EDMOND, Okla. (BP)–Elders of Henderson Hills Baptist Church decided against proceeding with a church-wide vote July 30 on a proposal to remove baptism as a requirement for church membership. The proposed change had stirred interest in Southern Baptist circles across the nation in recent weeks.
Henderson Hills pastor Dennis Newkirk, in an extended entry on his weblog July 31, stated that the church’s 16 elders are “no longer in consensus that we are ready to move forward.”
Unanimity is required for Henderson Hills’ elders to put a proposal before the congregation, Newkirk wrote. “At least one of us has an issue that has not been resolved.” (The church’s website lists 17 members of the elder council, two of whom are on sabbatical.)
Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma Executive Director-Treasurer Anthony Jordan voiced support for the elders’ decision.
“Dr. Dennis Newkirk and the elders of Henderson Hills Church have demonstrated admirable leadership, discernment and wisdom in their decision to suspend the church’s vote regarding membership requirements at HHBC,” Jordan said. “It is obvious church leaders have given deep consideration and thoughtful prayer concerning God’s will and direction for the church. Their sensitivity to the broader impact of their decision is to be applauded. We look to the future as we continue to reach the world together with the life-changing message of Jesus Christ.”
Jordan had voiced opposition to the proposed change in the July 13 and 20 editions of the convention’s newsjournal, the Baptist Messenger, which also carried reflections from Newkirk in defense of the church’s deliberations.
The Baptist Messenger’s July 20 issue also included articles in support of the traditional view of baptism and church membership by R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; William Tolar, retired dean of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s theology school; R. Stanton Norman, an Oklahoma native and associate professor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; and Rick Thompson, pastor of Council Road Baptist Church in Bethany, Okla.
Newkirk, in his weblog July 31, voiced concern that “a few Baptist leaders have taken it upon themselves to violate our church’s autonomy and independence by their timing of anti-proposal publications and resolutions. We do not believe they are bad men; we believe that they are our brothers in Christ. However, we also strongly think that they have erred and dishonored a cherished Baptist distinctive by doing so.”
Ray Sanders, executive editor of the Baptist Messenger, said in regard to the question of church autonomy: “The Baptist Messenger, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and the [Edmond-area] Capital [Baptist] Association have the greatest respect for the autonomy of the local church. The entities mentioned have dealt graciously and prayerfully with this issue.
“In recent weeks there has been much discussion about baptism throughout our state and nation,” Sanders continued. “The special edition of the Messenger that dealt with baptism was designed to serve our churches in the timely discussion of this matter.”
Sanders concluded by stating, “No doubt, Edmond, Henderson Hills is one of our greatest churches. We applaud their decision to cancel the vote, and continue to pray for the church and its leaders.”
Newkirk, in his weblog, also recounted that four Henderson Hills elders discussed the issue with an unnamed but “recognized Baptist theologian and author” for 19 hours at his home beginning at 9 a.m. on July 26 and concluding at 4 a.m. the next day. Newkirk arranged the meeting after two telephone conversations with the theologian, one of which dealt with the elders’ proposal.
The theologian/author “agreed fully that no church has the authority to baptize a person in order to join the church, and does not do that himself,” Newkirk wrote. “However, he raised a point that was similar to the one raised by a member of our church, which really struck a cord with me. I asked if we could talk with him in person about this.” Newkirk did not disclose the specific concern that had been raised.
But the meeting with the theologian prompted a three-hour meeting of the elder council on July 28.
“The concern now exists on the Elder Council,” Newkirk wrote, “that we have not addressed some of the unique aspects of the issue of baptism and its relationship with church membership in our proposed bylaw change. We do not believe that the intent of the bylaw change is wrong but the concern exists that we may have been incomplete and we are out of time to even begin to discuss and possibly adjust it and meet the announced schedule. Because of this, we are not going to ask the church to vote on the proposal. We simply are no longer in consensus as a council.”
Newkirk also wrote: “One thing is obvious, there is a council of men who are exhausted and we need time. We are also faced with an avalanche of issues that always accompanies the back to school season of the year.
“As you can imagine, this was an incredibly difficult decision for us to come to. We are aware of the fact that many of our church members favored the proposal. As I have mentioned before, 17 of our 20 deacons, all of our Management Team and 72 of the 82 Adult Small Group leaders have confirmed to us that they favor the bylaw proposal. There is every indication that it would pass today. It is heartbreaking to us to disappoint those of you who favor the spirit of the change and equally heartbreaking that others have been troubled by the proposal.”
Earlier in the weblog, Newkirk also had noted that among Henderson Hills members, “A range of sentiments was offered ranging from very supportive to very much against the proposal.”
Newkirk also reiterated a commitment for Henderson Hills “remaining a Southern Baptist affiliated church, as I’ve stated repeatedly over the past 14 years, because of the opportunity it affords us to spread the Gospel around the world.”
Defending the traditional view of baptism and church membership, Norman had written in the Messenger’s July 20 issue, for example, that:
“The New Testament clearly teaches that a local church is only to be comprised of those persons whose allegiance belongs exclusively to Jesus Christ. Baptism was the divinely, publicly instituted ‘point of entry’ into the membership of a local congregation of believers.”
Newkirk, meanwhile, had written that the proposal “is not intended to excuse people from the sin of refusing baptism. Instead, our concern is for Christians in two categories, those who physically cannot experience immersion due to a disability, and for those who are under the mistaken conviction that sprinkling is baptism.”