If the Vote Were Taken Today…

I wasn’t able to attend last month’s deacons’ meeting, but I gave the deacons an assignment anyway.   

The meeting was on November 11, just a couple of weeks after our “Holy Conversations” on baptism and church membership.  Some of the deacons wanted to discuss the issue at that meeting, but I asked them to hold their thoughts and instead spend a month praying over it.  I printed up a slip of paper they could tape to their bathroom mirrors, where they would see it every day and be reminded to pray.  This is what it said:

“While we will continue to make disciples the way we always have—baptizing believers by immersion—is it possible God is leading us to change our membership requirements, to open the door of the church a little wider in order to welcome Christians from other denominations who have been discipled in different ways?”

So, when the deacons meet this Tuesday night, I will be interested to learn what they have heard from God in the last thirty days. 

We still won’t be discussing the issue.  We will probably save that until January when the new deacons have rotated on and the old deacons have rotated off.  At that meeting we will try to make a decision about whether or not to bring this issue to the church for a vote.  In the meantime I would be interested to know what you think.  Please take a moment to answer the question below, and encourage your friends and fellow church members to do the same.  You can send them a link to this website or just call them or text them and say, “Take the poll on JimsBlog!’

And when you’ve finished voting, please pray that our careful consideration of this issue—rather than dividing us—would serve to bring us closer to Christ and to each other.

16 thoughts on “If the Vote Were Taken Today…

  1. Hmm “…open the door of the church a little wider in order to welcome…” sure has a positive connotation to it while “…insisting…” sure has a negative.

    I don’t believe we “insist” or require anything. I’d hope our policies (past and future) are based on how the Holy Spirit leads us to interpret scripture.

  2. I would like to start a drive to add the James Green Somerville statue to monument ave. Comments?

    Nice blog Jim – we miss you in DC!

  3. This is how I feel… As much as my feelings are important to me, they are not in and of themselves fully reliable in making important decisions. So, I pray for discernment.

    Because I think we need to look at this in the big-picture, the kingdom perspective – I do feel we should seriously consider changing our membership policy.

    Over the past month or so, I have been deeply moved by the passion, soul-searching, and consideration that my fellow Christians have stepped out and shared regarding the MEMBERSHIP matter. We also had a great dialogue in Sunday School where many who very much “belong” to us (but are not members) shared their hearts and “heads”.

    I feel it’s a waste of “Christian resources” to see those around our active “people groups,” like Sunday School, that could be serving in all capacities within our church, but for our church’s requirement. I know there are people who meet the framework /criteria that our Pastor explained during our Holy Conversations, and would step up with a servant’s heart as Deacons and on those committees that require membership (and as a member of this church since 1990, I am embarrassed to confess I don’t even know which committees require membership).

    By not changing our membership policy, I feel that we are simply sustaining a sense of unnecessary delineation and labeling among those who “belong” to First Baptist Church (to me, we want 100% of everyone, not watchcare).

    Growing up in an American Baptist Church, I am not familiar with one Baptist way of “doing membership”. Even moreso, I am not familiar with one scripture on church membership, although there are some powerful ones about how we should be in Christian community, which to me is membership – belonging. If anything, we should be spurring one another along, not afraid of someone’s testimony that may not mirror our own.

    What does it mean to be a member? Perhaps this discussion should be just the beginning our church of tackling some “provocative questions” … How are we doing with the members we do have? Are we spurring one another on doing a Christ-like job of “one- anothering”? Are all our members “walking the walk and talking the talk”? I am not asking us to become judges (although we’ve somewhat appointed ourselves to this role under our current policy), but just to look at current membership and elevate the FBC Community. We’ve also shared in Sunday School our example and not impeding making disciples…we’ve often mentioned Ghandi who was compelled by the teachings of Jesus, but turned off by the Christians with whom he came in contact.

