Musing on “Membership Matters”

Thoughts on the nature and standards of church membership
Designed to provoke my denomination (and others) to think seriously about membership matters.

1. Lowering Membership Standards

Robert Leonard is worried about declining membership. He’s seen the bottom drop out of his national figures in the last 50 years—from 4.1 million in 1959 down to 1.6 million this year. That’s a “reverse growth rate” (as the church growth movement used to call it) of –.013 per year. While losing less than 2% of membership a year never seems to be an “emergency,” over 50 years it can pile up and bite you in the rear [pocket].
Why aren’t they attracting new members? Daniel Wilson from the New Jersey region thinks they’ve got to reach out to the younger people. He along with other leaders thinks the membership standards may be too high for the newer generations. They want to shorten the length of new member training, cut out some of the hoops a candidate has to jump though, and maybe even compromise on some of the stringent requirements for new members.
So what do you think? To get themselves on the map again should these guys lower standards to grow or leave them high because people value things more when they cost more? What do you think?

So which denomination are we talking about here? None. The story above is about the Masons. Their membership has been dwindling since the 1950’s. They are desperately trying to reach what they call “the younger generations 21-55” (55?). They’re shortening the year-long membership process collapsing the first three (of 33) Masonic steps (“degrees”) in an attempt to bring in the next generation and keep their local “lodges” alive. While they are still unwilling to open up membership to women (the Mason’s version of the church’s WMS is the “Eastern Star”) they are willing to make other compromises. After 50 years of declining membership they think its time.

So what is the lesson for us church folk?
Think about these things. Discuss them with someone else who cares about the church like you do.
__Yes __No We should we lower membership standards to reach new generations.
__Yes __No We ought to hold to the membership standards as they are—it is who we are.
__Yes __No We should make membership training shorter and easier for people.
__Yes __No We ought to make membership training harder and longer—people don’t value bargains.
__Yes __No We could compromise on at least some current membership standards.
__Yes __No We should let anyone who claims to be a Christian join our church.—why have higher standards than God?
__Yes __No Membership should become leadership in our church—people don’t need to join unless they want to lead
__Yes __No Denominations shouldn’t have membership standards any more—that should be up to local churches.
__Yes __No We should quit making the number of members a criterion of success for pastors.
__Yes __No We ought to get rid of membership altogether—anyone who attends should be able to vote on anything.
__Yes __No We should ban or expel people who use alcohol from membership.
__Yes __No We should ban or expel people who use tobacco from membership.
__Yes __No We should ban or expel people who gamble—even buy lottery tickets or go to casinos—from membership.
__Yes __No We should ban or expel divorced people who did not have a biblical cause from membership.
__Yes __No We should ban or expel people who have a continuing sexual affair from membership.
__Yes __No We should ban or expel people who practice the gay lifestyle from membership
__Yes __No We should have higher standards for leadership then we have for membership.
__Yes __No We should have a higher standard for ministers than for lay membership in the church
__Yes __No
__Yes __No (What question would you add?)

So what do you think?

2. Church Membership in the Early Church

Recently a lady told me God had reveled to her that their church should have no membership since the early church had no membership. Is she right? Membership is a hot topic today. Some denominations are trying to decide if practicing homosexuals can be members of their church. Other denominations have long ago accepted the idea of “membership as the mission field not the mission force” and thus accept anybody who wants to join into membership, including practicing gay a lesbians. These more open denominations fight about ordaining gays (or elevating then to a bishop) and not about membership standards. Still other denominations (like my own the Wesleyans) have strict membership standards (often with twice as many attendees as members) but we are pondering changes in our membership standards that still include a ban on gambling, alcohol and tobacco. Conservative ministers in liberal denominations are aghast that we are still debating lottery tickets while they are fighting about gay bishops!

In the ongoing debates people often toss the Bible and early church history around as arguments for this or that position. So in the interest of truth this article outlines how the early church actually practiced membership matters.

1. At the very beginning of the church all the converts were already members. The first Christians were Jews and thus already were “members” of the Jewish faith and Christianity was not considered a separate religion. “Becoming a Christian” was for them a matter of belief—believing that Jesus was indeed the promised messiah of Israel. The Jews already had a strict behavioral code and thus candidates needed little “cleaning up.” In fact at first there was nothing to “take them in” to. The “church” at first acted like a Jewish sect that hoped to convince all Jews that Jesus was the messiah. As soon as a Jew believed the gospel they were baptized and became a part of the house fellowship of other Christian Jews. They needed no instruction on the existence of one God or even on how to live a moral life—in some ways the Jewish lifestyle was stricter than the Christian standard would be. A “convert” at the very beginning had a short trip to “membership” in the Christian group—believe and be baptized—both of these could be accomplished in one day. These converts’ membership induction was more like joining a small group today and thus Jewish evangelism falls short as a model for today’s membership standards debates, though it is often used by those interested in liberalizing denominational positions.

