Progress Report

document_1899_church_membership1People have been asking me where we stand on the issue of baptism and church membership at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, a subject of frequent discussion on this blog (see “What’s the Big Deal?”  “My Way vs. Your Way on the Way to Our Way,” “Provocative Questions,” “Not a Black Eye in the House,” and “If the Vote Were Taken Today“).

Here’s the answer:

After two “Holy Conversations” in October I promised that I would take this issue to our deacons and let them determine whether or not it needed to go on to the congregation for a vote.  Since I was out of town for the Deacons’ meeting in November, I asked them not to discuss the issue, but to spend a month praying over it, asking the question: “While we will continue to make disciples as 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 other ways?”  They did pray over it, and in December several of them stood and shared what they had heard from God.  The minutes recorded that “several [deacons] noted that, after much prayer, their hearts had been softened regrding this issue.”

At the January meeting we discussed our membership requirements and decided it would be a good thing for all of our deacons—some 200 of them—to get in on the discussion.  So we are looking for a good time and place to do that.  I would guess that after we’ve had time to talk about it we would also want to give the congregation further opportunity for education and discussion.  I don’t want anyone to feel that their concerns have gone unheard or that their questions have gone unanswered. 

That’s where we are at this point.  If you have questions or comments please feel free to click on the word “comments” below and weigh in.  I want to hear from you.



15 thoughts on “Progress Report

  1. Thank you for the update!

    I like the part about, “after much prayer, their hearts had been softened regarding this issue”.

    Looks like a good sign to me :o)

    Open arms will open doors.

  2. Thanks for the initiative in this direction with the Holy Conversations. It has spurred discussions and education concerning the entire issue/history of baptism. This is a good thing for all of us.

    Personally, I think changing the membership requirements would be a wise decision for our church. I grew up in a rural Baptist church nearby that did not require re-baptism, so perhaps this influences my feelings about this issue. I do try to understand why this is such an emotional issue for others.

    I am enjoying reading the book loaned to me by a friend called Baptism-We’ve Got It Right and Wrong by John R. Tyler. The history part (What Does Church History Say About Baptism?) concerning baptism is very interesting and informative. ( Haven’t finished it yet though! ) I must admit, however, that I skipped to the end – page 147 – and fell in love with Walter B. Shurden talking about “taking Jesus seriously.” His words certainly spoke to my heart!

    Thanks again for encouraging us to think about this topic.

  3. I thought it was mighty brave of you to take on immersion in this very southern Baptist Church. I was interested in the Wed. nights you fully broached the subject and showed the necessary transparent attitude that is giving, positive, and productive. People take it personally when you start moving a tradition that they are used to. It is a limitation and a narrow mindedness that I find discouraging.

    How ecumenical to allow people to join the Church, coming just as they are, having been immersed or sprinkled, of course. To re-immerse those who have already been thru that is not positive nor productive.

    There are southern Baptists, and then there are those that put tradition first and community second, This whole difference of opinion stems from that, believe me.

    You are flexible, genuine, giving, compassionate, and deep into the spirit of Christ. What you expect is for others to deal in the same manner. When you try to determine what people or a certain individual will do or say in the future, look closely at what they or he or she have done or said in the past.

    May the peace that passes all understanding be with you.

    Ciao–Trisha Grizzard

  4. Walter Shurden (“Buddy” to his friends) is one of the great Baptist historians. He’s not afraid to tell it like it is, because he knows exactly how it was. Thanks for commenting, Jackie.

  5. I find the fact that we’re still discussing this topic extraordinary. The very suggestion that such a prominent Baptist church as FBC would consider changing the thing that so defines us as a denomination that we take our very name from it is astonishing to me. Humility and respect for others’ beliefs would prevent me from even entertaining the thought of requesting that a Catholic or Methodist or Presbyterian church change their membership requirements to accomodate me — why are we considering doing such a thing? Could it be that we live in such a PC world that we are afraid to stand up for ANYTHING any more? Those of you who don’t find any good reason to uphold our Baptist beliefs, I suggest you research the subject. It’s easy. Look up the definition of “Baptist” on Wikipedia or any number of other sites. There is a scriptural basis for Baptist baptism requirements, as you’ll find if you’ll research the subject. We at FBC are very ecumenical in our worship as it is; I have received ashes on my forehead on Ash Wednesday, walked a labyrinth during lent, and observed Maundy Thursday. In fact I’ve never even heard the word “lent” spoken in a Baptist church other than ours. These things, though unusual for a Baptist church, enhance our worship traditions without being in conflict with them. This latest attempt to erode our Baptist foundations, however, is insupportable to me. It is in direct conflict with what we, as Baptists, believe. Those of other denominations who wish to join us without receiving a believer’s baptism already have a perfectly good vehicle for so doing. We are more liberal than most Southern Baptist churches in offering Watchcare as an option. It is our way of welcoming those of different traditions into our congregation without abandoning their own beliefs. You who find Watchcare somehow degrading should examine your pride to see if it could be playing a larger role in your Christian life than you realize. Furthermore, if you think that full membership will somehow bring you further into the fold, you may be surprised to find that you have created a new and previously unknown category of division — those who are full members but are not full Baptists. After all, you will only have removed the label, not changed the essence of the division. Have some Christian humility, please!