    I revisited the simple book for children (I Will Follow Jesus, Elizabeth Norton Jones, 1951) I was given prior to my baptism in January 1979, to address some of the important basics that were listed for young disciples to practice in their Christian growth. These are not just simple tasks we (even as adults) just master and check off our list – if we add the depth of relationship God desires for us – we are life-long learners! I would imagine, that no matter who came to FBC seeking membership, we would encourage to encourge a disciplined believer with a servant’s heart!

    1) Attending church regularly (to me, this is belonging, being a part of things, not just in the pew, but showing up beyond Sunday, and being part of church beyond the walls of FBC)

    2) Attend Sunday School regularly. (again “belonging”)

    3) Pray every day.

    4) Read my Bible every day.

    5) Attempt to be a good manager of everything God has given me: my life, my talents, my time, and my money.

    6) Witness for Jesus whenever I can.

    7) Try to act toward everyone in Christian love and helpfulness.

  4. I believe that we should give potential members from other denominations the option of immersion or not (but certainly recommend immersion and the reasons for our belief). Not sure that I understand someones reluctance to join because of immersion.

  5. I think this is a great idea! Baptism is a personal decision between God and one’s self. Although, we are commanded to be baptized each individual needs to make this decision on their own, and in their own timing. I do not think that one should be forced to be baptized in order to be a member of the church. I believe that church membership opens the door for one to learn more about Christ, which will in turn encourage them to be baptized and follow God’s teachings. Does FBC have membership classes that teach the doctrine of the church? I do believe that committing oneself to church membership is a huge step in one’s walk with Christ, so education about what you are committing yourself to is extremely important.

  6. In all the comments and the articles written not any mention has been made concerning the Bible. References to reading it have been made, but not our Bible’s actual content. In Sarah’s womb, John the baby lept when Mary carrying Jesus visited Sarah. There were only months between the ages of the two. John’s mission was to prepare the way for Jesus. And the baptising of Jesus by John was the launching of Jesus’ adult life into the role of Savior of Man, as the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. So much is said in that simple act. Jesus himself fulfilled the act of baptism.

    It has never been my understanding that we become a member of a church as in membership…for membership sake. It is not a joining of a society or club. Anyone may enter a house of God. We love it when anyone does come into the church be it a concert, a meeting, and especially to share a service of worship together. To say there are requirements of membership is not what Jesus ever spoke of in the Bible. We are asked, invited to accept Christ as our Savior, to have Him live through us, to have Him to live in our hearts in order that we can show the love, kindness, and gentleness of the likeness of Jesus to show to others on earth.
    Church is a place for people to come together. Some are wonderful ambassadors of Christ. Some are in the makings of a wonderful ambassador. Some are beginning to seek the understanding and knowledge of God and His Son Jesus. Some are curious. Church is a community of various stages of believers and also non-believers until they come to also eagerly want Jesus in their lives. My thought of Church is that it is an inviting and open place. It is a place of peace and then happiness; a place of refuge and comfort. The core of my Faith is that Jesus gave me many examples to which I want to follow. The Baptist doctrine has been to follow the teachings of the Bible.
    If this is true, should we try to make worldly judgements and edicts of our comfort zones on the Bible?

  7. Ahh..the controversy of it all 🙂 If predjudice suggests fear then we need to focus in on the fear within us and ask God to at once remove the fear. We are a church body, change can be actually a Good thing, I believe God wants us to be a bit broader in our vision but not lose sight of what we as a body stand for..we can change our membership requirements and still hold our traditons beliefs and values.

  8. I am just reading this posting as I finished some devotional time, reading from E. M. Bounds’ PURPOSE IN PRAYER. It seems like a good “place” to share his thoughts, thinking of them in relation to the church’s purpose and how we all fit into God’s divine plan. A house of prayer is welcoming, forgiving, and full of life and expectation where we can learn about the heart of God through His word, His son, and His spirit.

    “God’s house is the house of prayer; God’s work is the work of prayer. It is the zeal for God’s house and the zeal for God’s work that makes God’s house glorious and his work abide.”

    “When prayer fails, the world prevails. When prayer fails the church loses its divine characteristics, its divine power.”
    E.M. Bounds

  9. I am always troubled when a church body has stricter requirements for membership than does our Lord for entry into His Kingdom. What am I missing?

