Church Members Are Not Prospects – A Faithful Word from Mark Dever

As you may already know, one of the greatest disappointments of Greensboro was the rejection of Tom Ascol’s resolution on integrity in church membership. After having read the resolution on the floor of the convention, Tommy French, chairman of the resolutions committee, gave this response:

Brother Tom, we understand and we are concerned about these things. However, we are also concerned about the accuracy of the claims because what we receive through the statistics are just those things that are reported by the local churches. And so we would have to challenge what they send us.

And we certainly do not want to throw away from our membership rolls the names of the non-attenders because we would be throwing away a very valuable prospect list for reclamation in evangelism. Now in Sunday School we don’t cull the rolls as long as those people live in our area so that we can continue to pray for them and visit them and secure them in Bible study. (emphasis mine)

Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and founder of IX Marks, recently responded to French’s statements on the Together for the Gospel blog. Dever believes that the SBC made a serious mistake in Greensboro, namely the dismissal of the resolution of integrity in church membership and strikingly unbiblical rationalization of Tommy French. Dever shares,

“For me to allow my local congregation to continue on, with people in membership regularly forsaking assembling together is to be in sin, to lead my congregation into sin, confuse what it means to be a member, and confuse what it means to be a Christian.”


As Southern Baptists, one of the premiere distinctives is the belief in regenerate church membership and a commitment to church discipline, both of which are rarely upheld in SBC churches today. To err on these two crucial aspects of ecclesiology is to have a flawed understanding of what it means to be Baptist However, by popular opinion and an undercurrent of evangelical pragmatism, such a proposal did not carry as much weight in our fundamentalist repertoire as other resolutions like that of the consumption of alcohol. While there appeared to be a unified stance against Ascol’s resolution, there are other witnesses who would testify against those refusing to even bring the resolution to the floor. Dever explains:

“Do you know who opposes this practice of Southern Baptist Churches? God in Hebrews 10. Our Southern Baptist forbears who knew what it meant to be a Christian, and a church member, and who suffered for it. No messenger to a Southern Baptist Convention a century or so ago could have conceived of such an action (or inaction).”

It goes without saying that when you are being requested to give an answer on the spot for the rationale behind the refusal to pass a resolution that is patently biblical and faithful to the historical convictions of Southern Baptist ecclesiology, any answer would be difficult to muster up. Therefore, I express sympathy to Mr. French in having to give an answer on behalf of the Committee on Nominations. But we still have to carefully consider what he said and why. Dever asks,

“So how could such an answer be given? . . . How could it have been soberly accepted by thousands of messengers?”

Here is Dever’s response:

“I can only conclude that it must have been due in part to our cheapened understanding of conversion, debased practices of evangelism, worldly attitudes about being ‘judgmental’ and an addiction–a drunkeness [sic], if you will–to numbers. I don’t think it came about by careful reflection on the Bible’s teaching on what it means to be born again, to be made a new creation, to consider the fruit of the Spirit in contrast to the works of the flesh. We were not thinking of II Peter 1. We [are] not calling people to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith, as Paul urged the Corinthians. We have not with a sober love called them ‘sinners’ in need of repentance; we have called them ‘members’ and assured them that they are saved. Or we’ve called them ‘prospects.’”

When I read this from Mark Dever, my respect for him rises, because here is a man who is more concerned about being a pastor and speaking the truth than being lock and step with the bureaucratic politics with taint many SBC leaders today. Also, what is worse than Tommy French’s statements is the silent treatment from other SBC leaders who will not address this issue for reasons other than having a conscience constrained by Scripture. I must say, however, I have been greatly encouraged over the past few days as I have heard clear and sound words from some profs at school about the unfortunate results from Greensboro. SBC bloggers aren’t the only one with an ‘uneasy conscience,’ and for that I am grateful.

Indeed, there is a growing disparity among Southern Baptists today, and I will give greater attention to this in the days to come. In the meantime, let us consider the wise words of Dever and sober up to the reality that God and the rest of the evangelical world is watching and seeing where our priorities lie. If, according to Dever, our church members are “exhibit A” of what it means to be a Christian and “walking advertisements” of the gospel, then I believe he is right that we are playing a high stakes game with the souls of men. Where we find ourselves is a denomination halfly reformed that is not in danger of losing “prospects” but the very gospel of Jesus Christ, and the purity and visibility of the Church He purchased with His own blood.

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15 Comments on “Church Members Are Not Prospects – A Faithful Word from Mark Dever”


  1. I too thought Dever’s response to the non-acceptance or Tom’s resolution was good.

    One other reason I think that many in the hierarchy of the SBC as well as many members would not pass such a resolution is that if it was passed, and followed, think of the ramifications.

    The news the next day would read something like: “SBC Exodus: SBC looses 8 million members.” Actually the number might be hogher than 8 million. Now you and I know that in reality there were never truly that many regenerate members but the pride of being able to say we have 17+ million members seems to override the truth of the matter.

