I shared a brief conversation with Micah this morning. He said something like the following (sorry Micah for not recalling it exactly), “If I am going to be a member, I want it to mean something. I think the way it is practiced in Baptist churches makes membership meaningless. If there is no real meaning, then count me out.” I could not agree more.
Much has been written about church membership by Oklahoma Baptist bloggers since the Daily Oklahoman reported on a decision Henderson Hills Baptist Church may consider. Perspectives range widely on the matter – Paul, Rick, Wade, Paul
B, more than one post by Wes, and Robin are a few I have read. The Baptist Messenger online is carrying a number of articles on the subject.
One of the most difficult things to do is clarify issues when it comes to a “distinctive.” Something may make us distinctly Baptist. Growing up in Oklahoma City it was not uncommon in high school to face the common perception that to be Baptist meant you did not dance, play cards or go to movies. Not to mention the shock produced from the participation in tobacco and alcohol in any form by adults. Some seem to take pride in a sort of “martyr” complex when criticism comes that Baptists are known more for what
they are against than what they are for; a sentiment with which I find it hard to disagree.
The documents available at the Henderson Hills website seem to be calling for a more substantive understanding to church membership. They may well not have said it this way, but it seems to me they want to say what membership is for rather than what it ensures against. They are for obedience. They are for the working out of holiness in the life of Christ followers. They are for baptism by immersion. They are for elevating baptism to something more than an initiatory right into a local church. They are for celebrating
the Lord’s Supper/Communion by those who have been brought to the table by the grace work of God. To read any number of “concerned” bloggers is to read that Henderson Hills is against baptism and against Baptist “distinctives.”
Our denomination passed through the fires of a takeover/resurgence (or whatever designation fits your position) based upon the sufficiency of Scripture. We now find ourselves supporting our practice with Tradition and conclusions drawn from what seems more implied than explicit. We want to make strict parallels between membership in, say, the church at Corinth in the first century with membership in the First Baptist Church of any town USA today. The problem comes when you visit our town (Tuttle) and find not
one church much less one Southern Baptist church. We fear considering our cultural situatedness for fear we would tend toward some kind of perceived relativism. Could we really say the Apostle Paul had in mind the “church on every corner” and churches of different “stripes” on those corners? The Spirit may help us understand how to understand the authority of God in these new situations, but to think this was going on in the first century is a stretch. To tie what we do today with what was understood then would
be to ignore the passing of time and the current situation in Christendom.
What’s more, we have so many “Baptist Distinctives” what are we to do when they clash. For example, where does local church autonomy end? We prize the purview of the local church to be self-governing. Yet, we have a local pastor in our state who indicated he will present a motion to encourage our cooperative bodies to sever those same cooperative ties because Henderson Hills may exercise their local church autonomy.
The issue clearly relates to ecclesiology, eschatology and The Kingdom of God. When we are more concerned with our Baptist Distinctives than the push by a local church to work out what it looks like to follow Jesus and participate in a local church so that membership really means something, we have moved from a “people of the Book” to a people of “Baptist Tradition.” I do not mind considering Tradition so long as we agree to call it what it is. When we pass off our Tradition as somehow the explicit outworking
of Scripture, we face not only issues of logic and history but a larger issue – integrity.
I support any church wrestling through the issue of church membership. Anyone recall Tom Ascol’s motion at the SBC in Greensboro. The question was really about the meaning of church membership. When we lay claim to more than we can find membership in practice has become something less than what any of us hope. Membership must mean something.