Thursday, July 05, 2007

Integrity in Church Membership--the conversation continues

Since the San Antonio convention I have heard from dozens of people who are frustrated, dismayed, puzzled or in some other way disappointed that my resolution on integrity in church membership did not make it out of committee for the second year in a row. My basic attitude and response is that the Lord is firmly in control of this process and will use it to bring about much good for His people.

I have absolutely no doubts about that (based on Romans 8:28) and would believe it even if I saw no evidence to suggest it. However, the Lord is already demonstrating some of the good things that are happening. One denominational servant has told me that, while he genuinely wanted to see the resolution pass so that he could use it as a talking point in encouraging his own church to study this issue, he nevertheless has been convicted by the Lord to move forward in gently trying to persuade the church leaders to evaluate their membership practices in the light of the teaching of God's Word on which our long-standing Baptist polity has been built. Several other pastors and serious church members have expressed the exact same conviction.

Over the next several months many churches will be encouraged to begin addressing the way they accept and care for members. We should pray that the Lord will use these efforts to humble and restore health to each church that walks down this path. It is likely that the road will not be easy for some of the leaders who seek to guide their flocks back to the spiritually life giving streams of church discipline as taught by our Savior in Matthew 18:15-18. Pray that the Lord will give grace, wisdom, humility and tenacity to His servants who are bent on honoring His Word in this way.

Regenerate church membership and church discipline are becoming a greater part of the ongoing conversation about the needs and future of the SBC. Several blogs accurately reported action taken by the convention in San Antonio and some even posted video the extended debate that accompanied my attempt to have the messengers consider the resolution despite the committee's unwillingness to bring it to the floor. The SBTC Texan ran an article highlighting the failure of the resolution to make it out of committee, and included some excellent quotes from supporters of it. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Dr. Danny Akin expressed dissapointment that the resolution did not pass and promised to continue speaking out on the issues it addresses.

One of the most encouraging reports comes out of Missouri, where the Pathway reports that Interim Executive Director David Tolliver has announced that he will start using a smaller figure to report total membership of Missouri Baptist Churches. This is a step in the right direction, and the statements attributed to Mr. Tolliver are very encouraging. Maybe his boldness will inspire other state Executive Directors to join ranks in becoming so practically concerned about integrity in reporting our numbers.

What should you do if you are burdened about your church's inflated membership numbers and loss of biblical discipline? Here are two things that I recommend that you do immediately. First, listen to Voddie Baucham's excellent message from the Founders Breakfast at the SBC in San Antonio. He spoke on "Southern Baptists at Sardis" and hit a homerun. Second, purchase Wyman Richardson's Walking Together: A Congregational Reflection on Biblical Church Discipline and the related Leader's Guide and Student Workbook. These are very useful, practical helps to encourage churches to recover our Lord's teaching on healthy church life. I highly recommend them. You can get more information from Wyman's website. [EDIT: Wyman Richardson recommends getting his books from the publisher directly at reduced cost.]

It is great that these issues are being discussed. Let's work to keep the conversation going. It is time for Baptists to deal with the issues related to our inflated numbers and undisciplined churches.


Jeremy said...

Personally, I find it sad that the denomination seems to view enforcing integrity as a violation of local church autonomy. Since when is local church autonomy one of the things that the Bible says is what is required to be a true church? It seems to me that the SBC has made an idol out of it. It reminds me of something that Jesus once said to the Pharisees:

"You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.' But you say, 'If a man tells his father or his mother, Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban' (that is, given to God)-- then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do." (Mark 7:9b-13 ESV)

Wyman Richardson said...

Dr. Ascol,

I greatly appreciate your endorsement of the Walking Together material and I pray that it might be found useful and edifying.

I wanted to write in, however, and strongly encourage whoever might be interested in the material to not buy it from It is seriously overpriced there, in my opinion. It can be purchased much more cheaply by calling Wipf and Stock directly at (541)344-1528. I think that 4 or more copies are 40% off the retail cost and that single copies are cheaper there as well.

Anyway, I just don't want to see anybody spend more than is necessary. (And, no, I don't personally benefit from people buying it directly from W&S. It's just cheaper for the buyer.)

Thanks for your great work.

Pax vobiscum,

Brian Hamrick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
EKYpastor said...

Tom, I for one am glad to see this issue gaining steam. You and I both know it will because at its core, it is an issue of truth and truth-telling, and our God is a God concerned with truth.

I was at San Antonio and I voted for your resolution. I was actually building up nerve and heading toward a mic when debate stopped. I wanted to respond to the Committees LAME excuse of "not wanting to intrude on the autonomy of the local churches by telling them what to do." I wanted to get to a mic and ask 2 questions. First, had we not already that morning passed resolutions that asked churches to DO certain things? For example, the sex-offender registry resolution (which I also wholeheartedly support) implores churches to use Lifeway material that advises on this issue. Furthermore, the "greenhouse gas" resolution instructs Southern Baptists on how they are suppposed to interpret scientific data. Now these resolutions, though important in their own right, are secondary or tertiary issues biblically. Church discipline is not. It is clearly a more primary issue because we have prescriptive commands to take this issue seriously in the New Testament.

Which leads to my second question; even though we don't want to "intrude on the local church's autonomy by dealing w/ membership" isn't this an area where we have a CLEAR BIBLICAL MANDATE (Hebrews 10:25, 13:17 just to name a few) which should trump parliamentary polity. I know resolutions are non-binding and have no teeth, but what would be wrong with a resolution about an issue that deals with so serious an issue?!?!

This is only one of many things that troubled me somewhat about this years meeting.

But do not shrink-back nor grow weary in well-doing. The fact that this issue is being discussed more is surely a sign of God's blessing upon your endeavor. Continue to press on, even if it means wading through all the bureaucratic mire that we must often trod through in our desire to make truth known.


Jared Moore said...

Bro. Tom,

Keep on keeping on brother...

I called a Pastor friend of mine in Crossville, TN about coming and doing a "conference" at my church for me. In explaining what he was doing in ministry, and how everything was going... He said, "I'm looking at my church role. I had never thought about it before, but there was a guy that brought it up from the floor at the convention about having integrity in reporting our numbers... how the world thinks we're 16 million strong, and we're not." His next step/goal at his church is leading them in the direction of accountible church membership.

Continue on brother, for it's obvious by this one individual that you're getting some pastors to think... and at least ask the question, "Should our numbers be accurate?"

By the way: Here's a sermon on Church Discipline being a Baptist Distinctive by Danny Akin. A couple years back, Bro. Akin spoke at Mid-America at a Baptist Distinctives Conference. He gave me permission to host this on my website:

Just click the link below to stream the sermon, or right click it and select “save target as” to download it.

Danny Akin - Church Discipline: A Baptist Distinctive

Tom said...


I would never do anything to usurp a church's autonomy but autonomous churches need to be reminded that they are not democracies, they are Christocracies. Each church is obligated to honor Jesus Christ as Head. Hiding behind autonomy is lame now and will be exposed as futile at the Day of Judgment. Thanks for your comment.


Thanks for the tip on ordering your books. I have edited the original post with a link to your publisher, Wipf and Stock.


Very pertinent questions! I intend to keep pressing this issue as long as the Lord grants me the opportunity to do so. Thanks!


Thanks for passing that story along! That is exactly the kind of response that I hope we will see more and more in the months ahead. I genuinely believe that there are faithful pastors in many of our churches who have simply never been challenged and encouraged to think about these issues biblically. Most of us inherited this kind of mess in our churches and it is easy simply to keep going along the same path out of inertia. The Lord is able to arrest us and cause us to reorient our thinking and living according to His Word in a variety of ways--even by having some guy submit a resolution to the SBC year after year. :-)

Thanks for the link to Dr. Akin's sermon. It is super!

paul said...

Tom, There is a great resource available on the Christian Communicators Worldwide website entitled, "A Church Membership Recovery Model"

If followed it brings integrity of membership to a local church in a very positive manner. When serving as a director of missions I mailed this, with current ACP info, to each church in the association.

Paul Fries,
Church Planting in Wisconsin

Kurt Strassner said...

Count me among those disappointed to see the resolution not make it through committee the last two years.

However, as some pastor-friends and I reflected on it (believing Rom 8.28) the thought occurred to me:

'If this thing keeps failing at committee cool is it that the whole convention gets to hear this resolution again and again and again year after year year?'

Perhaps God will do more good by us having (getting!) to hear this call to repentance repeatedly than if it had gotten passed semi-blindly (and without real intentions on the part of many to follow through) by the messengers the first time or two.

In short, perhaps the short term 'failures' are giving you a larger, louder, and longer-term platform!

Tom said...


I agree completely!


Tom said...


Thanks for the tip on this helpful resource!


irreverend fox said...

again...I ask anybody to find an example of the sbc passing a resolution condemning a sin that was widespread and it was currently struggling with.

we're in no such habit and never have been. if this resolution is adopted, from all I can tell, it would be historic for many reasons.