    At the heart of this is pride because adjusting membership lists would mean churches would have to admit they had been accepting non-regenerate members for some time. Pride will not allow this so we continue to cover up the travesty of what membership really is.

    When I talk to people about membership they do not understand why one would have to officially join if they are simply committed to come. They can even use such examples as SBC membership to ask why it is so important when many who sign up as members never live as such and others who shy away from official membership may be more loyal. The issue is a true understanding of regenerate membership and this would mean truly discerning regeneration which often flies in the face of culture.

    I pray that the SBC over the next year will truly get down on their knees and seek God’s will in this. Next year I would pray that the same resolution would be brought to the floor and be able to be voted on.

  2. J.D. Says:

    “a drunkeness [sic], if you will–to numbers.”

    A fitting a timely a comment.


  3. My bad in writing to fast on my comment. I said: we continue to cover up the travesty of what membership really is.

    I meant it is a travesty that we continue to cover up what membership really is.

    I really should type slower.

  4. Kern R. Pegues Says:

    They are if your goal is to count and brag on how many members you have. And that seems to be the most important thing for the SBC. Sad, very sad.

  5. Josh Says:

    I read the T4G article a day or so ago and it reminded me of a conversation we had in Sunday School (had to be this quarter). We were discussing enrolling folks in SS–as generally happens this time of year–and the topic of membership came up. It seemed to me that the line between a person being a SS member and a member of the church had been blurred. So I stepped up to the plate and briefly explained the importance of a regenerate membership. It was pretty quiet for a minute so I talked about having unregenerate folks making decisions in the church and some of the other bad things that could happen with an “unsaved” member.

    The frightening thing wasn’t the quiet it was the feeling in the room of “What is this guy talking about?” (And yes, I do in fact go to a Southern Baptist church.)

    Much Grace
    Josh

  6. Gene Says:

    In fairness, I don’t think the man who made that comment would actually defend it in private. I think he knows he was mistaken. That said, it should never have been said, but I’m glad it was said, because it puts the finger on the leading problem in the SBC right now…beyond the IMB, beyond Calvinism. This is not a Calvinist/non-Calvinist issue (though I would argue the Calvinist churches do a much better job with this issue; the largest Calvinist church I know of in the Convention has 75 5 of her members in attendance on any given Sunday. They do know where the truants are located, however). This is a gospel issue and a discipleship issue.

    I’d add that while the anti-Calvinist faction of the SBC calls their brothers closet Presbyterians, they need to take a long hard look at this issue, because an unregenerate church membership is a Presbyterian, not a Baptist distinctive. I’d further add that PCA and OPC churches don’t have, to my knowledge, the truancy problem that the SBC churches have, so this is actually worse than the Presby’s. It smacks more of Rome than anybody else. It reminds me of the days before (and after) the beginning of the Imperial Era of church history, where nominalism and what to do with the lapsed was “the” leading problem.

    And, just for a quick history lesson. The problem with the lapsed began around 251 AD. It was not settled. The Novatianist and Donatist controversies erupted shortly thereafter. That in turn gave way to the penance system, which gave way to the indulgence system, which prompted the Reformation. In other words, this is the problem that ultimately led the Reformation itself.

  7. Nathan White Says:

    Tony,

    What a good word you said about the pride issue! Thank you for that.

    Josh,

    You mean to tell me that congregational rule, so as to give the lost man the exact same power to vote as a believer, is a bad thing?? No way! 🙂

    Gene,

    I’m going to tip-toe out here and disagree with you…

    You said: This is not a Calvinist/non-Calvinist issue…

    Well, first things first, you did note that Calvinists usually get this issue right, obviously so. It could also be mentioned that the vast, vast majority of Arminian churches get this wrong (have you ever seen an Arminan church (that wasn’t full of fundamental nuts) practice church discipline?)

    I see this as a dead-on Calvinist/Arminian issue. Listen carefully to the language used here by Tommy:

    “throwing away a very valuable prospect list”

    Prospect list? These people have already come and heard what you had to say, have not stayed, and yet they are apparently more ‘inclined’ to be a prospect for the gospel? That would mean that someone who isn’t an apostate is a worse prospect? They accuse us of walking around and not witnessing like we know who the elect are or something, but what does this statement mean in light of that? If they knew that God was sovereign…

    Secondly, the entire foundation upon which the unregenerate roll is defended is the notion that salvation comes on the whimsical choice of man. Why cast out people who might have ‘made that decision’? Why alienate people who could potentially be brought back in with a prayer? When salvation is seen as a decision that man can make, you do everything possible to not offend those responsible for the decision. And that is exactly what they want to do. They are afraid of offending those who might be easy to manipulate, er, I mean convince into praying the prayer.

