Saturday, August 1, 2009

Do Baptists of today still believe in a believer's church?

I am reading Rhys Isaac's Pulitzer Prize winning book entitled The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790. Baptists were new to Virginia in the period outlined by Isaac's and I was impressed by these lines describing the fast-growing Baptist movement:

Conversion could ultimately be validated among [Baptist] church members only by
a radical reform of conduct. The Baptist church books reveal close concern for
the disciplinary supervision of such changes. Censure, ritual excommunication,
and moving expressions of penitence were invoked as means to deal with
persistent problems like drunkenness. Quarreling, slandering, and disputes over
property were other endemic transgressions that the churches patiently and
endlessly sought to control within their own communities. (p. 169)

Underlying intense Baptist efforts to "patiently and endlessly ... control" sin within their congregations was the insistence on a believer's church. Foundational to Baptist identity was the conviction that local churches were to be made up of baptized believers in Jesus Christ. If church members were known to engage in certain sins or if they failed to attend services faithfully such behavior was confronted. If sinful members failed to repent then they were publicly voted out of the church. In this way Baptists sought to make sure their church rolls were made up of believers only.

Of course, few Baptist churches operate this way anymore. I wonder if any Baptists of our culture really want a full return to our previous method of safeguarding the ideal of a believer's church. Which sins would be worthy of calling a member before the church? Drunkenness? Fornication? How about gluttony or greed?

The old Baptist method of nurturing a believer's church has fallen from favor today but what has replaced it? Do we still take seriously the doctrine of a believer's church? Are we deliberate about holding members accountable to commitment to the Lord and to his body, the church?

Symptomatic of our lack of commitment to a believer's church are the membership rolls of most Baptist congregations. In my old home church in Virginia, founded in the mid-1800's, it used to be that any member missing four weekly business meetings in a row was removed from the roll which, I am told, was a typical practice of Baptist churches some years back. Now the rolls of most Baptist churches are filled with many names of individuals that have not been seen in any church gathering in years. Does it appear that Baptists are truly committed to the principle of a believer's church when they have high numbers of inactive and non-resident members?

We cannot abandon the doctrine of a believer's church because it is ultimately about commitment to Christ. While out methods may vary from generation to generation the followers of Christ must unashamedly demand commitment to Christ among the followers of Christ. And Jesus stated his plan to build his church (Mat. 16:18). He loved the church and gave himself up for the church (Eph. 5:25).

I just don't see how we can stop insisting that our church members be truly committed Christ by being committed to his body, the church.

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