A Night to Remember

Nigerians2It’s 7:35 p.m. on Tuesday, January 20, 2015.

Exactly 50 years ago, at this time, somewhere between 1,400 and 1,800 people packed themselves into the sanctuary of Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the annual business meeting. Why so many? Because two weeks earlier two Nigerian students from Virginia Union University had presented themselves for membership, and the church was voting on whether or not to let them in.

Fred Anderson writes: “To understand the scene in January 1965 and to sense something of the charged emotions, it is necessary to review the turbulent era. A scant ten years before, in 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that separate but equal was not to be allowed in reference to the public schools. Led by powerful politicians and fed by the fears of the white citizenry, especially in the rural areas, Virginia employed “massive resistance.” In some localities, the public schools closed. Although Virginia avoided the kind of ugly racial confrontations experienced in much of the Deep South, there were deep-set social customs, segregation laws, and spirits of defiance. The areas of public transportation, public accommodations, and voting rights were prime aspects of society about to undergo change.”

On Wednesday evening, January 20, all the conflicting emotions—the rights and the wrongs—from centuries of Southern living had a place of exposure in a meeting that stretched on for four hours. The staff and leadership had prepared carefully. 3,000 ballots had been printed. Tally sheets had been designed to make the proceedings smooth. News reporters were barred from the church grounds. This was strictly a “family meeting.”

The pastor, Dr. Ted Adams, began the meeting with a statement of his personal convictions. “In his calm and gentle manner characterized by extreme patience and understanding, the gentle Adams laid out the concern for open doors and open hearts. He appealed, as he had before, that the church should receive into its membership ‘anyone who came professing faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.’”

And then it was up to the church.

The main motion on the floor was that “an exception to the established church policy be made to accept under the watch care of our church the two Nigerian students.” Chesley Decker, the son of missionaries and an appealing young member, called for a change from watch care to full membership. In the time for discussion there were numerous speakers pro and con. Someone reckoned that between forty and fifty members spoke at some point in the long deliberations.

Some speaking against the motion argued that “If God had wanted the races to amalgamate…” etc., fearful that integration would lead to intermarriage between the races. Others worried that immediate admission would “split the membership,” and urged a deferral for at least six months. But the young people in the room, who felt differently, spoke with the courage of their convictions. One young woman stood at the podium and pointed her finger at some of her former Sunday school teachers. “You taught me to believe that Jesus loves ALL the little children—red and yellow BLACK and white! Was that a lie?”

It would be impossible to document the emotion in the crowded church sanctuary that night, but in the end, the (amended) recommendation to receive the Nigerian students as full members carried 773 to 540.

The word spread like wildfire.

The next day the story showed up in newspapers in Gainesville, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, DC. Some of the articles were supportive; others were simply surprised that a historic Baptist church in the “Capital of the Confederacy” would vote to admit black members.

It would be another two months before Martin Luther King led the march from Selma to Montgomery (dramatized in the recent film, “Selma”). Some have wondered how the publicity and policy changes surrounding that march would have affected the outcome of the First Baptist vote, had it been it held at a later time. We will never know.

But we do know this:

Fifty years ago tonight the people of Richmond’s First Baptist Church came down on the right side of history. Not all of them, mind you, but enough to carry the vote. They heard something of the gospel in Dr. Adams’ gentle request that “anyone professing faith in Jesus Christ should be admitted as a member.” They remembered that they were not only citizens of the American South, but also of God’s Kingdom. Ronald Howell, a member of the church, was quoted in the Richmond News Leader as saying, “The value of what we believe and profess is seen in what we do. By opening our church doors, we can prove to the watching world that we are sincere about our belief in the One God who is the Father of us all.”

It’s 8:35 now. Fifty years ago that church business meeting was just getting warmed up. It would be another three hours before the gavel came down and the few remaining members could go home. But what happened then defined who we are now. The “open door” policy of First Baptist Church had been tested and the door had remained open.

It was truly a night to remember.

_______________________
Much of the information in this post comes from Fred Anderson’s excellent reporting in The Open Door: A History of First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia, published by the church in 2006 (pp. 261-279).