Tom said...

In a different comment stream Fred wrote this:

"How wayward members can still come to vote on an important issue in the church is beyond my comprehension. Moreover, we have people on committees that maybe come to church 4 times a year and then are asked again to serve!

Sir, I would like to ask you if you know how we got to this point. I hope you can share with me something from Baptist History that documents this shift. Was it connected to liberalism? I ask this because Timothy George's words in Baptist Theologians is burned in my memory. He states, 'We went from thus saith the Lord to it seems to me.' "

My short answer is that our mess is more directly traceable to pragmatism and the misplacement of theology than form liberalism per se. One of the little-noticed but tragically telling realities is that today, nearly 30 years after the concerted effort of the conservative resurgence began, most of our churches are in no better shape than was the case in 1979. In fact, the case can be made that, with regard to unregenerate and inactive members, our churches are worse now than ever. To see where I have discussed this more fully go here and here.

GeneMBridges said...


I might add to that a couple of other items:

1. Since 1979, the voices of those who have talked about "historic Baptist principles" have rather consistently talked about: religious liberty, soul competency, priesthood of the believer, and local church autonomy.

That's been going on now nigh unto 30 years. The result seems to be the belief that these principles constitute the category "historic Baptist principles." Brother R. Stanton Norman addressed these principles in his book, More Than Just a Name. Now, I know where he stands, so I'm not saying he purposefully neglected "regenerate church membership." Rather, I would suggest that the other side of the theopolitical aisle in SBC life has been allowed to dictate the terms of the discussion on "Baptist principles." They framed the issues a certain way, men like Brother Norman responded.

There's nothing wrong with that. It's a standard move in polemics. On the other hand, what underwrites those principles is "RCM" (my shorthand for "regenerate church membership"). The impression this gives the person in the pew, however, is that these principles are the end all and be all of "historic Baptist principles." They are not. They would not exist for discussion if it wasn't for RCM.

As a result, you wind up with churches crying foul when certain issues arise. Take for example, here in NC, where the NCBSC wants to examine and possibly disfellowship churches advocating homosexuality/gay marriage, etc. The objection arises over "local church autonomy," in particular and occasionally the others are if the association has no rights to set the boundaries of fellowship and enforce them.

Which leads me to note:

(2) Local church autonomy has become, it seems, viewed by many as some sort of absolute principle. That's simply not true in Baptist history, nor is it true in Scripture. Scripture gives precious little information about how churches relate to each other. What we have is an example.

That example is short of a presbyterian system of courts, presbyteries, sessions, and assemblies. On the other hand, it's more than absolute local autonomy. 1 Clement, written in the subapostolic period verifies this too, for the whole point of the letter is that one church (Rome) was calling another church (Corinth) to remember the letters and teachings of Paul, in view of their continued disarray and declension.

The Association has a right to call its churches to account. When it fails to that, it sets an example for the churches to do the same in their individual memberships. This is also a two way street, for that sort of modeling can flow in the other direction. Eventually, "a little leaven leavens the whole lump," and you wind up where we are today, where, in matters of church discipline, a simple resolution or a move by a state convention to discipline churches within it, are both viewed negatively because of "local church autonomy."

Something sorely lacking, in addition to the issue of RCM in the local churches is a theology of the association in Baptist life. I'd like to see somebody, a group in fact, tackle this issue, perhaps in a book by Broadman and Holman.

Gordan said...

Off topic: I consider it a great treat to run across a comment from Gene Bridges on any comment thread in the blogosphere. Always educational, always tellin' it like it is.

fishformen said...

I was thinking on this issue and was wondering if a first line of correction might be for the convention to report the average weekly Sunday School attendance, as opposed to membership. This will bring the numbers closer to reality. THis is an issue of SBC and not local autonomy. This as an intermediate step will allow the serious conversation gain momentum in the churches at large. Thoughts?

EKYpastor said...

Gene, I agree with everything you wrote in your post, but wanted to accentuate one particular point. In recent years, I too have noticed that the "autonomy" argument has begun to trump all others but no church has the "right" to hide behind the veil of autonomy if they are being disobedient to the scriptures. Autonomy, which I believe in and support, is more an implicit teaching found in the NT. But certainly we understand from basic hermeneutics that your theology or even ecclesiology should begin with that which is clearly and explicitly taught in the Word of God. Clearly RCM and discipline are issues that we CAN encourage local churches to embrace (contrary to the Resolutions Cmte's sad response) because they are issues spelled out in scripture. Autonomy does not trump scripture. Assuming that one does violate the instruction of the scripture and hide behind autonomy, they would, in my view, forfeit their right to call themselves a NT church and they certainly could not claim to believe in the "inerrancy" and "infallibility" of the scriptures if they are willing to ignore them on these issues.

