset Baptist Confession which states:

“According to article XXV of the Somerset (southwest England) Baptist Confession of 1656, a host of Scriptures encouraged these framers to exhort their readers in ‘in admitting members into the church of Christ, it is the duty of the church, and ministers whom it concerns, in faithfulness to God, that they be careful they receive none but such as do make forth evidence demonstration of the new birth, and the work of faith with power.”[5]

So then, it makes sense that Dagg would add that “to be visible saints, a holy life must be superadded to a profession of the true religion; and they who do not exhibit the light of a holy life, whatever their profession may be, have no scriptural claim to be considered members of Christ’s church.”[6] This is a bold statement indeed, but a right statement nonetheless. If Southern Baptists for the past century held fast to the truth that we simply have no scriptural claim to consider members who do not exhibit “true religion” in their souls, then we would not have over 10 million souls of whom we cannot give an account even in the most fundamental measures of Sunday morning worship attendance.

The practice of accepting prospective members on the basis of profession of faith and credible (or visible) evidence that they are trusting in Christ goes beyond the superficial statistics of membership vs. church attendance disparity to affecting the testimony of Christ in a world where the church is to be a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. If we are such lights that are not to be hid under a basket, then it makes sense that the light of true conversion should not be hidden either. Indeed, how can a local church be a city on a hill that cannot be hidden when a majority of her members are hidden or at best unrecognizable in the most rudimentary steps of a follower of Christ?

Perhaps the implications of not accepting members on the basis of their profession and evidence of regenerate could not be better stated than what Mark Dever wrote the following:

“The idea that membership in a local church should only require a profession of faith in Christ is an idea that is both common and destructive to the life and witness of the church. Historically, Baptists have realized that any profession of faith should be tried and deemed credible. After all, a saving profession of faith includes repentance. A Christian life will be revealed not only by participation in baptism and the Lord’s Supper but also by regular attendance at the congregation’s gatherings, and a submission to the discipline of the congregation. This includes regular praying for the congregation and tithing. When congregations do not give attention to lifestyles of repentance, nominal Christianity quickly comes to characterize the church to the world, hurt its witness, and lie about the character of God.”[7]

May God grant us the grace of repentance and humility of mind to revive our witness and return to faithfulness in displaying the character of our gloriously holy God.

_____________________

[1]John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 113.

[2]Mark E. Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 149.

[3]J. M. Pendleton, Baptist Church Manual (Nashville, Broadman Press, 1966), 17-18.

[4]Ibid., 18.

[5]Mark E. Dever, “Regaining Meaningful Church Membership” in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, edited by Thomas White, Jason G. Duesing, and Malcolm B. Yarnell III (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008), 51.

[6]John L. Dagg, Manual of Church Order (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1990), 123.

[7]Mark E. Dever, “The Church” in A Theology for the Church, edited by Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2007). 848.

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  • Justin Wheeler

    Timmy,

    Great work here. I appreciate the time and effort that you put into every article you post. This will aid us tremendously at Southside as we seek to inform the congregation regarding this year’s SBC.

    I hope and trust that things are going well in sunny Florida.

    Justin

  • http://loveeachstone.blogspot.com David Rogers

    Timmy,

    Let me make sure I am understanding you correctly here. Are you saying that we should require a trial period after the time someone initially expresses a desire to follow Christ until they are baptized? If so, where do you find the Scriptural justification for this?

    I am in favor of regenerate membership, and the practice of loving corrective discipline at a congregational level. But, it seems to me the only requirement for baptism is the one Philip gave to the Ethiopian eunuch: “If you believe with all your heart, you may” (despite the textual questions related to this verse). And, the only way to judge whether someone truly believes with all their heart, at least at the beginning, is their verbal confession of Jesus as Lord.

    Having said that, I am by no means opposed to pre-conversion discipleship classes that help people understand clearly the implications of the decision they are making to follow Christ. Also, I have a great deal of sympathy for Hammett’s argument on the problems of child baptism. It seems to me a good deal of the problem with unregenerate church membership could be alleviated by waiting until children reach adolescence before baptizing them. If we tried to pass a resolution on that at the Convention, though, we would REALLY have a hot potato to deal with.

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    Justin,

    Great to hear from you brother. Likewise, I trust all is well there at Southside. Please send my regards to Joey when you get a chance.

    David,

    Thanks for sharing your comments. I don’t think a “trial period” is what I would consider as the means by which elders or the congregation evaluate professing believers for membership. Rather, I think that measures can be taken (e.g., membership classes, interview with elders, etc.) that can give the church confidence that the person they are welcoming into membership is trusting Christ. Something as simple as the question, “If you had 60 seconds to share with someone, ‘What is the gospel?’ what would you say?” would tell you a lot about where someone is in regards to being in Christ. That is not to say that must articulate a fine crafted response, but that there should be certain elements of the gospel that, if a person does not understand, brings sufficient warrant and concern to not proceed with recommending them to the congregation for membership.

