Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dialogue On Baptist Polity and the NT

I've been having a really good conversation with Les Puryear, Bart Barber, and several others over at Les' blog. To get the background, go here before continuing with your reading here:

Does a Church Need to Have "Members?"

He says:


You are always a delight and I enjoy your comments. You make me think and I appreciate that.

Having said that, I will disagree with you about the nature (pardon the pun) of this post. I think that the nature of church membership is an inherent element of this discussion.

I also find your argument for Tim's membership roll support less than convincing. We had a man who has been faithfully attending our church for 46 years and he just joined the church last month and was baptized. Were the pastors for the past 46 years not accountable for this man?

I also have several regular attendees who have not joined the church as members. However, I think of them just as much as part of my "flock" as any card carrying church member.

I don't mean to denigrate anyone's thoughts but I think this preoccupation with a membership roll is silly.


Excellent thoughts. Let me ask you this. Do you think that house churches in the first century had the names of church members written down for the purpose of keeping up with who was in and who was not in?

Do you think Lydia had a list of "members" of the church in her house? How about Philemon? Priscilla and Aquila?

If the names of the elect are written down in the Lamb's Book of Life, why do they need to be duplicated in a book on earth? I know the Book of Life is not to be taken literally, but I'm talking about something so far out-of-the-box, it hasn't been conceived yet in the hearts of traditional SBC thinking.

I'm talking about preaching to all whom God brings us at each opportunity to preach.

I'm talking about discipling those whom God brings to us when we offer discipleship opportunites.

I'm talking about ministering with and to those whom God brings each Sunday, Wednesday, Friday night, and every other time and venue that Christ followers gather together.

I'm talking about inviting people to Christ and not to "join" a church. I know it sounds radical but could it be that it is biblical?

Maybe I'm talking to the wrong crowd. Maybe we're all too jaded by Southern Baptist Conventionism that we cannot see any other way as biblically valid. Or maybe I'm way off base.

Dr, Barber can speak for himself. I'll confine my words to Les' comments to me, as I think these are blog worthy issues for here too. Brother Les, please keep in mind I'm writing to you and to the readers here, so forgive me if I repeat myself a bit to get them up to speed in case they are naughty and don't read the link above first and the comments already.

For background, I'll give my first comment there:

It seems to me the modern Baptist concept of membership (and by "modern" I mean the one going back about 400 to 500 years now), is generated by tradition, albeit a good tradition. Let us not forget that Sola Scriptura does not exclude the usefulness of tradition.

1. It's not clear if the early churches kept rolls. It appears they may have done so. That way they knew who was part of the church and who wasn't.

2. But this could vary depending on the situation. A primarily illiterate group would have had a bad roll. In times of persecution, you might not want to write down the names of the people "just in case." On the other hand, its not like they would have kept vital statistics on the people the way we do.

3. However, 500 odd years ago, Baptists sprang forth from the grounds of Anglicanism, Congregationalism, and some from Presbyterianism, all of which, in Britain in that age, would have kept more detailed records.

4. And we were very concerned back then with regenerate church membership. Since the others were mixed, and we disputed that notion, it makes sense to keep a list of "members," that were known, as best as possible, to be regenerate and baptized into our churches.

5. Our forefathers came to distinguish between the "membership" (the core of regenerate and baptized persons) of the local churches and the "congregation" (people from other groups that would, for example, visit, but were not baptized.) Baptism then was a clearer marker of regeneracy, ergo the need.

6. Also persecution in this generation of Christians would have generated some need as well, but this time to keep a good list. If the churches had a list, they knew whom they could trust in the days when they would have to hide the preacher from the authorities or walk in round robin style around the houses of a town on Sundays in order to get bits of the sermon and partake of the Lord's Table.

Les made the comments above after I replied:

Brother Bart and I agree yet again. Church is a family, but it's more of a "tough love" situation. The need for a "roll" is generated primarily by tradition, but I think it's a good one to keep. I also think that we have to be careful that we don't react to some abused traditions or, for that matter circumvented ones, by reacting in the opposite manner, in this case opting to go without an official roll. When the elder role is taken seriously, when the deacon role is taken seriously, the member roll will likely be self-correcting.

Now, that's not necessarily an argument for a roll or against one, but consider for a moment the Baptist idea of a local church, not a session, as in Presbyterianism. If there is no roll then, in a society like ours, with a "church on every corner" then what is the range of discipline for the church and its elders & deacons? This question can be answered by a roll.

In other words, when Member X needs care or on the other end discipline, who does it? Does, for example, Lewisville BC or Calvary BC or Beck's BC? All three? If all three, then that gets us into a session, not a local church and an association.

On the other hand, if Member Y is visiting other churches to find a new church home, what should happen if they go into the hospital? They'd likely get pastoral visits from both churches and nobody would object.

So, the issue it seems arises, today, mostly in questions of discipline, not pastoral care and counseling. On the one hand you don't want to contradict the elders of another church in discipline, but on the other, you don't need to be the one who exercises it if they have, except to reinforce their prior actions. Reinforcing it would not be incompatible with the proper role of local churches in an association or fraternal relationship. However, if you got into a contradictory relationship, then you might have problems, one of which is the functional "session" model, which is Presbyterian.

As to the institutional/organic question, that is a dichotomy foreign to the Bible. What reason do we have to believe that the church ceases to be organic if the elder knows precisely who is and who is not a part of the flock?

