August 5, 2020

The Church Membership Question: Interview with Dr. Nathan Finn

It’s a genuine honor to have Dr. Nathan Finn, Assistant Professor of Church History at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, as my guest today at Dr. Finn is one of the new academic voices in SBC life speaking strongly for a renewal of serious church membership among Southern Baptists.

Dr. Finn has an A.A. from Waycross College, a B.A. from Brewton-Parker College, and the M.Div. and Ph.D from Southeastern Seminary. He has been teaching at Southeastern since 2006.

His areas of interest include Baptist Studies, American Religious History, Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism and the History of Missions. Dr. Finn’s recent podcast at the Insight blog should be of real interest to IM readers as well.

Dr. Finn has distinguished himself as not only one of the clearest thinkers on the current SBC landscape, but as someone who understands the importance of the blogosphere. He’s a superb writer, and one of the few people in the establishment to be unafraid to have critical engagement with contemporary SBC life.

I want to tell the IM audience that I am more excited about this interview than almost any I’ve conducted. Dr. Finn’s answers on the historical background of the demise of church membership in the SBC and especially his comments on child baptism in our convention are absolutely pure gold.

Dr. Finn, thanks for taking time at what must be a very busy time of the year to answer some questions on church membership. I’m going to try and stay within your areas of expertise and interest, but you wherever you wish in your answers.

1. You’ve written the following: “”The biggest problem in the SBC is our loss of the gospel. It is pervasive. It is often subtle. It is likely accidental, or at least it has not been deliberate. And it is a tragedy. . . . In many corners of the SBC, the gospel has either been redefined, dumbed-down, confused, prostituted, or downplayed. Again, I think almost none of this is deliberate. But it has happened.”

Avoiding for the moment the twenty great questions I could ask from this quote, how does this affect the issue of meaningful church membership in the SBC?

That’s a great question (one of the best of the twenty you could have asked!). I think it’s critically important for Baptist Christians and other evangelicals to understand that the church is a community that is created by the gospel. The church is comprised of individuals who have responded in faith to the good news of all that God is doing to reconcile the world unto himself. When the gospel is eclipsed, churches become something other than the community of the redeemed, even if there are still many individual Christians who participate in the life of that church. The gospel is the reason that the church is different from every other group of like-minded individuals on earth.

Because of the “gospel charter” of the church, it is important to see church membership as a gospel issue. I do not mean to imply that one must be a member of a local church to be saved. There are many believers who identify with something other than a church as their primary Christian community, often a parachurch ministry or informal Bible study. But I do not think this is the way things are meant to be. As I understand the New Testament (and I admit I read it through primarily reformational and baptistic eyes), the church universal is most visibly evident in local churches, each of which is a covenanted community of regenerate believers. To be a Christian was to be part of a church or playing a role in the creation of a new church (as with missionaries). So I believe that the more seriously we take the gospel, the more seriously we will take church membership. Evangelicals must understand that the gospel is more than a checklist of doctrines that is floating around out there, doing little more than animating Reformed conferences and inspiring John Piper books. The gospel is a living truth that gives birth to churches that are comprised of individual, like-minded gospel people.

2. At what point in Southern Baptist history do you begin to see evidences that meaningful church membership- and especially meaningful church discipline- was starting to wane in some quarters? What brought this about?

Let me begin with some background. Most evangelicals have historically argued for the importance of redemptive church discipline. Church discipline is intended to perform two roles. On the one hand, it should help safeguard the gospel purity of a church by protecting it from heresy, sin, and schism. On the other hand, it often functions as a means of grace in the life of the one being disciplined, either bringing strayed Christians to repentance and renewed growth or bringing false professors to genuine repentance and faith in Christ. Baptist Christians have historically given particular emphasis to church discipline because we see it as closely related to the doctrine of regenerate church disciple, which is our foundational Baptist distinctive.

Back to your question itself, I think that church discipline (and meaningful membership in general) began to slowly decline among Southern Baptists around the turn of the 20th century, reaching its height in the latter half of the 20th century. There are several reasons for this turn of events, all of which overlap each other. First, the Convention and her churches began to embrace secular understandings of efficiency and professionalization. This gradually transformed worship services into performances, deacons into trustees or directors, pastors into administrators and CEOs, and members into clients or stockholders. By the 1950s and 1960s, joining a Baptist church was like joining the Rotary Club, except the membership requirements were often more stringent for the latter.

