Monday, July 21, 2008

Granting Letters or Buying Vowels?

Every month, Southern Baptist churches engage in an odd ritual. Given our propensity for oddness, perhaps I should say “engage in a particular odd ritual.” Many congregations, in their monthly business meetings, take a vote on whether to “grant letters” to someone seeking to join a different Baptist congregation.

Having participated in many of these, I fear that not everyone truly knows what’s going on. I secretly wish that one day, to stir things up, the process would go like this:

Moderator: All in favor of granting letters for John and Jane Doe to the First
Baptist Church, Everywhereville, USA, signify by saying “Aye.”

Congregation: “Aye” (anemically, full of fried chicken and very sweet tea).

Moderator: All opposed, by like sign.

Lonely voice: Pat, I’d like to buy a vowel.

What gives with “granting letters”? Are we solving puzzles? Completing crosswords? Playing Scrabble?

Some Baptists might recall that this arcane practice hearkens back to the days when we also knew what “good standing” was, and “granting letters” meant that we were assuring the new church that its prospective member was not subject to discipline at the time he sought to join another church, that he was thus in “good standing,” and that the old church would write a letter to the new church confirming such. Hence, “letters of good standing,” or simply, “letters.”

In light of today’s technological and informational revolution, perhaps the process should be characterized as “sending IM.” (For those who need help here, “IM” is instant messaging, an Internet tool available to those for whom email is not quite fast enough.)

Is there still a place for granting letters/”sending IM”? Absolutely. In an age of “church hopping”, many churches even in the same town or association have no real knowledge of prospective members’ reasons for leaving their former congregation. Many times, members “hop” to another local church simply because they were offended by someone, and declined to address the matter biblically (see Matthew 18), or wronged someone without attempting reconciliation. Perhaps they “skip” to another congregation when it appears they might be “found out,” for who knows what. Or they might “jump” over to a congregation that does not require anything of them. Granting letters would notify the new church of illegitimate reasons for leaving the old one.

Furthermore, in an age when the convention needs to pass resolutions regarding regenerate membership and church discipline, we tend to accept members to our congregations with little or no knowledge of their profession of faith. One walks down the aisle Sunday morning, claims to have “professed faith” in Eastaboga or Timbuktu, and wants to join by “transfer of letter.” A call for vote and hearty “Amen” later, this unknown quantity is a member, no doubt shortly to be installed as a Sunday school teacher. But what if the “letters” demonstrated that he had never joined the previous church? Had never professed faith? Had actually taught heresy or caused a schism or been run out of town on a rail? Proper use of the “letters” would prevent membership before those issues could be resolved.

Proper use of granting letters presupposes, of course, that we retain proper notions of “good standing.” This has, unfortunately, not been the case of late for Southern Baptist churches, which gave rise to the convention’s membership resolutions. Our churches would do well, in keeping with those resolutions, to recover the practice and thus help to ensure the health and faithfulness of our congregations.

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