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.

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[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.