Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Resolved: Southern Baptists need to get serious about ecclesiology

As we move closer to the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting it might be helpful to consider once again the rationale behind my resolution on integrity in church membership. This is the third consecutive year that I have submitted it. As noted in a previous post, another resolution (written by Malcolm Yarnell) that addresses some of the same things is being submitted this year by Bart Barber. I have also heard that other related resolutions may be submitted as well.

As I have repeatedly stated, I agree with everything that the Yarnell/Barber resolution says. It is much broader than mine and takes a different approach to what we all agree are important issues. It has garnered lots of support which indicates that a growing number of Southern Baptists are recognizing the need to get serious about our commitment to regenerate church membership. That is a hopeful sign.

I have been asked what I think will happen at the Indianapolis convention next month regarding these resolutions. Well, I am no prophet, but I fully expect that some kind of resolution will make it out of committee this year. After the less-than-stellar reasons given the last two years for not allowing the convention even to vote on it, I believe that this year's committee will want to avoid being put in the position of having to explain why they refused to allow a vote on an issue that is obviously of great concern to many Southern Baptists.

My hope is that a healthy combination of the two resolutions will emerge from the committee. For me, that would include, along with the basic affirmations of regenerate church membership and church discipline, three things: 1) a clear statement on the rationale, 2) a clear call for repentance for our past failures in this area and 3) a clear encouragement to denominational servants to be supportive of churches that seek to recover meaningful membership.

The rationale is important because if we do not acknowledge our problem, then the force of the resolved statements is diminished. The problem in the SBC is not that we have failed to affirm our commitment to regenerate church membership. We are on record in the Baptist Faith and Message that we do affirm it. Our problem is that we are not practicing what we profess and confess. By and large, our churches have drastically failed to maintain much of a practical commitment to our belief that the church is to be comprised of born again believers...only.

If a church only has 75% of its covenanted members actively participating then Baptists should regard that as a problem. But when only 35-40% of the members even regularly attend corporate worship once a week, its not just a problem, it is an ecclesiological catastrophe. It does not matter how many times we reaffirm our commitment to regenerate church membership as long as this tragic situation is not openly, plainly acknowledged to be a direct failure to honor God's Word in its teachings on what a church is and how it is to operate.

When our failure is acknowledged, then the only proper response for Christians is to repent. And if this is so, then why should we not say it and plainly call for it? Our Lord did not hesitate lovingly to call churches to repentance (read Revelation 2-3). Why should His followers be hesitant to do so?

Of all the complaints that I have heard about my motion the one that I find the most remarkable has to do with this--that it specifically, unashamedly calls for repentance. I don't understand the hesitancy, nor do I get why any Christian would be offended by such a call. The Gospel of Jesus Christ sets us free to repent. Christ died for our sins. He endured God's wrath for our ecclesiological failures as well as for our other sins. The Christian life is all about repentance and faith. We repent and believe every day. I don't have to pretend that I am better than I am--indeed, to do so is to cut myself off from the very grace that I need--because my standing with God is not based on my performance but on Christ's.

If we need to repent--and any failure to keep God's Word requires nothing less--then why should we not plainly admit that? I hope that the resolutions committee will see this the same way and will include plain language calling for repentance on any resolution that comes to the convention.

The need to encourage denominational leaders to "support and encourage churches that seek to recover and implement our Savior's teachings on church discipline, especially when such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported in those churches" (as my resolution states) is important because too often the exact opposite has happened. When a church begins to take membership seriously once again and the statistics drop (when the membership roll goes from 900 to 200), some denominational employees might be tempted to speak and act in ways that disparage that church and its pastor rather than offering the encouragement and support that they need.

If these matters are included in a resolution that gets recommended to the convention, I will happily vote for it. If the resolution that comes before the convention does not have these emphases in it, then I will attempt respectfully to offer appropriate amendments from the floor.

Only the Lord knows what will happen. As I have said for the last two years, the passing of a resolution is not my goal. My desire is to see this issue highlighted in such ways that it can no longer be ignored so that pastors and churches will humbly return to the biblical practices that we say that we believe as Baptists. In many respects, that is already happening, for which I am very grateful to the Lord. If the passing of a resolution this year can further that cause, then I pray the Lord will bring it to pass.

29 comments:

Bob Cleveland said...

Tom,

I couldn't agree more.

In Dr. Patterson's response to the report published by Ed Stetzer, Dr. Patterson said that we "lie to ourselves and to the public" when we include people in our membership who no longer have anything to do with the church. I think we KNOW what God thinks about lying lips, lying pens, lying keyboards, etc.

The danger is in pastors voting for of the resolution without actually doing something about membership. That would only add hypocrisy to the list of things to be explained to God.