Exactly. I taught church history to a group of men in my church last year. One of the first lessons I taught them as "prolegomena" was to think of the church as an organism not an institution, even as its organization developed into the monarchial episcopate in the early centuries. That organization did not cause the church to cease being "organic" any more than knowing all the muscles and bones in body makes the body itself "inorganic." It may make for a fairly clinical view of the body on the part of the physician or nurse, but the body itself is not made "inorganic."
So, let me reiterate here, if the argument is that a roll leads to an "inorganic" view of the church as a "body," I think that's a nonsequitur. Sure, it can mean that we view the body in clinical terms, but that doesn't mean the body itself becomes "inorganic."

I'll also go on record here as saying that I agree that our modern view of membership is hard to justify from Scripture only. It's an argument that depends on tradition as well, if not moreso. I don't think it is possible for any one group to precisely duplicate the New Testament model. Why? Because the NT church spread on a tabula rasa. Unless we're talking about a missions situation, none of us in that sort of situation - period.

That said, I think there is something to be said for certain arguments for Presbyterianism. That is, Presbyterians have argued that when the Bible speaks of "the church at ," it spoke about a group of house churches in a single city. Each had its own elders, and therefore, the elders of the church are a session. In Presbyterianism, a session is composed of all the elders (teaching and ruling) of the local churches in a particular geographical area, like a city. Then we have a presbytery, which collects several sessions together. Then they have a General Assembly.

As a Baptist, I find some mixed truth here. I agree that the NT views the church in Philippi, for example, as one church in one city. However, it does not follow that each "house church" had its own eldershp and that these formed a session. What could equally be true is that there was a group of elders that presided over a single church in that city that was divided into "cells."

Baptist history is littered with the same idea. In Baptist history, during the time of the Clarendon Code in Britain, we have records of local churches spoken of as if they are a single church in one town. Due to the laws limiting the numbers who could assemble on Sunday, the members of the church would walk between homes that had been set aside for assembly. The elders or deacons (if the pastor-elders were in prison), would set themselves into those homes, each one to a home. The members would rotate in groups of four or five, walking between the homes and getting bits of the sermon, songs, and partaking of the Lord's Table.

Thus, what we have in Scripture, due to the limited information, is a situation that does not select for a Presbyterian session. On the other hand, it does not select for a Baptist plural elder model either. Does one look at the house assemblies the same as we look at individual local churches in a town, city, or parish today? Does one look at them as a single church in the geographical area divided into "cells?" I think the argument for the latter is more persuasive, but that's because, layered onto the Presbyterian argument from Scripture is a parallel of the Jerusalem Council to the gathering of a G.A. or presbytery. I find that more question-begging than not. What's complicating our views here is not, in my opinion, our SBCishness, but (a) the scanty information in Scripture and history both and (b) our own historical situation. In other words, they did not live in cities with "a church on every corner" like we do in America. We do, and most of us are in churches of over 100 members. Thus what's complicating matters is this question: Do we view the local churches today as "cells" of a single church per geographical area, or do we view them as individual local churches? Ironically, the Baptist and the Presbyterian tend to opt for the latter, not the former. The Presbyterian then takes this and reads a session into Scripture. The Baptist and Congregationalist read the former view into Scripture.

So, the issue arises, did they keep lists of members? As I said before, it isn't clear. For one thing, Scripture isn't clear. For another archaeological information for the period from about 65 to 100 or shortly after is so scant that we just don't know.

What we do know is that their polity did mature. We also know from Scripture that they did have a knowledge of who was "in" and who was "out" (moved on, a missionary, a visitor, or under discipline). I think the churches were small enough that they knew just about everybody. That is, the elders by way of the deacons knew who their "members" were; that is to say, if you were a resident of the city, then you were a "member" of that church.

It might surprise folks to know that those churches using a monarchical episcopate, in my opinion, are probably closer to the biblical model in terms of defining the "roll" of a church, in that, as I understand it, if you move from one city to another, you are expected to register in your new church/parish. I think that's probably the type of "roll" they kept as time went on, if only by necessity.

Picking up on your Book of Life analogy, I'd say that this image is very like a Roman register. So, what we have in Scripture is a metaphor for the list of the elect that is predicated by analogy on a Roman register. If we wanted to view the church in the same manner and duplicate NT polity, then, yes, I think this would translate into a "roll," but it would not be done at the local church level. Strictly speaking, it would include every church. I'd add that this analogy is also a strong one for a regenerate church membership. If we're going to say that one argument for a roll in a local church is the analogy with the Lamb's Book of Life, then it should only include those who are regenerate, as best as we know.

I'd add that I think an argument can be made for some sort of roll by way of the OT. They did know who was in a city and who was not; who lived in the covenant community and who did not. Now, on the one hand, God let David call a census in order to bring judgment. The judgment was for his vanity and conceit. I don't think God has a problem with a "census" per se, I think we could apply that text, in our current discussion, to the constant triumphant intonation of numbers in the SBC as if "bigger is better." When "the Good Ol' Boys" pat themselves on the back for a job well done while they lose members the more they baptize or take in by letter and statement, and they can't get them to church on Sundays and/or don't know where the truants are, I think the Lord views that the way He viewed David's census.

1 comment:

  1. Gene,

    As always a thorough and thought-provoking post. Give me some time to fully digest it and I'll give you my thoughts.