Second, the Convention and her churches became dominated by a programmatic identity that resulted in a pragmatic basis for cooperation. Many of these programs were devoted to enlistment, like “A Million More in ’54,” a push to enroll 1,000,000 new Sunday School members in the 1953-1954 school year. The SBC’s membership push was happening between about 1945 and 1960, when America’s Protestant civil religion was reaching its apex during the Eisenhower years. Becoming a church member, especially in the South and Midwest, was just something that good, red-blooded, middle class Americans did. It was during this time that you began to see increasing disparity between membership records and actual church participation. For most of our history (and this is still true with many Baptists in other parts of the world), local churches had more regular attendees than members because membership was a commitment. By 1960, we were long past those days in the SBC.

Finally, and I think most importantly, Southern Baptists were negatively influenced by at least a couple of outside trends. Progressive Southern Baptists, who are often treated as the bad guys in the contemporary SBC, increasingly rejected or refined traditional orthodoxy, though not to the same degree as mainline liberals or radical theologians. Many progressives embraced a neo-orthodox view of Scripture, embraced the higher-critical method of interpretation, flirted with and sometimes embraced soteriological inclusivism, and in a very few instances out-and-out rejected the virgin birth or bodily resurrection of Christ. The more cosmopolitan many progressives became in their theological convictions, the less emphasis they placed on practices like church discipline.

But progressives were mostly confined to denominational jobs and “First Church” pulpits—the majority of SBC pastors were probably not affected by or even interested in the above theological trends. Many conservative Southern Baptists were influenced by trends that were prevalent in the broader fundamentalist and evangelical movements in the mid-20th century. Many became so singularly focused on evangelism that they essentially redefined the historic Baptist understanding of a local church, at least in practice. Instead of being seen as a covenanted local body of Christ, churches were often little more than outreach centers, a type of weekly, ongoing evangelistic crusade. Other doctrines complemented this approach. A Keswick understanding of holiness emphasized individual “victorious living” to the exclusion of corporate holiness in the church. Classical dispensationalism furthered this individualism because it emphasized the church universal to the virtual exclusion of local churches, considering the church visible to be mostly apostate. Among many dispensationalists, a deficient view of eternal security argued for salvation by sincerity: if you really mean it when you pray the prayer, then you are saved no matter what your life look likes post-conversion. This idea slowly supplanted the traditional view of Christian perseverance among many conservatives, often resulting in antinomianism and false professors. These doctrines resulted in a perfect storm that worked against church discipline: getting them in the church was more important than keeping them in the church or protecting the integrity of the church.

3. When I was in seminary in the early 80’s, I took a course on Baptism from Dr. G.R. Beasley-Murray, the great British Baptist and scholar. I will never forget the day he told our class that Baptist churches in Europe did not receive members until they were at least in the mid-teens. Of course, the majority of preachers in the room had been baptizing children well under the age of ten as a common practice. Is the common practice of baptizing children and receiving them as members an innovation in American Baptist life? How has this practice affected church membership and other areas?

Beasley-Murray was right, and to this day most Baptists in the world do not baptize pre-teens. The only exceptions are Southern Baptists, Independent Baptists, and international groups with strong ties to Southern and Independent Baptists.

Baptizing small children is an innovation in American Baptist life. I think that this is a clear area where we have been influenced by some of the fundamentalists, though it worked in tandem with our home-grown programmatic emphasis on enlistment. The average age of baptism increasingly declined during the 20th century. In 1995, the old Home Mission Board published a study that showed the only age group where baptisms were increasing was the “under 5” category. I have a hard time seeing how this makes us very different than pedobaptists. A perusal of church records and associational minutes will show that our American Baptist forefathers did not regularly baptize pre-teens, though there were occasional exceptions when a child gave extraordinary evidence of both genuine conversion and an understanding of the cost of discipleship as entailed through meaningful church membership.

