seek. In other words, they are active. The Bible knows nothing
of "inactive" or "non-resident" church members. Why then do such
people comprise the majority of our membership?
We will never get to the bottom of this question without first
examining the current method of adding new members. Specifically, we need
to reexamine modern evangelistic practices. When Roy Edgemon, the Director
of Discipleship Training for the Sunday School Board, studied this issue,
he concluded that too much of our evangelism is "manipulative," "shallow,"
"abortive," and "without integrity."
It is more interested in decisions than disciples.
Too often modern evangelistic technique is geared toward getting
a sinner to agree with some facts and recite a prayer. Once this occurs,
it is assumed he is saved. Those who go through these steps are commonly
judged ready for baptism and church membership. The consequence of such practice,
Edgemon observes, is that "we lose thousands of people who are going to die
and go to hell, thinking they're saved. And they've never been saved." This
is a sobering thought.
The Bible recognizes the reality of false faith. Demons have
faith (James 2:19). Simon Magus had faith (Acts 8:13; cf. vv. 21-23). Many
Jews who were impressed with Jesus' miraculous power put their faith in him
(John 2:23-25). But the Bible teaches that none of these were truly converted.
They did not possess saving--that is, life-changing--faith in Christ.
Likewise, the first century church was not immune to church
members who ceased coming to church--dropouts, if you will. They did not,
however, keep on regarding them as members who should be classified as either
"non-resident" or "inactive." Rather, these dropouts were categorized on
the basis of what they demonstrated themselves to be-false converts. The
Apostle John explains, "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for
if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went
out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us" (1 John
The late evangelist, Vance Havner, used to say, "We Southern
Baptists are many, but we ain't much." Because of deadly evangelistic
practices, we are not as many as we may think, either.
Another serious problem which plagues our churches today is
moral relativism. This actually grows out of the shallow evangelism that
has filled our church rolls with unconverted members. When unregenerate people
find refuge in church membership they inevitably dilute the body's corporate
commitment to holiness. If a little leaven leavens the whole lump, how much
more devastating is a lot of leaven? No matter how congenial and affable
he may be, an unconverted church member inevitably retains unregenerate appetites
and perspectives. Allegiance to biblical principles which govern Christian
and church life will necessarily wane where there is not a whole-hearted
submission to Christ as King.
The spiritual disciplines for daily life (prayer, Bible study,
worship, evangelism, fasting, etc.) are not only not practiced by the majority
of our members anymore, they are rarely even recognized as essential ingredients
of vital Christianity. Today the Christian life is typically depicted in
emotional terms. Feelings predominate. If _______ (you may fill in the blank
here with any number of possibilities: the sermon, the pastor, the choir
special, the Sunday School class, the service, the church, etc.) does not
make you feel just right, then, by all means, make a change! Many
have done just that and so have dropped out, moved on or simply drifted off
into spiritual wastelands.
Further, the corporate discipline of the church has gone the
way of the Mastodon in the thinking of most Southern Baptists. There was
a time when church discipline was recognized by Protestants in general and
Baptists in particular as one of the distinguishing marks of a true church.
The teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 was not only regarded as inerrant,
the steps which he outlined there were actually practiced by the churches.
Today it is tragically common to have church members living in open immorality
with absolutely no response from the congregation of which they are a part.
Thus it hardly even shocks us to read Hollywood badgirl and
former Playboy pinup Shannon Doherty describe herself in TV Guide
as "just a nice, Southern Baptist, Republican girl." Of course she is! Why
should shameless immorality stand in the way of being a church member? Somewhere
along the line, Southern Baptists have lost their moral nerve. The world's
relativism ("nothing is always right or wrong") and sentimentalism ("because
I love you I will let you") have displaced the Bible's moral absolutism and
genuine love that cares enough to correct.
John Dagg, the first Southern Baptist theologian to produce
a systematic theology textbook (see Mark Dever's article), argued that "when
discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it." If Dagg is correct, what
does that say for the state of our churches today?
The Root of the Problem
As disconcerting as our membership mirage and diluted spirituality
may be, they are symptoms of deeper difficulties. Like cracked walls in a
house, they betray the existence of far more serious, foundational problems.
Why do we have so many people on our church rolls who give little
or no evidence of being converted? Why do shamelessly low levels of morality
seem to be so widespread and readily accepted in our churches? To find the
answers we must reexamine the very foundation of our church life and practice.
It is precisely at this point that our Southern Baptist heritage
has so much to offer in the way of help and guidance. The serious issues
reviewed above were not problematic for Southern Baptists of the last century.
Why is that? What has changed? What did they have that we are missing?
Simply put, the answer is doctrine. The men and
women who founded and shaped the Southern Baptist Convention in its formative
years placed a high premium on sound doctrine. They took for granted that
which we have all but forgotten, namely, that the foundation of vibrant Christian
living and healthy Christian churches is solid, biblical teaching.
This was not a novel idea with them. It is taught everywhere
in the Bible. When Jesus prayed that His followers would progress in holiness
He did so by asking the Father to "sanctify them by the truth" (John 17:17).
If we want to grow spiritually, then we must progress in our understanding
and application of God's truth revealed in His Word.
The very structure of Paul's letters demonstrates the absolute
necessity of a sound doctrinal foundation to an effective Christian life.