  6. Jane:

    This is an extremely articulate comment, and I appreciate so much what you say about your “ecumenical” experiences at First Baptist. Let me clarify that no one has asked me to change our membership requirements for their sake. I am the one who has brought this matter to the attention of the church and I do it because there are those among us who have been Christians for years and years, who have been watchcare members of First Baptist for much of that time, but who have not been admitted into our full membership because they have not been immersed.

    My problem with this is that baptism is the “initiation ritual” of the church of Jesus Christ—it’s how you identify yourself as one of his. To tell someone who has been a Christian for a long time that they have to be baptized is like saying, “Your way of being Christian isn’t good enough for us. We need you to start all over again from the beginning.” It’s not that these people are too proud to be immersed; it’s that they don’t want to throw their previous baptism, their previous Christian experience, on the scrap heap as if none of that mattered.

    I asked my brother-in-law Chuck Treadwell, an Episcopal priest, what I would have to do to join his church. He said, “Well, we would honor your baptism, obviously. We would honor your Christian experience, obviously. But we would immerse you in the Episcopal expression of the faith.”

    I liked that answer and wondered: is there a way we can do that at First Baptist? Can we immerse Christians from other denominations in the Baptist expression of the faith, whether or not we immerse them in water? Wouldn’t that be a way of “honoring” their baptism, “honoring” their Christian experience, while teaching them all that is best about being Baptist?

    You don’t have to agree with me, but I wanted you to know why we are still talking about this.

    Thanks again for commenting,


  7. Jim, please correct me if I am mistaken.

    As I understand it, the discussion is not, and never has been, about admitting people who have not been baptized. Rather it is about what we wish to require of baptized believers from other faith traditions whom God calls to unite with us.

    We will continue to baptize by immersion those who wish to unite with First Baptist Church upon an initial profession of faith.

  8. That’s correct, Kay. I think every church requires baptism. It is the “initiation ritual” of the church of Jesus Christ. Our discussion has centered mostly around the way we do it as compared with the way other traditions do it, and the question is whether we can accept as full members those who have been baptized in other ways. There are some who have argued that infant baptism is not baptism at all because it is not “biblical,” and because the Greek word for baptize means “to immerse.” But if these are the criteria we are going to use I challenge anyone to find that place in the Bible where someone who has been a Christian for thirty years is baptized. I challenge anyone to find that place where a six-year-old child is baptized. The New Testament tells the story of people who were hearing about Jesus for the very first time, who responded with faith and asked to be baptized. It doesn’t tell the story of what happened when the children of that first generation were brought to church, or their grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

  9. Jim:

    My point is not that our members from other denominations did not have a valid baptism — for their denomination. We need to define terms here. For a Baptist, baptism is not necessarily the starting point as a Christian. You may have been a Christian for many years before you make the public proclamation that you are one by being baptized. For some it is indeed an “initiation ritual.” For others, myself included, it is a step you take after believing in Jesus Christ for years and years. You are simply standing up before a congregation and declaring your faith and your intention to become a member of a Baptist church. Remember that, to us, there is nothing saving about this ordinance. As for those who feel that by making this proclamation that they are saying that their previous Christian experience doesn’t matter, let’s look at what Paul said in Philippians 3:7-9. Some translations use the words “filthy rags” and others “garbage”, but I think you get the point. “God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith.” (NLT) Faith, not rituals.

    Again, I do not wish to suggest that Christ cares which denomination of his church you choose to join, but when you choose one, embrace it. You can never build up a house by eroding its foundation, and for Baptists, this issue is foundational. The conservative Baptists in our congregation will take umbrage at this change. And they are the skeleton in our body of Christ. Bones don’t bend, they break. I would hate to see any of these dear people leave because they feel their church disregards Baptist beliefs.

  10. The topic is a tough one and since I am not a member of FBC I will not wade in too deeply. I can however, tell you about a dear family member who, after 45 years of prayer by his wife and Christian friends, finally accepted Christ as his personal Savior. He was 67 and he had lost both legs, both kidneys to diabetes and was confined to a wheel chair. He was not able to be immersed in the baptistery for fear of exposure to germs that would lead to infections. I saw the man completely change before my eyes in the two year before he died. He was joyful and thankful to his Savior for each and every day. He was wheeled to Sunday School and Church as often as his frail body would allow. He was completely at peace in the Lord.

