INDIANAPOLIS (BP)–Biblical standards for church membership, accountability for living like disciples of Jesus and trying to restore members who have dropped out of church life were the focus of a resolution adopted June 11 by messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in the Indiana Convention Center.
As presented by the 10-member resolutions committee, “On Regenerate Church Membership and Church Member Restoration” urged Southern Baptist churches to “maintain a regenerate membership by acknowledging the necessity of spiritual regeneration and Christ’s lordship for all members, … maintain accurate membership rolls for the purpose of fostering ministry and accountability among all members of the congregation and … implement a plan to minister to, counsel, and restore wayward church members based upon the commands and principles given in Scripture.”
Church membership had been a topic of discussion in many circles prior to the annual meeting and the resolution brought to the floor was crafted from elements of four resolutions on the topic submitted to the committee, said chairman Darrell Orman, pastor of First Baptist Church in Stuart, Fla.
Alluding to the biblical story of King Solomon identifying the real mother of a child by threatening to cut the child in two (1 Kings 3:16-28), Orman said: “We took the DNA of those four resolutions and we made one child. We want to present that to you and those who presented those resolutions we’d like to encourage, ‘Would the real mother let the resolution live?'”
The committee’s strategy was not as successful as Solomon’s, however, as authors of two submitted resolutions proposed amendments to insert wording from their proposals into the resolution before the messengers.
Malcolm Yarnell, an associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, asked for language to be inserted that specifically mentioned the practices of “believers-only baptism by immersion,” the Lord’s Supper and church discipline.
Although Orman voiced concern that such language might be taken to place church discipline on the same level as the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, he said the committee regarded the suggestion as a friendly amendment. President Frank Page suggested an alternative way to insert the wording into the resolution and the amendment was adopted on a show of ballots.
Tom Ascol, executive director of Founders Ministries and pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., then proposed an amendment that would add “whereas” language noting only 6.1 million of the reported 16.2 million Southern Baptist church members attend the primary worship service of their church in a typical week.
Ascol also suggested adding two “resolved” sections. One called for churches “to repent of any failure among us to live up to our professed commitment to regenerate church membership and any failure to obey Jesus Christ in the practice of lovingly correcting wayward church members.” The other encouraged “denominational servants to support and encourage churches that seek to recover and implement our Savior’s teachings on church discipline, even if such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported in those churches.”
Orman responded that the committee felt it was not proper to ask all the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to repent when many have made conscientious efforts to restore inactive members or remove them from church membership rolls. He noted the committee had deliberated for many hours and prayed over the issue, carefully selecting language from four resolutions to address the matter adequately in one resolution.
“In light of that, we would not like to rewrite the entire resolution on the convention floor,” Orman said.
Another messenger, Bill Ascol, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Owasso, Okla., countered, “Several years ago in this convention, we called for corporate repentance for past racial tension. Not all were guilty of that, but as a convention we recognized that … we have, by and large, failed to practice integrity on the issue of church membership.”
Ascol’s amendments and the twice-amended resolution were both adopted by messengers on a show of ballots.
After the vote, Ascol said he was gratified messengers had passed a resolution like the ones he had been presenting for three years.
“I’m grateful that we’re finally on record about this,” he said. “Our churches are to demonstrate to the world what the Kingdom of God looks like and what the Gospel actually does. I hope that as our churches become more committed to living like Baptist churches that the Gospel will be adorned and we will see a great increase in our evangelistic impact in the world.”
Reporting a total membership number dramatically higher than the number of people actually involved in a congregation raises serious integrity issues, Yarnell added.
“We have to restore the integrity of Baptist churches. We have to obey our Lord,” he said. “There’s no options here with regard to believers-only baptism by immersion, with regard to the Lord’s Supper as a place of communion in Christ and with regard to redemptive church discipline. … These are commands of Jesus Christ. If we really believe Jesus is Lord, we have to follow not only personally in our own personal lives but also corporately in our churches’ lives.”
Ascol said he hopes pastors would go back to their churches and implement a program of contacting inactive members, making an effort to either restore them to ministry involvement or removing them from the church rolls.
“The problem is that we are in bad shape, and a lot of our churches are in bad shape. It’s hard to admit and once you admit it, it’s hard to know what to do,” he said. “This resolution won’t solve anything but I’ve had many pastors tell me they have wanted a resolution like this passed so they can go back to their churches and use it, saying, ‘Look, this is not just your pastor’s idea. The whole convention is on record now. This is a problem we need to look at and address.'”
With reporting by James A.Smith Sr., editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com, newsjournal of the Florida Baptist State Convention.