2. As the church spread to the gentiles “belief” became another matter. When Christianity started spilling over onto the gentiles10-15 years later, things changed. Christian missionaries to the gentiles like Paul, Barnabas, Silas and others faced a whole new set of problems. The first problem was the gentiles were polytheistic—they believed in many gods. They were inclined toward add-a-god religion—their gods were specialized—one for the sea, another for celebrations, and another managed pregnancies and still others dealt with healing or protection. They figured it never hurt to add a new specialist-god to your collection. Thus gentile evangelists could get people to “pray the prayer” fairly easily, but they soon discovered gentiles were merely adding Jesus into their pantheon of other gods. That didn’t satisfy Christian (or Jewish) theology. When the Apostles worked with Jews they did not have to get them to abandon their God—just accept Jesus as the Messiah and son of this God. However, when the apostles evangelized the gentiles they had to get them to both unbelieve and believe. They had to get the gentiles to both confess unbelief in their present Gods and belief in the One True God. This, of course, is why the early Christians were considered atheists in the Gentile world. Making members out of the gentiles took time—to convince them of the uselessness of their Gods and the exclusivist claims of Christianity. Fixing their beliefs was hard work.

3. But apostles to the gentiles had an even bigger problem—the gentile’s behavior. Evangelists to the Jews had it easy when it came to behavior—most Jews already behaved, or at least knew how to behave. The gentile “dogs” were different. They were called dogs by the Jews because they had the morals of a wandering dog, especially relating to sex. The gentiles visited shrine prostitutes like people go golfing today—they had little remorse or guilt. Lasciviousness was “normal” and telling a Corinthian he needed to stop visiting the temple prostitutes to be a Christian would be similar to telling people today they have to give up golfing to become a Christian. Evangelism among the Jews was like converting life-long church attendees at youth camp (with the same problem too—heard-heartedness). On the other hand, evangelism among the gentiles was like winning prostitutes off the streets in Las Vegas. So what did the apostles to do? If they had followed the pattern of Jewish evangelism they would have simply preached Christ, invited people to believe in Him as messiah, baptized them that afternoon, then took them into the fellowship of the Christians that evening for the common meal. In fact they did do this among the Jews of the Diaspora and they may have even been hasty in baptizing gentiles at first (perhaps this is why Paul goes to great lengths to instruct the Corinthian members that they should quit going to the prostitutes?) But eventually the apostles and missionaries to the gentiles had to slow the process down to filter out the easy believism of add-a-god people and to clean up the lives of the gentile “dogs” before taking them into the church. So what did they do?

4. The church delayed baptism among the gentiles and introduced membership training. Since baptism was the entry point into the church it was withheld until candidates got their beliefs and behavior straightened out. Here was the general procedure about the time the final books of the New Testament were being written:
Candidate for membership became “catechumens.” They claimed they wanted to join and officially declared their interest in starting the process. Today we’d call this “conversion” I suppose.
Catechumens were excluded from the second half of worship. The early church had a two-part service: the “service of the word” where singing/chanting, preaching, and prayer occurred and a second “service of the table” where the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. Nobody was allowed to stay for the Lord’s Supper except baptized Christians—thus the catechumens attended only half the worships service until their baptism.
Using a mentoring approach one person trained the Catechumen. The “curriculum” used was the “two ways” found in the Didache, one of the earliest Church writings still in existence. We can read the Didache today if we really care about church membership in the early church. Before the last book of the New Testament was written the church already had a well-developed curriculum. In fact the Didache was widely considered as a candidate for inclusion in the Canon, though it didn’t make the eventual cut. (I’ll be writing on the Didache later in this series on church membership). At first a single mentor used this curriculum to train the gentile catechumen in right beliefs and right behaviors. Group training eventually emerged, but at the beginning it was a person-to-person training with a mentor/sponsor.
This membership training lasted for up to two years. You read that right—two years. We can’t even imagine it with the drive-thru values of modern culture, but the early church delayed full membership for as long as two years before the candidate was able to take communion with the rest of the church. The question we have of course is, “How the early church grew at such a rapid pace while making membership so hard to attain?” Who knows? It is totally beyond us today. But they did—for by the time of Constantine’s conversion they had virtually pervaded the entire Empire. But during these 250 years catechumens learned and grew spiritually while they were waiting to get into the church. For these folk joining the church was less like joining the AARP then joining a monastery.
Finally the catechumen was baptized and took their “First Communion.” After the candidate was deemed ready an elaborate procedure kicked into gear, including fasting (both the candidate and the one performing the baptism), an exorcism (yeah—they actually believed an unbeliever should have the Devil expelled), anointing with oil, drinking a mixture of milk and honey, then the baptism followed by the person’s first opportunity to attend the second service—where they took their “first Communion” becoming full member from then on.

All of this was in place before the close of the New Testament. We are not talking here of what the church did in 200 or after Constantine in 350, but we are describing what the church did in the first century –while some of the New testament was still being written.

5. So what does all this tell us about the current membership debate? I don’t know—that’s up to you. I’ve done my job: translating the best scholarship into a readable article for ordinary church leaders. Now it is your turn to decide if these things matter. And in the process you’ll have to determine how much authority you give the early church practices. There are dozens of positions along a continuum but the clearest ones are:

a. The Bible primitivist position. This position says there is nothing whatsoever authoritative in the Didache or any other document from the early church—only the books in the canon can tell us anything. This position assumes we should pattern our worship, organization, baptism, Lord’s Supper and membership after only what we clearly see in the New Testament. The most radical group goes even further saying that nothing should be done that is not explicitly reported in the New Testament (which is why some primitivists reuse to have any musical instruments in worship). The bible primitivists usually believe their present worship and practice is most close to what the actual New Testaments church did. So the above description that uses sources of church history is irrelevant to them—only what they read in the canon has any authority for them. Hard or “radical restorationists” fit in this position. To them the above article is meaningless for membership issues for they do not let authority extend beyond AD 90 [1]
b. The “soft restorationist” position. This position says we should restore as far as possible the practices of the early church as recorded in the Bible and in the first hundred years or so before Constantine ruined Christianity. This group assumes the early church “had it right” or at least had it best. They would say we ought to call our elders elders and our deacons deacons and baptize people however they see it done in the New Testament, mostly in Acts. This group is softer than the Bible primitivists though for they accept the first hundred years of church history as also guidance for “the best way to do Church.”
c. The “That was then, this is now” position. This position says that all we need to keep is the theology of the early church and we are free to “do church” just about any way we want to “serve this present age.” This position is interested in what the early church did but does not give it more than 10% of the votes—our culture is much too different today to practice what they did. This the That-was-then, this-is-now people feel membership decisions are up to us now based on the theology of the early church, not its practices.

Everyone leans toward one end of this spectrum or the other. Toward which position do you tilt? Challenge: craft a single statement reflecting your own view on this.

Keith Drury December 20, 2004

3. “Membership Standards” in the Didache

What is the Didache?
Like the Dead Sea Scrolls the Didache is an ancient document rediscovered in modern times (1873). It is a written record of the oral tradition of the first century Christian house church’s membership training. It is not Scripture, though many in the early church treated it as such. Actually it is more like a church discipline or membership-training program. It is an old book—older than some of the books in the New Testament, and for several hundred years was considered inspired and authoritative. It almost made it into the Canon, but (along with the other almost-but-not book, the epistle of Clement) did not make the final cut.

Why read the Didache?
I first came to study the Didache when searching for Christian evidence against abortion. Since there is no explicit condemnation of abortion in the New Testament I thought it seemed like the early Christians would be against abortion and sought evidence elsewhere. I turned to early church documents and found the Didache (2:2) listed abortion as one of the you-will-not new member instructions (along with murder and other commandment-like rules). I again returned to this short book when researching my book on worship to confirm the early church’s patterns of baptism and communion (chapters 7-10). I have been studying it again recently since I am now teaching more Christian Education courses and thus am interested in how the ancient Christian church did spiritual formation of new members. I’ve been pondering what the first century church’s “rules” would look like if they were put into today’s words.

How the Didache was used.
The best scholarship today believes that the Didache was used in a mentoring approach to membership training (at least the first part: the “two ways”). There is still disagreement over weather the rituals and church organization sections at the end was a separate book or not). The Didache was recited orally in section by a trainer in stages to a candidate for baptism/membership which could last as long as two years. While the New Testament gives some details of church life in the church at Jerusalem the Didache gives a complete description. Anyone interested in what the early church actually did should be interested in reading it.