  10. Traditionally, Baptists have not only practiced baptism by immersion, but more importantly, the act of baptism was a way of acknowledging that Jesus is Lord. I believe, therefore, that faith is the more important issue. Whatever the mode of baptism, it is a way of giving testimony that we have accepted the truth of the gospels. For those persons who have received infant baptism it seems appropriate that we request that they receive believer’s baptism before church membership. However, for those persons who have been baptized as believers – whether through immersion, sprinking or pouring – that baptism should be considered as a sincere act of faith and re-baptism should not be requested.

  11. I attended the conversations at FBC. While I understand the point of those who support keeping membership requirements the way they are, I’m wondering if they think Christians from other denominations will not be accepted into God’s Kingdom because they have not been immersed. I think Rick Peter’s comment above speaks to this issue very well. I hope this doesn’t end up causing really hard feelings and everyone keeps an open mind. Though, after listening to comments from both sides of the aisle at the conversations, it’s pretty clear many have very closed minds on the issue. I pray that God will open everyone’s hearts and minds to discern His will.

  12. It isn’t clear if we are considering changing actual member requirements, or instead considering changing a tradition and developing a policy.

    The 3 questions that Dr. Somerville spoke of seem to put things in good context for me. Perhaps they could be posted here for others to consider, in case others have not had the chance to consider them.

    As I understand it….

    (a) New believers that come forward would still be baptized through immersion.

    (b) Existing believers and followers of Christ, most likely raised in a different Christian denomination, that had other means of specifically affirming their faith and commitment to Christ – rather than baptism by immersion – would not be required to be baptized by immersion in order to become an official church member.

    If the above is correct, I don’t see the controversy in that. Baptism can be presented to the newcomers as a means of public declaration of their faith and commitment to Christ. But the simple fact is that some will want to do that, for different reasons. Others, however, will view the requirement as somehow minimizing their previous belief….as if they weren’t Christian enough, or didn’t believe enough, before.

    While that is not the intent, that is how some may will perceive it.

    As others have said, we should look to scripture. I don’t think there is a clear answer there with respect to the issue, but perhaps there is.

    If there is not a clear scriptural basis, then we need to clearly answer the question….what is gained by requiring:
    * existing believers and followers of Christ,
    * who have made a public statement of thier faith,
    * but never made the decision to be baptized

    to be baptized by immersion as a reqiurement for being an “official” church member.

  13. Membership is always a touchy issue. We all have our views of who should and who should not be a member based on certain things. Indeed, our Lord Jesus set the example for Baptism. However, it is clear that Baptism is not a requirement for entry into Heaven, else he would not have told the thief hanging beside him on another cross that he would join Him in Paradise! So why do it? Why submit? The immersion Baptism is not magical. The immersion Baptism itself is not the “Salvation”, it is symbolic of one who is consciously able to make their own decision to truly submit to Christ and be “Born Again”, and it is the JOINING of the body through public proclamation. The action of immersion Baptism is very Baptist. The question to me seems to be is First Baptist Richmond a Baptist fellowship? I wonder if many who attend FBC Richmond do not know what being a Baptist truly means. I would challenge the Deacons to relay what that truly means! Even simple web searches on the issue can turn up enlightening sites discussing Baptist Heritage such as http://www.baptistdistinctives.org/article9_5_02_05.pdf . Each member of this Church came forward in front of our entire congregation to join the First Baptist Richmond Congregation in worshiping our Lord and Savior Jesus as one body! That is what we do in Sunday Worship! We worship as one body. Many would say that our common uniting factor is Christ. They would say that is how it is done in Heaven. Indeed, if it were Heaven! Should we try to strive for Heaven? YES! Will we as imperfect humans agree on what Heaven is? Probably not! What then binds us as believers into one Body? An overly simplistic view is commonality. Should our commonality be race, national origin, or some other government form factor? NO! What then? Many would say, just Christ! Who can argue with that? I myself have many Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Non-Denominational Christian friends, of whom I am SURE are committed believers and I will see in Heaven. I am not a Catholic as I do not believe in putting anyone above a believer other than Christ Himself! I am not Episcopalian (though I do enjoy their Liturgical view) because I believe wholly in the Autonomy of the Local Church. I am a Baptist. Here is a partial representation of what I believe as a Baptist:
    I believe in the Regenerate Church Membership.
    Believer’s Baptism by Immersion.
    No Creed but the Bible.
    Congregational Church government and the autonomy of the local congregation.
    Liberty of conscience, religious freedom, and separation of church and state.
    Soul competency and the priesthood of each believer.
    Symbolic ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
    Security of the Believer.
    Voluntary cooperancy as the form of denominational structure.

