Let’s Talk about Guarding the Purity of Church Membership

A 1993 study (holy cow! can that really be 25 years ago!) by the Home Mission Board (now termed, North American Mission Board) of the Southern Baptist Convention found that in that year, the majority (60%) of adult baptisms in Southern Baptist churches could be termed rebaptisms. While some were legitimately the baptism of those previously baptized as infants in other denominations, 36% of these adult baptisms were of people who had been previously baptized in Southern Baptist Churches! In fact, when asked why they sought rebaptism, many said that it was due to having not been regenerate believers when they were baptized the first time. (See Phillip B. Jones et al., A Study of Adults Baptized in Southern Baptist Churches, 1993 [Atlanta: Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1995], 5).

These numbers led theologian John Hammett to conclude, “Either these individuals were unusually deceptive or . . . some churches and pastors baptized these individuals without clear assurance that they were baptizing believers” (John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005], 112).

While no pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention would celebrate the discovery that he is unintentionally baptizing unregenerate people into the membership of the church, discerning the best manner in which to prevent such practices is difficult. Some pastors will opt to provide classes for those who respond to the gospel in their churches. This practice has historical precedent as far as the second century. Others see the narrative in Acts as determinative and regard it their responsibility to baptize as soon as possible after each profession of faith.

However a given pastor chooses to move forward, I offer these points to consider as they strive to protect the purity of church membership.

1. Offer a clear gospel presentation

We get excited to see someone respond to the gospel—we should! Scripture is clear that the angels in heaven rejoice with us. But sometimes even in my own ministry, I’ve seen people respond more to what they heard than to what I thought I said. So whenever someone responds to the gospel after a service, I ask them to explain the gospel to me. Do they understand Jesus’s Divinity? Do they understand his real death? Do they understand the reality of his bodily resurrection? Do they understand that they bring nothing to their salvation apart from the sin that makes it necessary? I want clear confidence in these things before moving forward.

*A note about children
Children of believers often demonstrate faith at early ages—this should not surprise us. Those raised in a home that opens the Word of God together, pray together, and go to church together should demonstrate faith early. But when they do, I look for a legitimate definition of sin. Do they understand sin? Even more importantly, are they convicted of their sin?

2. Provide a clear description of baptism

Baptism is the first step in obedience to the commands of Christ. Baptism is the means by which a person joins the local church. Baptism is dying to oneself and identifying completely with the Lord Jesus Christ. Baptism is not “sealing the deal” of salvation, nor is it the literal washing of sins. Counsel new believers to be baptized, but be especially sure that they understand exactly what it does and does not mean.

3. Explain church membership

Many pastors require premarital counseling before committing to officiate a wedding. (If you don’t, you should. We’ll have to talk about that another time.) It’s critical that expectations are laid out and that someone lead the prospective bride and groom to consider questions that may have been overlooked in the dating process. Whenever counseling someone before they join the local church, a similar process needs to take place.

Provide a safe place for them to ask questions about the church. Explain to them how joining a local church is different from joining a civic club or society. Explain how church membership is pledging one’s self to the health of the body. Explain what expectations exist for members of the local church. Explain the church covenant that lays out for them exactly what is expected of them.

4. Explain the church’s confession of faith

It is virtually impossible for a church to be healthy without a confession of faith. It does not need to be overly strict; in fact, many Southern Baptist churches simply opt for the Baptist Faith and Message. Without a confession of faith, however, there is no doctrinal line to discern who does and does not belong. There is no standard to which pastors and teachers are called to adhere. Anyone considering joining your fellowship needs to understand what the church believes.

5. Practice church discipline

For some, points 1–4 were sufficient. No one likes church discipline. And yet, unlike a new member’s class or catechumenism (the state of a person undergoing doctrinal instruction and testing before baptism), church discipline is clearly taught in Scripture. In Matthew 18, Jesus provides a means by which the church is to guard the purity of its membership.

