What the Elders Are Proposing: Amendments to the Constitution and By-Laws

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

I hope you can come hear me teach on Wednesday, September 7, at 6:30 pm. I will be putting a motion from the elders in Biblical and historical context. The issues are controversial, but very important. On August 9, 2005 the Bethlehem Council of Elders voted 23 to 1 in support of the following motion:

“The Elders recommend 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.”

The document referred to in the motion (Baptism and Church Membership at Bethlehem Baptist Church) is an 80-page document that will be made available for any Bethlehem member to read (probably at the church website). I will begin to teach on the content of the document and the nature of the amendments on Wednesday, September 7, at 6:30 pm at the downtown campus.

The constitutional process for amending the constitution at Bethlehem prescribes that the amendments be proposed to the church three months before the Annual Strategy Meeting in December. This proposal (motion) will be made on September 7 at 6:30 pm at the special meeting called by the elders and announced for two Sundays prior to the meeting. No action on the motion is to be taken at that meeting. Rather a three-month process of education and discussion ensues. During those months the elders will endeavor to explain the aims of the amendments, the biblical foundations, and the practical implications. We will hold open forums for your questions and make available everything that we think will help you understand the issues involved.

The central issue at stake is: How should we define the membership of the church? That is, what degree of biblical understanding and agreement should a person have in order to belong to a local church? Or to put it another way: Should the door to membership in the local church be roughly the same size as the door to the universal church? If so, what is the basic set of beliefs that a person should be willing to affirm—or at least not deny—in order to give good evidence that he is born again into the family of God and a follower of Christ?

After more than three years of study and prayer and discussion of this issue, the Council of Elders believes that membership requirements at Bethlehem should move toward being roughly the same as the requirements for membership in the universal body of Christ. That is, we have come to the conclusion that it is seriously questionable to say to a person who gives good evidence of being a true Christian and who wants to join Bethlehem: you may not join.

This conclusion raises problems of consistency for our present Constitution and By-Laws and our present church Affirmation of Faith and Church Covenant. These documents hold up some less than essential beliefs that must be affirmed in order to be a member at Bethlehem. Thus the door to membership at Bethlehem at the present time is significantly narrower than the door to membership in the universal body of Christ. The elders believe this should be changed because of how serious it is to exclude in principle any truly born-again lover of Christ from membership in the local church.

The most obvious change this involves is allowing the possibility that a person may become a member who has not been baptized by immersion as a believer but who regards the baptismal ritual he received in infancy not as regenerating, but nevertheless (as with most Presbyterians) in such a way that it would violate his conscience to be baptized as a believer. The elders are proposing that under certain conditions such persons be admitted to full membership.

One of the reasons we feel the freedom to move in this direction is that in December, 2003 the church mandated that the Elders themselves must heartily affirm the Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder Affirmation of Faith. This document has raised the doctrinal bar of the eldership at Bethlehem significantly. It is thoroughly and biblically Reformed and baptistic. In other words, the elders of the church may not believe, teach, or practice any other form of baptism as legitimate than believer’s baptism by immersion. All the elders gladly and firmly embrace paragraph 12.3 of the Elder Affirmation of faith:

We believe that baptism is an ordinance of the Lord by which those who have repented and come to faith express their union with Christ in His death and resurrection, by being immersed in water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

In other words, the door to the eldership has gotten significantly narrower in the last two years because of the doctrinal rigor demanded by the BBC Elder Affirmation of Faith. Therefore, we believe that the doctrinal faithfulness—including the biblical teaching and practice of believer’s baptism by immersion—is firmly protected by the doctrinal requirements put on the eldership of the church.

I hope you will take the next three months, starting Wednesday, September 7, at 6:30 pm to ponder and pray and discuss these things with us. Keep in mind there is an 80-page document embodying over three years of reflection behind all this. There are numerous implications. The Elders have not proceeded with haste or in any way carelessly.

Thank you for praying for us.

Pastor John