One Sunday in September

Today at church we celebrated “One” Sunday: a big, happy unity rally intended to pull us together before a vote next week threatens to pull us apart.  That’s right, next Sunday—September 19—we are voting on whether Christians from other denominations can become members of First Baptist Church without having to be re-baptized. 

We’ve been talking about it for almost two years.  We started with some “Holy Conversations” in October of 2008, where the congregation shared its views, both pro and con, and then the matter was referred to the deacons.  After some initial study and prayer the deacons formed a sub-committee that studied the issue for more than a year.  They brought their report back to the deacons who eventually agreed (in an 80 to 20 vote) to recommend to the church that we change our membership policy.  Next Sunday we’ll find out what the church thinks. 

I’ve been told by some who are against it and by others who are for it that this issue has the potential to “split the church.”  I hope not.  I don’t want that to happen any more than they do.  But I was encouraged by an episode from the church’s history that I stumbled across only this afternoon.  I was reading The World in His Heart: the Life and Legacy of Theodore F. Adams (one of the church’s legendary pastors), and found a description of the church’s 150th anniversary.  Dr. R. H. Pitt, in an address delivered on that occasion, took note of some of the characteristics that had marked the church in its history.  After observing that there had been “no taint of radicalism from its pulpit,” but rather “a fine spirit of high adventure,” Dr. Pitt observed that the congregation had evidenced a substantial unity and had settled “vexing, disturbing, and divisive issues of doctrine and practice” without permanent rifts in its fellowship. 

I’m hoping that we can live up to that reputation next Sunday, and that the day will be remembered not only for the decision we make, but for the spirit in which we make it.

Back Burner

I told the congregation on Sunday that we have decided to postpone our vote on the baptism and membership issue until September 19, mostly because so many of us travel during the summer.  It seemed wise to our deacon chair, Lee Stephenson, to pick a date far enough in advance that people could get it on their calendars and make plans around it.  So, September 19 it is—a Sunday—and the plan at this point is to go ahead with our usual Sunday morning schedule and then come back in the afternoon for this important meeting.

When I made the announcement on Sunday I saw heads nodding around the sanctuary.  It seemed to make sense to most people to wait until everyone could be here.  There are those (and I count myself among them) who will be glad to get this vote behind us, but not if it means leaving anyone out.  If we are going to make this decision as a congregation let’s make it together.

So I said, “This issue has been on the front burner for a while.  It has reached a rolling boil, and generated a lot of heat and steam.  For the summer, at least, let’s move it to the back burner, take a deep breath, and take some time to do what is most important in the world: to love God, love others, and love one another.  At the end of a summer like that—a ‘summer of love’—we ought to be in a good place to make a decision.”

If you are a member of First Baptist I would encourage you, especially, to take the time to listen to my explanation of what the practical implications of this decision would be.  It’s available on the church web site, and takes about an hour to listen to.  I know: that’s a long explanation.  But if you would take an hour to do that and then spend at least that much time in prayer, listening for what God has to say on this issue, I think you would be well informed and ready to vote in September.

Thank you for your patience and understanding as we try to make this big decision together.

How Christians Make Big Decisions

I watched it happen last night.

The deacons of Richmond’s First Baptist Church spent approximately three hours considering a motion that would allow Christians from other denominations to join the church without being re-baptized.  It was a big decision for our church.  As one deacon put it, it would break a 230-year tradition.  But at the end of the night the deacons approved the motion, which will now go on to the church for final consideration.

One of the things that impressed me most about last night’s meeting was the spirit in which it was conducted.  There were people who spoke for the motion, who were treated with respect and courtesy, and people who spoke against the motion, who were also treated with respect and courtesy.  One of our veteran deacons spoke in favor of a motion to amend, a motion that was later defeated.  As soon as the vote was counted he stood up and said, essentially, “It didn’t come out the way I wanted it to, but I’m going to live with the outcome: that’s the way Baptists do it.”  And then we went back to considering the main motion.

No voices were raised.  No threats were made.  No one walked out.  No one left in tears.  Throughout the evening the deacons of Richmond’s First Baptist Church conducted themselves like real Christians, even as they wrestled with a big, tradition-breaking decision.  

I’m proud of them. 