If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two others with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he doesn’t pay attention to them, tell the church. If he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like a Gentile and a tax collector to you. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.
Matthew 18:15–20 (CSB)

Notice that goal of church discipline is not the removal of a believer from fellowship. Rather, the goal is that he would receive correction, repent, and be restored to the fellowship. Church discipline is the recognition that when someone refuses to acknowledge his sin and repent, he has hardened his heart against God. By removing him from fellowship, he will either demonstrate repentance and return, or he will continue to harden his heart and distance himself from the gathering of believers.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I don’t have all of the answers. If we’re being honest, none of us do. We’re all trying to live in light of our understanding of God’s Word. None of us, however, would be thrilled to learn that we have unwittingly been baptizing unbelievers and offering them an assurance of salvation.

So, if not these, what steps have you taken?

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

What is Church Revitalization?

In SBC life, the concept of church revitalization is gaining momentum among pastors and church practitioners. While the conversations regarding the best ways to return a church to health are needed, there has been a tendency to bring every aspect of church planting and church growth under the umbrella of church revitalization. Which brings us to the question . . .

What Church Revitalization Isn’t

Before we can provide an accurate definition of church revitalization, we must first understand what it is not.

Church Revitalization is Not Church Planting

Biblical church planting is evangelism that results in new churches. Another way to consider this concept is that it is evangelism that results in new disciples, who then gather together and self-identify as the local expression of the universal body of Christ.
JD Payne, Apostolic Church Planting

Traditionally churches have been planted when believers move intentionally to a community of non-believers, wherein they practice evangelism and discipleship, eventually forming a new congregation from the new converts. The gospel is seeded in a community resulting in the salvation of members of that community, the new believers are then discipled, and a church is planted.

Church revitalization differs from church planting in that church revitalization occurs within an existing church whereas church planting seeks to begin a new church. The church planter is called to start a new church and the church revitalizer is called to bring a dying church back to health.

Church Revitalization is Not Church Replanting

Church replanting is another term often confused with church revitalization. In church replanting, an original donor church donates their resources and personnel in an attempt to begin a new church with existing resources.

In the church replanting process, a new pastor comes in with the intentions of beginning a new church body from within the old church. Over the course of time, the expectation is that the older donor church will receive new leadership, new ministries, a new identity, and (in some cases) a new church polity.

Church revitalization differs from church replanting in that church revitalization does not seek to replace the existing church. Whereas the church replanter attempts to begin a new church with the resources gained from an older church, the church revitalizer seeks to restore the original church to health.

Church Revitalization is Not Church Growth

Church growth (or church vitalization) has also been grouped into church revitalization. Though sharing many of the concepts and methodologies, these two are not the same as church revitalization.

Church growth is the implementation of certain methodology in order to lead a church to grow. As such, church growth can apply to a church of any size in any stage of health. Church growth strategies can be applied to a new church plant with only a handful of members or to an established church on the cusp of crossing over into the megachurch category.

Church revitalization differs from church growth in that revitalization deals with churches in trouble. To be sure, church revitalization may incorporate similar strategies as church growth but the desired result is not growth, but survival. Church Revitalization intentionally works with churches that are dying and strives to restore to life.

So, What is Church Revitalization?

Church Revitalization is the process of leading a dying church back to a healthy state. Restoring the church’s purpose of glorifying God and mission to reach the lost in their community.

Closing

The terms surrounding Church planting, growth, and revitalization can be tricky. However, there needs to be clarity among Christians. Each of these approaches requires different actions which produce different outcomes.

Christ Follower.
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Pastor @HarveyBaptist.
PhD Evangelism (ABD) @swbts.
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Submission and Courage in the Pulpit

Billy Sunday Preaching by George Bellows, Metropolitan Magazine, 1915

Religious freedom is under assault in our culture.