The practice of baptizing pre-teens has affected church membership in a number of ways. First, it has contributed to the growth of our membership roles—the majority of our baptisms are of elementary aged children and preschoolers. Second, it has contributed to the phenomena of multiple “baptisms” and rededications as teenagers and adults have to assess the validity of childhood spiritual decisions that they can sometimes hardly remember. Third, when coupled with an inadequate view of eternal security, it has led to millions of inactive members who are convinced they are Christians because they walked the aisle as a kindergartener during Vacation Bible School forty years ago. Finally, it has greatly contributed to the decline in redemptive church discipline: what church wants to discipline an eleven year old for having premarital sex, vocal racism, or habitually getting into fistfights with his classmates?

I do want to offer one clarification before moving on. I think it is very possible for small children to be regenerated. There are many people I know who can clearly remember being converted at a relatively young age. But being able to understand the basics of sin, judgment, redemption, and faith and being able to maturely covenant in membership with a local church are two different things, in my opinion. Some will argue that virtually all of the New Testament baptisms happen almost immediately after conversion. This is true. I would respond that almost all New Testament examples are clearly adults who are older than even teenagers. Furthermore, we have absolutely zero examples in the New Testament of when to baptize children who are raised in Christian families. Our pedobaptist friends address this situation by baptizing infants. Most Southern Baptists and Independent Baptists address this by baptizing anyone who can articulate a prayer for salvation. I am an old-fashioned Baptist who believes we should withhold baptism until a child is old enough to publicly identify with a local church through covenant, meaningful membership, though I would be reluctant to arbitrarily set a particular age requirement for baptism.

4. Many people would say that the traditional concept and practices of Baptist church membership come from a time and a rural culture that have now passed by, and the lifestyle of the typical contemporary Christian makes our Baptist concept of church membership irrelevant. Why is church membership still important in a postmodern culture that sees on-line community and downloaded sermons as normative?

This is a very relevant question. Church membership is about more than mere affinity. If it was about like-mindedness alone there would be many viable alternatives to membership. As I mentioned above, I am like-minded with European Baptists on the age of baptism issue. If affinity alone was the basis of church membership I could become a part of a chat-room with some Croatian Baptists and forget about my local church in Durham (which, for the record, shares my baptismal convictions).

But church membership is about more than affinity. It is about authentic community, which I still believe primarily occurs in a face-to-face context. How can you covenant with, hold accountable, and share in the everyday lives of people you never see in person? There is a geographic component to church membership.

Church membership is also about more than a particular preacher or teacher. I listen to my share of sermons online, but only my pastors regularly preach to me. Only they understand the particularly needs of our congregation because they are part of our congregation. There is a contextual component to church membership that comes out especially in preaching and teaching.

For the record, I reject the idea that “the traditional concept and practices of Baptist church membership come from a time and a rural culture that have now passed by.” First of all, it has not passed by in many places—drive around the rural South for a couple of hours! Second, many other Christian groups through church history would agree with what I said in the previous paragraphs; these ideas are not “Southern Baptist” ideas. Online communities and sermons are wonderful aids in our Christian walk, but they do not and cannot take the place of real community as embodied in local church membership.

5. In the previous interview, I asked Jonathan Leeman if we can offer assurance of salvation to those who remain outside of local church membership. Here is his answer: “Let me answer that two ways. First, Jesus gave the local church the explicit authority to give such assurance through membership (Matt. 16:19; 18:18-19; John 20:23). No other individual or institution on earth has been given the authority to give assurance. Second, and more to your question, I would argue that the person who claims to be a member of the church (universal) without being a member of a church (local) is in an analogous position to the person who claims to be righteous in Christ (by position) but does not pursue a life of righteousness (in practice). In other words, let me propose that such a person is in a very dangerous position, and it raises real questions about the nature of their “faith.”

What is your response to the same question? Can we offer assurance of salvation to the person who is not a church member?

I would agree with Jonathan, with one caveat. As I mentioned in my answer to your first question, I think there are individuals who have substituted involvement in a non-church ministry for local church membership. I think many of these folks clearly have faith in Christ, but they are confused about the nature of the church. So while I agree in principle with Jonathan (and IX Marks has influenced much of my thinking on church membership), I would want to note that many Christians who reject the notion of church membership have not rejected the concept of covenanted Christian community—they simply look to the wrong places as the primary locus of such community.

6. Charles Spurgeon took one night a week and personally interviewed every person who came to join his church. What does this tell us about the role of the pastor in dealing with the issue of meaningful church membership?

