Membership standards: Confusing categories

I don’t know about your denomination but when it comes to membership requirements my own denomination confuses its categories. Many denominations lump everything from promising to fast all the way to avoiding committing adultery into one big bucket of membership standards and expect people to sort between those actually required and the optional ones. My denomination has “two buckets”—one that full of required stuff and the other that are “admonitions” to its members and that’s a start but there are actually more than two categories when it comes to membership rules. Most of these other categories are unwritten ones. Here are some I’ve noted:

1. Rules we kick you out for breaking. There are very few of these. None among many of my mainline readers. In my own denomination if you repeatedly “womanize” or continually practice homosexual behavior you will probably get kicked out of a church. But actually these folk seldom really get kicked out—they usually self-select and stop coming anyway. Eventually their names are quietly dropped form the list of active members. There are precious few “membership rules” that will actually get you excommunicated from membership today—but some churches have some. Do you know which are the “capital offences” in your church?

2. Rules that keep you out. It easier to stay in the church than to get into it. Churches are more careful to examine new members’ lives and beliefs than those of existing members. Churches will check a candidate’s “beliefs and behaviors” fairly closely and sometimes keep them from joining if they speak up and say, “Well, I insist on using alcohol” or “I simply reject this church’s view on tongues.” Some of the standards in the “rules bucket” will keep you out—but not most. Do you know which?

3. Misdemeanor rules that get you corrected. You can break some rules—even regularly—and still get in the church and stay in forever. If people see you breaking these misdemeanor rules they’ll perhaps “correct” you (or if it is about pornography or other addiction, send you to get counseling). These are still serious rules yet nobody gets kicked out of the church for breaking them. Do you know which of your church’s rules are in this category?

4. Leftover “wink-wink” rules. Most churches have some rules left over from past generations that nobody pays any attention to. Like laws against spitting on the sidewalk they are “still on the books” but all the insiders know that they are never enforced or even believed. They are antiques. New candidates for membership don’t know this when they read their rule bucket. When they ask their pastor they only get a grin and a wink and are told that rule no longer apples. It is confusing to the new members. Do you know which are the wink-wink rules in your church?

5. Ideals we expect you to work toward. Many of our rules aren’t rules at all—they’re ideals. When we expect a promise to have personal devotions and family devotions in the same bucket as abstaining from homosexuality and adultery most churches aren’t saying that skipping family devotions is just as serious as committing adultery. Many of our standards are actually ideals we think people ought to work toward. If you don’t fast or have family devotions you can still join my denomination—we just hope you’ll head toward fasting and devotions eventually. When we list such things as “membership commitments” we are really saying you should commit toward that sort of lifestyle as your goal, not that you already live that way.

There are probably other categories of rules I’m missing but I think I’ve made my point. The church’s rule bucket often does not distinguish between these categories. This creates confusion among the candidates for membership and among churches. People like to say, Well I drink and you don’t fast—what’s the difference? Or, “You don’t visit jails and I practice homosexuality—what’s the difference—we’re both breaking church rules?” People don’t know which rules fit in which category. If one pastor can wink-wink her way past members gambling by buying lottery tickets why can’t another pastor wink-wink past a member practicing homosexual behavior? Especially when they are in the same list. Who guides us in knowing what these unwritten categories are?

To make it more confusing, church rules are moving targets. No denomination has a fixed and firm set of rules. Rules are always a moving target. The masses and local pastors are always making “informal interpretations” of these rules. A few stay firm but most are loosed informally as time passes. And denominations also add new rules (like my denomination’s new stance against abortion or its addition of a statement against spouse and child abuse). But while we all know what these rules means when we wrote them eventually they’ll come to be interpreted differently. “Trafficking in alcohol” in my denomination used to mean a member wasn’t supposed to work as a check-out clerk at Wal-Mart if ringing up wine was involved. And they couldn’t drive a beer-delivery truck. Today it might mean to refuse to own your own brewery for profit, if anything at all.

Take my denomination for instance. My denomination has 36 rules for its full members. One of those “rules” has to do with observing the Lord’s Day. That used to pretty much universally mean refusing to a restaurant or play ball or for most refusing to get a Sunday newspaper. Over the years that meaning has eventually gravitated by popular interpretation to mean “honor Sunday in whatever way you personally feel honors Sunday.” That is, the rule no longer means what it meant. Actually the rule no longer means anything at all. It is a useless rule. It is just words filling up a bucket ,making the rest of the words mean less. But try to get rid of that one was watch what the speeches. They’ll rend their garments and toss dust into the air condemning your attempt to defile a day of rest and worship. (These folk are like those people in your church who insist on a Sunday evening service yet never come/). It is all breast-beating posturing. Useless rules are confusing. My denomination has a half-bucketful of such rules in all kinds of categories and they ought to be gotten rid of. The point is rules are moving targets and that adds to the category confusion and when a rule no longer is embraced and enforced it should be eliminated or the whole bucket will become meaningless.

Which is why denominations ought to re-mint their membership commitments every few decades. Maybe even more often. I wish my denomination would.
What I think we ought to do every 20 years
Make the few “Capital offenses” very clear (an honest declaration of what we intend to excommunicate over).
Divide the measurable requirements from the hard-to-measure ideals to pursue. These ought to be in separate lists to avoid people saying “you don’t pray enough I’m not heterosexual enough—we both fail.”
Specify what we’re very serious about—even though we don’t excommunicate for these things. If we expect the church to confront certain behaviors or beliefs then we ought to tell new members that.
Move the stuff we’re not willing to enforce to “admonitions” (what we call our “Special Directions”) Everything else ought to go into the category “we urge you to life this way” and not be “rules” or “commitments” at all.
Or transfer many rules to a “leadership” standard. In the past my denomination was like Willow Creek church. “Membership” and “leadership” were one thing. We often had twice as many attending our churches every week than were actually members. To join the church was to commit to leadership. That is no longer true. Now we consider membership an early step in discipleship not a late one. We want people to join our churches to “get on the bus” that is going to help them grow and develop. This membership has been moved back in the sequence so that it soon follows conversion. The trouble for us is that we still have “leadership requirements” as our membership requirements. I think we need to either turn membership back into leadership (doubtful) or turn our membership standards back into entry-level rules. It is at least an idea we ought to consider.

So, don’t I worry about opening up our rules to reconsideration? I know I am often considered a “conservative” in my denomination (I’m not). So you might wonder don’t I worry about opening up the rules for change? Not at all. We’ll be OK. I think the Holy Spirit will guide the church in binding and loosing things just like he did in guiding the church in the first few hundred years of Christian history to select which books would go into the Bible and which would get left out. But of course there’s a hitch. We must seriously try to find God’s will when we make these decisions. I don’t believe “God always gets his way” in church decisions—I’m a free-will Wesleyan, remember. But I do believe that when the church gathers to make decisions the Holy Spirit will guide and direct that church if they seek it—and generally speaking God will guide is through the Holy Spirit to make the right decisions so that even in our membership standards we can “serve this present age.”

Keith Drury
January 15, 2005

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