Churches and preachers which have stood as the chapels and chaplains for a majority Christian America are finding themselves increasingly pushed to the fringes of political and public discussions in light of increasing secularization. Government and public opinion have determined that any speech which labels homosexuality as sin is hate speech and that decrying the legal murder of the unborn is refusing the woman’s right to choose. Merely holding the opinion that gender and sexual identity are fixed biological realities rather than the free-for-all, choose-your-own-story Wild West ensures treatment as a social pariah. And make no mistake, despite the best efforts and intentions of the First Amendment, churches and seminaries and religious schools will not be exempt from LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination policies. It’s just a matter of time.

And in response, some pastors will stand behind the sacred pulpit on Sunday morning and attempt to provide a softer, more genteel, more tolerant message of Christianity to their churches and communities. Some will simply tone down the rhetoric while still holding the same convictions, albeit quietly. Others still will re-evaluate the entirety of biblical teaching and judge it to be outdated and culturally-irrelevant.

Many, in fact, have already done this.

In Numbers 22, the king of Moab attempts to coerce the prophet of God to provide a message contrary to the will of God. He wants Balaam to curse those God has commanded him to bless. He wants to force the prophet to up-end God’s judgment—to reverse God’s order. And in so doing, the king of Moab places Balaam in much the same predicament many pastors find themselves every Sunday morning in churches around this nation and around the world. The king solicited a man of God to give validation and approval to something contrary to the will of God. (This was his purpose for calling Balaam, and the prophet’s acceptance of his invitation to do so is what prompted the popular story of Balaam’s conversation with his donkey.)

If Balaam would just bow the knee and kiss the ring of that which is acceptable and culturally preferable, all would go well. He would receive payment and acceptance. He would receive comfort and an extended audience with the king. And yet, Balaam’s response to the king demonstrates both the submission and the courage that should characterize the preacher.

Have I now any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak. (Num 22:38b)

This verse gives the reader insight into Balaam and his submission to the authority of Yahweh. Rather than allowing a desire for riches and honor to deter him from the will of God and curse that which God has blessed as Balak demanded (or, as our present circumstances demand, bless that which God has labeled sin), Balaam submitted to the command of Yahweh.

He was not angry or indignant. He was not hateful. He was, however, submitted to God. And that submission made him firm in his resolve and steeled his spine to stand before the king.

Will our submission to God give us courage before men?

As the angel of the Lord had commanded him, “speak only the word that I tell you,” Balaam obeyed (Num 22:35). In response to the pressures of Balak, Balaam answered, “Am I able to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth—that must I speak” (Num 22:38). When the stakes are high and our public opinion is low, will we kiss the ring and speak with the authority of kings and presidents and courts?

Or will we recognize a higher authority, strengthen our backs, and speak only that which has already been given to us in God’s Word with submission and courage?

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Church Polity vs. Church Politics

I was listening to a podcast several weeks ago and a pastor was providing a number of solid ideas on leading a church through change. That’s something that many pastors have been faced with and no doubt the episode was well-received by their listeners. I found myself identifying with the pastor, appreciating his wisdom, and taking away some ideas.

But at some point in the podcast, I began to grow uneasy. He was providing helpful ideas for leading a church through change, but all of his wisdom boiled down to church politics. He had thought about his flock and which members were influential in the congregation and determined that he would approach them first. He presented his ideas to them (which he believes were given him by God), asked for their support, and asked them to visibly and vocally lend him their influence—to publicly demonstrate their support of him as their pastor and the vision that the Lord had laid on his heart. That way, the people who were influenced by these influential people would follow their lead and he would be free to lead the church in the manner he felt necessary.

It took a little time, but I soon realized why I was struggling so much to accept what he was saying: whatever this was, it wasn’t biblical congregationalism.

This was good church politics, but bad church polity.

At the core of congregational church polity is the belief that every member of the church is to search the heart of God for the will of God and, in submission to God, seeks the benefit of the house of God.

So, in the case of a pastor seeking to lead the church through change, his initial steps are good. Seek the Lord. Seek his counsel and wisdom. Discern where you would have the Lord lead.

