WHY CONVERTED CHURCH-MEMBERSHIP

imgresBy Rev. J. O. Rust, LL. D.
Pastor Edgefield Baptist Church.
Nashville, Tennessee

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, and holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. – 1 Peter 2:9.
As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man but of God. – John 1:12-13.
JESUS said: ”Except a man be born again, he can not see the kingdom of God.” John 3 :3.

To put this in plain English, our Lord teaches that only converted people should belong to a church. Baptists stand squarely for this doctrine. We contend that only those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit through intelligent faith in Christ, and who have confessed their faith in word and declared it in baptism, are scripturally qualified for church membership. We would not claim that every Baptist is converted; for, unfortunately, unconverted persons, those honestly deceived and hypocrites, have been… received into our churches; but their number is not large. Nor do we hold that all members of other communions are not converted. We greatly rejoice in the many examples of eminent piety outside of our ranks; and we gladly believe that the vast majority of those who profess faith in Christ everywhere are converted. Our contention is simply this: Baptist principles strictly applied would exclude from church membership all but the converted; whereas the principles of other denominations strictly applied would include in their respective church memberships some who are not converted. That is, non-Baptist churches, by admitting the unregenerate into their membership, can not be pure spiritual churches; whereas Baptists, by admitting only the regenerate into their membership, are the only people who even in theory stand for the pure spirituality of the churches. That is, Baptist doctrine is the only system of truth which will logically, inevitably and ultimately make a church a pure spiritual body of Christ.It is but just to examine these statements a little more in detail to see if they are in fact true.

I.  In the first place, is it true that Baptist principles strictly applied in practice will limit church membership to the converted exclusively? We can answer this inquiry only by looking at the customs of our churches. Baptists demand a public, personal, intelligent profession of faith in Christ before admitting any one into their churches. We will not receive one individual into membership on the confession of another individual; for we repudiate in theory and in practice the doctrine of proxies in religion; for ”Every one of us shall give account of himself to God,” Rom. 14:12. This public profession of faith is the voluntary act of an intelligent moral agent declaring his conversion. No one is ever admitted into a Baptist church until he professes conversion. Again, Baptists demand that the convert shall further declare his faith in baptism, a public immersion of the believer in water. Thus we require two professions of the applicant for church membership; one in the word of confession, the other in the act of baptism. In the former the convert speaks his faith; in the latter he acts his faith in the solemn symbolism of immersion. All of this is a genuinely kindly arrangement; for a church would be untrue to the applicant for membership if it did not assist him by simple and severe tests of his true heart condition to ascertain certainly and consciously the fact of his conversion; and a church would be untrue to itself if it did not exercise the utmost care to prevent those who are honestly deceived, or hypocrites, from assuming duties and obligations which they will certainly renounce to the injury of their own souls and the distress of the body of Christ. Thus Baptist churches in principle and in practice do all that human beings can do to make a church a spiritual body. If an unconverted man gets into a Baptist church, he must profess conversion, and his presence in the membership is not the fault of the church but of himself. If after joining a Baptist church, it is discovered that one is not converted, then it is his duty to withdraw, or it becomes the duty of the church to exclude him. Thus we see that Baptist doctrine will inevitably and ultimately produce a pure spiritual church.

II In the second place, it is equally just to inquire if the principles and practices of other churches do introduce into their respective memberships some who are not converted. We can answer this inquiry only by looking at the creeds and customs of these churches. These can broadly be divided into two groups; that is there are two kinds of practices in non-Baptist churches which may introduce the unconverted into church membership. Those who practice infant baptism do in some sense consider these infants as members of their churches. In which case they have received into their churches those who can not exercise saving faith in Christ, and hence who are unconverted. Having thus introduced unregenerate material into their churches, their churches cease to be pure spiritual bodies. And these churches are themselves responsible for this, for it is the act of the church that brings the unintelligent infant into membership. These churches are not to be excused as they would be in the case of hypocrites who creep into the membership by assuming conversion, or as in the case of those who are honestly deceived. This custom might be practically harmless if the infants would remain infants, but they will not. Often the unregenerate infant grows into the unregenerate man, and these congregations are embarrassed by having un-Christian men in their membership as Christian churches. However harmless we may consider the practice, the principle is an error, and it will logically and inevitably destroy the pure spirituality of the church.