    Also, have you considered how much work that it takes to purge the rolls? Do you know how difficult and exasperating it is to practice church discipline? This isn’t something that can be accomplished with a prayer. But putting the issue of laziness aside here, discipleship is a long, hard, tough road. It takes hard work to make disciples; it is a cheap and easy work to make decisions. If they knew that the gospel wasn’t about the decisions, only then could we call them on their laziness. But if we set the Calvinist issue aside, we cannot call them on their laziness, since they are only doing what their theology demands.

    Yeah, Calvinism may not be the main issue here. But it is certainly the foundation. If the foundation of the gospel is built on sand, why would we be so ignorant to think that the structure itself can be improved upon? That’s why the alcohol issue, the IMB issue, the membership issue, the shallow-gospel issue, the seeker-sensitive issue, the ‘CEO’ issue, etc., all boils down to what you believe about the gospel.

    SDG

  8. Nathan White Says:

    One more thing (completely unrelated to what I have said above).

    Consider the issue surrounding ‘tithe’. My former SBC pastor begged for money so much, I’m sure he would have a hard time offending/putting anyone out the church for fear that he wouldn’t meet his budget. It’s almost as if ‘it’s OK that you sin, and it’s OK that you show up twice a year, just as long as you give every once in a while.’

    I don’t want to sound too harsh, but given the begging for $ that is so common, I really wonder if some are more concerned about their pocketbook…

    SDG

  9. Gene Says:

    Well, first things first, you did note that Calvinists usually get this issue right, obviously so. It could also be mentioned that the vast, vast majority of Arminian churches get this wrong (have you ever seen an Arminan church (that wasn’t full of fundamental nuts) practice church discipline?)

    I have to differ here. Those non-Calvinist churches that get this wrong, if they are not apostate (e.g. liberal) are those churches that affirm the doctrine of eternal security. Ironically, then it’s not a Calvinist-Arminian issue, because the Free Will Baptist and Wesleyan churches, in my experience, do a better job on this than the 4-Point Arminian Baptists. So, no, it’s not a Calvinist-nonCalvinist issue, rather it’s an issue related to the gospel. I’d rather work with a classic Arminian than the Free Grace/4-Point Arminian Baptist people when it comes to the gospel, because, while we come at the issue from a different soteriological viewpoint, we tend to arrive at the same conclusion in practice, though not in theory.

    Look at it this way, if you believe that believers can apostatize and are eternally secure even if they do, then why bother with church discipline? Ah, but those people have a theology of rewards. True, but that’s a whole other can of worms. The point here is that the doctrine of perseverance (whether it be the Calvinist version or the classic Arminian version) obligates people to engage in church discipline. So, for the classic Arminian, they have a straightforward theological need to practice church discipline. In the Calvinist tradition, we do it because the means of preservation is God’s grace enabling our perseverance in an end-means relationship.

    This isn’t to say that there are classic Arminian churches out there that fall short on this. I’ve seen lots of apostasy going on among the Pentecostals; I know some stories that would curl your hair. but that often happens in their larger not smaller congregations.

    Presbyterians and Lutherans have a less problems in this area because they, particularly Lutherans, mediate grace through the visible church to a greater degree than Baptists. On the other hand, the Presby’s seem to have less problems with nominalism in general, within, that is, the evangelical churches among them. So, I’m not so sure it’s a function of their Calvinist soteriology that underwrites their superior execution of church discipline as much as it is their ecclesiology and covenantalism, and, for Lutherans, sacramentology.


  10. “In fairness, I don’t think the man who made that comment would actually defend it in private. I think he knows he was mistaken.”

    Tom Ascol keeps saying this as well, but the fact is the comment was made in a very public setting and deserves public criticism until it is publically rescended.

  11. William Horton Says:

    The title of this accurate should be “Church Members SHOULD not be Prospects”. Unfortunately, as the SBC presently stands, including my own SBC church, many of them are prospects for evangelism.

  12. Nathan White Says:

    Gene, good thoughts. I agree. I still am, however, convinced that the Calvinist debate is at the root of these issues. Understanding these truths brings such an amazing balance in areas like these.

    Andrew, very good point. I second that.

  13. Josh Says:

    Nathan

    Dude. Not just way but WAAAAAY!

    All
    My major concern right now though is whether or not this is going to end up in divorce.

    Josh


  14. Great article. This subject is very troubling within the SBC. When it seems that many SBC leaders are more interested in numbers theology rather than biblical theology.

    I pray that Dever and others like him don’t stop running for office! One day, we will not need to face divorce [as Josh mentioned] but pure reform!

    For God’s Glory

    Rev. Josh Buice
    http://www.joshbuice.blogspot.com

  15. Josh Says:

    Right Reverend.

    I had a Catholic friend one time who talked about the Great Schism like it happened yesterday. That part of the Reformation wasn’t so good and we’re still seeing bad stuff from it today.


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