The SBC and Integrity in Church Membership

Yesterday I guest hosted the radio program “Jerry Johnson Live” with Mark Overstreet (download podcast or mp3). We interviewed Dr. Tom Ascol about the resolution that he has recently submitted to the Southern Baptist Convention. His resolution calls on Southern Baptists “to repent of our failure to maintain responsible church membership, and . . . to repent of the widespread failure among us to obey Jesus Christ in the practice of lovingly correcting wayward church members.”Ascol notes that the claim that there are 16 million Southern Baptists is off by about 10 million (maybe more). Only about 6 million of the 16 million show up to church in a given week. In a recent interview in the Washington Post, Ascol says, “The reality is, the FBI couldn’t find half of those if they had to” (Washington Post). I hear that same statistic quoted very often by people in the news media (for example, here), but everyone in the know understands that the number is a sham.

I agree with Dr. Ascol and a growing chorus of others who maintain that these numbers indicate that Southern Baptists are in the midst of an identity crisis. We call ourselves Baptist, but we do not retain the most distinctive feature of Baptist identity: a regenerate church membership. If Baptists have been anything, they have been people who understand the Bible to teach that the local church should be composed of believers only. Unlike Israel of the Old Testament, Baptists have understood that the New Testament church is not a mixed multitude of believers and unbelievers. Only those who have been born again by the Spirit of God are eligible for baptism and membership in a Baptist church. But we have not been living up to that biblical standard.

This failure on behalf of Baptists is about more than numbers. It’s about a failure of local churches and their leadership to be faithful to the clear teaching of scripture on evangelism, conversion, discipleship, and church discipline. When we get these fundamentals right, we get church membership right. But when we get these fundamentals wrong, we get a mixed multitude.

That is why I will be supporting a Dr. Ascol’s resolution: “2007 Resolution on Integrity in Church Membership.” There is a history to this resolution. At last year’s convention, the messengers refused to consider it. After the resolution failed, one pastor noted that Southern Baptists had made a huge mistake (see Mark Dever, “Southern Baptist Mistake”). But I am hopeful for better things this year.

This issue has been on the front burner for many Southern Baptist leaders in the last year or so. If you are interested in getting up to speed on this discussion in Southern Baptist life, here is a set of resources to get you started:

“Crunching the Numbers on Church Membership Rolls” — by Amy Green (Washington Post: May 19, 2007)

“Cooking the Books” — by Bruce Tomaso (DallasNews Religion: May 16, 2007)

“2007 Resolution on Integrity in Church Membership” — Tom Ascol (May 10, 2007)

“Resolution on Integrity in Reporting…revisited” — Tom Ascol (April 9, 2006) Follow-up 1, Follow-up 2

“Southern Baptist Mistake” — Mark Dever (T4G Blog: August 15, 2006)

“Scholars: Baptists must reclaim church discipline” — Benjamin Hawkins (Baptist Press: October 27, 2006)

“Prof promotes regenerate membership” — by Joy Rancatore (Baptist Press: May 8, 2007)

Audio: “Regenerate Church Membership: The Baptist Mark of the Church” — John Hammett (

Audio: “Baptist Identity II: Convention, Cooperation, and Controversy” — Union University

Audio: “Integrity in Church Membership” — Denny Burk, Mark Overstreet, Tom Ascol (Jerry Johnson Live)


  • Don F

    Ditto to everything Dr Burk. Having not grown up a Southern Baptist, or any other kind of Baptist, I can say this is something all churches should take careful stock of. The SBC has been and should continue to be an example to others and lead the way. Having been a member of a Southern Baptist church now for nine years, I think I can say that most of the SBC has fumbled and turned the ball over at the goal line in this issue. I do not mean that in as a negative judgement toward the SBC. I am proud to be in the SBC and glad I found my way to it. But too often many of us are too concerned, and prideful, over empressive numbers than being concerned with the spiritual well being of the people those numbers represent and those outside that number we need to reach with the true gospel that will regenerate. Jesus commanded us to make “disciples” of all nations, and to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AND to teach them to obey all he has commanded. Too often we drop the ball on the second half of this command. We evangelize, but what next? Come on down get in line, get baptized, and welcome to the membership roll. We never take the time to even find out if anyone desiring baptizm actually has experienced a genuine conversion and even if so, we don’t do enough to help them along the way afterward. Thus we have many Christians who get frustrated, or guilty and drop out of sight or many are just going throug the motions and consdier getting “saved” some kind of magical incantation, Abra Cadabra -POOF! “Hey, I am now a Christian! Let’s Party!” They confuse Jesus with Harry Potter.
    Of course false conversions and lack of proper discipleship for new believers is not the only reason for inflated membership numbers in churches. I attended a mega church that does a grat job of counseling people expressing a desire to come to know Christ and leading them to the proper roads within that church to be discipled, yet with a membership of over 20,000 the weekly attendance was around 16,000. Where were all the others? I guess at home catching the pre-game with Howie, Jimmy, Terry and JB. While the rest of us made it home by half time.
    Who’s fault is this? Proabably our own for not taking this issue as serious as we should.

