Dr. Paul J. Dean Christian Blog and Commentary

The Nature of the Church in the SBC

The Southern Baptist Convention will be held this week in Indianapolis, Indiana. Major issues to be discussed include leadership and the nature of the church. USA Today reports:

“Who will lead Southern Baptists, and just how many members are there in what has long been counted as the USA's largest Protestant denomination? The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, which will bring 9,500 members to Indianapolis next week, promises a contentious election for the presidency, which has the largest field in decades. The six candidates range from conservatives backed by the leaders of the denomination's sharp turn toward doctrinal strictness in the 1970s to younger pastors who take a less hard-line stance and are promoted by bloggers. The winner will succeed Frank Page, who won in 2006 with the help of bloggers. Until then, "it was pretty much cut and dried that one group would say we are supporting this person, and no one else would run," candidate Avery Willis, 74, of Bella Vista, Ark., told Religion News Service. Also on the agenda: proposals to more accurately count membership, which may, or may not, be 16 million.”

Indeed there are proposals to more accurately count membership in Southern Baptist churches to be put forth at the Convention this year. However, the issues run deeper than that. This will be the third year that Dr. Tom Ascol has put forth a proposed resolution on integrity in church membership. The proposal was rejected the first two years (see Dr. Ascol’s explanation via the preceding link) but much discussion has swirled around the resolution this year with other proposals being offered. I am happy to be one of the invited supporters of Dr. Ascol’s proposed resolution on integrity in church membership. From his blog:

“Several pastors, theologians and church leaders have indicated that they intend to support the following resolution and have given me permission to list their names publicly. Among them are, Eric Redmond (2nd VP of the SBC) Phil Newton, Southwoods Baptist Church, Memphis, TN, Darrin Patrick, The Journey, St. Louis, Tom Bryant, FBC Osprey, FL, Tom Nettles, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Joe Thorn, Redeemer Fellowship, St. Charles, IL, Roy Hargrave, Riverbend Church, Ormond Beach, FL, Voddie Baucham, Grace Family Baptist Church, Spring, Texas, Nathan Finn, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Greg Welty, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Bill Ascol, Bethel Baptist Church, Owasso, OK, Jeff Noblit, FBC Muscle Shoals, AL, Paul Dean, Providence Baptist Church Greer, SC, Fred Malone, FBC Clintion, LA, Wyman Richardson, FBC Dawson, GA and Tim Brister, Grace Baptist Church Cape Coral, FL”

The discussion generated by the multiple resolution proposals revolves primarily around whether or not we as Southern Baptist leaders are willing to humble ourselves, repent of our failures, and take action steps to work toward maintaining the principles of a regenerate church membership, loving church discipline as prescribed in the Scriptures, and integrity in the reporting of our membership. At the same time, the gospel itself is at stake here.

This is no mere denominational or political discussion. As Tim Bristor noted,

“If we separate the issue of regenerate church membership from the recovery of gospel faithfulness, we are only offering a band-aid cure to a much deeper problem. The gospel will not “surge” out of churches where less than 30% bear any evidence that it is “the power of God unto salvation.”…Regenerate church membership begins with “regenerate”–and if we do not get the gospel right in our churches, we cannot expect to get church membership right either.”

While this is an SBC issue, the implications stretch beyond the bounds of the Convention. As Dr. Ascol affirmed, “My hope is that a healthy combination of the two resolutions will emerge from the committee. For me, that would include, along with the basic affirmations of regenerate church membership and church discipline, three things: 1) a clear statement on the rationale, 2) a clear call for repentance for our past failures in this area and 3) a clear encouragement to denominational servants to be supportive of churches that seek to recover meaningful membership.”

Again, implications for the gospel abound. The debate is no mere academic one. For a complete discussion of the issues, listen to my hour long conversation with Dr. Ascol on the “Calling for Truth” radio archive here.

I have pasted Dr. Ascol's proposed resolution below:

Whereas the Baptist Faith and Message states that the Scriptures are "the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried" (Article 1); and

Whereas life in a local church should be characterized by loving discipline as the Bible teaches in passages like Matthew 18:15-18, 1 Corinthians 5 and Titus 3:10-11; and

Whereas the 2007 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Church Profiles indicate that there are 16,266,920 members in Southern Baptist churches; and

Whereas those same profiles indicate that only 6,148,868 of those members attend a primary worship service of their church in a typical week; and

Whereas the ideal of a regenerate church membership has long been and remains a cherished Baptist principle as described in Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message; and

Whereas the significance of believers' baptism tends to be lost when churches that practice it fail to exercise loving care for all their members; therefore, be it

RESOLVED that the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, June 10-11, 2008, urge Southern Baptists to repent of our failure to maintain responsible church membership, and be it further

RESOLVED that we urge the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to repent of the widespread failure among us to obey Jesus Christ in the practice of lovingly correcting wayward church members (Matthew 18:15-18), and be it further

RESOLVED that we plead with pastors and church leaders to lead their churches to study and implement our Lord's teachings on this essential church practice, and be it further

RESOLVED that we encourage denominational servants to support and encourage churches that seek to recover and implement our Savior's teachings on church discipline, especially when such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported in those churches, and be it finally

RESOLVED that we commit to pray for our churches as they seek to honor the Lord Jesus Christ through reestablishing integrity to church membership and to the reporting of statistics in the Annual Church Profile.

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