I believe that pastors should interview every individual who desires church membership. I am not opposed to training other church memberships to participate in some steps of the membership process, but it is ultimately the church’s pastors who are accountable before God for that particular congregation. Pastors have to both model meaningful church membership (as they should model the Christian life in general) and labor to preserve meaningful church membership insofar as is humanly possible.

7. Can Baptists practice church discipline in a litigious culture or is a church that actually practices church discipline inevitably going to be viewed as an abusive cult?

I think you are actually asking two different but related questions. Can Baptists practice church discipline in a litigious culture? Yes, but it must be done wisely and compassionately. From a wisdom standpoint, churches need to adopt procedures in their legal documents and perhaps also in position papers that all church members understand and agree to by virtue of their membership. While this would not necessarily preclude litigation, it would go a long way toward protecting the church in such instances. This is why pastors should, as a general rule, spend considerable time teaching on church discipline and allowing church members to come around to embracing the concept for themselves before taking the step of actually enacting discipline.

From a compassion standpoint, churches must avoid the twin dangers of recklessness and punitive intentions in their discipline. Churches must be wise in when and how they pursue discipline, and they must always be willing to end church discipline at the moment that repentance occurs. Churches cannot act like the ambitious hall monitor who is always on the prowl looking for someone to nail with a detention slip. Churches must also remember that church discipline is redemptive, not punitive. We do not discipline to punish; we discipline to rescue the perishing and preserve the integrity of the church. If we practice church discipline compassionately and wisely, I think the likelihood of litigation is diminished, though it is always a possibility.

Will Baptists be viewed as an abusive cult? Perhaps. This is another reason why it is so important to be compassionate and wise in our church discipline practices. We cannot control the fact that many non-Christians will abhor church discipline in principle. This has always been the case. We cannot compromise on this biblical principle in an effort to accommodate our critics. But we can control the manner in which we teach about and pursue discipline, trying our best to refrain from being offensive, pugnacious, or punitive. Let’s allow the gospel (and practices that flow from the gospel) to be the stumbling block, not our attitudes.

Dr. Finn, thanks for your time and responses. God bless your ministry


  1. RonH (yes, *the* RonH) says

    Dr. Finn’s answer to #3 raises some tricky issues. Assuming a church withholds baptism until a child is “old enough”, what does one do with families who come to one’s church whose children were baptized elsewhere but would be considered too young at their new church? If their baptisms are invalidated, this hardly addresses “the phenomena of multiple ‘baptisms’ and rededications as teenagers” — in fact, it arguably worsens it. However, if you accept their baptisms you are employing a double standard in which you’re accepting baptisms you wouldn’t administer. If you tie communion to baptism (as most “old fashioned” Baptists do), you can easily end up with situations in which a seven-year-old is allowed to partake (since she was baptized at First Baptist the year before), but her 11-year-old friend sitting next to her isn’t because the church considers her too young to be baptized. This is *not* sending a good message to the 11-year-old (i.e. “your friend who just joined gets to be one of us on a technicality, but you’re still not”).

    I hear voices articulating problems with the way SBC churches are handling baptisms, and I agree there are problems. But I have yet to hear any of these voices articulate a way *out* of this situation without the collateral damage which would be inflicted on many of our kids. (Or adults, for that matter. I was baptized at age six. I barely remember it. Am I unbaptized?)

    The Puritans were pretty cautious about who they baptized also. Which is one of the reasons there aren’t any more Puritans.

  2. Some of my aunts and uncles are devout Southern Baptists, though my parents were Methodist. I have been intruiged by many recent mentions here of church discipline. There don’t seem to be many internet resources available to tell me what exactly is meant by church discipline, iMonk. I don’t want to buy a book. Can anyone give a somewhat detailed explanation of what this looks like in the real world? (I’m familiar with the Scriptural basis for church discipline.)
    Still love this blog, by the way, and hope that all is well… all manner of things will be well (reference: Dame Julian of Norwich) with you and your family.

  3. I’m anal enough to follow up with apologies for misspelling ‘intriguing.’

  4. I don’t believe anyone is ever even thinking of “invalidating” a baptism. What might be different is whether the child is received as a full church member.

