Nothing to Be Afraid of

I thought I had said everything about baptism and membership that could be said, but here’s one more thing: 

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.

10 thoughts on “Nothing to Be Afraid of

  1. “PSSST! Hey, you! Yeah, YOU! First Baptist member! ‘C’m’ere a second! SHHHHH! Hey, listen, don’t look now but, um, First Baptist of Richmond already HAS a church full of Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians as well as Roman Catholics, Disciples of Christ, among others, and even some people of Jewish heritage as well as some lifelong Baptists! SHHH! But don’t tell anybody I told ya!” ;> Seriously, when my wife and I first entered First Baptist, back in August 1979, we quickly learned that First Baptist was and have observed that it remains a fairly “broad spectrum, big tent” sort of church. In fact, that is one of the things that strongly attracted us to First Baptist. It was sort of like we had waded out of a little backwater stream and were floating in a big ol’ river, a “mainstream” of Christianity. And it has always done the same things that First Baptist in New Castle, Kentucky did only more so. The only thing I could suggest, as First Baptist ponders this decision, is that a series of presentations be made, to the First Baptist congregation, by authoritiative representatives of other denominations, explaining the similarities and differences between churches of their denomination and First Baptist. However, I think that such a study would probably find a lot more similarities than differences. And, as part of such a series of presentations, perhaps discussions could also be held about how First Baptist and these other denominations can work more closely together in bringing people to Christ and doing Christian missions. It could turn out to be a wonderful, positively awesome time in the history of First Baptist and the history of the Christian faith in Virginia.

  2. Interesting topic you have discussed here. Question: why would a Lutheran or a Methodist come forward one Sunday to join First BAPTIST Church? I would assume that they want to become a Baptist. So, is that not sufficient; to make a commitment, a choice, willingly fullfilling a desire from within to become a member of the Baptist church, Richmond’s First Baptist? Of all of the new members I have welcomed on the Sunday morning of their decision have I ever sensed any fear, but rather a broad smile of contentment and joy. Each was happy about their decision, and so was I.

  3. Thank you, Jim, for your gracious and insightful leadership throughout this discussion in this chapter of First Baptist’s journey. You are certainly right in this last entry — the unknown, or the uncertain, are, in my experience, always the most difficult for most of us to navigate. Usually, my bias is that we can deal better with even an unpleasant known, than we can step out in faith toward that in which the future is unclear.
    I do, however, firmly believe that God will lead us to the best outcome if we prayerfully seek His guidance. He’s never let us down yet, through some very “trying times!” Again, thank you for the balanced and thorough way you have placed the question before us.

  4. My opinion on the whole thing, is that if the prospective member has already made a public statement that Jesus was their Lord and Saviour after they became mature enough to understand the impact of what they were saying/doing, then they are “baptized” enough for me.

    For example, I think a person who was raised in the Roman Catholic faith and been confirmed, can become a full member of this church without an additional baptism – but a person who was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, and has NOT been confirmed needs to make that public statement and be baptized to become a full ember of this church (just like people who were raised in the Baptist faith).

    Although I must say, it does say “First BAPTIST Church” (not First UNITARIAN Church) on the big sign out in front – people coming in MUST realize that they are walking into a place that baptizes people. 🙂

  5. I feel that baptisim need to be after a proffesion of faith and a perosnal decision between a man/woman and God, not thier parents/gaurdians and God. What is the significance of a baptisim that cannot be remembered and had no act of submission and love between the person being baptised to God? I guess a better question for me to ask/help me understand is why is it done that way? How did infant baptisim even become a relevant part of a church? I understand parents making the commitment to God to raise the child to walk in His ways but how was it decided that baptisim could be done without the confession of “Jesus is Lord”

  6. Dr. Somerville:

    If this vote is passed by the congregation, why not rename the church “Richmond’s First Church, Baptist” or “First Church, Baptist” similar to “River Road Church, Baptist” in west Richmond?