But rather than taking that information, appealing to influencers, and asking them to multi-level-market your congregation toward your vision, he should have led the church through an extended time of prayer and in that context, led the congregation to discern the will of God corporately.

Congregational church polity is not a democracy; there should be no voting blocks or caucuses. Each member of the church is not called to vote his/her preference or desire. Rather, they are called to seek the face of God and follow his leadership.

No politics should be necessary. If the Lord of the church is Lord of the people, it would behoove pastors to trust him with the hearts and minds of the people. (If the pastor is concerned that the congregation is filled with unbelievers, the issue goes well beyond leading the church to change.)

Is this the easiest manner by which to lead change? No. Clearly. But does it conform more to the manner in which the New Testament would have us lead? I believe it does.

When Jesus told his disciples how to handle an erring brother in Matthew 18, in the event that the brother in sin refused the correction of two or three witnesses, he didn’t command them to tell the influencers. He invests his authority in the church. “And if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like a Gentile and a tax collector to you” (Matt 18:17).

When Paul discovered that the church in Corinth was tolerating a man living in an adulterous relationship, he didn’t urge the influencers of the church to have a long, hard conversation with him. He urges the church to take action. “When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus, and I am with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, hand that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:4–5).

If the congregation has been invested with such authority—that whenever two or three are gathered, Christ is there in their midst (Matt 18:20)—wisdom demands that we avoid the temptation to usurp that authority by following the most shrewd political practices. Instead, we should trust God’s plan and rely on the polity given us in the New Testament.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Pastoral Counsel – Is Abuse Grounds for Biblical Divorce?

Godly men and women have differed, and continue to differ, on what constitutes biblical grounds for divorce. For some, divorce is never permissible; others believe the exception clause in Matthew 19:9 (“except in the case of adultery”) to provide the only allowance. Others still view the term translated as “adultery”—porneia (interestingly enough, the Bible doesn’t use the Greek term that generally refers to adultery)—to refer to a litmus of sexual immoralities.

The difficulty lies in that nowhere in Scripture does it state explicitly that abuse is grounds for divorce. The only exception (given by Christ!) is porneia, or sexual immorality. And even that, when he was pressed, Jesus explains that Moses (in the Old Testament) permitted divorce only because of Israel’s hardness of heart.

So the way I’ve counseled it in the past, adultery (and I expand that in light of the use of porneia to include unrepentant sexual immorality) is legitimate grounds for divorce. However, I don’t think pastors/ministers should ever counsel believers to make an appeal for a divorce. In that way, I make a distinction between permissibility/grounds and counsel. I think the goal in every case should be the repentance of the offending party and the restoration of the marriage.

Sadly, that’s not always possible, but it should always be the desired outcome.

That having been said, if a woman (or a child for that matter) claim to have been abused, my responsibility as a pastor is to counsel distance and to report the claim to the authorities. My responsibility is to encourage their safety and let the state investigate the alleged abuse. All the while, my responsibility is to press for repentance from the guilty party and to seek, as much as I am able, the restoration of the marriage.

My experience is that by following that pattern, we provide the context for God to do incredible things and to save marriages that would often be lost otherwise; it also tends to drive a wedge between the party seeking restoration and the unrepentant offender—thereby showing their lack of conviction by the Holy Spirit, and ultimately resulting in abandonment. 1 Corinthians 7:15 speaks of the abandonment of an unbelieving spouse, “But if the unbeliever leaves, let him leave. A brother or sister is not bound in such cases.” Then, the offended party is free of the guilt and shame that tends to come upon those who end up feeling like they could have done a little more to save their marriage.

Speaking of these things always reminds me that there are no simple answers. As believers in Christ, we must always search Scripture, ask for the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and walk in humble submission to God. Believers will not always agree on how that process plays out, but those who follow this pattern (searching Scripture, etc.) can disagree while respecting each other’s intentions.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.