Religion / The Development Of Baptist Membership Practices

The Development Of Baptist Membership Practices

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Autor:  anton  31 October 2010
Tags:  Development,  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 us of Christ in that behalf.”

Covenants were not only used in the English Baptist churches. When Baptist congregations were growing in number in the Colonies, a great many of these church also made use of covenants. One of the more important and influential of these American Baptist covenants was written by Isaac Backus in 1756, when he and five other Baptists covenanted together to form a new congregation. This covenant became gained wide used among other Baptist churches in New England and beyond. In 1774, the Charleston Association, the first Baptist association in the South, published its work, A Summary of Church Discipline. The manual begins by articulating a definition for the church which employs strong covenantal language: “A particular gospel church consists of a company of saints incorporated by a special covenant into one distinct body…” The Philadelphia Baptist Association followed suit in 1805 and published A Treatise of Church Discipline, which contained in a model covenant for developing congregations. As people moved west and into the frontier, Baptist continued to form congregations. These frontier churches made great use of covenants, especially in disciplinary issues that arose in the wilderness.

Whereas the use of model covenants had been the exception in Baptist churches, in 1833 the New Hampshire Baptist Convention published an associational covenant and began the first serious movement toward the adoption of a uniform covenant in Baptist churches in America. Written in part by J. Newton Brown, this covenant grew in popularity and use, partly because of its widespread publication. Brown later served as editorial secretary for the American Baptist Publication Society, where he was able to revise the covenant and publish it in his Baptist Church Manual. Eventually Brown’s covenant was so widely used that many believed it to be “the” official Baptist church covenant.

Decline in the covenant emphasis of Baptist churches began in the late 1800’s. It was noted in 1898 as a modern tendency which had a real inherent danger. In 1904, Burrage wrote that “the covenant idea has ceased almost entirely to have for us the great significant it had for the early New England colonists.” By 1923, a North Carolina editor of a Baptist newspaper observed that most church members at that time had never seen their church’s covenant, nor had they even heard it read. Deweese points to the adoption of uniform covenants as a major reason for the decline in the use and importance of the church covenant in Baptist church life. When churches quit writing their own covenants, the value of the covenants fell in the congregation’s mind.

In the official statement of faith for the Southern Baptist Convention, the definition of the church still centers, to some degree, on the idea of covenant. Article IV on the Church in The Baptist Faith and Message (2000) states, “A New Testament Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated together by covenant in the faith and fellowship in the gospel.” However, most members of Baptist churches today do not understand the covenantal nature of church membership, nor should they be expected to since very few congregations make use of and emphasize the importance of covenants. Whereas historic Baptist confessions clearly state that church members not only submit to Christ, but also submit to one another, the BF&M (2000) simply says, “Each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord.” Without the common center of a covenant around which believers can verbally unite themselves to Christ and one another, the weight and value of membership feels absent and, in the opinion of this author, leaves the true disciple unsatisfied.


Because the early Baptists saw the church ordinances as signs and seals of their covenant relationship with God and one another, their writings about the ordinances brings further insight into their membership practices. Since the time of John Smyth, Baptists required believer’s baptism as a prerequisite to church membership. In fact, baptism became their way of identifying themselves and contrasting their fellowship with others. Smyth included the baptismal requirement in his definition of the Church: “…the church of Christ is a company of the faithful; baptized after confession of sin and of faith, endowed with the power of Christ.” He also believed baptism to be symbolic and external, not having any effectual saving power of its own.

The London Confession of 1644 also included baptism in the definition of the church, but went further in incorporating wording which expressed the covenantal nature of this baptism: “Which Church, as it is visible to us, is a company of visible saints… being baptized into that faith, and joined to the Lord, and each other…” Baptism, according to this statement, is as much a symbol of unity with other believers as it is a symbol of unity with Christ. The Somerset Confession of 1656 also expresses this belief when it says that those baptized are “planted in the visible church or body of Christ… [who] walk together in communion in all the commandments of Jesus.” In 1679, the Baptists of London wrote “The Orthodox Creed,” which clearly expresses the Baptist connection between baptism, covenant, and church membership. In this work, baptism is defined as “a sign of our entrance into the covenant of grace, and ingrafting into Christ, and into the body of Christ, which is his church.”

Baptism was not only required for church membership (entrance into the covenant relationship), but an applicant for church membership had to give evidence for their regeneration before many churches would baptize them and admit them into the fellowship. The Charleston Association’s Summary of Church Discipline typifies the common practice of the day:

Persons making application are to be admitted into the communion of a church by the common suffrage of its members; being first satisfied that they have the qualifications… candidates must come under examination before the church; and if it should happen that they do not give satisfaction, they should be set aside until a more satisfactory profession is made.

Another fairly common practice among Baptist churches was the requirement of a baptismal candidate to participate in a catechism. Keach’s Catechism, written in 1693, consisted of 114 questions of doctrine and practice that a new believer had to show mastery over before being brought into the fellowship by baptism.

As the recognition of the covenant nature of church membership began to decline, so did the care taken in examining baptismal candidates for evidence of regeneration and understanding of the commitments which come upon baptism into the church body. Rarely is an applicant for membership expected to do more than walk an isle, speak to a pastor, and fill out contact information. In many Southern Baptist churches today, a congregation may be expected to whole heartedly admit a complete stranger into their fellowship with any degree of knowledge regarding the stranger’s testimony, Christian witness, or desire to bind together with other believers.

Article VII on baptism and the Lord’s Supper in The Baptist Faith and Message (2000) puts forth only the symbolic meaning of baptism, all the while saying nothing about the act as being an initiation into a covenant relationship. The relationship between baptism and covenant entrance is at best vaguely implied in article IV on the Church, which defines a congregation as “baptized believers, associated together by covenant in the faith and fellowship in the gospel.”


