Tuesday it was reported by Baptist News Global that the Madison Baptist Association in Alabama, an association of Southern Baptist Churches, voted overwhelmingly to withdraw fellowship from Weatherly Heights Baptist Church in Huntsville, AL. The cause of the removal was Weatherly Heights’ allowance for an ordained member to perform a “so-called” same-sex wedding, and the pastor, David Freeman’s, open assertion that the Bible does not prohibit homosexuality, which he defines as an “adult, loving, monogamous, same-sex relationship.” The Madison Baptist Association rightly pointed out that SBC churches all voluntarily subscribe to The Baptist Faith and Message which defines marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime.” This is a definition that is rooted in God’s created order (Gen 1:26-28), serves the purpose of displaying the riches of the gospel and God’s saving work (Eph 5:22-33), and is therefore neither culturally determined nor in any way alterable.
The Baptist Faith and Message functions just like any other historical confession or creed. It draws the boundaries between a true church and a false church, or between one ecclesiological tradition and another. In the latter case, the confessions distinguish Presbyterians from Baptists, Baptists from Presbyterians, Baptists from Anglicans, and so on and so forth. In the former case, the confessions mark where the gospel may be found and where it may not be found.
In the case of Weatherly Heights Baptist Church, the removal was necessary because Weatherly Heights is clearly no longer subscribing to the confession that binds the association churches together. But more importantly, the gospel has been compromised, and to fellowship with a church that has compromised the gospel is to allow “sin in the camp,” in which case one can only be assured that God is not in the midst of them.
This brings me to my main point. What the Madison Baptist Association has done is good, right, and necessary. It is what, unfortunately, is having to happen in many local Baptist associations. This is church discipline at an associational level. I’m encouraged that associations and State conventions are being faithful in their mandate to maintain the purity of the gospel, and to live as lights in the world by cleansing themselves of any darkness.
But what discourages me is that many of the local Baptist churches within these conventions and associations are content with keeping the logs in their own eyes (Matt 7:5). What I mean is that we are faithfully removing churches who are not keeping in step with the gospel of Christ, while at the same time compromising in the local church with our own members. Churches have members who are committing adultery and divorcing one another, and their only response is to say, “I’ll be praying for you.” Churches have been tolerating the Corinthian-like divisiveness of church-hopping by simply categorizing it as “transfer growth.” When members are leaving local churches they have covenanted with over trivial matters such as music styles, amount of programs, church demographics, or the preacher’s charisma or lack thereof, they are a display of the Corinthian spirit (1 Cor 1:10-12). The difference, though, is that whereas Paul rebuked their behavior, too many modern pastors encourage it.
Churches have members on their rolls that haven’t attended in decades. When a church receives someone as a member, they are affirming that this person has made a credible profession of faith—that in their judgment this person is a true believer, evidenced by the good fruit they produce. Those who were “added to” the Jerusalem church were those who “received” the gospel preached by Peter and were baptized (Acts 2:41). And Luke adds that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (v. 42).
A person who never attends church demonstrates that they have not “received” the gospel, nor have they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, nor to the fellowship, the breaking of bread or the prayers. They live in open rebellion against the charge “not to neglect meeting together” (Heb 10:25). They walk in darkness because they have no fellowship with the church (1 Jn 1:7) and “hate their brothers” (1 Jn 2:9, 11). Therefore, if they say they are still believers in Jesus, “they lie and do not practice the truth” (1 Jn 1:6). In such a case, the local church has no authority to maintain the person’s membership because it has no authority to call someone a child of God whom God calls a liar.
Churches have members fornicating with one another, and rather than calling them to repentance, they go the way of Achan and bury the sin in the earth (Josh 7:21). And the examples could be multiplied easily, but on the whole, too many local churches have no clear boundary between being “inside the camp” and “outside the camp,” because too many churches, for too long, have practiced loose membership and zero discipline.
The result is that they have become weak and sinful. If there’s no clear boundary between the church and the world, the world is not going to be swallowed up by the church, but the church by the world. The church will become worldly minded, “carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14), driven by passions, emotions, and sensuality. The gospel calls us out of these things and into a new kingdom where worldly minds are renewed by “spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col 1:9), established in “sound doctrine” (Tit 2:1), and where the driving passion behind our lives is the supremacy and glory of God.
One of the beauties of Baptist ecclesiology—recognized even by some Presbyterians—is that at least historically they have emphasized a crystal clear distinction between the church and the world. The local church is an assembly of baptized believers in Christ who covenant together to faithfully serve, pray for, and watch over one another as they submit themselves under the authority of the church. It is its own little society, or an embassy of the kingdom of God within the fallen kingdom of darkness. Therefore it has its own laws, its own government, and its own ethics. By these it is separate from the world. If the world looks lightly upon sexual immorality, the church, under the lordship of Christ, prohibits it as a distortion of God’s good creation. If the world promotes a covetous and consumeristic mindset, the church rejects it as antithetical to the image of Christ who gives himself freely to a needy people.
With its own ethics, the church has its own laws. Arguably, “be imitators of God” (Eph 5:1) could summarize them all, from loving God to loving neighbor. The church’s laws, which are the laws of King Jesus, call all of her citizens to glorify God and enjoy him forever by imitating him. And like any law, if it is broken, there are consequences. In many cases, the Christian, once he recognizes his sin, shall confess it and turn from it and be cleansed of sin (1 Jn 1:9). In other cases, the Christian may not recognize his sin, and a brother(s) or sister(s) will need to show him his fault (Matt 18:15-16), at which time if he repents, he will be forgiven. Even if this process happens “seventy-seven times” (Matt 18:22), a repentant brother or sister shall be restored to the glory of God.
Yet if a professing Christian is confronted about his sin, and he refuses to repent, even after the church has confronted him, he must be removed from the fellowship. Jesus uses the language of considering him “as a Gentile and a tax-collector” (Matt 18:17). Paul uses the language of “delivering him to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor 5:5). The point is that they can no longer be recognized as covenant children of God by the church. In fact, if a local church tolerates unrepentant sin they are in mortal danger of not being recognized by Christ himself as a church (Rev 2:16).
Baptists, historically, have recognized this truth. The church is made up of regenerate people who are faithfully seeking to be image-bearers of Christ, together, in the world. There is a clear distinction that must be maintained between those inside and those outside the church, and it’s maintained by faithfully practicing membership and discipline. When that distinction is distorted, or removed, and sin is allowed to fester, then churches disappear. No doubt they may build large buildings to house their meetings, but they won’t be any more than a Christianized rotary club.
The current controversy over so-called same-sex marriage presents Baptists with a great opportunity to recover something that was lost a long time ago. It presents us with a moment for reflection. We are rightly removing sinful churches from fellowship. But are we removing sinful members as well? Are we calling them to repentance? Are we using every means instituted by Christ to awaken them from sinful stupors? Are we a place where restoration is seen, holiness cherished, and sacrificial love demonstrated? To do one and not the other is hypocrisy. To do neither is apostasy. To do both is to be the church.