So long as I continue to believe Jeremiah 31:31-36, I will believe in RCM. I say, press on with this is important.

Also, perhaps fishformen is on to something in his post. Maybe someone should make a motion requesting that ACPs begin to include Average Sunday Attendance columns. It would at least be a step in beginning to demonstrate the disparity in the reporting of numbers that goes on in SBC life.

Tom Bryant said...

I am trying to push this within our association. In one conversation, I commented that while baptism was one of the requirements for people to join our church, it wasn't the only one. We baptize people upon their profession of faith (and even then we have a conversation). But to become a member, there are some questions and actions that we want to see in their lives.

You would have thought that I had denied a major doctrine. There were many who just as a matter of rite consider any person they baptize as automatically a member.

That is part of this problem.

Thanks, Tom, for pushing this issue.

Tom said...


Thanks. Good points, as usual!


The SS attendance would definitely give a lower number--because it would be counting real people!--but I want to continue to press for reclaiming a genuine and practical adherance to a regenerate *church* membership. The approach to SS usually encourages unconverted people to join--and that is fine because the SS is not the church. By continuing to focus on the disparity between our typical attendance at the primary worship service and the total number of members on our rolls we can keep RCM front and center.

Terry said...

I followed the link for Wyman's book before he advised us to purchase from publisher. When I receved my book from Amazon, I discovered that it was for the student workbook not the book itself. So now I've ordered from the publisher and suppose I'll have both.

Wyman Richardson said...


I wonder if you would agree with this general idea: conservative SBCers treat church membership in roughly the same way that liberals treat the Bible. I'm not, of course, equating church membership with Scripture in its essence. I'm just talking about how we handle these things (i.e., symbolism over substance, a fond nostalgic appreciation of it with no real conviction that it actually matters, etc.)


For some reason the Amazon link provided only takes you to the book version and student workbook without showing the Leader's Guide. This has been a source of real frustration for me that I somehow can't figure out (i.e., how to get Amazon to show all three on one page). Anyway, that's why I put that comment on Amazon to try to alert folks that there are three. As it unfortunately appears, the Student Workbook seems to go with the book (when you look at the Amazon page) when, in reality, it goes with the Leader's Guide!

That's clear as mud, no? Anyway, we've tried to fix that over at my site ( so that when you click the "Buy From Amazon" link it takes you to the individual volumes with individual Amazon links.

Sorry for the confusion. I did also want you to know that there's a full Power Point presentation over at my site that's keyed to the workbooks if you're interested.

I'm NOT trying to call people from this site to mine. I just wanted to explain because you're not the only person who's mentioned this.


Tom said...

Tom B:

Interesting, sad response. Hang tough! You raise an interesting point about the relationship of baptism to church membership--one that we ought to take up and discuss here sometime down the road.


I think you have a point. I have come more and more to understand this in terms of assumption. I think that would parallel your analysis. Conservatives assume they know what conversion is and what a church is and liberals assume they know what the Bible is, although I think liberals tend to be more intentional than accidental in their rejection of full biblical authorty.

AndyHigg said...

Dr. Ascol,

May I ask why you chose the resolution route versus making a motion for the EC to publish membership numbers by active versus inactive...or for that matter, publish SS attendance numbers?

Though we differ in terms of soteriology, I was glad that you have been bold and zealous in your quest to bring us back to truthfulness.

Tom said...


Thanks for your question. The ACP already asks for SS enrollment and attendance. It also asks for resident membership and total membership. Since SS enrollment in most SBC churches intentionally includes many that are not church members, tracking the attendance there probably will not reflect very accurately what is going on with the actual members of the church. Besides...SS is not biblically mandated whereas regenerate church membership is. :-)

The reason I have opted for the resolution route is that I want this to become a main point of conversation within the SBC. A resolution has no binding authority--I know that. But its potential influence can be significant to raise the awareness of an issue, as this one is doing.

My real burden is not to see a resolution passed. It is to see SBC pastors and churches return to a more God-honoring practice in how we live together in local assemblies. As I have suggested before, the repeated defeat of my resolution may promote that much better than had it passed.