At the conclusion of the meeting we sang, “The Church’s One Foundation,” and then we shook hands, hugged, and spoke to each other on our way out the door.  I looked around for some I knew who would have been disappointed by the outcome but didn’t see them.  I tried to think how I would feel if the vote hadn’t gone the way I wanted it to.  I would have been deeply disappointed.  I may not have wanted to stand around and chat afterward.  But I think I would have appreciated the way the decision was made and on the way home I hope I would have had the grace to say, like that veteran deacon, “It didn’t come out the way I wanted it to, but I’m going to live with the outcome: that’s the way Baptists do it.”

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.

After the Vote

If things go as planned, the deacons of Richmond’s First Baptist Church will vote on the question of baptism and church membership at their next meeting, and if the motion carries it will be forwarded to the congregation for a vote.  That’s how Baptists do these things; neither the pastor nor the deacons make the final decision: the people do.  While I was the one who raised the question of why we re-baptize Christians from other denominations, and while the deacons have spent a year or so discussing it, in the end it will be up to the congregation to determine the requirements for membership at First Baptist.

We call this “local church autonomy,” and it is one of our cherished Baptist freedoms.  No pope, bishop, or pastor tells us what to do; we get to determine our own mission and ministry, and in this case our own membership.  Now we’re getting close to a vote, and some people are getting anxious.  “This is going to split the church!” they say.  I don’t think it will, and I’ll tell you why.  We are following a slow, careful process of discernment that has some built-in checks and balances.  Although the congregation will make the final decision the deacons are trying to provide the kind of leadership that will avoid anything as dramatic as a church split.  The vote they take at their next meeting, for example, will give them some guidance as to how they might proceed. 

Let me suggest some possible scenarios:

Scenario One: At their May meeting, the deacons vote on a motion to accept Christians from other denominations as full members without requiring them to be re-baptized.  The motion fails.  The deacons report back to the congregation by saying that although the discussion has helped us think more deeply about what it means to be a member and what it means to be baptized, we will not be changing our membership requirements.

Scenario Two: The motion carries, but by such a slim margin the deacons choose not to take it to the congregation for a vote, believing it would be too divisive.  They do, however, ask the congregation to consider some other matters that have come up in this discussion.  For example: asking all new members to attend the Connections class, or allowing Watchcare members to vote on church issues, or welcoming those baptized as believers even if it was by a mode other than immersion.

Scenario Three: The motion carries, decisively, and the deacons select a date for a congregational vote.  The motion is made available to the membership for study, reflection, and prayer.  The congregation is given at least two opportunities to discuss the motion publicly.  On a given Sunday the church votes by secret ballot at the conclusion of each morning worship service.  The vote is counted by the deacons that afternoon and the results made public as soon as possible thereafter. 

There are other possible scenarios, of course; I’m only speculating.  But if we end up with something like Scenario Three then, whether the motion carries or fails, we will have made the decision together, and it is my prayer that we would live with the outcome together.  If it fails I will be disappointed, obviously; I think I have made my position clear.  But at the same time I will be proud of the church for having considered this issue so carefully and thoughtfully, and I will know a little better who we are.  If it carries there will be no raucous celebration in the streets, just a quiet recognition that we have opened the doors of membership a little wider.  And I would hope that those who voted against the motion would wait to see how it impacts the church.

On a Sunday after the vote, and perhaps even the next Sunday, I will enter the baptistry with someone who is making a first-time profession of faith in Christ, and dip him down under the water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Some in the church will breathe a sigh of relief, seeing that we haven’t abandoned our way of making disciples, that we still baptize believers by immersion, just as we always have.  Others will breathe a sigh of relief knowing that we really are doing this “to fulfill all righteousness” (as it says above our baptistry), and not simply to fulfill a membership requirement. 

And while I wouldn’t expect a flood of people to come forward at the end of the service there may be some who have been under our watchcare for years now who would want to become members.  I think we might be surprised by who they are, and how much we already think of them as “family.”  Suppose we come to the end of the day and say, “Oh, so that’s what ‘open membership’ means”?

“Well.  That’s not so bad.”

Been There, Done That?

We shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the issue of baptism and church membership at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  Whole books of the New Testament were written to persuade people that Gentiles as well as Jews could be Christian, that keeping the Law of Moses was not essential to salvation, and that you didn’t have to be circumcised to join the church.  This conversation is no different.  In fact, take another look at this passage from Acts 15, where the church is wrestling with the question of whether Gentiles who wish to join the church must be circumcised.  Substitute “Deacons” for the apostles and elders, “Christians from other denominations” for Gentiles, and “believer’s baptism by immersion” for circumcision, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what our deacons have been dealing with for the past year or so.