KOH2RVA: Day 71

There are so many things in this article that seem relevant to KOH2RVA–our year-long, every-member mission trip. The emphasis on relationships, the return to Jesus, the community focus, the conversational orientation, the rise of the laity…all of these could describe what happens when a church decides to get up off the pews and bring heaven to earth. Thanks to all of you who have joined us on this mission trip. May God’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done, in Richmond as it is in heaven!

Holy Soup

Is the American church fading away? Will the losses in membership and attendance lead to a marginalized church presence such as that in present-day Europe? What will the American church look like in ten years?

Church leaders, denominational executives, and religion researchers gathered in Colorado recently to examine the church’s health and prognosis. The Future of the Church Summit was sponsored by Group Publishing.

After evaluating current trends, Summit members predicted a number of likely scenarios for the American church in the next ten years:

  1. Emphasis on relationships. Whereas the church and congregational worship today are largely spectator-oriented, the new coming trend will prioritize spiritual growth through personal relationships.
  2. Return to Jesus. The current church is preoccupied with the “ABCs”—attendance, buildings and cash. A Summit pastor said, “We need to deal with the idols of the church.” The coming church will highly focus its mission, goals, measurements and message on…

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The Sneetches

My friend Jane, who has commented on this blog in recent days, shared with me Dr. Seuss’s story of the Sneetches, which I had never heard before.  I think it’s a perfect parable of unity, and one that is especially helpful in these days when the congregation of Richmond’s First Baptist Church is feeling somewhat divided by our September 19 vote on membership.

I’d like to add to this story my own appreciation for those who are able to voice their views and vote their conscience even when their views are different from mine.  One of those came by my office this week to tell me he’d been hurt by some who said he wasn’t supporting the pastor just because he didn’t agree with him.  “Poppycock!” I said (or something like it).  You don’t have to agree with the pastor to be a good and faithful member of the church.  In fact, you probably ought to disagree from time to time as a matter of principle.  As the Sneeches will teach us, it’s not wrong to be different;

It’s only wrong to think it is.

————————————————–

Now the Star-bellied Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-bellied Sneetches had none upon thars.
The stars weren’t so big; they were really quite small.
You would think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
But because they had stars, all the Star-bellied Sneetches
would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”

With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort, ”
We’ll have nothing to do with the plain-bellied sort.”
And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
they’d hike right on past them without even talking.

When the Star-bellied children went out to play ball,
could the Plain-bellies join in their game? Not at all!
You could only play ball if your bellies had stars,
and the Plain-bellied children had none upon thars.

When the Star-bellied Sneetches had frankfurter roasts,
or picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts,
they never invited the Plain-bellied Sneetches.
Left them out cold in the dark of the beaches.
Kept them away; never let them come near,
and that’s how they treated them year after year.

Then one day, it seems, while the Plain-bellied Sneetches
were moping, just moping alone on the beaches,
sitting there, wishing their bellies had stars,
up zipped a stranger in the strangest of cars.

“My friends, ” he announced in a voice clear and keen,
“My name is Sylvester McMonkey McBean.
I’ve heard of your troubles; I’ve heard you’re unhappy.
But I can fix that; I’m the fix-it-up chappie.
I’ve come here to help you; I have what you need.
My prices are low, and I work with great speed,
and my work is one hundred per cent guaranteed.”

Then quickly, Sylvester McMonkey McBean
put together a very peculiar machine.
Then he said, “You want stars like a Star-bellied Sneetch?
My friends, you can have them . . . . for three dollars each.
Just hand me your money and climb on aboard.”

They clambered inside and the big machine roared.
It bonked. It clonked. It jerked. It berked.
It bopped them around, but the thing really worked.
When the Plain-bellied Sneetches popped out, they had stars!
They actually did, they had stars upon thars!

Then they yelled at the ones who had stars from the start,
“We’re exactly like you; you can’t tell us apart.
We’re all just the same now, you snooty old smarties.
Now we can come to your frankfurter parties!”