How much authority does the Didache have? There are plenty of spurious documents the Christian church rejected—including the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip used by Dan Brown as sources for The DaVinci Code. However the Didache was never rejected by the church who used it regularly and gave it inspired authority for a time but eventually it slipped to the sort of authority one might give a denomination’s Discipline or Manual. The Didache is a practical guide for training new members and includes the actual instructions on the rituals a new member would take on completion of their preparation—Baptism and their first communion. (Sorry Baptists—the Didache gives a practical multiple-choice answer on immersion, though also sorry to the Anglicans—it prefers immersion. It also prefers cold water to warm and running water to still but we’re getting off track here—read the text of it to see what you think.) The real question is how much authority does it have? You will have to make up your own mind. For me it supplies a glimpse on what the early church stood for while some parts of the Bible was still being written. This glimpse is important to me as I try to understand how the first century “Jesus movement” grew and spread. However, I am not a primivitist or restorationist. I do not believe “the way they did it then was best and we should copy their ways.” Many of my readers won’t agree with me on this. I admit that I did not take this position when I knew less about what the early church actually did—but the more I’ve studied the Bible, first century culture, and what the first century church actually did in that day the more I have come to believe that we today much conserve their theology but are free to invent our own methodology.[2] So why do I read the Didache at all? Because I like to learn. And knowing what the early church did might lead me to understand their theology (for all theology is found upstream from our actions). However if you believe the early church practice is a model for us today you’ll probably give the Didache more authority than I do. Either way—it is fun to know what the early church actually did in membership training. I’m interested in the latest way the “emerging church” does church, but I’m even a tad bit more interested in how the first century church did it.

Here is what I did in this article: The Didache has 16 chapters (though some chapters have only a few verses). My question was: What if we adapted the early church’s Didache membership training for today’s church? What if we assigned new candidates for baptism to an individual “sponsor” or “Membership mentor” and they trained the new members using the early church’s training program. What sort of member would we be trying to get? OK…you can do this for yourself—but I’ve done some of the first heavy lifting for you—but I hope you merely scan my work then read the Didache on your own and decide for yourself the kind of Christian the early church was trying to make. Don’t get sidelined by trying to decide if the Didache has any authority or not—just treat this as if it were Bill Hybel’s or Rick Warren’s membership training program for now and as you’re looking over it decide what kind of spiritual formation they were trying to do with their membership candidates. Then decide for yourself. I hope I’ve whetted your appetite enough to seduce you to actually go to the text and read through the Didache once—then decide for yourself.

Early church “Membership Standards”
(Based on the Didache c. 60-100AD)

as a member you should covenant to…
1. I will treat my enemies with love. (1:3-6)
· Love you enemies
· Pray for them, fast for them
· Turn your other cheek
· Go the second mile
· Give generously to anyone asking of you

2. I will avoid our list of DON’Ts (2:1-3:6)
· Murder
· Commit adultery
· Corrupt boys
· Have illicit sex
· Steal
· Practice magic
· Make potions
· Abort your offspring
· Kill a newborn
· Covet your neighbor’s things
· Swear falsely
· Bear false witness
· Speak badly of anyone
· Hold grudges
· Make empty promises
· Covetousness
· Greed
· Hypocracy
· Bad-manners
· Arrogance
· Hating any person
· Anger
· Envy
· Contentiousness
· Hot-headed
· Lustful
· Divining, enchanting, astrology
· Lover of money, seeker of glory
· Self-pleasing, evil-minded

3. I will practice our lists of DO’s (3:7-4:14)
· I will be gentle
· Be merciful, harmless, calm & good
· (Not be self-exalting)
· Accept all experiences as from God
· Remember constantly my mentor & other saints in the church
· (Not cause dissention but reconcile those fighting)
· Ignore social status in correcting others
· Focus on giving more then getting
· Cheerfully give without grumbling to those in need
· Be active in training my children
· Treat my slaves rightly; (slaves should be subject to masters)
· Hate hypocrisy
· I will give to those in need
· Keep these rules adding nothing or taking nothing away
· Confess my failings in church

I will reject the “Way of death” as represented by the following (5:1-2)
· Murders
· Adulteries
· Lusts
· Illicit sex acts
· Thefts
· Idolatries
· Magic
· Potions
· Sorceries
· Perjuries
· Hypocrisies
· Double-heartedness
· Trickery
· Arrogance
· Malice
· Self-pleasing
· Greed
· Foul-speech
· Jealousy
· Audacity
· Haughtiness
· False-pretension
· Hating truth/loving lies
· Paying unjust wages
· Not helping the poor
· Murdering children
· Turning away the needy
· Advocating for the rich
· Loving frivolous things
· Insisting on recompense for everything

After learning the “Two ways” I make these final commitments. (5:1-6:3)
· I will be wary of anyone drawing me away from this teaching.
· As I am able to live all of this teaching I shall do it; but until I am able to bear some of it I shall bear whatever load I can for now yet keep my goal of carrying the entire load.
· I will do my best to follow the traditions regarding eating food however I understand that eating anything sacrificed to idols is non-negotiable and I will abstain from it.

This ends the “Two ways” membership mentoring materials in the Didache though it continues to describe the means of baptism (7:1-4) fasting and prayers (8:1-3) the Eucharist (9:1-10:7) and various instructions on church management (11:1-16:8). There are wonderful glimpses into the early church practices in these chapters but they do not outline the core elements of membership instruction like the first six chapters.