There's also the factor that every one of those people marched forward and presented themselves for membership in the church, and placed themselves under the authority of the pastor. And as you said, THAT is going to take a heap of explaining as long as the condition exists.

GUNNY said...

I can only assume those averse the repentance aspect don't quite understand the nuanced differences between individual and corporate repentance.

Sure, you (as an individual) and I may not be guilty of bogus numbers, etc., we (as the SBC) are and have been. By God's grace, we will not anymore, but that will take repentance to see the collective error of our ways.

Your church and my church may not have done or be doing this, but we don't help the offending parties who are our Achans in the camp by silently congratulating ourselves on not sinning.

Greg Welty said...

Tom,

I for one really hope things turn out exactly as you say.

Bill Poore said...

To the pastors of small,struggling churches made up of mostly close "family"members(active and inactive).Now that Dr.Patterson has labeled you as a liar if you do not trim your church rolls,it is time for you to take action.After you have made an honest effort to remove about half of the members on your church roll,I sincerely hope that our Lord will open a door of opportunity for you as you seek another church.The first thing you must do when you find another church is to demand that they take all inactive members off the church roll.
Dr.Patterson knows a lot about church membership.Wake Forest church in Wake Forest denied him full membership when expressed his desire to join that church.
Bill Poore

B Nettles said...

Gunny,
silently congratulating ourselves on not sinning.

OUCH! That one struck dead center on me.

Thank you, brother (seriously).

Wyman Richardson said...

Mr. Poore,

Your post assumes that (1) every attempt at calling a church to integrity in membership will be met with termination and (2) that anybody is suggesting that pastors charge in and "demand" that inactive members be removed.

For #1, I am grateful for the number of churches that have carefully, cautiously, courageously, and patiently led their churches in this area and were met not with termination but with renewed understanding for the body of Christ and even revival itself. For #2, I certainly see nothing in either resolution calling for some kind of callous "demand" for the removal of inactive members.

To be sure, the scenario may turn out like you suggest, and if "demands" are made, it is likely this is so. But there is a careful, timely, and patient way to do this. My own church is walking this road and building understanding and trying to seize this as a teaching moment.

I just wanted to offer this as an alternative to what seems to me to be a caricature in your post.

If I have misread you, I sincerely apologize.

Wyman Richardson

Bill Poore said...

Wyman,
Thanks for you comments and the spirit in which you wrote them.I agree with you.Paitence must be a priority when attempting to lead a church in a new direction.
Bill

Bart Barber said...

Tom,

I want to thank you for all of your hard work given to the cause of promoting regenerate church membership among Southern Baptists.

Bart Barber said...

By the way, Tom, both of our pictures graced the cover of the Southern Baptist Texan newsmagazine this week. Everyone in my office for whom I complete an annual performance review all agreed that I looked better than you did.

Wyman Richardson said...

Thank you Mr. Poore. Again, I'm speaking from my own perspective here. It seems to me that there is a healthy place between a rash demand for reform on the one hand and a too-reluctant hesitancy that never actually tries. The church I pastor is 160 years old. We haven't practiced any real membership oversight for probably the last 80 years or so, as best I can read our old minutes. So I'm working to familiarize our church with the Scriptural concept of the body of Christ, with our own church's early history of regenerate church membership, and of the greater context of earlier Baptist faithfulness in this area.

I'm actively having conversations with church leadership and laying out proposals and timelines for reforming this issue that respect the situation we're in but that definitely does move us towards reform in this area.

The problem wasn't created in a day and won't be fixed in a day...but it does need to be fixed and the door must, sooner or later, be walked through. So I do think we need to use pastoral sensitivity seasoned with courage and patience seasoned with resolve to do what is right.

I'm one of the co-sponsors of this resolution but was very honest with Tom about our own church's journey in this area before putting my name on it. Tom graciously pointed out to me that the main thing is that we are in fact trying in real and concrete ways. We are all on a journey here.

There's no shame in not having arrived. Who has? There's only shame, I think, in resignation to the way things are. I know each pastor has to work this out in his own context, but I'm convinced this can be done.

For this, I thank Tom for bringing this to the attention of a lot of us who have felt for some time that something was amiss, but weren't quite sure what that something was.

Sorry to ramble. Just thinking aloud.

I would love to hear Tom's thoughts on how we balance sensitivity for the enormity of our current problem with the act of reform, especially in a local church context. How fast, in other words, is too fast, and how slow is too slow?

Tom said...

Bob:

I agree with you and my prayer has been that whatever happens in Indy will result in pastors being helpfully challenged to address these issues in churches in the months and years ahead.

Gunny:

Good words. I do not want to come across as if this is an issue for "other" pastors and churches. We have a long way to go and the journey won't be complete until that final trumpet sounds.

Greg:

Thanks.

