The Great Baptism and Church Membership Debate

baptismI 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!”

Good one.

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:

  1. on confession of faith in Christ followed by believer’s baptism
  2. on transfer of membership from another Baptist church
  3. 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:

  1. for people who will only be in Richmond for a limited time (e.g. university students)
  2. for those who do not wish to move their membership from another church
  3. 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:

15 thoughts on “The Great Baptism and Church Membership Debate

  1. Yes, that is a good question, “What would Christ do?” I think I know the answer to that question. I think that Christ would say welcome all who believe in Him as Lord and Saviour. Baptism does not save us, but by the grace of God we are saved. I have been there on the other side; though, I did submit myself to Baptism by immersion some 24 years after I was Baptised in the Methodist Church. I can see where others may not want to make that decision yet they would be a faithful addition to the body of believers, and a witness for Christ.

    Each of us needs to pray about this and what direction you feel God is leading First Baptist Richmond to go that will show the Lord Jesus Christ to others through our witness and invitation to join us as a body of believers sharing the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. “What would Jesus do?”

  2. Thanks for sharing the discussion of the Deacon meeting regarding baptismal traditions at 1st Baptist. This discussion is especially meaningful to me, as I was baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran but recently joined 1st Baptist with my fiance this past month under a “provisional” membership until the holy conversations have concluded. Baptism was a concern of mine… but not because of what I considered my baptism to be…but of what 1st Baptist considered my baptism to be.

    Infant baptism…adult baptism…holy communion…confirmation…..dedication….these events don’t define my belief in Jesus…they don’t legitimize it…they don’t make me “more of a Christian” and they certainly don’t make me a better one.

    I wanted to be a member of 1st Baptist because I saw and felt God’s love radiating throughout every pew on those visiting Sundays. I wanted to share my spiritual gifts in the congregation and throughout the community. I wanted to start and grow my own family in fellowship. When I learned that I could not receive full membership unless I was rebaptized through immersion I felt like I had done something wrong…like I had made a “holy” mistake…that I wasn’t welcomed, unaccepted and perhaps maybe not even a good enough Christian.

    I’m thankful that my parents took me to be baptized nearly 25 years ago. A seed was planted that day….and it led me to 1st Baptist Church of Richmond.

  3. Stay with it Jim. This is courageous and faithful work. We have flourished by accepting all Christians and their various baptismal/confessional practices into full fellowship.

  4. Amen and Amen to Melissa. Hang her response up there next to Bob Palmer’s, and while you’re hammering, don’t forget that it used to be that we Baptists couldn’t drink, dance, or play cards either! Open the doors, and let the fresh winds of change blow in along with our new “full” member Melissa!

  5. We all know the Baptist way to become a Christian and that it includes being baptized the Baptist way. Our current rules on full membership seem to be designed to make sure 100% of our full members have become Christians the Baptist way. But, we can still be a Baptist church, even if only most of our full members have become Christians the Baptist way. It just scares us to lose control over the percentage. Will it be 99%? Would it go down to only 70%. We don’t have to let our fear make this choice for us. We can let Jesus be in control of the percentage and trust that it is going to be OK.

  6. As an outsider looking in, it appears to me that Bob Palmer has the same gift as Jim Somerville when it comes to asking questions that force people to go deeper in their thinking.
    When the question “What would Jesus do?” is asked, we who know Him, love Him, and proclaim His Name, know the answer…end of discussion.
    May God bless FBC in this process. Will you win or lose this time?

  7. Jim, I was entrigued by your Facebook posting so I took the liberty of “spying” on First Baptist by reading this blog. What Bob Palmer described as the progression of changes at FBC over the past 40 years is the exact progression of changes at Winfree where Elizabeth and I are. But to zero in on this particular topic, we too had a sub-standard member category called Associate Member until last year. These were folks just as you have described, coming from non-Baptist backgrounds, who did not wish to be re-baptized. We had some who were actively involved for over 20 years but could not serve as deacons or lead any discision-making committee. Last year, our interim led us on a study of this and with very little fanfare, Winfree dropped the requirement of immersion for full membership. We now require those who are wishing to join Winfree to attend a 4 to 6 week overview of Baptist polity and the workings of Winfree.
    One of the reasons this won so easily I believe, is that the list of Associate members contained some of our most committed members. The potential of leadership, etc of this group was far too great to classify them as second class.

  8. Wonderful blog – through and through – love the discussion and comments. Great points made by Mr. Palmer! I hope that people are paying attention out there. “Be still” and you just may feel a divine nudge . . .

    I am a “former Methodist, would be Episcopalian, new Baptist” who has already made the decision to be immersed in the river, no matter what the outcome of this vote.

    Thank you Lee Stephenson! Soon, I will be able to say that I have been “sprinkled and dunked.”

  9. I was an Episcopalian, baptized as an infant, confirmed my beliefs and faith as a teenager, (after attending confirmation classes), and then baptized again when I married a First Baptist Church member. I really needed classes then!

    Baptism was a concern of mine. As Melissa stated so well, “not because of what I considered my baptism to be, but what First Baptist Church considered it to be.”

    Jim, I am so grateful that you have been sensitive to this issue and many others as well.

  10. 1)I’m loving your deacon chair.
    2)Our church accepts as members those who have experienced “meaningful” baptism. For some, their baptism as an infant carries great meaning; others opt to be re-baptized by immersion. All participate in a 3-4 week course we call “Glendale 101” which includes some history, church structure, intro to congregational life, and guidance in getting plugged in.
    3)A question: how and when does FBCR (or do you prefer to) help children/youth learn about and request baptism?
    Thanks, Jim.