So, what do you think? How would you describe this “membership training” material if you got it in the mail?
v What did the early church focus on mostly?
v What did they leave out?
v What sort of Christian behavior were they trying to get?
v What were the “hot issues” of the day they addressed?
v What “hot issues” of today are completely absent?
v How much do you think they actually compromised? Where’s the hint?
v What would people today say if you introduced this sort of membership approach?
v How would a 1-2-1 “membership mentor” training program differ from group training?
v (Hard one) In what way is this system like other membership systems in first century culture?

Click here for a full text of the Didache … I hope you’ll read it and decide for yourself

By Keith Drury December 24, 2004

4. Do we get our membership rules
from the 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[3]

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

5. 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?

There is no doubt we have added to the Bible’s list of sins. No denomination can honestly say they simply “use the clear teaching of the Bible to decide what is sin or not.” We all have added sins not explicitly condemned in the Bible—things like abortion, pornography, slave-holding, or using drugs. In a sense you could say we have “bound them” on our people though the Bible does not explicitly mention them. But we also have dismissed some of the Bible’s explicit teaching on sin—for example the codes in Leviticus, or Jesus’ teaching on piling up treasure on earth, or even on divorce—you might say we have “loosed” these requirements of the Bible. The title of this section is my question: 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?
The answer is simple: Jesus did. That’s it. Pure and simple. Jesus gave the church the power to decide what to bind and loose on earth. We Protestants hate to hear this. We scream, NO NO NO, go away, I won’t listen …that’s too Catholic to be true—I reject it out of hand. But it is true. Let’s just do a bit of Bible study. (Can you do this on the explicit teaching of the Bible and not read preferred “interpretations” into the clear words Jesus spoke?)

Matthew 16:19
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Peter had just confessed Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus said “I will give you the keys to the kingdom.” So ask yourself—who got the keys? Who is “you” in this passage? Is it Peter personally? (If you say this then you might consider a transfer to the Catholic Church and get in under the line of Peter) OK most Protestants say it wasn’t Peter personally who got the keys—then who was it? Was it the collective group of apostles present? (If you say yes then you might also consider a transfer to the Catholic Church and get under the apostolic umbrella). If not Peter personally, or the apostles, then who got the keys? I say Jesus gave the church the keys—the collective body of Christ on earth through the ages got the keys to the koingdom form Jesus. The body of Christ is the heir to the keys of Jesus.

So what are the keys for? Gee we can go all kinds of esoteric places here if we just use our imagination. But why go anywhere except where Jesus went in the second half of the verse? "..whatever you bind on earth shall be bound on heaven." Bind and loose were rabbinical terms for ruling certain actions as either forbidden or permitted. So the terms were spoken in context suggest determining what is forbidden and what is permitted. It implies the church has the keys to determine what will be bound on people and what will be loosed. Whoa! Help! We must be interpreting this wrongly, right? How can the church have the power to decide what things are now sin that used to be OK and what things used to be sin that are now OK? We admit we actually do this (as the previous section outlined) but did Jesus actually authorize it? Lets’ go study some other passage of Scripture—this Matthew 16 passage is too much to bear!

2. Matthew 18:18
Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Whoops… Matthew 16:19 isn’t just an isolated verse. Matthew repeats the phrase several chapters later as Jesus taught us how to deal with a brother who has refused to reconcile even after the three-step process. Jesus said such a brother is to be shunned or "treated as a publican." Then he added, "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven." What in the dickens does this mean? Does God somehow recognize in heaven our own shunning or our excommunication of people on earth? Does Jesus actually delegate His power to decide matters that heaven “follows?” Delegate it to the church? NO! Never! It cannot be! Sure, we act like He did, but we don’t want to confess we actually believe we have this authority do we? OK maybe there is an out here. Perhaps Matthew had some sort of hang-up or spin that is his alone and we can dismiss it. A couple of verses in Matthew does not a theology make. Lets’ look somewhere else in our Bible study.

3. John 20:22-23
And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained.
Oh boy—this doesn’t help! It only gets worse in John! It is more explicit not less. John places Jesus' words at the post resurrection appearance in the upper room following their receiving the Holy Spirit (the time before Acts 2) Jesus told His church gathered there "If you loose the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you bind the sins of any, they are retained." HOLY SMOKE! Help! We must interpret our way out of this mess! It can’t mean what it says can it? We need to make these verses mean something besides what they clearly say! Jesus’ words are clearly about sins here, not just binding or loosing the regulations of the Old Testament as we Protestants might be able to interpret the Jewish Matthew passages. John has Jesus saying that we have His delegated authority to forgive sins ore to retain them. WOAH! How in the dickens do we do this? Remit sins? How do we forgive sins? How (as a church) do we make sins “stick” to people? Does God actually recognize this authority and make it so in heaven because we’ve done it here? Can the church have such power? We can’t take it!

