Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Church Membership

It might appear that I am about to argue against church membership. 1 I’m not. I think membership is critical. What I’m arguing relates to the modern “sign on the dotted line” version of membership—it leads to a fallacy that equates two similar sounding but quite different things: being a member of a local body and joining the local body.

I am and going to refer to being a member of a church as spiritual membership and joining a church as legal membership.

Consider the qualities we expect of a member. A member should (this may be an incomplete list):

  • Attend and fellowship (covenant—although I resist using covenant as a verb.) 
  • Serve 
  • Give 
  • Be accountable 
  • Promote unity not divisiveness 
  • Sacrifice 
  • Be subject to discipline 
  • Submit 

A spiritual member (imperfectly) does these. A legal member (perfectly) promises to do them.

Of course, these are not mutually exclusive. We again turn to the awesomeness of the Venn Diagram:

Now just to double down, I do not have an issue with legal membership. It is perfectly fine primarily for, well, legal reasons. Things like insurance companies requiring that only legal members serve in the nursery. My issue is only when legal membership is conflated (confused?) with spiritual membership.

I’m thinking about this because, well, it’s relevant for my life. And in my contemplations I happened upon this article by Peter Kemeny of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Rev. Kemeny is discussing joining a local church. He gives some reasons, and he makes manifest the conflation of the two forms of membership. He writes:
The Bible does not explicitly command Christians to join a church - it assumes it. The New Testament presupposes membership, for example, in the command, "obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account" (Hebrews 13:17). If you never join a church it is impossible for you to obey this command. 
He’s right that spiritual membership is explicitly commanded. But notice, and this is the type of logical error that permeates these arguments—it is a deductive fallacy:  The premise is true, but the conclusion is not logically implied. The conclusion that you cannot obey Heb. 13:7  does not follow. I have seen it in other attending non-members and I have practiced obeying and submitting to my leaders even though I wasn’t a legal member. This is, in fact, so obvious that I am surprised that Kemeny would claim otherwise.

Kemeny then makes this argument:
Suppose John Smith attends First Presbyterian Church for three years but never joins. Then he starts attending Elm Street Baptist Church but, again, does not join. After attending Elm Street Baptist for six weeks, is John now the under the pastoral care of the elders at Elm Street Baptist or the elders at First Presbyterian? How can the elders of a church know whom they are charged to shepherd apart from congregants taking vows of membership? How can elders know when they are released from their responsibility to shepherd an individual unless that individual informs them that he or she has made a formal commitment to another church? This may not seem like a big deal to some people, but it is a serious issue for conscientious elders. 
Now the glaring problem with this anecdote is the same question would arise should John Smith be a legal member of First Presbyterian and then starts showing up at Elm Street Baptist. And the answer to this criticism is obvious: there is nothing is scripture that limits or restricts the number of mature Christians who seek to shepherd a brother or sister in need. Surely Rev. Kemeny is not suggesting, although it sure reads that way, that a board of elders only has a obligation to a fellow believer, of whom they are well acquainted, if that believer is a legal member of their church? Where is that taught? The answer is that if John Smith shows up at Elm Street the elders there should seek to shepherd him regardless of the status his legal membership (or lack thereof) and the elders at First Presbyterian should seek to contact John, with whom they’ve been fellowshipping for three years, independent of his membership status. Anything else is patently absurd.

Kemeny asks:  How can the elders of a church know whom they are charged to shepherd? The answer is: they are charged to shepherd anyone in their sphere. They do not have to check the roles prior to shepherding.

Kemeny writes:
I Corinthians also assumes that membership is the church's normal practice. There in verse two of chapter 5 the apostle Paul commands the church in Corinth to remove from their fellowship a man who was unrepentant of his immorality. The discipline of this man assumes that there is a public knowledge of who is in the church and who is not in the church. How do you put someone out of the church who never publically said he was in it? 
Same mistake. If someone fellowshipping in the church is living in unrepentant adultery you throw them out, member or not. Kemeny’s concern about who is in the church and who is not is fallacious. Is he actually worried that you cannot undertake church discipline against an attending non-member? Says who? Not the bible! What would stop the elders from undertaking discipline against an unrepentant, adulterous John Smith from the previous example, who has been attending as a non-member for three years? I’ll give you the answer: nothing should stop them. To suggest otherwise is to hold that believeing non-members have a get-out-of-jail free card. They don't. (I’m pretty sure Paul did not ask whether the man sleeping with his step mother in the Corinthian church was an “official” member.)

I don’t have the space to go through the rest of Kemeny’s arguments, but they are equally bad, a fairly common collection of deductive fallacies. But don’t take my word, go read and judge for yourself.

Let me summarize so that I’m perfectly clear: I have no problem with church membership. I have no problem with “official” or legal membership. I have an issue with bad arguments that are used to support legal membership when in fact they are arguments about spiritual membership. And I have a problem with deductively fallacious arguments of the form: If you don’t officially join the church then X, Y and Z is impossible when, in fact, it does not follow that X, Y, or Z are impossible.

Declaring X, Y, and Z impossible doesn't count.

1 I should probably point out that as far as I know I am an ecclesiastical orphan, and not a (legal) member of any church. You would think I’d know, right? But I am not sure if I have been excised from the role of a church I was attending.

No comments:

Post a Comment