    This will be my first time to attend the SBC and I truly hope the messengers will NOT balk on this issue again and address it positvely for the sake of both the church (the regenerate) and the lost that need the gospel. For this is not just an issue of having the proper, honest, numbers for a church. I believe it can deal with the spritual well being of the church and it’s effectiveness in discipling the members and reaching the lost – both the lost in the pew and the lost outside the walls.

  • Barry

    Has anything been written, that you know of, against the resolution? This is so distinctively a fundamental of Baptist identity that I am struggling to understand why someone would be against it? Other than the pride that does along with ”

    One question about Ascol’s 6 million number. No church ever has all their legitimate members there at one time. On any given Sunday many are out of town, sick, or whatever. Where did that number come from? I think that it has to be substantiated, and perhaps Ascol has somewhere. That said, I know the 16 million is way too high. I plan to read the resolution and likely support it.


  • Barry

    I think this is the relevant part of the resolution:

    “Whereas those same profiles indicate that only 6,138,776 of those members attend a primary worship service of their church in a typical week;”

    Perhaps “typical” means, “when not providentially hindered by sickness et al.”

    Even so, there aren’t 10 million a week who are sick or out of town!

    One other concern: While I am for biblical church discipline, there are doubtlessly many messengers and pastors who are not, and that might be the big thing against the resolution. Technically, purging the rolls is a kind of discipline, though messengers might not like the term “discipline” and could get hung up on it. What do you think?

    We are in the process of doing it here (we supposedly have 2200+ members, but we only have 700 at church on a given week!), but to my knowledge, our pastor has not used the term “church discipline” in speaking of this particular issue. He has used it elsewhere (having excommunicated a member since I have been here), but on this issue, “Grandpa Marty” has an emotional response when he hears that his long-dead sister Mildred is being removed from the church rolls as an act of church discipline. Thus, he votes against it.

    Does that make sense?


  • genembridges

    Part of the problem isn’t simply truancy. How about all those churches whose members go to other churches but no letter is sent or even requested? Our churches allow folks to come by “statement” which sometimes means that they wind up being counted twice in two churches.

    I would also add that it is quite fashionable among both “moderates” and “conservatives” to talk about “historic Baptist principles.” I think we could all recall articles, books, and letters in which that term is used. However, how many of them discuss “a regenerate church membership?” Indeed, here is where the rubber meets the road, as it were, for watch those who like to talk about “religious liberty, soul competency, and priesthood of the believer” incessantly stop talking when you invoke a regenerate church membership. Simply put, none of those other principles makes sense with a regenerate church membership. So, when there are those out there who talk up these principles in a latudinarian fashion, who say we have no right, as in NC, to disfellowship churches who approve of particular practices, and invoke “religious liberty” or “priesthood of the believer,” we can reply, “what about a regenerate church membership.” When we do that, and when we can point to our own consistency in church discipline, we’ll be taken more seriously when we reply that the issue isn’t one of “religious liberty”, but of a credible profession of faith, e.g. a regenerate church membership. Churches that do not practice that principle are truly no Baptist churches. Further, a regenerate church membership, means we have to have some idea of a what constitutes a credible profession of faith, and that means we have to be able to point to some sort of confession.

  • Bryan L

    What about the problem that many just find church boring, irrelevant, and repetitive and see little use in attending every single week, when they know it won’t make much of a difference if they’re gone and when they go back it will be like they never skipped a beat? And these aren’t necessarily unspiritual, or backslidden people.

    Sure take peoples names off your role, but what will that help? It’ll just be a slap in the face for the church as it causes them to wake up and take stock of their real situation and effectiveness. Taking peoples names off the role is not gonna make them want to come even more, and it’s not gonna some how make them feel like they aren’t saved, after all who looks to a church to authenticate their salvation anyway (we’re not Catholics after all; )?

    Ask yourself why people find staying home to watch a football game or just relax with their family makes them feel more alive than going to church. And lets not try to just blame them for being bad Christians or not loving God enough.

    Just some thought.

    Bryan L

  • jeff miller

    “16 million,” “10 million,” “6 million,” “The SBC,” “SBC resolutions” “regenerate church membership,” I can not find any of this terminology in the English nor in the originals. Maybe this whole discussion has nothing to do with the real solution to some perceived or even genuine problems in your local congregation.

Comment here. Please use FIRST and LAST name.