The Council at Jerusalem

 1Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

 5Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”

 6The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

 12The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. 14Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. 15The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
 16” ‘After this I will return
      and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
   Its ruins I will rebuild,
      and I will restore it,
 17that the remnant of men may seek the Lord,
      and all the Gentiles who bear my name,
   says the Lord, who does these things’
    18that have been known for ages.

 19“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (NIV).

It’s interesting to compare Paul’s version of this account in Galatians 2:1-10 with the version Luke has given us here in Acts 15.  For Paul, who had been preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles, and who had seen for himself what wonderful Christians they could become (with Titus as “Exhibit A”), the idea of asking them to be circumcised in accordance with the law of Moses was hugely offensive.  In Romans 2:29 he asserts that now that Christ has come the only kind of circumcision that matters is “circumcision of the heart.” 

I wonder what Peter, Paul, and James would say to us on this issue.  Would they require Christians from other denominations to get into the baptistry?  Or would they say, as Peter did, “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:11).

…And Then to Be Understood

In my last post I tried to state as clearly as possible my understanding of the position held by those who believe we should continue to require Christians from other denominations to be re-baptized when they join Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  It wasn’t my position, but only my understanding of that other position.  As Stephen Covey has suggested:  “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”

So now, in an effort to be understood, I’d like to state my position:

Those who say that believer’s baptism by immersion is the New Testament model are absolutely right, but the New Testament tells the story of people who were hearing about Jesus for the first time.  That crowd on the Day of Pentecost, for example, had never been given an opportunity to profess their faith and be baptized.  When they were, they jumped at the chance.  Some 3,000 were added to the church.  As the gospel swept across the ancient world it was good news in the most literal sense: it was good and it was news.  So, what do you do when someone repents and believes in the gospel?  You baptize them, and that’s exactly what you ought to do with converts. 

But that’s not what you ought to do with Christians.

If I were trying to invent a way of welcoming converts into the church, I think I would do it in just the way we do it now, and for all the same reasons given in my last post:  I would want to stand waist deep in the water with that new believer, just as John stood in the Jordan with Jesus; I would ask her to profess her faith in Christ by saying “Jesus is Lord,” and to do it in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear; I would dip her down beneath the surface in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus commanded; and I would raise her up to her new life in Christ as if she were rising from the dead, just as Paul describes.  I think believer’s baptism by immersion is the perfect way to welcome converts into the church of Jesus Christ.

But if I were inventing a way of welcoming Christians into the church I might simply ask that person coming down the aisle:  Are you a believer?  Yes.  Have you received baptism in some form?  Yes.  Have you made a public profession of faith in Christ?  Yes.  And do you earnestly seek to follow Jesus?  Yes.  Then welcome to First Baptist Church!  

And then maybe we could toss confetti from the balcony.

I say this because I don’t believe we should treat Christians in the same way we treat converts.  There is a difference–a real difference–between someone who is making a first-time profession of faith in Christ and someone who has been a faithful Christian for years.  Our membership requirements should reflect that.   To those who fear we would be leaving behind the clear teaching of Scripture on this matter I say no, we would not.  There is no clear teaching of Scripture on what to do when a Christian from another denomination wants to join the church.  There is only clear teaching on what to do when someone becomes a Christian for the first time.  When it comes to that we Baptists try to be as faithful to the New Testament model as possible.  We baptize believers by immersion.  That’s the way we’ve been doing it for the past 230 years at Richmond’s First Baptist Church and that is the way we will continue to do it. 

In other churches they make disciples in other ways.   I’ve written about this in previous posts, and talked about how Presbyterians, for example, make disciples by baptizing babies, doing everything they can to bring them up in the Christian faith, and then, when they are old enough to make up their own minds about Jesus, confirming them as believers.  We make disciples by dedicating babies, doing everything we can to bring them up in the Christian faith, and then, when they are old enough to make up their own minds about Jesus, baptizing them as believers.   Unless we are willing to say (out loud) that that process of discipleship is not valid, and those churches are not churches, and those people are not Christians, we ought to welcome them as our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Perhaps we could even feel honored that of all the churches they might have chosen, they have chosen this one.  What I hear from them over and over again is what a warm welcome they have received here, how much they sense the spirit of Christ among us, and how eager they are to be part of this church.  You might think we would throw open the doors to people like that instead of going down a checklist of Christian credentials and furrowing our brows when we discover they weren’t baptized in the same way we were.

I told someone recently that when we stand before Jesus he won’t ask us how much water was used or when it was applied.  He will only ask us what he asked Peter that day by the seashore:

“Do you love me?”