My own denomination will debate their "membership requirements" this summer. Specifically they are thinking about a new category of membership with fewer requirements and partial benefits including some voting rights. It's a sort of second-class membership or half-way covenant for those who don't want to give up social drinking and the like, yet still want to become a member of the local church.
The debate has caused us to take a healthy look at what we believe about the kingdom of God, the church, and the role of the Bible in determining "church rules." We are taking a good look at our ecclesiology for the first time in years. Our constitution/Discipline lists as an "elementary principle," "No person who loves the Lord Jesus Christ and obeys the gospel of God our Savior, ought to be deprived of church membership." That settles it, right? It's as plain as the nose on the face of a district superintendent -- "love Jesus and obey the gospel and you're in."
Sorry. Not so fast, Charlie! Elsewhere in our discipline we are more definitive in describing what we mean by "obeys the gospel." Included in this list is a tee-totaler rule (well, not exactly total abstinence… we can use alcohol for "proper medical purposes," which, given recent health research, has provided a gap in the fence large enough for some pastors to drive a large herd through). Further complicating things was an early 80's addition of "proof texts" for each of our statements, conveying the impression that these rules were obviously rooted in the Bible and thus required of all Christians, not just our members.
But the most interesting part of this debate is how it has led to discussions of our hermeneutic, (or lack thereof). We are asking what role the Bible plays in determining the "rules" for church membership. If the Bible condemns a practice are we obligated to refuse to accept members who do this? If the Bible is silent on a practice, are we then obligated to allow it? Or, to make things even more complicated, when the Bible seems to approve a practice (like moderate drinking) does the church have a right to disallow it for members? These are the questions which are leading us to clarify our hermeneutic -- our approach to understanding what the Bible means and how to apply it today.
So, does a church or denomination have the right to require of its members something not explicitly addressed in the Bible. I say, "Yes" for three reasons:
1. We want to condemn some sins about which the Bible is silent. OK, I know you have a proof-text for everything. But be honest, there are simply plenty of things we ought to condemn or require where the Bible is essentially silent. There are lots of new ways to sin. For instance, I bet most of us want to condemn abortion. But any honest student of the Bible will have to agree that this is implied from Bible texts, not explicitly stated. Sure, God knew and called Jeremiah while he was in the womb (actually before then, but that's another matter) But this text is not explicit teaching on abortion any more than the " body is the temple" is about alcohol. These things may be implied, but they are not what the Bible is explicitly addressing. And, concerning abortion there is an even more troubling silence in the Bible about the common first century practice of child-exposure, a sort of "post-birth-abortion." If we are limited to the Bible's explicit teachings for membership requirements then we can no longer take an anti-abortion stance. But that's not all. We certainly won't be able to say much against gambling, drugs, tobacco, marijuana or pornography either. Sure, we can use proof-texts on them, but we'll be hard pressed to find explicit condemnation of these things in Scripture. So, I am prepared for my church to "go beyond Scripture" in its membership requirements. Indeed, I hope my church will use the Bible, church history, and their reason and experience to determine "how shall we now live." There are some sins about which the Bible says little about we need to condemn -- and require of our members.
2. We need to condemn some sin the Bible seems to allow. Yikes! This sounds awful, but, the Bible seems to allow some practices which the church of Jesus Christ (presumably through the guidance of the Holy Spirit) now needs to condemn. Any honest reading of the Bible will show that it allowed slavery during the first century, even commanded slaves to "be obedient to their masters." In the 1850's Southern slave owners were fond of proof-texting their way around the Bible to show the Bible approved slavery. Yet the church finally rejected slavery as "against the whole Bible even if tacitly accepted by some passages." The Bible allowed it, we condemn it. I accept that responsibility for the church. Or, how about polygamy and other "temporary allowances" the Bible seems to permit? Or consider the nationalistic-racism in parts of the Old Testament. Alcohol falls into this category too. The Bible seems to permit moderate alcohol use, maybe even recommends it. Does that mean we can't make our membership alcohol-free. No more than we are unable to refuse slave-holders as members. A church has an obligation to condemn sin, even if the Bible seems to allow it.
3. We need to allow some things the Bible seems to condemn.
I'm not sure on this one. But could it be that the church may want to "loose" some things the Bible condemned? I don't know, this is a slippery slope. But, "due to the hardness of today's hearts" could the church permit things the Bible explicitly condemns? (Boy, this could be dangerous.) But, is it true? Does the Holy Spirit guide the body of Christ on earth today to "loose" itself (at least temporarily) from some of the Bible's explicit commands directed to the first century church? For instance, are we allowed to loose the New Testament's condemnation of materialism arguing that in those days their zero-sum game view of wealth (if you are "piling up treasures" you are taking it from someone else) has changed this sin into a sensible practice? In modern America we have a different approach to wealth, (at least Republicans do). We believe that increasing one's net worth is not automatically done at the expense of another. Does this shift in culture allow the church to take in members today who are annually increasing their net worth in defiance of Christ's explicit command in the Sermon on the mount? OK, that's an easy one -- try this one: the New Testament is quite plain in its teaching on divorce and remarriage. A pagan right off the street can understand the plain meaning of the text. Does the church have a "right" to loose this teaching on its members when they consider the changed social structure of marriage from Bible times? Can the church take in divorced members who openly and daily disobey the teaching of Christ and Paul on divorce? Can we loose things that the Bible requires?
I'm getting nervous. Where would this lead? If I adopt these views I'd have to have a really strong view of the Holy Spirit. I'd have to trust the Holy Spirit to guide the church in these decisions… almost as much as I trusted the Spirit's guidance when the early church selected the canon. Can I do that? Is the church that authoritative? Can my ecclesiology handle that much authority in the church?
So what do you think?
To contribute to the thinking on this issue e-mail your response to Tuesday@indwes.edu
By Keith Drury; April, 2000. You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission.
P.S. So, does my denomination have the right to require of its members something not explicitly addressed in the Bible. I say, "Yes," So, what then should we church require of members? My answer is equally simple: whatever we want to. A denomination should stand on the Bible, the last 2000 years of church history, then use its own good reason and experience to decide what "rules" it will impose on itself. A denomination is a voluntary organization that can require of itself anything it wants so long as they allow for others to be in the kingdom who are not in their denomination. These "rules" aren't about who gets into heaven. They are about who gets into our club -- they are similar to the old monastic "rule" -- simply a collection of agreements to which we submit because we think they (by and large) help us become more godly. Is being a tee-totaler one of those rules which helps us be more Godly? That's up to my denomination to decide. We can pick whatever rules we want to bind on ourselves in a social covenant. Church membership is as much about sociology as theology. In fact, if the above three points are true, then it is our obligation to decide how we will live together in "this present age." We can bind new rules on ourselves if we want to-- even those not explicitly prescribed in the Bible. We can loose old rules that no longer apply to today.
And, as we "bind and loose" these voluntary covenants we will determine who we will become. And, after all, isn't that the real question?
For papers read at IWU's Spring Colloquium on membership go to this page: