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In his recent Under God post entitled “Southern Baptist Decline and God’s Bottom Line,” On Faith editor David Waters asks, “Shouldn’t the church find more faithful ways of measuring its success? Mercy instead of membership? Forgiveness instead of financial contributions? Baptisms lived in the world instead of baptisms recorded in a book? Justice instead of just stats?”
As an ordained Southern Baptist minister, a former Southern Baptist pastor, and current Southern Baptist seminary professor, please allow me to answer those questions, as indicated, from a Southern Baptist perspective:
1. “Shouldn’t the church find more faithful ways of measuring its success?”
Technically, please note that the Southern Baptist Convention is not a church, but a convention of autonomous churches. And, yes, you are correct: There is a more faithful way to measure success. The best measure of our success is fidelity to Jesus Christ, a measure that ultimately only He can supply. He measures the actions and attitudes of his churches through the consciences of Christians (as they read the Bible and pray), His interactions within His churches (through decisions made by the churches), His mercy and judgment in providence through history upon His churches (as He did with the Civil War regarding slavery, for instance), and ultimately before His throne in heaven. The final measure of success will be when Jesus Christ says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
This implies that one has been a servant, good, and faithful. These standards, including both issues of the heart (good and faithful) and human action (service), indicate both internal and external measures.
Some things can be measured by human beings externally, while others must await divine measure alone.
2. “Mercy instead of membership?”
Actually, we would argue that we should measure ourselves through BOTH mercy and membership. Mercy is one of the divine perfections, which in turn is to be expressed in the lives of God’s people. We, of course, both succeed and fail at this, for we are sinners even while we are being made saints. We can always do better with mercy. Oh, we could count the ways, personally and communally! But the primary act of mercy of a Christian is the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, who is the mercy of God toward humanity. And this is where membership comes in, for those who have received God’s mercy in Christ will become church members. Yes, membership, too, is important, as the New Testament itself reveals. We are commissioned by Christ to disciple the world by planting New Testament churches concerned to maintain regenerate church membership (Matthew 18:15-20, Matthew 28:18-20, I Corinthians 5, II Corinthians 6:14-7:1).
3. “Forgiveness instead of financial contributions?”
Let it be clearly stated: Southern Baptists are primarily concerned with forgiveness. We are sinners who have found forgiveness for our horrible sinfulness by turning away from sin and receiving the atoning work of Jesus Christ as our own. And as forgiven sinners, we are called to be agents of proclaiming God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ. That is the temporal measure of our success: the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, which can be measured by those who receive baptism. You see, when a person receives the forgiveness of Jesus Christ as Savior, they also submit themselves as disciples to Jesus Christ as Lord. The first act of discipleship for the new believer is, of course, baptism, and baptism brings a person into a local church. Now, as Lord, He is also Lord over our finances, too. This means supporting our churches faithfully through the stewardship of our time, energy, and assets. And part of the stewardship of time and energy is to be involved in congregational decisions regarding the very finances that we give to the church, making sure that they are spent wisely and for the Lord’s purposes.
4. “Baptisms lived in the world instead of baptisms recorded in a book?”
Actually, this may be your most profound query. We as Southern Baptists understand baptism to be the symbolic testimony of a convert to their belief in Christ as the One who has died and risen again for them.
In being baptized, a new disciple is saying with the church that he or she has repented of his or her sin (died to the old way of life) and risen to walk in a new way of life. So, yes, baptism is to be lived in the world, but not from the resources of the world. The power to live in the world comes from the inner presence of the Holy Spirit of God who has bound the new believer to the church of Jesus Christ, internally through faith and repentance, externally through water baptism. A person who has merely received baptism externally and has not been born again by the Spirit internally does not apparently understand the importance of baptism. Your query should be a call for all those that have been baptized to question whether they have truly been born from above, which should be in evidence in how they live below. If baptism is not lived out in the world, it may be an indication that one’s baptism was not accompanied by faith and repentance.
5. “Justice instead of just stats?”
Yes, God is more concerned with our living just lives as we make just choices with one another than He is with the statistics of our religious activity. He made this plain through the prophets of Israel. Indeed, David was taken to task by God for his proud census taking and the people of Israel were warned that God cared more about justice than sacrifices. And yet, God does not call a Christian to forsake church activity. And human activity can be measured through statistics, can it not?
Dr. Malcolm B. Yarnell III is director of the Center for Theological Research Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Fort Worth, Texas.