An Unregenerate Denomination?

In May, John Hammett, professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina made a special plea to the students gathered for chapel to take the issue of regenerate church membership seriously. Each semester a faculty member at Southeastern is asked to speak in a chapel service on a topic of particular interest to them. Dr. Hammett chose well.

The long Southern Baptist tradition of a “pray the prayer” or “walk the aisle” understanding of conversion has left our church rolls full of unregenerate church members. Professor Hammett told the students that the greatest problem facing Southern Baptists is not the surrounding secular culture but a Southern Baptist culture that seems to have lost sight of the necessity of regeneration in church membership. He decried the common practice of allowing people to join Southern Baptist churches without any interview process or means of accountability.

If you doubt the problem is pervasive then consider that Southern Baptists report some 16.5 million members. We often boast in the fact that we are the largest protestant denomination in the world. However, by our churches own reporting, the actual weekly attendance in Southern Baptist Churches is between 35 and 40% of the 16.5 million. This begs the question, “Where have all the Baptists gone?” In our fervency to up the attendance of our churches and inflate the number of baptisms that we report each year, we have too often looked the other way as our churches have received into membership people who show no evidence of genuine conversion. Why is it that some of our largest churches increase in attendance by only a fraction of the total number of the multiple hundreds they report to have baptized each year?

This summer, Southern Baptist churches will baptize God knows how many youth after camp and children after VBS without any genuine attempt to confirm the genuineness of their profession. It would be hard for me to quantify the number of adults I have spoken to who have reported their own spurious childhood conversions. They raised a hand at VBS or walked an aisle at camp and were quickly assured by a well-meaning pastor that they need never question the assurance of their salvation. Only in adulthood have they realized that there never was evidence of a truly changed heart.

Dr. Hammett suggested four reasons why a regenerate church membership is a “battle worth fighting”: It maintains a corporate witness; it insures a corporate health; it produces a love for unregenerate church members; and it honors and glorifies Christ. Further, Hammett proposed that churches compose covenants outlining the responsibilities of church membership that incoming members must sign. He also urged that churches reform their requirements for baptism and restore the practice of biblical church discipline. Wise counsel indeed.

I am astounded that the denomination that often refers to itself as “people of the Book” can get it so wrong in the most fundamental issue of all – regeneration. Contradicting Scripture, some of our most prominent pastors have preached and written that spiritual fruitfulness has no bearing on one’s salvation (Matt 24:13; II Cor 13:5; II Peter 1:10). Rather, they rely on unbiblical slogans like “once saved always saved” and assert that so long as someone prays the prayer they are “in” regardless of the contradictory evidence of an unchanged heart. If you don’t believe me then read Charles Stanley’s irresponsible book Eternal Security.

I am frightened by the notion of ever giving false assurance of salvation to someone who is not truly regenerate. Don’t misunderstand. Christians should not go through life doubting their salvation. Full assurance of salvation is a wonderful, Spirit wrought blessing. I fully affirm perseverance of the saints or the eternal security of genuine converts. But I wholly reject the eternal presumption of spurious converts.

I owe the details of Dr. Hammett’s speech to a May 8, 2007 Baptist Press article by Joy Rancatore.