    I talked to him at his bedside in his last days and the thing that he talked about most and was most grateful for was Jesus saving him and the church accepting him as a “full member,’ even though he could not be immersed. I wonder what would have happened to this new Christian’s spirit had the “Baptist Church” he asked to join denied his request to be made a part of this particular body of Christian believers?

    I am thankful that when he joined the church there was no discussion as to whether his lack of Baptism would be damaging to the tenants that church’s Baptist beliefs. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. So they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:24) I am thankful to God our Lord that there was so much celebrating in that church — on that day — and days that followed that, to my knowledge, the subject was never broached.

  11. Wow…I was going to comment that this is pretty commonplace in ABC life as I know it, but then I see the struggles articulated in so many of the comments. Prayers for you, sir.

    I was baptized as an infant. The Baptist church I joined in Chicago (North Shore Baptist Church) accepted the Baptism as valid simply because I did. I am now a Baptist minister who walks the tight rope. I will not Baptize an infant simply because it’s not the Baptist tradition, but I will not rebaptize anyone either. The Book of Acts suggests multiple practices. I am trying to maintain the same.

    Now, Communion pushes this around a bit, of course. The children that we have in our congregation from other traditions come forward for communion because they always have. Some of our long-standing members are concerned that they “don’t understand.” So, the baptized children might not be able to take Communion once were done with this conversation. It’s interesting.

    Blessings on the journey, Jim.

  12. I grew up and was baptized in the Church of the Brethren, which also baptizes by immersion, so this was not an issue for me when I joined FBC. However, it was an issue in my family. When my parents settled in my mother’s home town, they naturally went to my mother’s home church, which was the Church of the Brethren. My father was a Methodist and did not believe he needed to be re-baptized, so he did not join the church. However, he was as committed and active (or more so) as many of the members, and later when the requirement was dropped, he did join.

    I personally did not come to FBC because it was Baptist. I came originally because of the ministry to single adults, and stayed because I found a fellowship and a place to serve here. We bring people into this church in many ways through our programs such as the singles ministry, divorce recovery, programs for children, etc. When they find a place here and want to become a part of us, to tell those who are already committed Christians who have previously been baptized that they cannot be in full fellowship unless they meet this requrement seems to me to negate the welcome that they believed they had found here.

  13. I am not a member of your church, so forgive me if I should not comment.

    Immersion is a Baptist distinctive, but autonomy of the local church is also. I would think this is why you folks are still on this subject. “Autonomy of the church” where I attend seems to out weigh any other traditional distinctive at times. We have had long church conferences discussing issues in which the North Carolina Baptist conference was trying to impose their point of view on our church. We discussed these issues openly within our congregation and came out with a better understanding of our identity and what we believe. We may have come out a little less Baptist, but I believe we came out a little more Christian, and surely that is what matters.

    Should your congregants be aware of your Baptist heritage and the traditions of your church upon joining? Absolutely. But that sounds like a need for orientation, not so much re- Baptism. Over the past few years, I have found that being Baptist takes a special person. Between the autonomy of the church and the priesthood of the believer, even though we call ourselves Baptist, sometimes we find that our only common ground is Christ himself. That is difficult to explain to folks at times, but isn’t it good that we have that?

    When my 12-year-old daughter made a public profession of faith in our church in November 2008, she was recognized as a member of the church that day. It was a few weeks later in January 2009 that she was baptized. I wonder if she was really Baptist during that interim period. I don’t really care…. I just wonder.

    Good luck with your decision.

  14. I confess, I am struggling to know how to ponder and pray about this issue.

    I find myself asking: Is it about immersion vs. sprinkling? Is it about infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism? Is it about the right way to baptize vs. the wrong way to baptize? Is it about the best way to baptize vs. the other ways to baptize? Is it about the Baptist way to baptize vs. the other ways to baptize? Is it really directly about baptism at all, or is more about membership? Is it more about what it means to be, not only a Christian, but a Baptist Christian? And how important is it to make a distinction between the two? The questions are so big and puzzling my head is spinning and I do not know where to begin.

    So here are my new questions: What is good about requiring existing Christians to have a believer’s baptism by immersion in order to be full members of First Baptist Church Richmond, and what would be bad about letting them be members without it? And also, what is bad about requiring Christians to have a believer’s baptism by immersion in order to be full members of First Baptist Church Richmond, and what would be good about letting them be full members without it? Which would create the most good and the least bad? Which would make Jesus feel glad, and which would disappoint him most?

    I could still change my mind I suppose, but right now I feel the good of fully including un-immersed Christians as full members, outweighs the good of making sure all our full members have been baptized the proper way. The risks of allowing them to be full members are acceptable to me, when compared to the harm that could be done by excluding them.

    I love my church because of what it has done for me, because what is continues to do for others in Christ’s name, and because of what it does for the God I love. I love my church because of the people I get to be a Christian with. What ever we decide about what baptism is required to be a full member, I am staying. I hope that will be true for all of us.

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