“Good grief!” groaned the one who had stars from the first.
“We’re still the best Sneetches, and they are the worst.
But how in the world will we know,” they all frowned,
“if which kind is what or the other way ’round?”

Then up stepped McBean with a very sly wink, and he said,
“Things are not quite as bad as you think.
You don’t know who’s who, that is perfectly true.
But come with me, friends, do you know what I’ll do?
I’ll make you again the best Sneetches on beaches,
and all it will cost you is ten dollars eaches.

Belly stars are no longer in style, ” said McBean.
“What you need is a trip through my stars-off machine.
This wondrous contraption will take off your stars,
so you won’t look like Sneetches who have them on thars.”

That handy machine, working very precisely,
removed all the stars from their bellies quite nicely.
Then, with snoots in the air, they paraded about.
They opened their beaks and proceeded to shout,
“We now know who’s who, and there isn’t a doubt,
the best kind of Sneetches are Sneetches without.”

Then, of course those with stars all got frightfully mad.
To be wearing a star now was frightfully bad.
Then, of course old Sylvester McMonkey McBean
invited them into his stars-off machine.
Then, of course from then on, you can probably guess,
things really got into a horrible mess.

All the rest of the day on those wild screaming beaches,
the Fix-it-up-Chappie was fixing up Sneetches.
Off again, on again, in again, out again,
through the machine and back round about again,
still paying money, still running through,
changing their stars every minute or two,
until neither the Plain- nor the Star-bellies knew
whether this one was that one or that one was this one
or which one was what one or what one was who!

Then, when every last cent of their money was spent,
the Fix-It-Up-Chappie packed up and he went.
And he laughed as he drove in his car up the beach,
“They never will learn; no, you can’t teach a Sneetch!”

But McBean was quite wrong, I’m quite happy to say,
the Sneetches got quite a bit smarter that day.
That day, they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches,
and no kind of Sneetch is the BEST on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars,
and whether they had one or not upon thars.
—Dr. Seuss

The Motion Carries

On Sunday, September 19, the members of Richmond’s First Baptist Church voted to change their membership policy to allow committed Christians from other denominations to become full members of the church without having to be re-baptized.  The meeting took place during the Sunday school hour.  One amendment (requiring believer’s baptism but not immersion) was considered but not approved.  691 people voted on the main motion by secret ballot.  464 of those (67.15%) were in favor of the change,  221 (31.98%) were opposed, and 6 ballots could not be determined either way.

Senior Pastor Jim Somerville commented:

For Baptists, membership is a matter of local church autonomy.  No pope, or bishop, or even the pastor gets to decide who can be a member of a local Baptist church.  And although the deacons can make a recommendation, in the end it is the congregation that gets to decide.

Today the congregation of Richmond’s First Baptist Church did just that.  The answer to the question of whether committed Christians from other denominations could become full members without having to be re-baptized was yes.

At the beginning of this process I expressed my hope that, no matter what the outcome, we would spend some time thinking deeply about what it means to be baptized and what it means to be a member.  We have certainly done that.  Now it is my hope that we will be the kind of members who can accept the outcome of this vote and go forward together.  While a two-thirds majority is decisive, it is not a landslide.  We were closer to the same mind on this matter than we knew.  Now it is my hope that we can share the same heart, and get on with the crucial work of putting God’s love into action. 

I am grateful for the spirit in which this decision was made, and for the remarkable body of believers that is Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  I learned today that there are Baptists in the world who can disagree without being disagreeable—who can speak their mind, vote their conscience, and move on to more important things.

God bless them, every one.

—September 19, 2010

Like Water Out of a Tub

Recent comments on my blog and conversations in the church hallway have convinced me that there is another line of reasoning in our current debate about baptism and membership, one that I haven’t fully understood.  As these people have explained to me (gently, patiently) our membership requirement doesn’t imply that people from other denominations are not Christian, it only points to the fact that they are not Baptist.  And if they want to be Baptist they must submit to believer’s baptism by immersion. 

So, let me see if I’ve got this right: believer’s baptism by immersion is what makes you Baptist?