It is but fair to state that churches which practice infant baptism are of two kinds, viz.:

   a. There are those who claim that the infant is actually regenerated in baptism. Cardinal Gibbons states the belief of Catholics: ”Water is the appropriate instrument of the new birth.” ”Hence baptism is essential for the infant in order to attain the kingdom of heaven.” As the infant can not believe, it follows that baptism must do all of the saving. The Episcopal view of this matter can be found in the formula for the baptism of infants: ”We receive this child into the congregation of Christ’s flock.” ”Seeing now that this child is regenerated and grafted into the body of Christ’s church,” etc., etc. In both cases we have baptismal regeneration pure and simple. If baptism regenerates, then unbelieving children would be converted church members. Laying aside the paradox as to how one incapable of exercising faith can be converted when faith is necessary for conversion, Baptists would contend that baptism does not regenerate, and that this practice of Romanists and Episcopalians opens a wide door for the admission of the unconverted into their churches. For it is in evidence on all sides that some who received this presumed baptismal regeneration in infancy fail to give any evidence of it in maturity, either in a profession of saving faith in Christ, or in the practice of piety, and yet they remain unchallenged members of the churches which they were baptized into. Thus these churches assume a grave risk of not being pure spiritual bodies of Christ.

   b. Again, there are those who practice infant baptism who profess not to believe that the baptism saves the infant; and yet these all do in some sense receive these infants into their church memberships. The position of all such can be fairly stated in the language of the Presbyterian confession of faith, viz.: ”The infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized.” ”Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church.” ”The visible church consists of all those who make a profession of true religion together with their children.” ”The infant seed of believers are members of the church.” Let it be noted that this second class in the practice of infant baptism denies a belief in baptismal regeneration, though the writer does not see how they can escape such a belief, or some other fatal error, if the logic of their position is severely pressed to a just conclusion. For they baptize infants either to save them, or not to save them. If the baptism is not to save, as they say, then the baptism of the infant must be for a declaration of faith, or for some other purpose. It can not be a declaration of the infant’s faith, for the infant has not and can not have intelligent faith, nor is the act of baptism the voluntary act of the infant. If it be a declaration of faith, it declares the faith of some person other than the infant. But we have no right to baptize one person on another person’s faith Rom. 14:12. If the baptism of the infant be neither a saving act, nor a declaration of faith, then it is for some other purpose. But, if they use baptism for any other purpose save as a declaration of faith, they pervert that ordinance from the meaning and mission which Christ gave to it; and besides they construct two baptisms, one for adults with one meaning, and another for infants with another meaning, which is contrary to the scripture which saith: ”One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Eph. 4:5. Therefore as they turn away from baptismal regeneration to escape one error, the logic of their position coerces them either into the practice of proxies in professions of faith, which is an error condemned by Rom. 14:12, or into a perversion of the ordinance, which is contrary to Eph. 4:5.  But turning away from these objections which are fatal to the practice of infant baptism, it is just that we should fairly examine the grounds of those who are in this practice and yet who claim that they do not believe in baptismal regeneration. They allege two reasons for baptizing their unregenerate infants into then church membership. This inquiry is legitimate to this paper because infant baptism leads to infant church membership.

It is argued from the baptism of certain households (Acts 10:47; 16:15; 16:32-34; 1 Cor. 16:15) that there were infants in those homes which were baptized into church membership. It is enough to say in reply that the burden of proof is upon those who affirm that there were infants in those homes. The only possible proof is the Scripture record. But the record contains no mention of infants. Therefore the assertion is without possibility of proof. If you will look about you, you will see many homes where there are no babes. Besides, there are intimations in each account of these household baptisms which deny the assumption that there were babes in these homes. In the case of Cornelius it is said that ”all his house feared God;” Paul and Silas ”comforted” those who were baptized in Lydia’s home; Paul distinctly tells the jailer that those who ”believe”should be saved; and it is said of the household of Stephanas that they all ”have addicted themselves to the ministry.” None of these terms or conditions could apply to infants, they describe the acts of intelligent believers. There is no such thing in the New Testament as infant baptism begetting infant church membership. It is true that Jesus blessed babes but he did not baptize them. Late in our Lord’s life his disciples quarreled at mothers for bringing their children to Jesus. Matt. 19:13. If infant baptism had been in vogue then these disciples would have welcomed these babes into the church. The New Testament recognizes as church members none but converted adults.

Again, it is alleged that the infants of believers should be baptized and received into the church for the reason that baptism takes the place of circumcision; that as circumcision inducted the infant into the Old Testament church, so baptism inducts it into the New Testament church. This is a blind confounding of the Jewish state with the Christian church. There was no Old Testament church with its rites corresponding to the New Testament church with its ordinances. The Christian church was for the first time set up in the New Testament. Circumcision was a racial, not a regenerating act. It has always been true that men became the true children of Abraham through faith, not through any rite, be it circumcision or baptism. One could be born a Jew, but all must be re-born to become Christians. And so circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles were alike baptized on the common grounds that they believed in Christ. This is clearly the teaching of Gal. 3 :29: ”If ye be Christ’s, then ye are Abraham’s seed, and his heirs according to the promise.” To be Christ’s one must believe; infants can not believe, and so they are not entitled to baptism or to membership in a Christian church. Thus again true scripture teaching blocks the entrance of unregenerate children into Christian churches.

