If things go as planned, the deacons of Richmond’s First Baptist Church will vote on the question of baptism and church membership at their next meeting, and if the motion carries it will be forwarded to the congregation for a vote. That’s how Baptists do these things; neither the pastor nor the deacons make the final decision: the people do. While I was the one who raised the question of why we re-baptize Christians from other denominations, and while the deacons have spent a year or so discussing it, in the end it will be up to the congregation to determine the requirements for membership at First Baptist.
We call this “local church autonomy,” and it is one of our cherished Baptist freedoms. No pope, bishop, or pastor tells us what to do; we get to determine our own mission and ministry, and in this case our own membership. Now we’re getting close to a vote, and some people are getting anxious. “This is going to split the church!” they say. I don’t think it will, and I’ll tell you why. We are following a slow, careful process of discernment that has some built-in checks and balances. Although the congregation will make the final decision the deacons are trying to provide the kind of leadership that will avoid anything as dramatic as a church split. The vote they take at their next meeting, for example, will give them some guidance as to how they might proceed.
Let me suggest some possible scenarios:
Scenario One: At their May meeting, the deacons vote on a motion to accept Christians from other denominations as full members without requiring them to be re-baptized. The motion fails. The deacons report back to the congregation by saying that although the discussion has helped us think more deeply about what it means to be a member and what it means to be baptized, we will not be changing our membership requirements.
Scenario Two: The motion carries, but by such a slim margin the deacons choose not to take it to the congregation for a vote, believing it would be too divisive. They do, however, ask the congregation to consider some other matters that have come up in this discussion. For example: asking all new members to attend the Connections class, or allowing Watchcare members to vote on church issues, or welcoming those baptized as believers even if it was by a mode other than immersion.
Scenario Three: The motion carries, decisively, and the deacons select a date for a congregational vote. The motion is made available to the membership for study, reflection, and prayer. The congregation is given at least two opportunities to discuss the motion publicly. On a given Sunday the church votes by secret ballot at the conclusion of each morning worship service. The vote is counted by the deacons that afternoon and the results made public as soon as possible thereafter.
There are other possible scenarios, of course; I’m only speculating. But if we end up with something like Scenario Three then, whether the motion carries or fails, we will have made the decision together, and it is my prayer that we would live with the outcome together. If it fails I will be disappointed, obviously; I think I have made my position clear. But at the same time I will be proud of the church for having considered this issue so carefully and thoughtfully, and I will know a little better who we are. If it carries there will be no raucous celebration in the streets, just a quiet recognition that we have opened the doors of membership a little wider. And I would hope that those who voted against the motion would wait to see how it impacts the church.
On a Sunday after the vote, and perhaps even the next Sunday, I will enter the baptistry with someone who is making a first-time profession of faith in Christ, and dip him down under the water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Some in the church will breathe a sigh of relief, seeing that we haven’t abandoned our way of making disciples, that we still baptize believers by immersion, just as we always have. Others will breathe a sigh of relief knowing that we really are doing this “to fulfill all righteousness” (as it says above our baptistry), and not simply to fulfill a membership requirement.
And while I wouldn’t expect a flood of people to come forward at the end of the service there may be some who have been under our watchcare for years now who would want to become members. I think we might be surprised by who they are, and how much we already think of them as “family.” Suppose we come to the end of the day and say, “Oh, so that’s what ‘open membership’ means”?
“Well. That’s not so bad.”