Do we get our membership rules from Bible?

Where do we get our “rules” for membership? The obvious answer is “The Bible, of course.” In fact most denominations claim they take their membership standards directly from the Bible. “The Bible says so” is the church’s equivalent of the parental, “Because I said so.”

Many churches like to claim, “our membership standards are right from the Bible—we forbid only what the Bible forbids and require only what the Bible requires.” It is the common answer. And it works for most folk—people nod and seem satisfied. “The Bible says it, and that’s good enough for me.”

The short and easy answer is good enough for most folk, but not all—especially thinking people, and people who know their Bible well. (like the people who read this column.)

So I am about to expose one of the myths of the church that still works for many folk. I am about to remind us why churches who say, “Our membership standards are right from the Bible—we forbid only what the Bible forbids and require only what the Bible requires” have more to explain than their quick answers suggest.

Here is why churches don’t really simply get their membership rules directly form the Bible:

1. The Bible has far too many do’s and don’t’s.
If we seriously attempted to use the Bible as the basis of membership standards we’d have a thousand requirements and nobody would keep them all. If there were only ten commandments it would be easy—we’d have ten standards of membership. But the Bible is packed with dos and don’ts (in spite of what we tell seekers on the contrary). Lets say there are a thousand attitudes and actions the Bible urges or forbids (there are more, but let’s just say there are only a thousand). What denomination could have a thousand “membership commitments?” Or even a hundred? And if we did who would live up to them all?
So when we claim that our denomination “simply uses the Bible as its source for membership requirements” we really mean we’ve sifted through a thousand things and selected some as our standards. Perhaps we might narrow the thousand down to two (as Jesus did) but most denominations don’t do that even. Why? Because His two commandments weren’t rules at all but principles which allow for such broad subjective interpretations that one can drive all kinds of behaviors through the loopholes. So most denominations pick and choose from the Bible’s many commands and put some in their membership standards. (The process of selecting some rules as membership expectations while ignoring others is interesting, but we’ll deal with that in another essay.) The truth is churches select only some of the Bible’s many commands for their membership requirements—there are simply too many rules in the Bible to make them all into membership commitments.

2. There are things the Bible allows we want to forbid.
The second problem with claiming the Bible as the sole source of our membership standards is there are sins the Bible does not address yet we’re sure they’re sin. Face it, the Bible did not explicitly address every sin that would ever come along. Sure, the Bible lays down principles and values that we can apply to new situations and label things as “new sins.” But if we limit ourselves to listing in our membership commitments only those things the Bible explicitly forbids, we’ll be silent on a long list of things most of us believe need condemning.
Take abortion for instance. Most all Christians I know—including liberal ones—think abortion is wrong, many think it is murder. Who says? Show us a verse. To prove abortion wrong we are required to go to verses not directly about abortion in order to argue “the fetus is life or God wouldn’t have plans for it” or, “A fetus couldn’t be filled with the Spirit if it isn’t a person.” These arguments are only persuasive to the already-persuaded. They are proof texts for the convinced. The truth is, abortion was practiced in the ancient world (as was child-exposure—a kind of post-birth abortion: putting a new baby in a field and “letting its destiny be up to God”). Yet the Bible is silent on both of these practices. (However, as pointed out in another article on membership, the didache does condemn both practices—just not the Canonized Scriptures.) My point is we in the church have grave reservations about abortion and most of us believe it is the taking of a human life. So some churches, like mine, want their members to abstain from abortion. We want to prohibit it even though the Bible does not explicitly forbid it. So we’ve added it to our list of sins—and we consider it a serious one at that—but we’ve done so without explicit verses on abortion—we interpret verses and values to determine abortion is sin.
I used abortion above as an example but I could just as easily picked other “sins” we condemn that are not explicitly forbidden by the Bible. What about slavery? In the early 1800s Southern slave-holding Methodists used the Bible to point out that slave-holding was at least tacitly approved by Scripture. Abolitionists (including the founders of my own denomination) took the same Bible and said the whole tenor of Scripture implied freedom for all men making slavery sin even though there were verses that seemed to approve it. The Southern slave-holders were of course right—the Bible does not forbid slave-holding for Christians, in fact advises them on proper treatment of their slaves. Yet 1900 years later almost every Christian in the world has come to believe slavery needed to be added to the Bible’ list of sins. My denomination refused to let slave-holders join the church: it was a “membership requirement.” But we didn’t get it from the Bible explicitly. We added it.
How about pornography? The Bible nowhere explicitly forbids pornography—it is not even mentioned. Yet what sensible Christian today would not say that pornography is clearly a “sin” and not merely a matter of “private convictions?” So we’ve added this to our list of sins.
How about drugs? The Bible nowhere explicitly condemns drugs (other than mentioning alcohol and that is even with tacit approval like the Bible deals with slavery). Most American denominations born near the prohibition/women’s rights movement of the 19th century has a heritage of “total abstinence” that condemned alcohol as sin. While the final holdouts on total abstinence are still holding onto their position, it is eroding among evangelicals. Yet most denominations continue to condemn as sin all other drugs, even marijuana (which might be considerably less serious than alcohol is used moderately). To condemn drugs we say something like, “the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit…” as our Biblical argument but that’s an interpretation of verses about something totally different—it is an implicit interpretation.) So some of us consider alcohol use sin, and most all evangelicals consider using drugs a sin. Need I mention gambling, pre-marital oral sex, or a dozen other social and individual evils that all thinking Christians now consider “sin” though they can’t quote a verse that explicitly condemns these things?
So, we may claim “we get our membership rules from Scripture” but we are really interpreting Scripture when we label “sin” some things that the Bible does not explicitly condemn. I think denominations should do this (even if the Bible isn’t absolutely clear on the matter) but when we do it we need to be honest and not claim the Bible “as our only source for church rules.”
I realize that I am announcing the king is clothesless. Some denominational leaders and pastors will cover their ears and mutter loudly to cover up the message of this article. Some leaders like the easy authority of the Bible to subdue their member’s resistance to rule—they like the, “It’s in the Bible stupid” power. They’d have a harder time convincing people using reason, tradition, or experience. So they keep pretending their church’s rule “are derived from clear Bible teaching.” And it works—at least for most of the people most of time. But there are some thinking Christians (like you and me) who know better. They know there are sins that the Bible never mentions explicitly and they believe that we should be honest and seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in finding and exposing even sins the Bible fails to mention explicitly—or even sins the Bible seems to allow for!