Bart:

Thanks, and I appreciate your spirit in promoting these concerns among us. And as for our photos in the Texan...all I can imagine is that somebody must have photoshopped those puppies!

GUNNY said...

Plus, Bart's photo is a head shot, while it looks like they took Tom's from across the street to lessen the blow.

;-)

It was good to see the topic front page (above the fold), but Tom you were represented in a way that put you at a distinct disadvantage.

Bart was Texas pastor, while you were presented as a lowly Florida pastor.

To those of us who live in Texas, you know what I mean. I know you're "not competing," but Bart won that round.

Pastoring in God's country is instant credibility.

Of course, had they mentioned that Tom was a Fightin' Texas Aggie ... well, now ... then you'd have seen "Tom Ascol for President" bumper stickers on Texas pick-up trucks in Indianapolis this summer.

;-)

Whoop and Gig 'em to both you guys.



... Thanks, Bill. Who loves ya, baby? (Other than Jesus and Kojak?)

Tom said...

Gunny:

I gotta see that picture! I am a native Texan, after all, and I should get extra points for being a foreign missionary. ;-)

wheat and chaff said...

Tom:
Amen to all you wrote here!

It seems that a regenerate church membership would be difficult to achieve for we cannot ulitmately know the state of another's heart can we? (a wheat and tares kinda thing).

But your emphasis on repentance is so ride on. Maybe if the body of Christ was encouraged and instructed more on that issue alone, it would bring conviction upon those who are maybe pretending to be the Lord's (Matt. 7:21-23).

i will be praying for you and thank you again for this post.

William

Bart Barber said...

Gunny,

Sic' em, Bears.

Sparrowhawk said...

Well-written, Tom, with far more grace and eloquence than what I would have been capable of doing.

In simple, practical terms, the carrying out of this resolution will mean a paradigm shift on two fronts:

A. A pastor must change the way his church receives new members or those who want to move their letters. For the sake of discussion, let’s say you retain the altar call. That means one of two things: 1) The pastor and leadership must set a “probation” timeline of say three to six months to view new members’ attendance and participation before the congregational vote of acceptance into membership. 2) A strict procedure of membership attendance should be kept and shepherded by a leader to see who is and is not attending. Call the log a “guest book” full of tear-off sheets for each week. The same leader(s) should also take seriously the Sunday School attendance sheet.

B. A pastor will have to explain the resolution in very simple terms to his congregation, who likely, by and large, do not follow blogs, theological journals, etc. as we do. Some members will be suspicious of ANY change in procedure, which is why open communication from pastor to deacons to committees to teachers is a necessity in order to move this through. The alternative: The pastor/elders and deacons lead by statement and example, and shepherd the flock to follow. The Biblical example, in my opinion, but also the harder road in these egalitarian times.

Those who would vote against the resolution reveal their hidden fear of the press getting a hold of the inevitable news that the SBC is “in serious decline”, when in fact, it will most likely be in great spiritual health and growth, ironically, and thankfully.

Wayne Smith said...

Bart,

I am sorry to inform you lose because, Tom anticipated your mention of who is the better looking one. Tom included Sarah’s Picture in his previous Post as His Representative.

Wayne Smith

Wayne Smith said...

Tom,

I pray that what you have written here will come to be. I thank god for your Heart in this matter. One of the biggest problem is for the Pastors of these Church is the need to come together in their Local Associations and start a Church Health and Assessment Committee, to assist the Churches in implementing this Resolution. There is no Quick Fix to fix this Problem overnight LifeWay’s could produce literature for Sunday Schools to be used to help to the Educate the Churches to understand the Problems and Help the Pastors. We got them in this mess and we need to help them out of it.

Wayne Smith

Sean said...

Tom,

Thank you for your persistence in bringing this to light. This is, indeed, an important issue. Whether Southern Baptists pass the resolution or not, I believe that younger guys like myself (31) are tired of inflated church roles.

The elders at the Florida Baptist church where I serve are currently combing through our membership roles (we reported 2180 members last year, yet we average 300 in corporate worship). Last week I did some research in the associational office and found that the church was baptizing scores of people each year in the 1980s, but wasn't retaining them. So, the role got very large during that period. After reporting 2180 members last year, it looks like this year's reporting will be in the 300-400 range.

I am excited about this cleansing, and the clarity it will bring to our leadership for whom we will give account.

Tom said...

William and Wayne:

Thanks, brothers. And, Wayne...you are right about my daughter's pic being a secret weapon used as a preemptive strike. Who cares what I look like when I got a daughter (actually, 5 of them) who looks so much like her momma!

Sean:

Thanks for telling us about your church and the steps you guys are taking. What a great testimony and example! That takes courage, humility, wisdom, and genuine devotion to the honor of Christ in His church. May the Lord grant you much fruit from such labors.