There is no warrant either in scripture doctrine or precedent for the baptism of infants; and those churches which in any sense receive into their membership these baptized unregenerate infants have in that far destroyed the pure spirituality of their churches. Their very principles unavoidably lead them into receiving the unconverted into their membership. Infant baptism is the most frequent way of bringing the unregenerate into church membership; but we are now to examine other practices of non-Baptist churches which may corrupt the pure spirituality of the body of Christ. A word before getting to the main point about the danger of receiving members into churches on probation. In some sense they are members, and yet their conversion is not certain. The probationer may turn out to be a Christian, or he may not. As long as he is on probation his conversion can not be affirmed, and the church which receives him is not a pure spiritual body. If probationers are on its list all the time, then it never is a pure spiritual body. Nor is this all the harm such a church does itself; this practice will inevitably lead men to believe that there is a saving efficacy in just belonging to a church. They will come to look to Christ and church membership to save them. This is a fatal partition of faith. How very dangerous this is will appear in the next paragraph.

Next to infant baptism the most prolific source of unconverted church members is sacramentarian baptism administered to adults. There are churches which do not practice infant baptism and yet they attach a saving significance, in part or in whole, to the baptism of adults. From this perversion of the meaning of baptism arises another danger of an unconverted church membership. For we are saved by faith in Christ alone (Jo. 3:16; Acts 16:31; Eph. 2:8). Our Lord did not invent baptism to help him save sinners. A man who gives part of his faith to Christ and part to baptism has a divided faith. Paul says that to such a man ”Christ is become of no effect,” Gal. 5:4. The apostle is arguing this matter in Galatians. In the fifth chapter he maintains that to administer circumcision as the ground of salvation, or the condition of justification, is to renounce Christ himself. It does not take Christ and circumcision to save a soul, and to divide one’s faith between the two results in a renunciation of Christ. Just so baptism can be no part of salvation without destroying the pure faith principle of redemption, and ”Christ is become of no effect.” If ”Christ has become of no effect” to such a one, then he can not claim conversion; and, if he comes into the church with this divided faith, he will be an unconverted church member. This teaching is severe, but Paul emphatically declares that to condition salvation, in part or in whole, on any ordinance or institution is to do away with Christ himself. If the inquirer in any sense looks to circumcision or to baptism, or to church membership to help in his salvation, then he has destroyed the possibility of his salvation because he is not trusting Christ alone for redemption, for our Lord will not accept a divided heart. Thus the practice of sacramentarian baptism and of probationary membership may open the door for the unregenerate to enter the churches.

So far as the writer knows Baptists are the only people who are entirely free from infant baptism, on the one hand, and from sacramentarian baptism on the other. We condition salvation for all alike on simple, personal faith in Christ. We admit into our churches only those who have, or who profess to have, this saving faith. Thus Baptist principles strictly applied will admit to church membership only those who are converted, which is the first proposition laid down in the opening paragraph of this paper; whereas, the principles of other denominations strictly applied will include in church membership some who are not converted, which is the second proposition affirmed in this argument.

III. In the third place, it is just to inquire into the correctness of the Baptist position. Ought we to have only converted persons in our churches? Should churches be pure spiritual bodies? We answer these questions in the affirmative. The proposition submitted is this: Only the regenerate should be members of a church because of what a church is and does; and we appeal to sound reason and obvious Scripture teaching to support this proposition.

The Greek word for church (ekklesia} means ”the called out.” Only those can be called who can hear and who can come. This recognizes intelligence and voluntariness as necessary qualifications of the called. God is calling on men to believe in Christ that he may organize them into churches to whom he will commit his word (1 Tim. 3:15) and his work (Matt. 28:19, 20). In the nature of the case, only those can answer this call who can understand its conditions, and who will voluntarily comply with its requirements, and who are qualified and competent to discharge the duties imposed. God does not refuse as coworkers men of humble gifts and children who have reached the years of discretion; but he does require willing loyalty and intelligent obedience. All who answer the call must be workers, though they are not to be perfect workers. Capacity then is the necessary qualification in the called rather than competency. It would be absurd to think that God would lay the duties above mentioned upon those who could not, or upon those who would not, discharge them. Our Lord would not exhort impotent infants or unwilling unbelievers to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Hence it follows from the very work required of the churches that their members should all be active, intelligent, spiritual agents.