Here’s what these verses seem to be saying to me:
1. Jesus gave the church “keys to the kingdom.”
2. These keys are about “binding and loosing” on earth.
3. Whatever the church binds on earth gets bound in heaven.
4. Whatever the church looses on earth, gets loosed in heaven
5. When the church remits sins on earth they are remitted in heaven
6. When the church retains sins on earth they are retained in heaven

Can it be? Can God be such a delegator? If so the church must be far more important than we all think it is. We prefer a powerful individual and a weak church but the church may be far more important than we think it is.

So, what does this all have to do with Church Membership?
As to membership I think all this says the church has Christ’s delegated power to make membership decisions for sure since it already has far more power than this small power. We can bind people with things the Bible never mentions and we can loose things the Bible once commanded. Is this a dangerous position? You better believe it is! It seems to make the church “trump” the bible. But curiously, it is the biblical position!

But we must remember it was the church who decided on the Bible
Where did we get the Bible from? The church. Why aren’t the DaVinci Cod’s favorites, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip in our canon? How did Revelation, Hebrews and some of the Pastoral epistles get into the Canon even though some in the church thought they shouldn’t get in? Who decided what would make the cut and become canonized? Who decided what would be considered spurious? Easy answer—we all know but try to forget this truth. The church decided what our Bible would be. So, even when we say “the Bible alone” we are actually trusting the church. Over several hundred years the church decided which of the hundred plus “books” would go into the New Testament and which would be denied. Talk about binding and loosing! How do we know the church made the right decisions? Do you think they made any mistakes? Should Clement I or the Didache have gotten into the canon and they goofed? Did they make a mistake by eliminating the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary? The answer most of us give is, “No.” How can we say this? Because we believe the Holy Spirit actively guided the collective group of Christians to figure it out. We believe the Holy Spirit guided the debate and when the actual eventual church conference made their decision the Holy Spirit actively “guarded and guided” and they made the right decision.

So why would we think the Holy Spirit stopped working this way after a few hundred years? We don’t. At least not when we think about it. Of course the Holy Spirit still works in His church to “guard and guide” the church. That’s why we pray for His guidance at conferences and conventions where important decisions are made. Indeed all decision making by the church is what we call “seeking God’s will.”

I think all this applies to decisions about membership requirements. Not that these matters are as important as the canonization of Scripture. They aren’t. In fact they are far less important than retaining or forgiving sins which is what these verses talk about. Few of us would say that denying church membership to an individual damns that person. Membership standards are little matters next to Canonization and sin-retention matters. Yet it is our job as a church to decide membership matters. Won’t the Holy Spirit guide us in this process? Certainly! If we ask for guidance. At least it is not as important a task as it used to be. After all, when there was only one worldwide church—not meeting “membership requirements” meant you were outside of any and all churches. Today you can go down the road and get into a church even if you don’t meet our membership standards. And most evangelicals believe a person might even go to heaven if he or she belonged to no church whatsoever if individually they had saving faith. So the decision about church membership is a lower-risk decision. But we must make it. And re-make it in every generation.

So if the church has the power to determine these matters what is the key insight we’re often missing? Is it not about the “presenting symptoms” –alcohol, tobacco, gambling, drugs, divorce, homosexual acts in my opinion. We will have enough “spiritual sense” to make these decisions rightly. But we won’t be able to do it if our categories aren’t clear. I think (at least in my own denomination) we must examine the categories before we move on to talk about specific Beliefs and behaviors.”

So, this will be the subject of my next writing on membership.

January 11, 2005
Keith Drury

Membership standards:
“Confusing the categories”

