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: