Resolved: Southern Baptists need to get serious about ecclesiology

As we move closer to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting it might be helpful to consider once again the rationale behind my resolution on integrity in church membership. This is the third consecutive year that I have submitted it. As noted in a previous post, another resolution (written by Malcolm Yarnell) that addresses some of the same things is being submitted this year by Bart Barber. I have also heard that other related resolutions may be submitted as well.

As I have repeatedly stated, I agree with everything that the Yarnell/Barber resolution says. It is much broader than mine and takes a different approach to what we all agree are important issues. It has garnered lots of support which indicates that a growing number of Southern Baptists are recognizing the need to get serious about our commitment to regenerate church membership. That is a hopeful sign.

I have been asked what I think will happen at the Indianapolis convention next month regarding these resolutions. Well, I am no prophet, but I fully expect that some kind of resolution will make it out of committee this year. After the less-than-stellar reasons given the last two years for not allowing the convention even to vote on it, I believe that this year’s committee will want to avoid being put in the position of having to explain why they refused to allow a vote on an issue that is obviously of great concern to many Southern Baptists.

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.

The rationale is important because if we do not acknowledge our problem, then the force of the resolved statements is diminished. The problem in the SBC is not that we have failed to affirm our commitment to regenerate church membership. We are on record in the Baptist Faith and Message that we do affirm it. Our problem is that we are not practicing what we profess and confess. By and large, our churches have drastically failed to maintain much of a practical commitment to our belief that the church is to be comprised of born again believers…only.

If a church only has 75% of its covenanted members actively participating then Baptists should regard that as a problem. But when only 35-40% of the members even regularly attend corporate worship once a week, its not just a problem, it is an ecclesiological catastrophe. It does not matter how many times we reaffirm our commitment to regenerate church membership as long as this tragic situation is not openly, plainly acknowledged to be a direct failure to honor God’s Word in its teachings on what a church is and how it is to operate.

When our failure is acknowledged, then the only proper response for Christians is to repent. And if this is so, then why should we not say it and plainly call for it? Our Lord did not hesitate lovingly to call churches to repentance (read Revelation 2-3). Why should His followers be hesitant to do so?

Of all the complaints that I have heard about my motion the one that I find the most remarkable has to do with this–that it specifically, unashamedly calls for repentance. I don’t understand the hesitancy, nor do I get why any Christian would be offended by such a call. The Gospel of Jesus Christ sets us free to repent. Christ died for our sins. He endured God’s wrath for our ecclesiological failures as well as for our other sins. The Christian life is all about repentance and faith. We repent and believe every day. I don’t have to pretend that I am better than I am–indeed, to do so is to cut myself off from the very grace that I need–because my standing with God is not based on my performance but on Christ’s.

If we need to repent–and any failure to keep God’s Word requires nothing less–then why should we not plainly admit that? I hope that the resolutions committee will see this the same way and will include plain language calling for repentance on any resolution that comes to the convention.

The need to encourage denominational leaders 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” (as my resolution states) is important because too often the exact opposite has happened. When a church begins to take membership seriously once again and the statistics drop (when the membership roll goes from 900 to 200), some denominational employees might be tempted to speak and act in ways that disparage that church and its pastor rather than offering the encouragement and support that they need.

If these matters are included in a resolution that gets recommended to the convention, I will happily vote for it. If the resolution that comes before the convention does not have these emphases in it, then I will attempt respectfully to offer appropriate amendments from the floor.

Only the Lord knows what will happen. As I have said for the last two years, the passing of a resolution is not my goal. My desire is to see this issue highlighted in such ways that it can no longer be ignored so that pastors and churches will humbly return to the biblical practices that we say that we believe as Baptists. In many respects, that is already happening, for which I am very grateful to the Lord. If the passing of a resolution this year can further that cause, then I pray the Lord will bring it to pass.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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