One of the most frequent questions that I get from professing Christians is, “Why do I have to be a member of a church?” Over the course of the years the character of that question has increasingly shifted from honest inquiry to incredulous accusation. In fact I am no longer surprised when believers get angry at me for insisting that sincere discipleship requires church membership. Low and erroneous views of the church are so rampant even among conservative, Bible believing Christians that any congregation that does not exercise extreme care in receiving members is sure to find itself a large percentage of mere “paper members” whose names appear on the roll but whose bodies are largely absent from most gatherings and fellowship and ministry initiatives.
Baptists in former days saw the issue quite differently. Membership mattered to the early Baptist churches in England and America in the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, it would have been inconceivable for those early Baptists to regard membership in a local congregation as optional or incidental.
Imagine if the following convictions about the church were commonplace today among professing Christians:
In exercising the authority entrusted to him, the Lord Jesus, through the ministry of his Word, by his Spirit, calls to himself out of the world those who are given to him by his Father. They are called so that they will live before him in all the ways of obedience that he prescribes for them in his Word. Those who are called he commands to live together in local societies, or churches, for their mutual edification and the fitting conduct of public worship that he requires of them while they are in the world.
The members of these churches are saints by calling, visibly displaying and demonstrating in and by their profession and life their obedience to the call of Christ. They willingly agree to live together according to Christ’s instructions, giving themselves to the Lord and to one another by the will of God, with the stated purpose of following the ordinances of the Gospel.
What would a congregation be like if all the members believed this and all the leaders helped the membership live according to these convictions? It would be a beautiful thing. It would be a community of believers whose lives together demonstrate the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Their living would commend their preaching.
That was at the heart of the original vision of church life among early Baptists. The paragraphs quoted above come from chapter 26 of a modern version of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. Because it summarizes biblical teachings on key issues a good confession of faith is an excellent teaching tool for a church. Prospective members can be asked to read it, or at least to read key sections of it, so that they will understand how the church they want to join view issues like polity, membership, worship, evangelism, marriage, scriptural authority, etc. Those who do join a church that has a confession of faith can refer back to it to be encouraged to think biblically about such issues as questions arise.
I am convinced that church life would be significantly upgraded in spiritual vitality if confessions of faith were once again properly regarded and widely used to commend and proclaim basic commitments to biblical teachings.