Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Would You Sign This?

Oh, sorry. I mean one of these here:


I couldn’t.

Sign, or you’re not a “member”. Even if you do sign, that’s only Step 1. There’s a “Procedure for Membership” to which each candidate for “membership” (as this church defines it) must submit themselves, including having their name posted at church or placed in the church bulletin for two weeks, after which “those who remain as candidates will be welcomed into membership”.

Those who don’t make it presumably remain outside the camp.

The Cranky Old Man Strikes Again

Okay, maybe I’m just a cranky old man. I recognize the autonomy of each local gathering of believers under the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, and I recognize the delegated authority of the Head to elders within a local gathering to determine how best to order the affairs of that gathering. Historically, that has generally been considered to include making practical decisions about how the church will proceed that may go beyond the specific instructions of the apostles in the New Testament.

All of this I don’t dispute in principle. And yet when I see how that looks on paper, I’ve got to admit I’m choking on it. Given the choice between signing this and fellowshipping at the “Church of the Internet”, I’m thinking the World Wide Web looks better all the time.

May I Remain Autonomous?

I should probably clarify that I am not currently church shopping. But here’s how I find myself reacting to one particular set of local shepherds’ attempts to manage the gilded gates of their “sheepfold”:
“1.  I have, by faith, become a follower of Jesus Christ and I have been baptized as a visible way of demonstrating that commitment.”
Absolutely true. And having demonstrated that commitment in baptism, there is zero evidence in the New Testament that I would have needed any mere piece of paper to validate my fellowship or participation in the body life of the first century churches in Antioch, Ephesus or even Corinth.

“Attendance” and “Worship”
“2.  I humbly affirm, believe and support the teaching of this church and agree with [church]’s doctrinal statement and I will regularly attend the weekly service at [church]. (Worship Christ)”
If mere attendance at a weekly service is here conflated with the worship of Christ, I am surely in the wrong place. Further, the doctrinal statement I was handed runs 15 pages and includes several pages of material (like this membership commitment) that go well beyond the teaching of the New Testament. These “rules of man” are formatted exactly like the paragraphs that contain the words of Christ and the apostles and no obvious distinction between the two very different classes of material is made for the reader.

If all this, plus whatever is said from the platform weekly, is thought to constitute “the teaching of this church”, I cannot imagine how any of its members can be said to “support” it, unless that phrase simply means “not fight about it”.

“How Things Are Done Here”
“3.  I accept my responsibility for how things are done here and submit to the authority of the Elders and leadership of the church.”
Any particular reason we are capitalizing “Elders”? Religious titles make me nervous. Let’s assume it is just bad proofreading. I still have a couple of problems with this point:

(a)  Who are the “leadership”, if not the “Elders”? And how can I accept responsibility for something over which I will have zero authority should I become a member? In scripture, authority and responsibility always go together. And yet we are told that in this group of Christians, the elders “serve by leading” as opposed to “lead by serving”, which I suspect is the more biblical formulation.

(b)  Again, assuming I accept my responsibility for “how things are done here” today, how do I know that they will be done the same way tomorrow?

Polishing An Unused Sword
“4.  I will with God’s help seek to maintain my consistent disciplines of prayer, bible study and evangelism and I will endeavour, if not already, to be an active and willing participant of a [church] small group. (Walk with Christ)”
Silly question: Why do I need personal Bible study when this church has hired a number of “pastors” to study the Bible and explain it to me once a week? Since I will never attend seminary and never get my own doctorate in theology, I can be very sure I will never be invited to join them on the platform. And since I have presumably agreed above to “support the teaching of this church” no matter what it might be, they will be defining truth for the church’s “members”. As long as I and everyone else who has signed up agree to submit to this, surely studying the Bible for ourselves will only risk nudging us into a state of chronic passive disagreement with one another and with the “pastors”. (I trust you will understand that I am being a bit facetious here. I believe in regular, personal Bible study and am fully committed to it. I simply cannot see how the structure of this particular church gives opportunity for the use of whatever knowledge I may acquire from study, other than perhaps to “share” in a small group from time to time.)

Further, how does being in a “small group” factor into membership at all? Sure, it’s a perfectly plausible way to subdivide the church for fellowship, teaching and encouragement, and lots of churches do it, but why do I have to sign up for one to become a “member”? Am I not allowed to reserve judgment about anything?

Service, With A Smile
“5.  I will with God’s help be actively and willingly serving Christ here at [church]. (Work for Christ)”
I’m okay with this as long as it’s understood that serving in a prescribed, leadership-defined and exceedingly limited way during church meetings ought not to be the extent of anyone’s “work for Christ”. Is “serve” a euphemism for being an usher or a greeter at the balcony door? Perhaps I could hand out checklists to visitors to see if we could improve their church experience … or one of these booklets.

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice …
“6.  I will neither criticize nor listen to criticism concerning any member(s) of this body and will, when personally offended, speak directly and lovingly with those involved.”
Define “criticize”. Does it include questioning the scriptural accuracy of any particular teaching? Does it include the reporting of truth when it may be inconvenient for church politics? Just curious.

And Now … the Real Bottom Line
“7.  I will faithfully and humbly give back to the Lord a biblical portion of my increase by financially supporting the ministries of [church] and be a good steward of these resources.”
Define “biblical portion”. (No such luck in this pamphlet, I fear.) Perhaps it means, “Whatever portion the Elders and leaders deem expedient for the purposes of servicing our corporate debt at any given time”. If I sign this document, what happens if the personal priorities in giving I have arrived at through my study of scripture do not extend to the building of amphitheatres and gymnasia? What happens if my conscience compels me to prioritize the support of itinerant workers in third world countries or the feeding of the poor in my own neighbourhood? Will my priorities be respected, or will I be considered “unfaithful” if the latest mammoth mortgage payment on the church building is in danger of being in default?

Stopped Cold

Now as I say, I am not in the market for a different group of Christians to gather with, but I’ve had this particular local church recommended to me “for the kids”. I have friends and acquaintances who attend and love it. I have no doubt that the Lord is at work there, just as he is at work everywhere among his people, albeit perhaps not in quite the way he worked among his people in the early church, and perhaps not in quite the way he would work among us today if we sought to get back to his Word.

As I understand it from the word of God, the church in any given geographic location is comprised of all genuine believers in Jesus Christ, period. Apart from a short list of very specific unrepented sins that may compel us to dissociate ourselves (hopefully temporarily) from a professing believer, no other qualifiers attach. I am therefore unsure how any local congregation arrives with legitimacy at a list of qualifications for membership more stringent than those of the New Testament.

If I were “church shopping”, this pamphlet would stop me cold, I’m afraid. Even at the risk of being called “uncommitted”.

1 comment :

  1. I'm afraid these man-made contracts function merely to bring men and women under the control of other men and women, and to commit them to bonds additional to anything the Lord Himself has placed upon them. I would say that any church that asks for such extra-Scriptural reassurances of loyalty and servitude is simply insecure, and is exceeding its authority because it does not believe the Lord's people will obey the Head of the Church without additional coercion.

    If the death and resurrection of the Lord on our behalf is not sufficient authority and incentive to make one, in every necessary sense, a "member of the church," both globally and locally, then what else can do it?

    So I would never sign such a contract: not because I'm NOT a member of the local church, and not because I'm not a member, but because I am.