    There have been instances, when having been asked to explain the gospel, a life-long churchgoer comes to the place where they for the first time realize that they do not know the gospel and have never truly been born again. This one small measure can have huge implications in regards to regenerate church membership, and there are others that can be taken as you mentioned, including the handling of young children.

    The bottom line is that each congregation, when admitting new members, should have the confidence in knowing (as best of their ability) that the person is trusting Christ. As Dever and others have stated, the congregation, in affirming the recommendation of the elders, is endorsing the salvation experience of the person as authentic and indicative of the power of the gospel in one’s life. Thinking about membership along these lines, I propose, would be helpful and necessary in recovering this important practice in the local church.

  • http://loveeachstone.blogspot.com David Rogers

    Timmy,

    In other words, I hear you saying that our churches need to shore up their evangelistic counseling ministries, in order to make sure those who present themselves for baptism really know what they are doing. To this I would say a hearty “amen.”

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    David,

    Yes, and I would add that it is not necessary (or wise in my estimation) to counsel them at the end of the service and baptize them then or that day. If believer’s baptism is the door of regenerate church membership, it cannot go unhinged. In my experience in Baptist churches, rarely if ever have I seen the ordinance of believer’s baptism handled in a manner that connects profession of faith (through baptism) with identification with local church. Instead, profession of faith either comes when they are presented at the altar or with a simple answering of “yes” when asked if they have “accepted Jesus into their heart.”

    There may be many dozens (if not more) Southern Baptist churches careful about handling believer’s baptism, but I have not seen it myself or heard of many churches handling it responsibly. What I have heard and seen is the baptism of children so young they cannot stand up in water, baptizing people over and over (several times, since the previous “decision” wasn’t real), baptizing people for other reasons than profession of faith (such as rededication), and baptizing immediately without any careful treatment of their spiritual state (immediately and without any (or little) qualification). Such examples show how believer’s baptism has been mishandled and divorced from a biblical understanding of church membership, resulting in the state we are in today.

  • http://loveeachstone.blogspot.com David Rogers

    “Yes, and I would add that it is not necessary (or wise in my estimation) to counsel them at the end of the service and baptize them then or that day.”

    Timmy,

    From my experience, and pragmatically, there seems to be a lot of wisdom to what you say here. However, I am still struggling with what do we do with the biblical record of the gospel being proclaimed, people responding, and being baptized immediately. Do you think that was only for then, but not for now?

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    David,

    There are a couple of things to mention regarding your question. First, I think Baptist theologians (I’m presuming here) would argue that there is an implicit demand for maintaining a NT church that requires such measures to be taken. If churches are to err on this issue, would it not be on a matter of prudence and wisdom? Secondly, the day of the early church is much different than today in the sense that professing Christ in the waters of baptism brought upon them not necessarily a hand clap of praise but a death sentence. Persecution and suffering meant that, public identification through baptism signified that those identifying themselves as followers of “the Way” were willing to subject themselves to suffering and even the losing of their lives for the cause of Christ (a great example of this is the last section in Heb. 10). It was not until the time of Constantine that the issue of nominal Christianity really first set in.

    Today we are living in a day vastly different (in the West that is) from the early church. We have turned the gospel to a free ticket to heaven, get out of hell free card, pray this prayer, squeeze my hand, walk down an aisle, just say yes, lift your hand, etc. We have truncated the gospel and advocated a form of evangelism that has spawned a version of nominalism whereby not even 10% of those who enter the doors of church membership can be identified a year later. We have more statisticians in the SBC than we have theologians, and this is an indictment on us.

    I don’t think there would be as much of an issue with believer’s baptism and regenerate church membership if, when doing so, there is a tangible recognition that you may lose your life in the very near future. So to answer your last question, I would say yes and no. No, in that the early church faced different realities than we do today; yes, in that we will face them soon enough.

  • http://loveeachstone.blogspot.com David Rogers

    Timmy,

    I guess it comes down to, like so many other things, whether the model in Acts is descriptive or prescriptive. I would like for us, as Baptists, and as Evangelicals in general, to be more consistent in our hermeneutics and application of Acts, though, and not pick and choose, according to what fits our system best, what is descriptive, and what is prescriptive.

    In the end, I cannot say I disagree with what you are saying here, though.

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    David,

    Well, Scripture itself tells us that *all* of Scripture is prescriptive (2 Tim. 3:16-17), but how we apply the Scriptures must be consistent with the entire biblical record. There are situations that can be understood at “accidental” (such as head coverings), but I believe God intends for us to know, for our benefit, what He has purposed for His church and how we are to function as His people. There are tensions, however, in the text, but such tensions we live with, applying a rigorous hermeneutic that is humble and submissive to the authority of Scripture.