I don’t know about your denomination but when it comes to membership requirements my own denomination is 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 the actually required ones and the optional ones. At least my denomination has “two buckets”—one that full of required stuff and the other that are “admonitions” to its members. That’s a start but there are more than two categories when it comes to membership rules. Most of these other categories are unwritten ones. Here are some I’ve noted:
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 usually self-select usually and stop coming anyway. (t least the “womanizers” do—the quiet practicing homosexuals may keep coming to church so I suspect we’ll face this one in the future). There are precious few “membership rules” that will actually get you excommunicated from membership today—but some of us have some. Do you know which?
Rules that keep you out. It easier to stay in the church than to get it. Churches are more careful to examine new members’ lives than the lives 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?
Rules that get you corrected. You can break some rules—even regularly—and still get in the church and stay in forever. But if people see you breaking them they’ll perhaps “correct” you or send you to get counseling if it is public. 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?
Leftover “wink-wink” rules. Most churches have some rules left over from past generations that nobody pays any attention to. They are laws against spitting on the sidewalk—they are “still on the books” but all the insiders know that they are never enforced. New candidates for membership don’t know this when they read their rule bucket. When they ask their pastor 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?
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 we hope you’ll head toward them eventually. When we list such things as “membership commitments” we are really saying you should commit toward that sort of thing, 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 the categories. This creates confusion among the candidates for membership and the churches. They don’t know which ones fit in which category If one pastor can wink-wink her way past the gambling/lottery tickets why can’t another pastor wink-wink past homosexual behavior? Who guides us in know what these unwritten categories are?
To make it more confusing, these rules are moving targets. No denomination has a fixed and firm set of rules. Rules are always a moving target. The masses of people and pastors are always making informal interpretations of these rules. A few stay firm but most are loosed informally while new rules are added (like my denomination’s stance on abortion or against spouse and child abuse). “Trafficking in alcohol” in my denomination used to mean a member wasn’t supposed to be a check-out clerk at Wal-Mart if ringing up wine was involved, or to drive a beer-delivery truck. Now it might mean to not start your own brewery for profit, if anything at all. The point is these rules are moving targets and that make it all even more confusing.
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 mean not going to a restaurant or playing ball or even buying a newspaper on Sunday. Over the years that meaning has 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; or means anything at all actually. It is a useless rule. But try to get rid of it and see what the people say. They’ll rend their garments and toss dust into the air for your desire to defile a day of rest and worship. Yet these folk are like those people in your church who insist on a Sunday evening service yet never come themselves. It is all breast-beating posturing. Useless rules are confusing. My denomination has a half-bucketful of such rules in all kinds of categories.
Which is why denominations ought to re-mint their membership commitments every few decades. Maybe even more often. I wish my denomination would. Here’s what I think my denomination ought to do every 20 years:
Make the few “Capital offenses” very clear (What we always excommunicate over).
Divide the measurable requirements from the hard-to-measure ideals to pursue.
Specify what we’re very serious about—even though we don’t excommunicate for these things.
Move everything we’re not willing to enforce to “admonitions” (what we call our “Special Directions”)
So, don’t I worry about opening up our rules to reconsideration? Not at all. 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
Membership Rules Quiz
If you were king what would you do?

Here is a fun game for Wesleyans. Print out this table then check the boxes to show what you’d do with each of the 36 possible “rules” for “Covenant members” in your church if you had the power to make the decision (or if you do this as a church staff what you’d agree on as a staff). The game is more than a game actually. Do it—you’ll be better after thinking this though.

Thirty six possible “Membership Commitments” for “Covenant members” of The Wesleyan Church—check the box to right reflecting your opinion for that possible rule.
REQUIRED for joining as a minimum standard or you can’t join the church,
of members but won’t get you kicked out once you are a member.
we expect of all Christians but shouldn’t clutter the membership commitments with.
1. Honor God’s name.

2. Honor the Lord’s day by going to church

3. Honor the Lord’s day by avoiding detracting activities.

4. Total abstinence from the occult, witchcraft, & astrology.

5. Give to the church remembering the idea of tithing.

6. Give to the needy.

7. Total abstinence from gambling.

8. Total abstinence from production, sale or purchase of tobacco.

9. Total abstinence from production, sale or purchase of alcohol.

10. Total abstinence from production, sale or purchase of non-prescription drugs.

11. Total abstinence from joining secret societies.

12. Total abstinence from sex outside of marriage.

13. Refusal to divorce except for adultery, homosexual behavior, bestiality or incest.

14. Total abstinence from child abuse.

15. Total abstinence from spouse abuse.

16. Live peacefully with others at home.

17. Nurture children in the home in order to bring them early to Christ.

18. Work together with others at church.

19. Walk in Christian fellowship with other Christians with gentleness and affection.

20. Pray for others at church.

21. Help others at church in sickness and distress.

22. Demonstrate love, purity and courtesy to everyone.

23. Attend public worship.

24. Participate in the Lord’s supper

25. Have family devotions.

26. Have personal devotions.

27. Practice fasting.

28. Refusal to teach that tongues is a sign of baptism of Holy Ghost.

29. Refraining from speaking in tongues in public worship

30. Total abstinence from promoting a private prayer language of tongues.

31. Give food to hungry people.

32. Give clothing to the destitute.

33. Visit people who are sick.

34. Visit people in prison.

35. Respect individual rights regardless of race, color or sex.

36. Be honest and just in all of life’s dealings.

My new one:

My new one:

My new one:

My new one:

My new one:

My new one:

When you are finished look at The Discipline and see how your list compares to the existing list found in paragraph 265(1-12).

