On Covenantal Church Membership
During the Reformation era, different Christian groups were wrestling with the best way to think about the biblical covenants and their relationship to ecclesiology. Though there was some diversity early on, as a general rule Reformed thinkers argued that all of the biblical covenants were historical administrations of a single covenant of grace. From this presupposition, most of the Reformed argued that covenantal infant baptism was a better baptismal theology than the sacerdotal pedobaptism of Catholics and many Lutherans. Covenant theology continues to be the dominant view of Reformed pedobaptists and, with some significant baptismal variations, some Calvinistic Baptists.
Orthodox Anabaptists took a different route than the Reformed pedobaptists. Most Anabaptists denied the existence of a covenant of grace and focused on the uniqueness of each individual biblical covenant. Some Anabaptists also advocated a form of covenantal credobaptism by arguing that confessor baptism represented a binding covenant between the believer and God wherein the believer pledges himself to God and His church through the obedience of credobaptism. Though the covenant language is rarely invoked, the spirit of this idea lives on in many Free Church traditions, including among many Southern Baptists. (I’ve often heard baptism referred to as the new Christian’s “first act of obedience.”)
The English Separatists embraced the covenant theology of the wider Reformed tradition, but they were more radical in their ecclesiology because the earliest Separatists rejected the concept of a state church. (Unfortunately, they snuggled up with Caesar after migrating to New England.) This rejection helped contribute to the development of a covenantal ecclesiology among the Separatists. The Separatists agreed with the Anabaptists in advocating a believer’s church comprised of presumably regenerate individuals, though unlike the Anabaptists the Separatists continued to embrace covenantal pedobaptism. The unique Separatist contribution was organizing their churches around written covenants that obligated members to walk together under the lordship of Christ for the sake of their individual and collective sanctification.
A growing number of Separatists began embracing credobaptism in the generation between 1609 and 1650. These Separatists-turned-Baptists maintained their commitment to a covenantal ecclesiology, including the General Baptists who rejected belief in an eternal covenant of grace. By the mid-seventeenth century, there were at least four distinct groups of English Baptists: the Calvinistic Particular Baptists, the Calvinistic Independent Baptists (who embraced open membership), the Arminian-leaning General Baptists, and the soteriologically diverse Seventh Day Baptists (who worshiped on Saturdays). Each of these groups advocated not only a regenerate church membership, but following their Separatist forebears they also embraced a covenantal membership.
A commitment to a regenerate church membership organized around a written covenant also characterized most Baptist churches in America, especially by the turn of the eighteenth century. Though early on most churches adopted their own unique covenants, after the publication of J. Newton Brown’s Baptist Church Manual in 1853 (still in print today), the model covenant he included in his influential volume became the most widely used covenant among Baptist churches in America. This is the church covenant that Broadman Press reproduced in poster or plaque form that still adorns the sanctuaries and fellowship halls of thousands of Southern Baptist churches. Unfortunately, the very ease of adopting Brown’s standard covenant contributed to the downplaying of a covenantal ecclesiology among two or three generations of Southern Baptists.
Over the past decade or so, my own church, First Baptist Church of Durham, has reemphasized a covenantal view of membership. This is demonstrated several times a year during our corporate worship gathering when a new group of prospective members stands before our church body, introduces themselves, and publicly expresses their desire to join our church. At some point prior to the gathering, these individuals have already met with one of our pastors and participated in a prospective member class. After the introductions, all of our members stand and recite our church’s covenant in unison while the prospective members publicly sign a copy of the covenant. It is always a meaningful time in the life of our church. Within a couple of weeks after the public covenanting, we have a member’s meeting where we vote to formally receive these brothers and sisters in Christ into our church’s membership.
I’ve been greatly encouraged in recent years to see the recovery of a covenantal, regenerate church membership among many other Southern Baptist churches besides my own. I suspect that even more Southern Baptist churches will (re-) embrace a covenantal ecclesiology as we continue to emphasize greater clarity in gospel proclamation, the centrality of both evangelism and discipleship, and the importance of redemptive church discipline. By God’s grace, these seem to be areas where Southern Baptists of many different stripes and emphases are in substantial agreement. We should rejoice in this trend and labor together to advance it further for the sake of the health of our churches.
(Note: This post is also published today at Between the Times.)