Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Things I think I think: Church Membership

Well, I haven't been in an extreme minority position for at least 24 hours, and I'm not really enjoying my foray to mainstreamedness. It's disconcerting. Let's get me back to my comfort zone.

Here is my lunatic-fringe stance du jour: Churches and church leaders are attaching way too much importance to official membership and cleansing the roles.1 The latter is not a bad thing, but the importance of clearing the roles is greatly exaggerated. In the grand Christendom scheme of things, it truly is not all that important if the roles are up to date and accurate.

I will define church membership in the forensic sense. You have signed (literally or metaphorically) on the dotted line. You are on the roles. You have agreed to covenant 3 with the body.

Now don't go all ad absurdum on me: I understand there is such a practice as church hopping, and I agree that it is not a healthy sign at all. 4  I'm not advocating that church-hopping is acceptable.

The only reason I really find compelling to emphasize official church membership is not biblical at all: it is legal. A common example: Our church needs nursery workers. Our insurance requires that only background-checked official members be in the nursery. All other reasons aside, please join so that you can serve in the nursery. I buy that. It makes sense. It is honest appeal to modern life and its inescapable litigiousness.

Now if your (Baptist) church is even remotely concerned that it must report attendence vice role numbers to an umbrella organization, the SBC for example, I'd ask: why do you care what they think? And I'd remind you that if you really want to be accountable/beholden to an overseeing body then you might have forgotten what historic Baptist  congregationalist polity is all about. Go join the Presbyterians--if you want church oversight, well at least they do it right.

What about biblical reasons for official membership? To me those are the worst of arguments, for the simple reason that they do not exist. I've heard them all (well, I can't be sure I've heard them all, but I have heard many) and I find none of them satisfying. Verses that are without question about the irrefutable need/command to assemble regularly in a local body are extrapolated (which is never a good idea) to demand fealty (usually through covenanting 3 ) with a particular local body. There is no such teaching, and the inferences are, in my opinion, weak.

Members, pastors, elders, worship teams, staff: we all are sinners. And when we hurt one another we are obligated to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. But we don't do that perfectly, none of us. I believe, and this may be the most self-serving and radical position of this post, that there are times when you have offered and sought forgiveness and have taken all the right steps but nevertheless you, as a sinner, still find yourself facing a situation that becomes a stumbling block. At that point, in my opinion and not finding any biblical counter-argument, it is better to seek a different local body than to slip into a pattern where you view going to church as an obligation rather than a joy. May it never be, but in reality it happens.

I believe that, and I recognize it is a concession to sinfulness. But in light of that reality I view a commitment-on-steroids to covenanting with one another  3 and a marriage-like union to a particular church as unrealistic (and biblically unsupportable) and a sort of argument from intimidation. I know it sounds good--but lots of wrong ideas can be made to sound good. That ability is in our ecclesiastic DNA.

So, to jump from frying pan to fire:

Leaving serious legal questions (like insurance) aside--if your church looks at faithful (in terms of their visible walk), possibly long-term visitors differently than it looks at members, then I would say your church is making a mistake. There is no biblical basis for such a cast system. There should be no recognized difference between a brother/sister who appears to be of faith and a member who appears to be of faith. And this leads to, in my mind, absolutely bizarre outcomes such as: a relative stranger can be welcomed into the church to give a guest sermon or Sunday school, or even a series of lessons, while a long-term trusted brother/sister is prohibited because he/she is not a member. That makes, as my son likes to say, "zero-point-zero sense."

And, quite honestly, when I read articles from pastors, elders, and teachers arguing that breaking the covenant  3 with the local assembly is the equivalent of divorcing your spouse to pursue "true happiness", I immediately want to check their bio to see if they were ever "led by God" to leave one church to go lead another.

The end result of this is that it is entirely possible that no church will ever want me as a member!

1 To those that know me and know of my current church "homelessness" 2  then I want to say this: yes, this is a pressing issue for me, but I assure you that I am writing of these matters generically, with no actual person, place, or thing in mind. Because of my situation, I have been reading on this topic.

2 Of course I can climb on my high horse and and explain that the quotes around "homelessness" are there because in reality I have an eternal home in the only abode that really matters.

3 I don't really know what "covenanting" with the body means. Covenants among people are only as good as people are sinless.

4 Some might charge me with church hopping. I (like everyone else) would plead innocent, but for such charges guilt is in the eyes of the beholder. So be it.

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