While Baptism was the ordinance meant for singular observance upon salvation and union with the church, the Lord’s Supper is the “perpetual remembrance” of Christ’s sacrifice and congregational unity. The early Baptist viewed the Lord’s Supper, like baptism, in the context of the church’s covenant relationship. Baptism signified entry into the covenant; the Lord’s Supper reaffirmed the commitment of the covenantal vows. Smyth reminded the church of the vertical and horizontal directions of the covenant when he articulated the belief “that the Lord’s Supper is the external sign of the communion of Christ, and of the faithful amongst themselves by faith.” In the Lord’s Supper, baptized believers are reminded not only of their unity to Christ, but also to other believers. The Orthodox Creed teaches that the Lord’s Supper is “for the confirmation of the faithful believers… sealing unto them their continuance in the covenant of grace, and to be a band and pledge of communion with him, both passively and actively, as also of our communion and union each with other…”

Thomas Helwys, originally a part of John Smyth’s baptized congregation, led the first Baptist church in England as pastor. In 1610, Helwys authored “A Short Confession,” in which he tied the observance of the Lord’s Supper to the practice of church discipline. He wrote, “The person separated from the church may not at all be admitted (so long as he proceedeth in sin) to the use of the holy supper…” Such a connection between the second ordinance and church discipline was made almost universally by early Baptists. The Second London Confession declared that all who are deemed ungodly, who do not walk with the Lord, should not be admitted to His table to celebrate the Supper with the faithful.

Many Baptist churches held Saturday meetings prior to their Sunday observance of the Lord’s Supper for the purpose of practicing church discipline. They would determine if any in the congregation were unfit to partake of the bread and cup. The covenant vow, made both to God and to the other church members, makes one accountable to his Christian brothers and sisters to see that commitments are fulfilled. The practice of discipline, based on Matthew 18, was universally taught by early Baptists. Statements of faith by Smyth, Helwys, and Keach, as well as the First and Second London Confessions, the Somerset Confession, the Orthodox Creed, and the statement of the Sandy Creek Association, as well as countless other confessions, all contain explicit instruction for the church to discipline itself.

Many Baptists leaders today have observed the unwillingness of modern churches to exercise discipline over their members, directly disobeying scripture. Norman calls this “one of the most glaring omissions in modern Baptist church life.” He theorizes that the demise of discipline is due to a thorough lack of understanding among church members of the nature of the church being believers united by covenant to live out their common faith. Blinding modern Baptists to this concept of spiritual accountability is an individualism gone amuck. William Pinson has a different idea of why today’s Baptist churches have abandoned the biblical discipline process. “Tolerance has become almost the supreme good in American life, and the churches quite often mirror culture rather than mold it… Thus, few are willing to challenge a person’s salvation or worthiness to become a member of the church.”

It is also interesting to note that over time the corporate function of Lord’s Supper was emphasized less and less. Whereas early Baptist confessions noted the Supper’s unifying purpose for the congregation, by the time the New Hampshire Confession was written in 1833, this dimension of the Lord’s Supper was expressed poorly, if at all. Because the New Hampshire Confession was used as the basis for many subsequent statements of faith, the corporate aspect of the Supper continues to be unobserved. The Baptist Faith and Message (2000), which is traced back to the New Hampshire statement, contains nothing about the Lord’s Supper functioning as a renewal of the covenant relationship between believers, their God, and their Christian brothers and sisters.


Baptists churches today have clearly lost the vision of the early Baptist figures who were so passionate about a pure Church, a true church of true believers. In forgetting the covenant nature of their fellowship, congregations have lowered the standards required to be a church member. No longer is a covenant presented to an applicant, challenging them with agreement to accountability and discipline. No longer is an examination or thorough probe made into the testimony and character of baptismal candidates. No longer is discipline enforced to keep the participation at the Lord ’s table pure. Once gathered at the table, Baptists today are coached to focus only on the individual nature of their salvation. Rarely is the focus on the unity of the church, together seeking to live lives worthy of their Lord.

The obvious outcome of this situation is the increased impurity of the church. There can be little or no hope for maintaining a truly regenerate congregation, one made of genuine disciples of Jesus Christ. Those who are saved but find themselves in such a low pressure environment absent of the accountability provided by a community functioning around a covenant have a significantly reduced likelihood of growing up into disciples. Without mature disciples, the Good News of Jesus Christ is not being proclaimed with all the zeal and power possible, for the salvation of the lost and to the glory of God. Baptists must examine their membership practices in light of their roots, both in the Bible and in Baptist history, and commit together—covenant with one another—to once again become believers who are passionate about the purity of the church.


Brackney, William H. The Baptists. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1994.

The Charleston Association. A Summary of Church Discipline. In Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life. Edited by Mark E. Dever. United States of America: Sheridan Books for IX Marks Ministries, 2001.

Deweese, Charles W. Baptist Church Covenants. Nashville: Broadman, 1990.

Finley, John M. “Worship Culminates in the Lord's Supper.” In Defining Baptist Convictions: Guidelines for the Twenty-first Century. Edited by Charles W. Deweese. Franklin, TN: Providence Houst Publishers, 1996.

George, Timothy, and Denise George, eds. Baptist Confessions, Covenants, and Catechisms. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1999.

Lumpkin, William L. Baptist Confessions of Faith, Revised ed. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1969.

McBeth, H. Leon. The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987.

Norman, R. Stanton. The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2005.

The Philadelphia Baptist Association. A Treatise of Church Discipline. In Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life. Edited by Mark E. Dever. United States of America: Sheridan Books for IX Marks Ministries, 2001.

Pinson, William M. Issues Testing Baptist Polity. Brentwood, TN: Baptist History and Heritage Society, 2003.

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