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The Development Of Baptist Membership Practices

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Numerous historians have concluded that the story of the Baptist denomination begins with believers who were passionate about the purity of the church, men and women in search of a New Testament church and committed to that mission. R. Stanton Norman, director for the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry and professor of theology at New Orleans Baptists Seminary, has argued that to understand the history of the Baptist people, one must--at least in part--see their development "as the desire of a group of earnest believers to have a church that exists and functions in complete submission to the authority of the New Testament." Baptists throughout history have maintained, based on their study of and desired obedience to New Testament teaching, that regeneration is required prior to entrance into the church. As one author expressed this view, "the true church is composed of true believers."

As time passed, however, many Baptists lost the original vision for a pure church. Whereas previous generations made great efforts toward protecting local church membership from impurity, Baptist churches today have resigned themselves to an apathetic attitude toward membership in both theory and practice. Such indifference has been detrimental to the health of Baptist churches and those they seek to win for Christ.

In recent years a call to once again raise the value of membership in Baptist Churches has been sounded. To fully appreciate the urgency of this appeal and to grasp its wisdom and necessity, one must understand the historical membership practices of the Baptists and the original reasoning behind these practices. A survey of the writings of Baptist forefathers in the form of covenants and statements of faith, particularly on the subjects of baptism and the Lord's Supper, can serve such a purpose and can reveal the evolution of membership practices in Baptist churches up to today. Baptist leaders must engage this issue and point congregations back to their roots.


John Smyth led a congregation of English Separatists formed in 1606 or 1607 around a self-written covenant. In this covenant, members vowed "to walk in all [God's] ways made known, or to be made known unto them, according to their best endeavors, whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them." Around that same year, Smyth wrote that "a visible communion of Saincts is of two, three, or mo[r]e Saincts joyned together by covenant with God and themselves," and that "the outward part of the true forme of the true visible church is a vowe, promise, oath, or covenant betwixt God and the Saints."

However, after further study of baptism in the New Testament (and perhaps after influential interaction with Mennonites in Amsterdam), Smyth led his church in observing believer's baptism. For this reason he is often pointed to as the first Baptist pastor and theologian. As he learned more about baptism from the scriptures, Smyth also revised his view about the covenantal nature of the church. In 1609, he wrote that "the true forme of the Church is a covenant betwixt God and the Faithful made in baptisme." Thus, Smyth began to articulate what would become the predominant viewpoint of Baptists for the early part of their existence: the visible church is a community formed by covenant, and the ordinances of the church are visible seals and/or signs of this covenant.

Though not exclusively practiced, the majority of Baptist churches in the seventeenth century began when a group of believers wrote for themselves and entered into a covenant. One of the most influential early Baptist theologians, Elias Keach, defined the church in terms of a covenant relationship in a popular 1697 work, saying, "[church members] do by mutual agreement and consent give themselves up to the Lord, and to one another..." He went on to write that to enter into church membership one "must solemnly enter into a Covenant."

Baptist church covenants had both vertical and horizontal dimensions; the promises and obligations of the covenant are directed not only between the individual believer and God, but between the individual believer and the congregation of believers. The language of the horizontal relationship believers entered into with one another included statements that they "joined themselves together in the Lord," "do solemnly join ourselves together in a holy union and fellowship," "promise... to walk together in this our gospel communion and fellowship" . The language of some of these covenants was even stronger, including the vow to "give themselves up to the Lord and to each other," to "give ourselves to one another according to the will of God..." When someone joined an early Baptist congregation, they were expected to enter into this covenant with God and the other members, understanding that their accountability to God and to their church brethren were intimately linked together. These early Baptists saw membership in the true biblical sense (separate parts of one body, united together under the head), not in the twenty-first century cold, organizational understanding.

Charles W. Deweese conducted extensive research into the use of covenants in the history of Baptist church life. He found four basic areas which the majority of church covenants address: church fellowship, discipline, public worship and personal devotion, and pastoral and lay care. In regard to fellowship, covenants spoke of the church member's commitment to "separate" from the world and joining together in a walk of holiness, edifying one another. The second category of emphasis was church discipline. Because they bound themselves to one another, the Baptists covenanted that they would submit themselves to the discipline of the church if it were ever necessary. Such accountability was often preventative, but was also used to restore wayward believers to discipleship. Issues of worship and devotion comprised the third area. Church members pledged to worship together on Sunday, encourage the preaching of the Gospel, give of their resources to the church, participate in the Lord's Supper, regularly read the Bible in private, pray for one another, and take every opportunity to serve God. Finally, covenants enlisted church members to act in a caring and pastoral way toward one another. They were to meet the basic requirements of a brother or sister in need. Also, this call to pastoral care was closely related to the issue of discipline. The covenant written by Benjamin and Elias Keach in 1697 had members pledge "to warn, rebuke, and admonish one another with meekness, according to the rules left to



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