    Baptists have a category for those who are part of a congregation but not fully members: “Watchcare.” Such a category- or similar- would be how that situation would be handled. Baptism wouldn’t be “invalid.” At least as I read his answer.

    Good to hear from you.



  5. I don’t have a problem not receiving a baptized child as a full church member. However, Dr. Finn was suggesting that a child shouldn’t be baptized until he is old enough to enter into a membership covenant. My point was that this practice has a side effect. Most Baptists I know of the Reformed variety believe that only baptized persons should take communion (aka Lord’s Supper). If you postpone baptism for the sake of church membership, you’re also postponing participation in communion. That’s fine in principle… This is how Anabaptist groups like the Amish and Hutterites do things. However, in the case of the 7-year-old who was baptized at another church, what do you do? I don’t have a problem with withholding full membership, but would you withhold communion on the same grounds? I personally have never heard of a Baptist church refusing communion to baptized children, even when those kids aren’t considered full members. But if at the same time you bar non-baptized persons from communion, it gives rise to the situation I mentioned where the 7-year-old is communed “on a technicality” and the 11-year-old isn’t because effectively she’s considered to be too young for membership.

    I’m all for the SBC getting a grip on its idea of membership (I attend an SBC, Founders-friendly church). However, I get concerned that in zeal for purity we may end up doing harm to our own children. I welcome the calls for membership reform, but I have yet to read anyone addressing the problems that arise when practices across SBC churches are still so divergent.

  6. I guess I am just not hung up on this. I have been in youth work my entire adult life, and if I had to tell a new family that at our church, full membership including communion was reserved for those age 12 and over, I wouldn’t hesitate to have that conversation. I also wouldn’t be surprised if a family with a baptized child choose not to come to a church on account of that policy, but that is something you deal with up front.

    I am not so sure that young people are as likely to advocate full church membership for children as many adults think.

    I see it could be a bit of a bump, but it would be a small one with a family who was choosing a church that was open about a more serious approach. I can’t imagine this family would be surprised after the fact.

  7. I have no major problem with the policy you’ve articulated. IMO, it’s the only consistent approach a Baptist can take. I’ve also never run across a church that does that (I’m not making a statement about how common those churches are… just that I’ve never encountered one). What I *have* seen are kids, roughly the same age, where one is served communion and the other isn’t because the first was “fortunate” enough to have been baptized in a church that baptizes young kids and the second wasn’t (both having made professions of faith, of course). While I completely agree with you that the full membership thing isn’t an issue for kids (or even youth), I think the communion thing *is* (especially if the church does it with any degree of regularity and actually presents it as significant). More specifically, being inconsistent about its administration communicates something distinctly negative to our kids.

    Your approach is practical. Unfortunately, I’ve never encountered it in practice and I’ve never heard it described by advocates of raising the age for baptism.

  8. I find this discussion interesting in that Dr. Finn seems to assume that baptism equals church membership. If we drop that assumption, baptism equals obedience unto Christ as a one who has received salvation in Christ Jesus. Then church membership is about this question: To which local church does a baptized believer give one’s commitment/join in covenant community?

    I also find it interesting the assumption (in the midst of this discussion) that only church members can participate in communion, but isn’t communion for all baptized believers?

  9. Michael,
    Good questions. Good answers. Very helpful interview. Thanks.

  10. Michael,

    This interview is tremendous, and I’d like to thank Dr. Finn for his answers. This conversation is especially pertinent to the church I pastor and I’ve forwarded this on to a number of folks in our church. We’re having this kind of conversation right now. It is a difficult, occasionally painful, but ultimately worthwhile topic to consider and appropriately act upon.

    It certainly is the issue for our times, at least as far as Baptists are concerned.

    Again, many thanks.

    Wyman Richardson

  11. I find it hard to believe that you can put an age to someone’s ability to express their conversion experience or their understanding of what church membership entails. I know those under the age of 10 who very well know whom they have believed in, as well as understand the serious comittment involved in true church communion. By the same token, I know those in their ’30s that would have problems with both. Another reason to have the pastor interview the candidate for both baptism and membership and make the determination based on the individual regardless of age.

  12. Hello,

    A little off topic. What about the mentally handicapped and baptism? How do Baptists approach that situation?

    Just curious.