    If this sounds familiar, other than tenants of Baptist Faith, it is from Dr. Russell Dilday’s book Higher Ground, pgs 120-121. Dr Dilday is no fundamentalist, as many will attest. He lists these “unique or distinctive” convictions as those that define what a Baptist believes. Now, without bringing into argument the context of his book, I present the following statement. Dr Dilday presented this amidst concerns that fundamentalists would co-opt these beliefs and change them into a new fundamentalist view. I argue that we also must be cautious not to be too liberal in these views, so that they continue to hold the true meaning of being a Baptist. There is a great atmosphere of change around FBC Richmond, the United States, and the World today. While all growth is indeed change, there is also pruning that must occur on tremendous growth to keep it healthy. I simply ask, is not that which is distinctly Baptist, as defined by our First Baptist Church Richmond 228 year heritage, the Baptist Faith and Message (http://www.sbc.net/bfm/bfm2000.asp ), and the view of our Pastors over that time, a value and Baptist identity? I support change when change is indeed warranted, and if FBC Richmond decides that change is indeed the order of the day, then so be it. But I ask for caution. Without detracting from all of those who are currently under Watchcare membership who do so much for our Church, community and our Lord, there is a reason why we are Baptist and not a “Christian Fellowship”. I know of no other denomination that carries the Gospel throughout the world as Baptists. Evangelism and the Gospel define us to the world. I continue to be embarrassed that our FBC missions budget is less than 50% of our overall budget! We have work and giving to do! What I am sure of, at present, is that those who identify with Baptist beliefs, not just Christian (i.e. all denominations and other Christian religions) are those who are eligible for membership privileges. Those privileges include voting and being a Deacon, which by extension means leadership of First Baptist Church Richmond, Virginia, as an autonomous body of believers. Does this mean all believers of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ are welcome? Of Course! All are welcome to worship our Risen Lord! Does this mean all Christians believe what we as Baptist’s believe. Absolutely not. If that were the case then we would not have these discussions as a Church or as friends. Should we be amenable to change? Certainly. Should we be cautious in our change to ensure we hold those Baptist truths to be evident? Most Definitely.

  14. Jim, My wife and I are Christians. We have traveled to, and lived in, many towns. At times we have belonged to various Protestant denominations. When we came to Richmond, nearly nine years ago, we visited several churces, and decided to investigate joining 1st Baptist. At that time we were asked if we had been immersed, when baptised, and we both said “No”. We were told the church would make a decision about whether we could join or not. We were contacted, and told “Immersion was not necessary”. That said, we both joined, have enjoyed our membership, and tithe to support our church and its good works.

    We are happy with our church, and feel a part of the church family. If, however, it is decided, after all these years, that Iwe will somehow be a better Christians if immersed, my wife and I will have to look for another church.

    I do hope that is not necessary.

  15. I started composing a comment to leave here about why I felt the membership requirements of our church should remain unchanged. As I came to the summary I couldn’t finish it without feeling that God was convicting me about my attitude. I’ll save you the page and a half that lead up to this summary cut straight to what I discovered in writing it.

