I met with the full deacon fellowship at First Baptist on Saturday morning to talk about baptism and church membership. It was Liz Southworth’s idea, and I thought it was a good one: to discuss this subject not only with the active deacons, but with everyone in the church who has served in that capacity. Not everyone could make it, but still there were about 100 of us who gathered in the dining hall, and Deacon Chair Lee Stephenson was kind enough to bring doughnuts. I had my mind on other things and so she had to point out to me the clever pun she had arranged: some of the doughnuts were Dunkin’ Donuts and the others were Krispy Kreme with sprinkles. “Get it?” she said. “Dunked or Sprinkled!”
When we got started I explained to the deacons that baptism is the initiation ritual of the church of Jesus Christ; it is how we come into the fellowship of believers. It is a transliteration of the Greek verb baptizo, which means “to dip” or “immerse.” I told them that in the New Testament those who repented of their sins and professed their faith in Christ were subsequently baptized, presumably by immersion (presumably I say because we don’t actually have the videotape). Finally, I said that while there is some mention of whole “households” being baptized, there is no record of infant baptism in the New Testament.
All this was to validate the way we make disciples at Richmond’s First Baptist Church: we baptize believers by immersion. I asked if there was anyone who thought we should change the way we baptize and, apart from some discussion about making exceptions for people with disabilities, no one objected. “So,” I said, “Let the record show that before 9:30 in the morning we reached unanimous agreement…on something!”
We moved on from there to a discussion of church membership. I put up a PowerPoint slide that said:
At Richmond’s First Baptist Church we receive members:
- on confession of faith in Christ followed by believer’s baptism
- on transfer of membership from another Baptist church
- on statement of Christian experience as a believer already immersed.
I added that while these are time-honored practices at FBC, they do raise some questions. For example:
- What about the five-year-old who comes down the aisle? Is he a “believer”? Who gets to make that determination?
- What about the former Presbyterian who transfers from a Baptist church that hasn’t required immersion?
- What about the woman who has been immersed in a Pentecostal church? Will she know what it means to be Baptist?
There was some general agreement that these are “gray areas” when it comes to our membership requirements. And then we talked about that special category of membership called “Watchcare.” Watchcare membership, as I understand it, is:
- for people who will only be in Richmond for a limited time (e.g. university students)
- for those who do not wish to move their membership from another church
- for those who do not wish to be re-baptized.
Note: Watchcare members may not serve as deacons or trustees, they may not serve on a decision-making committee of the church, and they may not vote in congregational meetings.
It was that third category, really, that we had come together to discuss, and so we took some time to look at it more closely. I began by asking the deacons not to think of the members of that category as “those people,” but to think of someone they actually know—a real person—who is a Watchcare member because he or she does not wish to be re-baptized. And then I asked: Why don’t our Watchcare members wish to be re-baptized? Is it because they are too “proud”? Do they think they have already fulfilled the requirements of church membership? Do they feel it would be a repudiation of their previous Christian experience. And then, finally, why do we ask them to be re-baptized?
There was lots of discussion here, as you might imagine, and I won’t attempt to summarize it on this page. I will only say that it was, on the whole, very thoughtful and cordial, for which I commend our deacons. They seemed to keep in mind throughout the real people who are in this category, and not discuss it only as an “issue.” I ended that portion of the discussion with a “sidebar” comment, noting that: “We currently have an ‘open communion’ practice, which means that we welcome all Christians to receive communion. Is there any sense in which this practice says to our Watchcare members, “You are Christian enough to take communion with us, but not Christian enough to be a member of our church?”
And then I proposed this change to our membership requirements: “What if we said that, while we will continue to make disciples as we always have, baptizing believers by immersion, we will also receive as full members Christians from other denominations who value their baptisms, have made a public profession of faith, and earnestly seek to follow Jesus?” There was some question about whether those who “value their baptisms” included those who had been baptized as infants. Yes. Of course. Those are some of the very people whose faces come to mind when we think of our Watchcare members.
I quoted from a book called Leadership on the Line, in which Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky say, “People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss.” And then I asked, “What would be lost if we made this change in our membership requirements? This is when the discussion got emotional, but that shouldn’t surprise us when we are talking about loss. I’ve heard someone say that there is no loss without grief. Several people said, in one way or another, that we would lose an important part of our Baptist identity. Some went so far as to say that it’s this—believers baptism by immersion—that makes us Baptist. I offered these suggestions:
- What if we offered immersion to those who had been baptized as infants, not as a requirement, but as a way of bearing witness to their faith and/or making a fresh commitment to Christ? Some may wish to do it as a way of “immersing” themselves in the Baptist expression of the faith.
- What if we also required all new members to complete a four-week class in which they would study 1) their Christian identity, 2) their Baptist identity, 3) their First Baptist identity, and 4) their place of service at First Baptist Church? Would this not make better Baptists of us than immersion alone?
We finished our time together with a written survey in which I asked the deacons to tell me 1) if they supported the proposed change to our membership requirements, and 2) if they thought it was time to bring this issue to the congregation for a vote (see results below, received after this post was published).
I was impressed by a speech Bob Palmer delivered near the end of the morning. He mentioned that back in the sixties the deacons were trying to decide whether or not two Nigerian students could join our church. They eventually decided that they could. “Did we win or lose with that decision?” Bob asked. And then he mentioned our decision to allow women to serve as deacons at First Baptist. “Did we win or lose with that decision?” he asked. And then he mentioned the church’s decision to ordain Associate Pastor Lynn Turner. “Did we win or lose with that decision?” he asked. The implication in each case was that we had “won,” and by extension that we could “win” again.
I think that’s true.
Our next step will depend, to some extent, on those survey results. My guess would be that while most of our deacons would support a change in our membership requirements, most would also think that we are not quite ready to bring this issue to a vote—that it would be helpful to take a little more time, offer some further education, and have at least one more “holy conversation.”
That’s fine. We can do that. I don’t want to rush things. But I do wonder sometimes why it is taking us so long to welcome committed Christians into the full membership of the church. At one of our staff meetings someone explained by saying, “There are a lot of people who think that if they’re going to be part of our church they ought to be baptized in our way.”
“Whose church?” I asked.
In the silence that followed we all wondered: “What would Jesus do?”
Survey Results: Based on information submitted by Lee Stephenson, Deacon Chair, roughly two-thirds of the deacons present supported the proposed change. An additional fourteen percent said they would support the change if it were amended to receive as members those who had been baptized as believers, even if they hadn’t been immersed. So, a total of 85 percent of those deacons present supported some sort of change in our membership requirements; 15 percent said they would prefer to leave things just as they are. Roughly three-fourths of the deacons present said they did not believe the congregation was ready to vote on the issue at this time, suggesting that additional time for conversation, education, thought and reflection would be helpful.
Additional Resources: Here’s an excellent post by “The Internet Monk” on the same subject: http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/rebaptism-how-did-we-get-here