    Mark Waggoner

  7. I have struggled to understand the incredible emotional energy that seems to be attached to this issue for some people. What is the “hook” for something that , every time we baptise someone, we state that this is a SYMBOL of something that has already happened? Why do so many people from other denominations join First Baptist? It is NOT because they have suddenly discovered that we are “righter” or “more obedient” or “Better than” their previous denomination because we baptise by immerson. Surely no one really believes that. They come to First Baptist because who we are as a church, how we express our faith and how we try to follow Christ and bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. They come because they have been cared for in some special way such as in the Divorce Recovery Ministry or the New American Ministry. they come because we have wonderful children’s and youth programs or because they have found a place for their passion serving in a ministry or a class in which to study or simply have found a community in which they feel welcomed. They come for many reasons I am sure but, I am also sure that, should we ask them, none would say they came because First Baptist Church baptises the “correct” way. Yes Jim, I agree that it is fear that is fueling a lot of this emotion. My sense of the cause is a bit more cynical that yours and I must take resopnsibility for that. I sense that it is related to our need to be superieor…To be that church who says “thank you God that I am not like those other denominations. Thank you God that I am a church that Knows better than those other denominations how to be obedient to your will and that I am a chuch that does it the Right way!” Could we be attached to a bit of Christan elitism?? THAT is MY fear. Take away baptism by immersion and suddenly we are just like all the other Christan Churches.. just trying to follow Jesus. Please, let’s just get on with it. While we are discussing this issue Steve Banchard has difficulty staffing his homeless ministry and the same handful of people show up each Thursday for Grace Fellowship. Only rarely does anyone show up to help with announced workdays for the New American ministry. Those New Americans who want to come to church on Sundays and Wednesdays often find themselves waiting for a ride that never comes. We have planned mission trips that are going off shorthanded. We have been unsuccessful in finding anyone willing to correspond with prisoners who are desperate for a penpal. I am sure that others could point to many other examples of minitry needs unfullfilled at First Baptist. Let’s keep the Main Thing the Main Thing. Let’s put our energy into making First Baptist Church a church where “they know we are Christians by our Love”.

  8. It helps me to understand that we are not the only Baptist church around that has an open membership policy. Second Baptist Church in Richmond accepts Christians from other denominations who have been baptized regardless of mode or sequence. I don’t understand why this is such a big deal. Our consideration of this change is something other baptist churches are already practicing.

    If we were to vote to change the membership policy to include only non-infants (older children, youth, adults) who have been baptized in any mode, we have really accomplished nothing. Since virtually all Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc. all embrace infant baptism as an expression of the genesis of their journey to confessing Jesus’ lordship, the number of people who are baptized as adults int those traditions is at best miniscule. We are certainly not going to begin baptizing infants, but the fact that they do should not keep them out of the Baptist family, which surely is a Christian family first…isn’t it?

    It is a good thing this issue (although a parallel case could be made with reference to the Judaisers, but that is another blog post!) of church membership was not being discussed in the first century, or Paul would still be stuck in Troaz, there would be no Baptist churches, and Lydia and her husband would be debating which of their kids to leave out when she “and her household” were baptized.

  9. Jim,
    I have just spent the last hour on the phone with one of FBC’s deacons, who is a very dear friend. I have listened and observed this discussion from the “fringes,” most often with my deacon friend. First, let me say that I appreciate your willingness to raise this issue; the analogy of the Nigerian students is an appropriate one. And for those who don’t remember the experience of the 1965 event, they may remember the 16 year old African-American boy who came forward for membership in 1973, fearing that it might have a negative effect on the church. My sense, Jim, is that you are seeing the larger picture; Christians of different denominations are being drawn to this congregation because of the leadership and moving of God’s spirit. The church cannot and should not close its doors to Christians wanting to live out their faith within the FBC community; Christians who have experienced baptism at an earlier time and place in their pilgrimage. For me, in the end, is it more important to be Baptist Christians, or Christians who worship in Baptist fellowship.

    I understand that the deacons are voting tonight on the policy. Please know that I will be in prayer for you all during that time. There are persons on the deacon team that I love and greatly respect, as I do you. My prayer is that God’s purpose for His church will be realized and affirmed.

    Thanks for letting a former member weigh in on this issue. First Richmond has been, and continues to hold, a special place in my heart and life.


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