The first 11 chapters of Romans set forth strong, weighty doctrine
(including teachings on sin, justification, union with Christ, sanctification,
and election). The last 5 chapters are filled with practical exhortations
for daily life. These latter principles of conduct are rooted in the previous
doctrinal exposition, as Paul indicates when he makes the transition from
doctrine to practice: "I beseech you therefore [emphasis mine], brethren,
by the mercies of God that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy,
acceptable to God which is your reasonable service" (12:1). Paul bases his
appeal to live righteously on the glorious doctrines which he just expounded.
This pattern is repeated throughout his writings.
Our Southern Baptist forefathers saw this and followed suit.
They knew that there could never be right living without right belief. So
they emphasized doctrinal teaching and preaching. In the pulpits, in the
Sunday Schools, on the mission fields-and most certainly in the college and
seminary classrooms!-priority was given to setting forth doctrinal truth
as the foundation of spiritual life.
So important was this emphasis that in 1891 the Sunday School
Board commissioned John Broadus to produce a catechism that could be used
to teach sound doctrine to children. That same board published The New
Convention Normal Manual in 1913 as an instruction manual for Sunday
School teachers. According to the publishers, this book, with its clear
affirmation of doctrinal distinctives, helped "standardize the thinking of
In 1874 the Southern Baptist Publication Society even published
a Church Members' Handbook of Theology to help "secure [the] `one
faith'" among Southern Baptists by helping them to "give more attention to
the study of the plan of salvation." This the book does by including lengthy
chapters on the doctrines of total depravity, the human will, regeneration,
justification, atonement, perseverance of the saints, and predestination
One thing is quite certain: our Southern Baptist forefathers
were absolutely convinced of the necessity of understanding and believing
sound doctrine. They expected it and insisted on it for all of the members
of their churches.
Not Just Any Doctrine
Early Southern Baptists were not content to believe just any
ol' doctrine. They were concerned with sound doctrine. There
was from the beginning widespread doctrinal agreement among them. The consensus
was built around the great salvation doctrines which were commonly referred
to as the "doctrines of grace." James Boyce, founder and first president
of Southern Seminary, described these doctrines in 1874 as being part of
the "prevailing principles" which had guided the denomination to that point
(see Al Mohler's article). Forty-four years later in 1918 the second edition
of The New Convention Normal Manual made the same claim
by declaring, "nearly all Baptists believe what are usually termed the `doctrines
What are these "doctrines of grace?" Specifically, they are
those truths of God's Word which reveal His sovereign majesty in salvation.
Historically, these doctrines have also been nicknamed "Calvinism," not because
John Calvin invented them, but because he very proficiently explained them
in a systematic fashion. "Calvinism" has been badly abused as a descriptive
theological term. Many people use it pejoratively to refer to fatalism and
falsely say that it is opposed to evangelism. Nothing could be further from
the truth (see Ernest Reisinger's article).
The biblical understanding of Calvinism may be summarized as
follows: All men are totally depraved because of sin. Everyone is born into
the world, therefore, without spiritual ability to save himself and is deserving
of God's wrath (Rom. 8:7-8; Eph. 2:1-3). Secondly, God is not willing to
let the whole human race go to hell and has, from before the foundation of
the world, chosen individual sinners to be saved. This choice is not based
on any merit or justification found in the individual but is sovereignly
exercised by God solely out of His grace and love (John 17:6; Eph. 1:4; 2
Thess. 2:13). Thirdly, those who are elected by God were given to Jesus Christ
before the foundation of the world so that He should redeem them from sin
(Matt. 1:21; John 6:37-40; 10:11, 14, 15, cf. 26-28). This He did in His
earthly ministry by offering Himself as a substitute in His people's place.
His death on the cross actually accomplished their redemption. Though His
death has some benefit for everyone, it does not actually redeem everyone.
Fourthly, God effectively applies to all of His elect that redemption which
His Son secured on the cross. He does this by drawing and effectually calling
these by the gospel so that they freely come to repent of sin and believe
in Christ (Rom 8:30; 2 Tim 1:9). Fifthly, those who have been so chosen,
redeemed and reborn will persevere in the faith and thus are eternally secure
(Philip. 1:6; John 10:28-29).
As Tom Nettles and Timothy George convincingly demonstrate elsewhere
in this journal, these doctrines comprised the common understanding of the
gospel among Southern Baptists during their first seventy-five years of
existence. They are clearly stated and defended in the writings of former
convention leaders such as Boyce, Dagg, Broadus, W.B. Johnson, R.B.C. Howell,
Basil Manly, Sr., Basil Manly, Jr., Patrick H. Mell, Richard Fuller, and
Richard Furman, to name just a few.
Call it what you will--Calvinism, reformed theology, the doctrines
of grace--these truths are nothing less than historic Southern Baptist orthodoxy.
This is the theology which gave rise to the formation and early development
of the great missionary and evangelistic enterprise which we know as the
Southern Baptist Convention. This is what our forefathers believed to be
the true teaching of Scripture. These are the doctrines on which they built
their churches and which undergirded their ministries. And if these doctrines
were true then, they are still true today, because the Bible has not changed,
God has not changed, and truth does not change.
If we hope to see a renewal in our churches (how we live), then
we must be willing to seek a renewal in our theology (what we believe). Our
doctrinal heritage can be very helpful as it challenges our thinking and
points us forward into a renewed understanding of God's Holy Word.
It is a wonderful providence that the sesquicentennial anniversary
of our convention comes at a time when there is a growing recognition of
our deep need for revival and reformation. We should take this opportunity
to remember the rock from whence we are hewn and listen to those who have
gone before us, on whose shoulders we stand-those former faithful servants
who, though being dead, yet speak.
Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good
way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls.
( From: "The Founders
Journal" Issue 19/20 Winter/Spring 1995 )