3. There are things the Bible forbids we want to allow.
Even if you came with me this far, some of you will get off the bus at this point. You won’t like this. It is the hardest truth of all. Conservatives will reject this thought at every sentence of the following paragraphs. No matter how convincing and lucid I write I expect conservatives will remain unconvinced. But it is still true, even if you reject it.
Most conservatives believe, “once a sin always a sin.” They believe that whatever the Bible calls sin will always be sin forever—that’s that. They reject the notion that something can be condemned or required in the Bible and later become acceptable. Again, I admire their high esteem for the Bible, I have such an esteem too but disagree with their conclusions. But they will only be able to convince “most of the people most of the time” —the rest of us know it simply isn’t true—the Bible condemns things we now allow.
Lets start with the easy ones—the codes in Leviticus. Isn’t it obvious that we no longer are required to observe the Bible’s eating codes? We practice good “hermeneutics” and pronounce these sections no longer applying (though most of us try to preserve in some way the sections regarding homosexual acts from this code). Most of us accept the fact that parts of the Bible’s sins no longer apply. For some it is ONLY the codes in Leviticus, but they have already accepted the principle—the Bible commands do not all apply to today.
Leviticus is an easy one; let’s try another. What of Christ’s clear teaching forbidding “piling up treasure on earth.” There is no need to “interpret” anything here—this teaching is explicit… as John Wesley said, “The same God who said do not steal, and do not commit adultery said do not pile up treasures on earth.” Yet who would not agree that we now believe increasing one’s net worth is not really disobedience to God’s commands. In fact, most American Christians versed in modern economics might actually say that gaining wealth is good for the economy and maybe even good for the poor. Most modern Christians believe that the self-enforced poverty of Jesus, the Disciples and people like John Wesley might have been OK for them, but certainly is not required of everyone. What once was a clear commandment of Christ we’ve made optional. We have “interpreted” Scripture, changing its meaning from “do not pile up” to now mean “Do not be attached to material things as you pile them up.” The point here is that we have decided to allow increasing one’s possessions against the original command of Christ—we have “loosed” this former commandment.
Let’s do one more—divorce. Is there much doubt about the explicit teaching of Jesus on divorce? His command was clear. Yet in our modern world most denominations have come to reluctantly allow divorce on some grounds beyond the narrow list of Jesus. We have not come to approve divorce or treat it lightly, but we have come to allow it—among church members, even board members and ministers. We have “loosed” the extremely high standard of marriage taught by Jesus. Tell me—which denomination expels members “going through a divorce” for extra-biblical reasons? There are some that will put a minister in a penalty box for such a divorce, but “one man + one woman for one life” is an “ideal” for most evangelicals, not a “entry requirement.”

The truth is this: membership rules aren’t directly from the Bible—they are “Bible based.”
We might claim, “Our denomination’s membership rules simply come directly from the Bible” but actually we should say they are “bible based.” We’ve used the Bible in deciding what the minimum entry requirements are. We haven’t use the whole Bible, we picked and chose and selected some things. Then we added some sins –we “bound”—sins not explicitly condemned in the Bible but we believe they are sin. Finally we dropped some things the Bible clearly commands, “loosing” our people from their obligation. Finally, we sifted all these and decided which should be in the list as the “minimum entry requirements” and assigned the rest to be an ideal to pursue not a minimum used to exclude.

This is how we have made our “Membership standards,” “General Rules,” “Membership commitments” or whatever your church calls them. (Actually we didn’t do this at all—preceding generations did it for us, but that is another topic for later treatment.) Every denomination has such “rules” in one form or another. Some have “high standards” for membership (like Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Church where membership is essentially leadership). Others have a two-tier system, making entry into membership easy but a higher standard for leadership. Still other churches have practically no membership standards at all[1]

So here is my question to you:

Who gave the church the right to decide which sins we will “bind” and which we will “loose” from what Jesus and the Bible originally taught?

This is the subject of my next essay.

January, 2005 Keith Drury

[1] Many of my United Methodist readers have been sending me chuckling emails during at this entire series on membership: they are carrying on a debate about ordaining practicing homosexuals while my denomination debates membership issues! Most of my UM readers claim they know of no church—including their own—that would exclude a practicing homosexual from membership!

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