Tom said...

Wyman:

Here is a comment I made from a previous post on this subject last year.

"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.]"

Your Walking Together materials are super and would be a great resource for any pastor who wants to lead his church to recover responsible church membership.

I do plan to finish (re-launch and finish) a series of posts that more directly address your question. It will be later in the summer before I get to it, however.

Todd Pruitt said...

Tom,

There will be many of us praying for the furthering of this cause. I appreciate the kind but clear way you have advanced this issue. Blessings to you during your time in Indiana.

I also appreciate the way you and Bart Barber have handled the situation with your differing resolutions.

GUNNY said...

Amen, Todd.

For a Baylor Bear, Bart Barber is surprisingly reasonable.

;-)

In fact, I think he's planning to buy me a cup of Joe when we get together and who am I to argue.

Bart, I'm happy enough to come out your way. It will give me a good enough excuse to ride my Harley, affectionately known as "visitation."

JPC said...

To all of you pastors who have taken time to respond to Tom:

As a praying and concerned layman I hope something meaningful is accomplished with regards to regenerate church membership during this year’s convention.

I am grieved when I see pastor/elders refuse to lead their congregations in obedience to the Word when it goes against our man-made traditions.

But this is one case where our historic tradition is biblical and we as a denomination refuse to obey! I am frankly tired of the talk. It is time to act -- be men of God and lead us in repentance! If you need an example go read about Ezra and Nehemiah. Their examples tell us how to repent corporately. They began by humbling themselves before God in sight of the people. Then they taught the Word to the people. The people who were the LORD’s followed.

The only thing that I got out of last years convention was Vodie’s message at the Founders Breakfast. His preaching gave me hope that perhaps we in the SBC can yet become a federation of churches that submit to the sufficiency of the Word of Christ.

Tom Hicks said...

Brother Tom, I couldn't agree more! May the Lord mercifully bring us to corporate repentance.

Pastor Hilliard said...

Tom,

Help me out here. Actually, this is for the benefit of others more than myself.

Share the difference between "regenerate church membership" and "church discipline".
And which is your resolution focused on?
Personally, I believe if we focus on the first (which all the media attention seems to be on) we could possibly lose the vote on the resolution. Few people are going to by into the fact that SBC churches are letting lost people join (just see Wagner's answer to question 5 on the BP questionaire). But most can see that we have not disciplined those who are members of our churches and in clear sin.

It seemed that your resolution campaign started out focusing on the 2nd and has shifted to the 1st.

Personally, I do believe we have many lost people on our church roles. Not because we are willingly letting them join even though they are lost. But because we did not practice church discipline and thus discover they are lost (or discover they are saved and restore them to fellowship).

Any thoughts would be great.
Also, I share similar thoughts on Bart Barber's blog if you care to read them. Thanks.

Tom said...

Pastor Hilliard:

My resolution is on "integrity in church membership" and addresses our theoretical commitment (or confessional commitment) to regenerate church membership as a starting point. It goes on to address our failure to practice church discipline and calls for repentance over our failures at both points.

Regenerate church membership is the biblical ideal that recognizes that a church is to be comprised of only Christians. Because Baptists have believed this, it has historically governed the way that we accept members into our churches. Obviously, in recent generations, most Southern Baptist churches have loosened up on this practice.

Church discipline is usually thought of in its corrective form--correcting wayward members who have fallen into patterns of unrepentant sin. The final step of this is removal of the person from membership (Matthew 18:15-18). However, discipline is also formative. This involves teaching the ways of Christ and true discipleship so that Christ is increasingly being formed into believers. Obviously, the more careful and effective the latter, the less the final steps of the former will be needed.

Thanks for asking.

Pastor Hilliard said...

"Obviously, in recent generations, most Southern Baptist churches have loosened up on this practice."

I think this will be a hard sell. No matter the method utilized, every SBC church I know of at least asks (if nothing else) if the person has repented and put their faith in Christ. Granted, there needs to be more but I can see the average layperson scoffing at the idea that there is a rash of SBC churches knowingly letting lost people join their roles.

The discipline aspect isn't as hard a sell. Who can argue that we have 1000's (millions?) of members in sin; if nothing else, simply by their "forsaking the assembling".

With all the focus on "regenerate church membership", I can see some sincere person standing up at the convention saying, "Why do we need this resolution? I don't know of any baptist church that is letting unsaved people join." Then a collective "amen" rumbling through the convention hall and the air goes out of the resolution.

My hope is the church discipline/restoration of wayward members would be the focus. I believe it to be the greater need and the easier sell.

Those are my thoughts for whatever they are worth. I'm just trying to think ahead before the convention comes...

pastor justin said...

Just watched the amendments get passed. Praise God!