Church Membership and the SBC

June 14, 2008

An encouraging vote took place this week in Indianapolis at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Before telling you about it, some background:

We gladly cooperate with the SBC through sending a proportion of our offerings – at present, five percent – to local, state, national, and international efforts to spread the Gospel. We ourselves were beneficiaries of this cooperation among independent churches, receiving in our first years about $25,000 in grants through the SBC, as well as practical help on a number of issues. I am particularly pleased that our giving supports the International Mission Board of the SBC – one of the very best mission agencies, which over the last 25 years has refocused its efforts on church planting among unreached people groups – and seminaries such as Southeastern here in North Carolina and Southern in Louisville, which are now staffed by dedicated biblical scholars committed to raising up the next generation of expository preachers.

Most Baptists through the centuries have understood the Bible’s teaching on church governance as we do: Local churches are autonomously governed, with the congregation as the final authority (we’ll look into the biblical support for this position and examine how to live out this conviction practically in my sermon on July 13). Therefore, denominational structures have no authority; they are voluntary organizations, made up of independent churches. Local, state, and national organizations can offer useful advice to churches, but each church in the end makes its own decisions.

While we gladly cooperate with the SBC, a loose organization of autonomous churches totaling several million people will always include a wide range of views on some important issues. One of these issues has been regenerate church membership – that is, the conviction that no one should be a member of a church unless he or she has been born again by the Holy Spirit. Baptists have always championed this biblical idea, and I doubt that any church in the SBC would teach anything to the contrary. But in practice, many churches have no idea whether or not members are born again, for they haven’t seen a number of them for years. This comes out starkly in the summation of the annual reports churches send in to the denomination: In 2007, SBC churches reported having over 16 million members, yet on an average Sunday, only 6 million attended services.

Tom Ascol, who heads Founders, a group encouraging the return of the SBC to its doctrinally reformed roots, has tried for several years to pass a resolution at the annual meeting calling for repentance from this practice, and advocating a return to a biblical view of church membership. I was particularly frustrated at the annual meeting two years ago in Greensboro, when a committee kept such a resolution from coming to the floor for a vote, giving very lame excuses. Finally, this year the convention passed a modified version of Tom’s resolution. You can read the details of the process on his blog. The text of the resolution is below.

Of course, the resolution itself accomplishes nothing. But let us pray that this will be one more step in returning the SBC both doctrinally and practically to its biblical roots, to the glory of God in all the earth, as one by one churches clean up their membership roles and take care to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, until we, together with all Christ’s body throughout this planet, attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of Christ’s full stature.


  • WHEREAS, The ideal of a regenerate church membership has long been and remains a cherished Baptist principle, with Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message describing the church as a “local congregation of baptized believers”; and
  • WHEREAS, A New Testament church is composed only of those who have been born again by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Word, becoming disciples of Jesus Christ, the local church’s only Lord, by grace through faith (John 3:5; Ephesians 2:8-9), which church practices believers’ only baptism by immersion (Matthew 28:16-20), and the Lord’s supper (Matthew 26:26-30); and
  • WHEREAS, Local associations, state conventions, and the Southern Baptist Convention compile statistics reported by the churches to make decisions for the future; and
  • WHEREAS, the 2007 Southern Baptist Convention annual Church Profiles indicate that there are 16,266,920 members in Southern Baptist churches; and
  • WHEREAS, Those same profiles indicate that only 6,148,868 of those members attend a primary worship service of their church in a typical week; and
  • WHEREAS, The Scriptures admonish us to exercise church discipline as we seek to restore any professed brother or sister in Christ who has strayed from the truth and is in sin (Matthew 18:15-35; Galatians 6:1); and now, therefore, be it
  • RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, June 10-11, 2008, urge churches to maintain a regenerate membership by acknowledging the necessity of spiritual regeneration and Christ’s lordship for all members; and be it further
  • RESOLVED, That we humbly urge our churches to maintain accurate membership rolls for the purpose of fostering ministry and accountability among all members of the congregation; and be it further
  • RESOLVED, That we urge the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to repent of the failure among us to live up to our professed commitment to regenerate church membership and any failure to obey Jesus Christ in the practice of lovingly correcting wayward church members (Matthew 18:15-18); and be it further
  • RESOLVED, That we humbly encourage denominational servants to support and encourage churches that seek to recover and implement our Savior’s teachings on church discipline, even if such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported in those churches, and be it finally
  • RESOLVED, That we humbly urge the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention and their pastors to implement a plan to minister to, counsel, and restore wayward church members based upon the commands and principles given in Scripture (Matthew 18:15-35; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; Galatians 6:1; James 5:19-20)


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