Baptism and Church Membership: The Recommendation from the Elders for Amending Bethlehem's Constitution

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Founder & Teacher,

On behalf of the Council of Elders I made the first presentation of the proposed amendments to the church on Wednesday, September 7. The motion came from the elders to the church

that the Constitution and By-Laws be amended in accordance with revision 08-09-05 as amended by the Elders (on 08/09/05), of the document entitled Baptism and Church Membership at Bethlehem Baptist Church.

That document is now posted both on the church website and the Desiring God website. The church vote on the elder recommendation will take place on December 18 at the Annual All-Church Strategy Meeting. Our hope is that you will read enough of the posted document to understand the issues. If you do not have access to the web and would like a written copy, please call the church and we will provide one for you. The most immediately informative pages are pages 8-13. These pages sum up eight specific amendments that are being recommended by the elders. They send you to other parts of the document if you want more than a summary. So you can decide for yourself how deeply you want to dig.

Besides the written communication and the initial presentation on September 7, I will be teaching and answering questions at the Downtown Campus Wednesday September 21 at the Wednesday Connection. This will be a repeat of my presentation to the North Campus given on September 14. Other opportunities to interact with the elders will be announced through the fall as they arise. The entire evening of Wednesday November 30 is already on the calendar for Questions and Answers from the people. If you prefer to pose your questions more privately, you may certainly write to any of the elders or speak to them personally.

Here is a brief summary again of the main recommendations (in a different order than in the posted document). The page numbers refer to the posted document.

1. Amend the Constitution and By-Laws to make it possible for some persons to be admitted into membership who are not baptized as believers by immersion. The situation we have in mind involves those who are convinced that their being baptized as a believer would violate their biblically informed conscience, since it would be seen as a repudiation of their infant baptismal ritual or their sprinkling as a believer. (See page 10, #7.)

This is the most controversial part of our recommendation. We ask you to read the biblical thought processes that have led us to this place. (See especially pages 11, 14-23.) There is no weakening of our conviction that the New Testament teaches us to be baptized by immersion as believers. That is firmly fixed in the BBC Elder Affirmation of Faith, which every elder must affirm. Thus the official position of Bethlehem Baptist Church remains that only baptism by immersion of believers will be taught and practiced by the church.

What this amendment does is create a kind of conscientious-objection clause by which a person may say, for example: “I believe and love everything this church stands for except one thing: at this point in my understanding of the Scripture my conscience is bound by the conviction that my infant baptism was a valid, biblical baptism.” The amendment implies that we disagree with that judgment but do not elevate the difference between us over the time and mode of baptism to the point that it would always exclude a person from membership.

3. Create a minimal Membership Affirmation of Faith that all members would have to affirm. (See page 31.)

The aim here is to make the doctrinal qualifications for membership in the local church similar to those of the universal church. The approach was to start with the BGC Affirmation of Faith and keep as much of it as seemed doctrinally essential to being a Christian.

4. Amend the wording of the Church Covenant to reflect the changes being proposed and to improve a few minor infelicities of wording. (See page 33.)

5. Amend the Constitution to make the Elder Affirmation of Faith and the new Member Affirmation of Faith part of the Constitution itself, replacing the present Affirmation of Faith (which is identical to the Baptist General Conference Affirmation of Faith).

6. Amend the Constitution and By-Laws to ensure that proposed amendments regarding the membership and doctrinal parts of the constitution and by-laws are introduced by the Council of Elders and approved by the people. (See pages 52-54.)

The aim of this proposal is to maintain a biblical balance between the responsibility of the elders, on the one hand, to lead the church and to guard her from doctrinal error, and the responsibility of the people, on the other hand, to test and affirm the call and the recommendations of the elders.

7. With the desire to remain part of the Baptist General Conference, we recommend that the elders affirm the BGC Affirmation of Faith with the eight qualifications. (See page 41.)

Praying with you for the Lord to give us his mind on these crucial issues,

Pastor John