It is of prime importance to have well grounded and settled in the mind the correct idea as to what constitutes a true church of Jesus Christ, and of the frame-work or material of which this habitation of our God is builded at the very threshold of a Christian life, else the interpretations of its polity and doctrines must be confused and erroneous, and will continually diverge from the true and only standard - the New Testament.
A church is a congregation of baptized believers united in a holy covenant to observe the teachings and execute the will of Christ. A church is a local body of disciples, meeting in one place for worship. Still, it must be remembered that the term church is used in the New Testament in another sense. In some passages it would be erroneous to say that the term church as there used applies to a particular local congregation of believers
meeting in one place to worship God. Among these passages may be cited Ephesians 1:22 : "And hath put all things under His feet and gave Him to be the head over all things to the church." Also 3:21: "Unto Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end." Also chapter 5:25: "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it." Also Matthew 16:18: "Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church."
But at the same time it must be noted that in these passages and a few others of the same import the term church is used in a figurative sense only, corresponding with the oft-repeated expressions of "the kingdom of heaven," "the kingdom of God," etc. But in a very large majority of instances it is used in the Scriptures to denote a local body, united by a common faith in Christ. To this agree such ever recurring expressions as "the church of Jerusalem," "the church of God, which is at Corinth, "the church of the Thessalonians," "the church of Ephesus," "the churches of Asia," "the churches throughout all Judea," "the church in Pergamos," and others.
This, doubtless, is the primary meaning of the term. It is accepted everywhere by Baptists that there can be no such thing as "the Baptist church;" that there is no general Baptist church under one government ; but that the separate, independent churches, holding in the main a common faith, constitute the Baptist denomination. A confederation of religious bodies, combined under one government, or a system of ecclesiasticism uniting all of the same faith into one hierarchy, as in other denominations, is not a Christian church, according to any known
authority of the New Testament, although such a designation is often so given by men.
Neither can there properly be any such thing as a national church in the true sense of that term. "The English church," "the church of Home," "the Russian church," are misleading expressions, wholly unauthorized by the divine Founder, and are dishonoring to Him. The New Hampshire Confession of Faith, which is now most generally adopted by Baptists, defines a church as follows:
"A visible church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the Gospel; observing the ordinances of Christ, governed by His law ; exercising the gifts, rights and privileges invested in them by His Word."
Baptists reject all those fictitious conceptions of what a church is, having origin wholly without the Bible, and they adhere strictly to the New Testament idea of a Christian church as the only divinely organized body on the earth, each church being "an habitation of God through the Spirit," "a building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord," combining these essentials: (1) That it be made up of the right materials, to-wit, baptized believers; (2) that it be fitly framed together, and (3) that God dwell in it.
This leads us to consider who can properly be a member of a church, as above defined. Who can form an integral part of a gospel church? Who are fit material for the frame-work of this habitation of God? The spiritual prerequisites of church membership, according to New Testament teaching, as understood by Baptists, are, first of all:
1. Repentance. - In the very "beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ," at the very dawn of the light of Christianity, the very first note that was heard was the voice of John the Baptist heralding the everlasting kingdom with the proclamation, "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Soon the voice of the Christ was heard in Galilee saying, "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and believe the Gospel.'' Later, when the apostles were commissioned, they preached "that men should repent." Jesus said after His resurrection, "Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name." On the day of Pentecost Peter said, "Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ." And Paul said at Athens, "God commands all men everywhere to repent." Repentance is interwoven in the very texture of the Gospel.
2. Faith. - Following repentance there must be faith in Christ. In the economy of grace faith is exalted to the highest importance. The Scriptures are full of it, as is shown by such passages as "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life;" "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved;" "Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ;" "Being justified by faith, we have peace with God;" "By grace are ye saved through faith;" and "Without faith it is impossible to please God." From these and many other passages of the same import it very clearly appears that saving faith gives the believer his power with God, and is "the mightiest instrument ever used by mortals." Saving faith unites the soul to God and bestows upon it His mighty strength ; infuses into it Almighty impulses; extends to it His all-prevailing
intercession and mediation, and imputes to it His spotless righteousness. Faith is the gift of God.
3. Regeneration. - It would scarcely seem necessary to refer to regeneration as a distinctive prerequisite to church membership, after what has been written of repentance and faith; they necessarily include regeneration, and they are co-existent. Every person who has repented and believed is a regenerate person; "has become a new creature in Christ;" "is born again;" "born of the Spirit," and "quickened together with Christ." If faith, then, is required, regeneration must also be as a prerequisite to baptism and church membership. Having seen what are the moral prerequisites to church membership, it remains for us to inquire what ceremony is required to bring a believer, a regenerated person, into church relations in a visible church.
Pendleton designates baptism as the ceremonial qualification for church membership. Wm. Croell, in his excellent work, refers to baptism as a perpetual ordinance, symbolizing the separation of believers from the world, their spiritual union to Christ, and visible union to the church. Hiscox truthfully says that without baptism there could be no Christian churches. There is no other way by which one can be received as a member of the church except through baptism, which is a public confession of faith in Christ, and without which no evidence of fitness for church membership becomes apparent. The Confession of Faith of the London Baptists of 1611 says: "Every church is to receive in all
their members by baptism upon a confession of their faith." The Confession of 1646 says: "The church is a company of visible saints, baptized into the faith and joined to the Lord, which is a visible profession of the faith of the Gospel." The New Hampshire Confession of Faith declares "that a visible church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers." Surely nothing more can be demanded to show that the views of Baptists have ever been that there can be no visible church without baptism. And that this is the Bible view clearly appears from the very terms of the great commission, "Go teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Following closely upon the giving of this high commission, which is never to be annulled, Pentecost occurred, and at the preaching of Peter thousands accepted salvation, and the inspired record reads: "Then they that gladly received His word were baptized, and the same day there were added unto them about 3,000 souls;" and "The Lord added to the church daily the saved." We conclude, therefore, that there can be nothing more certain than that baptism is prerequisite to church membership.
Fuller said in introducing his A History of Texas Baptists:
"In entering upon a detailed history of the Baptists and Baptist churches of this great Commonwealth, it seems proper that this should be preceded by a resume of the faith and polity of Baptists, as held and practiced in all ages of their history, and which distinguish them still as a peculiar people." - Jim Duvall
The entire book may be found here
[From Benjamin F. Fuller's first chapter of A History of Texas Baptists, 1900, pp. 11-16. - Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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