  11. Jim: I find this all fascinating. The reason baptists immerse is that is what the Greek word meant. When Jesus and his disciples baptized, they immersed. It is what John the Immerser required, and what Jesus required. It signified a burial, as well as a clothing. All these are reasons baptists have given over the years. Either they never were valid, or they are still valid.

    I also find it fascinating that while you admit it is JESUS’ Church, you and the Deacon board are deciding WHO will be members. Hmmmm.

    I have never understood baptist logic on this point: You have insisted that baptism is not essential for salvation, but IS essential to be a member of the Baptist Church, and is an essential requirement to participate in the Lord’s Supper. By extension, neither the Baptist Church nor communion is essential part of our salvation. By now voting that people from all “Christian” groups can now have full membership in the Baptist Church, you have implicitly stated that the Church (ie. denomination) is irrelevant.

    I think you folks will want to reconsider this matter. Biblically, it is indefensible.

  12. Three weeks after I joined FBC I became Ill and have not been able to be the active member I intended…. I SHALL RETURN.. Hopefully.

    I HAVE been able to listen to the messages and discussions.

    In the discussion on Baptism there were some who related the meaningfulness of their “second Baptism” that was good…. for them.

    BUT at the end I was struck by a realization…. THE MOST IMPORTANT PEOPLE WERN’T AT THE MEETING!!!!

    The people at the meeting were, by definition, those who had been Baptised by immersion. Those who had come from other denominations were only the ones who decided that a second Baptism by immersion was a good thing for them.



    THEY wern’t at the meeting…. it was a non-representative sample of the people being discussed.

    For every person who decided that this would be an appropriate thing to do how many long time Christians from other Denominations …MANY NO DOUBT NEW STUDENTS AT VCU…. found it to be unacceptable.
    …. AND LEFT.

    We will never know because THEY WERE NOT AT THE MEETING!

    How about asking transfering Baptists, many of whom were Baptised at an early age whether THEIR baptism was meaningful?

    Mine, at age eight was kind of like the the Baptism sought by the young man who was recently asked by the Pastor whether he was ready to make Christ the Lord of his life.

    The Child answered “Can’t I just ask him to be my Saviour?? How many Adults seek that type of Baptism?

    Maybe everyone should be questioned on the meaningfulness of their Baptism…mine was just assumed acceptable because it was done in a Baptist Church.

    But I wonder how many people are out there who joke about the time they started to join a seemingly great Church….. but were then told they would have to be Re-Baptised!…… “Can you believe that arrogance” they might joke to their listner.

    But we’ll never know because THEY WERN’T AT THE MEETING.

    For every person who decided that Re-Baptism would be a

  13. I found your post while considering my family’s decision to join a new church. This church is not a Baptist church in name, but it is a fundamental church and I believe it shares many doctrinal statements with Baptist churches. (The fact that many members past and present have attended Baptist colleges and seminaries also supports my assessment.)

    We have not talked to the pastor about the specific subject of re-baptism yet, but from the membership materials, I’m concerned re-baptism will be required. I continue to seek God in this matter, but I still feel troubled in this area.

    I was baptised as an infant in the Lutheran church. I personally accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior probably somewhere around the age of 6. I only know that I don’t remember when I didn’t love Jesus and believe He was my Savior. After more study, I publically affirmed my faith through Confirmation at the age of 12. I have always tried to live as a committed (albeit imperfect) follower of Jesus Christ. While I don’t remember my baptism, I know in my heart that Jesus was part of that day and has been guiding me through parents, teachers, friends, and my own pray and study ever since. My Confirmation meant and still means the world to me and my heart grieves when I think that others question as to whether it “counts”. I would love to be come a full member at the church, but not if my salvation or committment to Christ is questioned in such a way.

    Thank you for addressing this matter with hearts guided by Jesus!

  14. I suggest that we determine the answers to difficult questions through the lens of our highest priority. How do we use the issue of baptism to bring in the Kingdom of God?

  15. Mr. Ken Angel almost had it right in his earlier posting. Modern church membership is a Pharisee-like construct that has little or no biblical basis given the legalistic way it is applied in Baptist churches. In my 40 years of observation this particular tradition has rivalled complex issues such speaking in tongues in impacting the church’s testimony by folks falling away due to a demoralizing experience with this legalistic nonsense. Every instance where I have observed a church split due to theological disagreements, it was due to CHURCH MEMBERS, not wild-eyed pagans or athiests in disguise. Also, I have seen multiple instances where folks in real need were denied assistance merely on the basis of their non-membership. Mr. Angel’s commentary only addresses a slice of the alienation that occurs because folks don’t want to subject themselves to non-biblcial traditions. In contrast, I have yet to attend a church where they ask for proof of church membership before they accept a check or cash when the offering plate goes around. Very interesting that we’ll take their money with no strings attached but not their burdens. I also find interesting the Hindu-like caste approach of “Watchcare” membership that appears to have been constructed by attorneys rather than folks who are open to having folks attend based on their interest in either accepting Christ or maturing their relationship with Him. Most importantly, I have yet to see a biblical instance where Christ put any requirement other than a profession of faith before rendering healing. That is still the case today and will be until His coming. So to sum it up, as a Christian, I have full, unrestricted access to the Kingdom of Heaven by my profession of faith in Jesus Christ but not to the contemporary Baptist congregation given the demands of church membership. Did I miss anything?

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