The New Testament history is in exact accord with this conclusion. Search the record and you will find no instance of a professedly unconverted man being baptized. There were doubtless hypocrites like Ananias (Acts 5 13) who came in under pretense of faith; but the one aim of our Lord and his followers was to recruit to their service only regenerate men to whom the work could be committed. Naturally enough those churches would receive into membership only those who could help in the work; and so baptism was refused to infants and unbelievers. The writer feels that in justice he must state that no denomination would advocate the admission of professedly unconverted adults into the church; but the practice of infant baptism and sacramentarian baptism will bring unconverted adults into these churches, and this is ample apology for the extended argument above on these two points.

Our Baptist churches in refusing to receive members in either of these ways are in exact line with New Testament precedent; and our practice of requiring an intelligent faith before baptism, and faith and baptism before church membership, is the only sure way of bringing into the churches the same kind of material that came into the Apostolic churches of the New Testament era.

We must look to the Scripture for more explicit instruction. If we would know the qualifications for church membership, let us read Acts 2:41-47. Every person which the Lord added to that Jerusalem church was converted. Here is the description of them: They ”received his word,” were ”baptized,” and ”continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship,” etc., etc. Surely these terms can not apply to infants or to unbelievers; there were none such in that Jerusalem church. In Acts 11:21 we have a description of the material which was gathered into the church at Antioch: ”A great number believed and turned unto the Lord.’’’ Under these conditions there could be no infants in the Antioch church. A duty is required of church members which none but intelligent converts can discharge: ”Give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.” 1 Pet. 3:15. Infants and unbelievers can not do this. The discourses of Jesus, and the Epistles of Paul. Peter and John are all addressed to intelligent, spiritual agents. The saints are those who can serve. The argument from Scripture is cumulative and conclusive that all church members should be converted. The reason is that God wants in his churches only spiritual workers to do his spiritual work. Baptist practice is in exact accord with this Scripture principle.

To admit the unconverted into the churches is to destroy the very nature of the church. When we speak of a church being a pure spiritual body we mean it has in its membership only those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ. We have proved from Scripture that only the regenerate should be admitted to church membership; hence to receive the unregenerate would pervert the very nature of a gospel church. A church is the body of Christ, 1 Cor. 12 :12-21; it is a big composite body made up of individual believers who belong to it as organs and members. Each member of this body must be alive, that is he must be converted; he must by the power of the Holy Spirit be competent to discharge the spiritual functions of a member of the spiritual body of a church. The living Christ dwells in this body; through it he speaks, and in it he walks and works (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16). Now, if through infant or sacramentarian baptism, or through probationary membership, the unconverted are brought into a church, then Christ’s body has become afflicted with dead members, and the very nature of that church is perverted and its work hindered.

The importance of this doctrine can hardly be overestimated. There are many who honestly misconceive the nature and mission of the church. A church is not a nursery for infants, nor an infirmary for the ungodly, nor a refuge for the unbelieving and the indifferent; it is a recruiting station for the soldiers of the cross, every one of whom is commanded to fight the good fight of faith. To change the figure, ”the church is a force not a field.” The world is the field, and the church is the force to work the field. The work is spiritual and the force must be spiritual. It will not do to have in an army those who are not soldiers, or in this force those who are not workers. Hence we see from its very nature that there is no place in a Christian church for the unconverted. From an understanding of this doctrine we Baptists limit church membership to those who profess conversion. We hold that scripture and reason support our position that a church is a pure spiritual body and that none but the regenerate are to be received into its membership. Relying on this truth, we reject infant and sacramentarian baptism, we refuse probationary membership, and we require an intelligent profession of faith before baptism, and faith and baptism before church membership. We contend that these requirements are the only true safe-guards for the spirituality of the churches; and being the only people who hold these doctrines in their purity and simplicity, we affirm that Baptist principles are the only tenets which will inevitably bring the churches to the New Testament standard of membership. Only as churches are pure spiritual forces can they accomplish their true spiritual mission in this world.

This is a proud position which we occupy but we do not hold it proudly. These doctrines beget humility, sympathy, and mighty dependence on God. If we hold this high standard of church membership, then we assume a high standard of duty. If we are all God’s children then we should all ”do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God,” Mi. 6:8. In a peculiar sense we should ”do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith,” Gal. 6:10. We should be conspicuous in works of charity and love, and foremost of all in preaching the gospel to the world. If in fact ours is the best doctrine, then we should be the best people and have the best churches. And so the claims set forth in this paper do not exalt us, they humble us and fill us with love for all humanity.

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