I’m realizing the role fear plays in this decision.
Fear, as in fear of the unknown, as in, “What will happen if we let Christians from other denominations into our membership without re-baptizing them? Will we end up with a church full of Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians?”
And this is where I recognize that I have an advantage over so many at First Baptist, because I’ve been a member of a Baptist church with an open membership policy. In fact, I’ve been a member of five such churches, and all of them had made the decision long before I arrived on the scene. Before coming to Richmond I had never experienced closed membership, and that’s why it was such a shock to my system (in the same way it has been shocking to some people to suggest that we change our membership policy).
The fear of the unknown often leads us to imagine the worst. When this church was trying to decide what to do with two Nigerian students who presented themselves for membership back in 1965 weren’t there some who feared that if we let these two in the church would soon be “overrun with negroes”? That didn’t happen. And when we decided to ordain women as deacons and ministers a decade later weren’t there some who feared that soon all our deacons, and all our ministers, would be women? That didn’t happen either. As for those who think that if we open our doors to Christians from other denominations “we might as well take the name ‘Baptist’ off the building,” I beg to differ. I’ve been in churches like that. In fact, I’m thinking of the first church I served as pastor, the First Baptist Church of New Castle, Kentucky, where:
- We had a men’s quartet—the “Gospel Echoes”—led by the rambunctious piano-playing math teacher at the local high school.
- We had an active Woman’s Missionary Union that kept us up to date on Southern Baptist mission activity and led us to pray for missionaries and support them through the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong offerings.
- We had church business meetings, just after the monthly potluck luncheon, where every committee chairman brought a report.
- We held an annual revival and the deacons picked the evangelist.
- We sang hymns like “Power in the Blood” and “The Old Rugged Cross.”
- We taught Sunday School from the Baptist Sunday School Board quarterlies.
- We had Vacation Bible School, and kids from all the other churches in town came.
- We sometimes had visits from “real live” missionaries who displayed trinkets from exotic countries, dressed in native dress, spoke the native language, and showed slides from the countries they had served.
- I attended the monthly meetings of the Henry County Baptist Association.
- I was a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
- I baptized believers by immersion.
Oh, and there were a few other things:
- We used the lectionary.
- We had women deacons.
- We had an open membership policy.
When I think of that church I cannot imagine how we could have been any more Baptist, and so I’m not afraid that if we change our membership policy here we will suddenly—overnight—turn into Lutherans. But I realize I have an advantage over most of the members of First Baptist: I’ve experienced open membership, and I know…
…there’s nothing to be afraid of.