Baptist churches have always been free churches as opposed to state churches. Historically, in a state church setting, infants who were born into the church’s territory were simply baptized as a matter of course into the membership of the church. Church membership was not regarded as an act of personal commitment but simply as an aspect of one’s identity from birth.
Free churches, by contrast, operate apart from the state. Baptist churches, as a subcategory of free churches, require a personal act of voluntary commitment on the part of one seeking membership. Infants, who are incapable of performing such an act, cannot become members, and therefore they are not the proper subjects of baptism. Only those who profess faith in Jesus Christ are to be baptized and, as a result, are to become members of a local church.
This historic Baptist principle creates the expectation that church membership is a meaningful commitment. Early Baptists regarded their members as entering into covenant with the local churches they joined, committing themselves to submission to the authority of that local congregation. Such submission entails a commitment to live a life of holiness that makes one distinct from the unbelieving world, to love one’s fellow church members, to serve them, to gather with them regularly, and to submit to the oversight and discipline of the church as it is led by its officers. This commitment obviously does not entail sinless perfection (which Baptists, in good Calvinist fashion, have always denied is possible in this life), but rather a willingness to repent and seek forgiveness for one’s failures. Failure to live up to such a covenantal commitment on the part of any given church member results in correction from one’s fellow believers, a process that escalates (in the absence of repentance) and ultimately results in removal from the fellowship of the church if that step becomes necessary (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5).
The historic Baptist view of church membership, in other words, regarded it as an act of willing and joyful submission to authority. Church members shared their lives with one another, and willingly invited their congregations to oversee them and correct them when needed. Today, unfortunately, I don’t think the majority of Baptists (or evangelicals more broadly) think of membership in these terms. Instead of submission to the Christ-ordained authority of a local congregation, most people today think of joining a church similar to the way they might think of joining a country club: In doing so, I get my name on the list with a group of others who belong, I receive certain benefits from the organization, but I am free to be as little involved or as much involved as I desire. I retain authority over my life, and I make no commitment to an external authority. If any country club member expresses concern that I haven’t been there to play golf in a long time, I am completely free to tell him that is none of his business, thank you very much. One major difference, however, is that at least country clubs require you to pay your dues, whereas church membership is usually free!
We desperately need to recover an understanding that membership in a local church means submission to that congregation’s authority and, thus, a willful sharing of your life with them. It means making a commitment to invest yourself into the good of that congregation and to welcome its oversight in your life. The community that results when church members mutually pledge themselves to one another in this way is a vivid demonstration to the world of the power of the gospel. Healthy churches with meaningful membership, therefore, are an essential component in God’s mission to spread the gospel to all nations. He has not sent us into the world as isolated individuals, but rather as congregations who are distinguished from the world preeminently by the way we love: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Ultimately, membership in a local church is an act of love, which necessarily means it is an act of giving oneself to others. It is far, far more than membership in a club.