Maybe that’s where I’m confused.  I’ve always thought that baptism was a symbol of entering the new life in Christ.  I thought that’s what Paul was talking about when he said in Romans 6 that it’s like dying with Jesus, and being buried with him, and then being raised from the dead.  I thought it’s what Jesus was referring to in John 3 when he told Nicodemus that in order to enter the Kingdom he had to be “born again.”

The language of resurrection and re-birth is powerful language.  I sometimes refer to it as “transfer terminology”: it’s about making the move from one way of life to another.  And I can see how, if you have come out of a life of sin and selfishness, you might want to drown the “old man” (as Paul calls him) in a watery grave, and let God raise up the “new man” just as he raised Jesus.  You might want to be “born again,” in the way Jesus described it to Nicodemus, if that really meant you could make a fresh start of your life.  The waters of baptism—to me—have always been a place where people entered the new life in Christ, where they were raised from the dead or born again, but they have never been—to me—a place where you make a Methodist into a Baptist.

Is that what Paul was talking about?  Is that what Jesus meant?  I cannot find any scriptural support for the idea of making Christians from other denominations into Baptists by baptizing them.  To me it empties the meaning of baptism; it drains it out of the baptistry like water out of a tub.  Instead of doing it “to fulfill all righteousness” (the words chiseled in stone above our baptistry) we do it to fulfill a membership requirement. 

That’s not even in the Bible.

I don’t want to empty baptism of its meaning.  I don’t want to use our baptistry to make Methodists (or Presbyterians, or Episcopalians, or Lutherans) into Baptists.  I want to use it to symbolize that moment when someone becomes a Christian, when they rise up from that watery grave or take the first breath of their new life in Christ.  That’s when the angels rejoice in heaven, that’s when the Hallelujah chorus begins.  Transferring your church membership from one denomination to another is not the same thing at all.

And shouldn’t be.

“I just can’t accept infant baptism”

That’s what people often tell me after they’ve heard all my arguments for welcoming Christians from other denominations into our membership without re-baptizing them.  To them baptism is believer’s baptism by immersion, and therefore infant baptism is no baptism at all since it isn’t (usually) by immersion and since an infant is incapable of making a profession of faith.  They say, “We’re not re-baptizing these people; we’re baptizing them!” 

And the argument starts all over again.

But at the end of it I rarely have the feeling that I have been understood.  So, let me see if I can put it another way, a way that would make sense to lifelong Baptists, and let’s talk about those people Baptists often place at the opposite end of the Christian spectrum—Catholics. 

  1. Baptists baptize believers by immersion; Catholics baptize infants by pouring water over their heads three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 
  2. As Baptists, we do not believe that infant baptism is sufficient (as some Catholics apparently do).  We do not believe that it “saves” the child or “washes away the taint of original sin.”  We believe that salvation requires our faith as well as God’s grace.
  3. This is why we wait to baptize until a child is old enough to profess his faith.  Then baptism becomes a celebration of salvation in which the gift of God’s grace is received through the believer’s faith. 
  4. This is why we believe that infant baptism—on its own—is unacceptable.

But (and you knew it was coming), when infant baptism is followed by an extended period of Christian formation, by a confirmation process in which children learn what it means to believe in Jesus and belong to the church, and by a public opportunity to claim their baptism and profess their faith, then it becomes one piece of a process whereby the grace of God that was celebrated in baptism is received through faith.  As Paul might put it: grace + faith = salvation (Eph. 2:8).

What I’m trying to say is that I can’t accept infant baptism either, not on its own, but I can accept it as part of a process of authentic Christian discipleship.  Understood in that way it is almost identical to our own practice of baby dedication, and I don’t think any of us want to do away with that.  What we mean when we say “I can’t accept infant baptism” is that we don’t believe water, by itself, does anything for that child, but we need to carry that thinking all the way out.  Water, by itself, doesn’t do anything for the person who gets into our baptistry, either.  It’s just water.  We use it as a symbol of God’s grace and our surrender to it. 

Which makes me think that being a Christian is a matter of the heart, and not a matter of how much water was used or when it was applied.

What do you think?

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.