As I stated in my previous blog post of the same title, the decision my wife and I made to join a church of another denomination after a lifetime of membership in churches affiliated with the SBC had little to do with any specific incident or action of the denominational leadership. Church membership is an objective decision made by following the Holy Spirit. I use the term “objective” because the basis for membership in any particular church is rooted in scripture, not personal preference. The most specific instruction I can find which provides guidance for church membership is I Corinthians 12. The Apostle Paul says that each member is a separate and necessary part of the body because they are uniquely gifted to serve the local church.
My wife and I were both raised in Southern Baptist churches and knew nothing else. We grew up with Sunday School, training union and mission groups on Wednesday night, VBS in the summer, youth group and we both went to state convention related Baptist colleges. We were married the semester after I started at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, so she went through that experience with me as well. I’ve been on the payroll at both the North American Mission Board and Lifeway for various ministries over the past thirty years as well as several SBC churches. There are many ways that denominational loyalty gets developed among Southern Baptists and my wife and I have experienced most of them, including the influence of family and culture.
I know many people make their church membership decisions based on a church’s denominational affiliation. My home church, in Arizona well outside the boundaries of the deep South, attracted most of its members from among those who had moved to town from somewhere in the South. The largest employer in the area was a military base twenty minutes away, so many of our church members were civilian employees or military personnel who were from a Southern state. There was a Texas based natural gas company with a compressor station on the edge of town that provided another group of members, and an electrical contracting firm based in Jackson, Mississippi that brought in others. The First Baptist church in town was not SBC and it didn’t take these folks very long to migrate up our way after visiting there once or twice.
I believe the passage I referenced earlier in 1 Corinthians is pretty definitive when it comes to church membership. We live in a much different culture, but God still builds the body of Christ by gifting its members spiritually for service and ministry and fitting them together in local bodies of “called out ones,” the Church of Jesus Christ. But I was taught, by Sunday School teachers, pastors, parents and professors, that I was given spiritual gifts and opportunities to learn in order to be a minister, whether vocational or volunteer and that I needed to discern where those gifts would be best used when making a decision about joining a church. The influence of denominational loyalty has always been a powerful one as well, as it is for most people who grow up in an SBC congregation. Having been on the payroll at both Lifeway and NAMB, and having earned a degree from Southwestern, I have a clear understanding of the power of denominational loyalty to the SBC.
But I do not see a Biblical basis for the divisions and lines that are drawn through the church as it has separated itself into denominations. The emergence of denominationalism in Christianity was divisive, fracturing the unity of the church at a time when it was being pulled into secular politics and when it was coming out of a long period of persecution that had ravaged its membership and weakened its commitment. The whole history of church schism, from the split between the partriarchal Eastern church and the development of the Papacy in the Western church to the Protestant Reformation is one of disunity, the influence of false doctrine, conflict that often erupted into war and not very much when it came to the Biblical functions of a local body of baptized believers in Christ, gathered together as his Church.
If you take Paul’s words about each member being gifted and fit together for service in the church as the basis for church membership, then the things that happen in the denomination your local church belongs to shouldn’t be a factor in whether or not you remain a member or leave. It’s the local body that makes the difference. When an opportunity to serve as administrator in an institution belonging to a different denomination came along and my wife and I determined, through prayerful consideration, that I was a good fit for the job, we accepted and moved to a part of the country where there are few SBC congregations. We were not required to join the church with which the school where I was administrator was affiliated, and we looked for an SBC church first if for no other reason than out of habit. But it became clear that our gifts and ministry service were going to fit with a small church of a different denomination. It was, we discovered, not all that different from any other church where we had been members.
There are some things that have happened in the SBC in recent years that I have found disappointing. My years at Southwestern were, for me, a personal spiritual revival. Some of the closest lifetime friendships I made happened while a student there and the education and training I got there were exactly what I expected from a seminary education. It grieves me to see what has happened there, the result of using a seminary presidency as a reward for being a leader in a denominational political fight instead of hiring someone with appropriate background and experience in theological higher education. I just hope and pray that the damage can be repaired and the seminary continue to operate.
Having been extensively involved in several of NAMB’s missions programs, including several stints on the paid staff, I am also grieved by what has happened there. NAMB became a crossroads for the influences seeking power within the denomination and, like Southwestern, administrative positions were given as rewards for loyalty rather than based on the expertise of the administrator. Money, spent on extravagances that have been well documented, evaporated. What should be one of Southern Baptists’ most effective cooperative ministries linking state conventions to evangelism and church planting efforts is cash-strapped and struggling, laying off personnel and explaining inflated numbers on reports.
Yes, I know there are ways for Southern Baptists to have a voice in convention decisions but that’s much more of a cliché than a reality. I’ve been a registered messenger at many conventions over the past 25 years. Most of the decisions are made in trustee meetings and executive board meetings and then a campaign is conducted to drive messenger votes toward the desired outcome that has been determined in advance. I’ve observed the tactics that the elected officers and committee on order of business use to deflect questions on subjects they don’t want to discuss and to manipulate votes to go the way those who influence and run the convention want it to go. I’ve had a motion made in a business session “referred” to the appropriate committee with the expectation that they would answer the question in the motion and get back to either me, or report on it in their next meeting. Didn’t happen. When I called to ask when I should expect a response, the committee chairman didn’t remember the motion and could not find it anywhere in the business that had been referred to the committee. I had to send them a copy of the convention minutes (getting those before the annual is printed is an expedition that builds character and develops patience) and was then told, “Oh, well, we wouldn’t have done anything with it anyway.” That’s why I stopped wasting my money on hotels and travel to attend the convention. I suspect that’s probably why thousands of others have stopped as well.