    …I had a very hard time writing Baptism and “just a sign” in the same sentence. To me Baptism feels like a link through the ages back to John the Baptizer who baptized my Lord. Intellectually I realize that it probably isn’t an unbroken link. But it is a very long and meaningful tradition, it is part of our heritage. Baptism is not a requirement for salvation, but emotionally it is hard for me to understand why someone who can be baptized, would not want to follow that tradition; just as it must be difficult for non-Baptists to understand why we would want to require it.

    It appears from the “Conversations”, that some of our Presbyterian, Methodist and other denomination brothers and sisters are much better educated in the scripture than I am with their months of classes and exams prior to confirmation. I hope no-one is trying to imply that their traditions and training are any less valid than ours as Baptists; my point is that they are different. They are not Baptist, just as we are not of their denomination. I would hope to be welcomed into one of their churches if I chose to attend; but if I wanted to join, I would expect to have to learn more about what it means to be a Methodist, Presbyterian or other type of follower of Christ. I would then hope to be accepted but not expect to become a deacon or other spiritual leader…

    See how bad that sounds. Why should my traditions vs. your traditions have anything to do membership in God’s church?

    Now my prayer must be for understanding in the body of Christ at First Baptist Church; and that we do not do harm to the body just to protect our traditions.

  16. It has taken me a long time to articulate my feelings on this subject, for it is one about which many on both sides of the issue feel very passionately. I do not feel strongly about baptism because my early religious training did not emphasize it as a requirement for church membership or for entry into heaven. I’d like to share a little of my own journey as I express my thoughts.

    I was raised in a pentecostal tradition that placed great emphasis on regenerate church membership. That meant a specific decision of accepting God’s grace. Other desirable (but not required) spiritual experiences included “entire sanctification,” a term that I am not sure I fully understood then and will not attempt to describe here, and baptism of the Holy Spirit (for those of you who yearn to know: yes, at least an “initial” experience of speaking in tongues was expected as proof that one had received this particular blessing).

    Water baptism was nice–if you had the opportunity–and was administered by immersion when it was done. It was not a requirement for church membership. In fact, church membership, based on affirmation of one’s salvation experience, typically preceded any discussion of water baptism.

    In my own congregation, no certificate of baptism was issued. Nor were many official congregational records of baptisms kept (at least not from the period of the 1970’s) except in the memories of the oldest church members, as I learned many years later after choosing to become a baptist. Had my sister not found a photograph in our mother’s bible a few years ago, I would still have no proof of my baptism.

    Neither was baptism considered to have any effectual role in one’s salvation. It was simply an external symbol of all the internal work that took place courtesy of Jesus’ sacrifice and the activity of the Holy Spirit. THE requirement for church membership was spiritual regeneration through faith in Jesus Christ and openness to the subsequent blessings of sanctification and baptism of the Holy Spirit.

    Having once been in the position of seeking to join a Baptist church, certain of the validity of my own Christian experience but unable to show written proof of my believer’s baptism, I wholly understand the feelings of those who came to Christ under the guidance of a different faith tradition. Given the choice, some will no doubt embrace immersion as a way of specifically identifying with this congregation. Others will feel that being re-baptized denies the significance of their initial commitments to Christ and degrades the spiritual markers that define their faith journeys.

    I DO care passionately about congregational unity. During my nearly 20 years as a Baptist, I have witnessed (and at times shamefully participated in) more than my fair share of church conflict. So when a congregation begins to discuss something that hints of becoming controversial, I quickly become uneasy. So it has been with this discussion.

    One of the qualities that initially drew me to First Baptist was the unspoken commitment of the congregation to focus on the things that bring us together rather than the things that have the potential to divide us, and on those things that might divide a lesser congregation, to agree to disagree without being disagreeable. I fervently hope that characteristic of this congregation will remain intact throughout this process.

    As I have read the many postings and listened to the holy conversations, it seems that the present policy has not always been uniformly applied to all people resenting themselves for membership. That troubles me, for I truly believe that we are all equals with one another in God’s sight. May we emerge from this process with a clearer understanding of who we are as a congregation and hopefully a consensus on our future policy for responding to those God calls to us from other faith traditions (Mark 9:38-40).

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