What did you discover? To comment click here.
Keith Drury December 1, 2006
Summary of the “rules” of my denomination (The Wesleyan Church)
(Click here for the full original wording used to summarize into this list)

(“Covenant Members are expected to commit to these)
1. Honor God’s name.
2. Honor the Lord’s day by going to church .
3. Honor the Lord’s day by avoiding detracting activities.
4. Total abstinence from the occult, witchcraft, & astrology.
5. Give to the church (“remembering” the idea of tithing).
6. Give to the needy.
7. Total abstinence from gambling.
8. Total abstinence from production, sale or purchase of tobacco.
9. Total abstinence from production, sale or purchase of alcohol.
10. Total abstinence from production, sale or purchase of non-prescription drugs.
11. Total abstinence from joining secret societies.
12. Total abstinence from sex outside of marriage.
13. Total abstinence from divorce for any reason other than adultery, homosexual behavior, bestiality or incest.
14. Total abstinence from child abuse.
15. Total abstinence from spouse abuse.
16. Live peacefully with others at home.
17. Nurture children in the home in order to bring them early to Christ.
18. Work together with others at church.
19. Walk in Christian fellowship with other Christians at church with gentleness and affection.
20. Pray for others at church.
21. Help others at church in sickness and distress.
22. Demonstrate love, purity and courtesy to everyone.
23. Attend public worship.
24. Participate in the Lord’s supper
25. Have family devotions.
26. Have personal devotions.
27. Practice fasting.
28. Total abstinence from teaching that tongues is a sign of baptism of Holy Ghost.
29. Total abstinence from speaking in tongues in public worship
30. Total abstinence from promoting a private prayer language of tongues.
31. Give food to hungry people.
32. Give clothing to the destitute.
33. Visit people who are sick.
34. Visit people in prison.
35. Respect individual rights regardless of race, color or sex.
36. Be honest and just in all of life’s dealings.

(Admonitions to members but not commitments)

1. Equal rights. We believe there should be equal rights and opportunities for all individuals politically, economically and religiously.
2. Peace. We take all legitimate means to avoid war & every means to seek peace.
3. Military Service. If a member thinks military Service is contrary to the teaching of the New Testament we will support that person.
4. Substance Abuse. We’re opposed to production, sale, purchase and use of alcoholic beverages, tobacco, narcotics and other harmful drugs.
5. Human Sexuality. We support chastity and purity and vigorously oppose sexual promiscuity. Sex is for enjoyment and procreation in a marriage. Homosexual practice is sinful but we believe God can deliver a person form the practice and the inclination.
6. Divorce and Remarriage. We accept divorce on Scriptural grounds but once a person is divorced no marriage remains and it is not the unpardonable sin.
7. Merchandising on the Lord's Day. We think merchandising on the Lord's Day should be illegal
8. Religion in Public Life. We believe prayer in government activities or in schools should be permitted.
9. Public School Activities. We don’t think schools should be teaching dancing and maintin the rights of our members to seek exemption.
10. Judicial Oaths. We reserve the right for our members to refuse to “swear” in court but rather “affirm.”
11. Abortion. We oppose abortion except in rare pregnancies where the life of the mother is threatened but even then only after prayerful counsel. We encourage our people to get involved in the anti-abortion movement.
12. Use of Leisure Time. We are carefully regulate what we read, listen to and watch on TV, refuse to participate in social dancing or go to the movies that feature the cheap, the violent or the sensual and pornographic. We also refuse to engage in playing games which tend to be addictive or conducive to gambling.
13. Modesty in Attire. We urge our people to dress modestly.

Summary by Keith Drury
January 15, 2005

What if we wrote our membership commitments from scratch?

I’ve been writing on membership for the last two months and I’m getting bored with the topic. It is time for an exit strategy. Here’s a good one: I’ll write up what I think we’d produce if we made a new list of membership standards for today if we started with blank paper with no Disciplines in hand. If we locked all the stakeholders in my denomination in a room (without their Disciplines) what might they come up with? Here’s my stab at it:

What our membership commitments might look like if we started with blank paper

Category one:
Minimum Membership Requirements
(Minimum requirements to get in and stay in)
Category two:
Expectations and Admonitions

(What we’ll teach & we expect from all leaders)
Our “Minimum Membership Requirements are the entry-level requirements for membership. While the normal Christian life expects far more than such a minimal list, these are the bare minimum requirements for joining our church. If a candidate for membership does not meet these requirements they will be nurtured toward reaching the minimum requirements before being received into membership. If an existing member falls below the minimum requirements they should expect to be confronted and expelled unless immediate repentance and change of behavior occurs.
Our “Expectations and admonitions” represent the “collective convictions” of our church. This list is how our church collectively speaks to ourselves urging our members toward becoming a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. As an attendee of our churches you can expect this lifestyle to be urged in preaching and teaching in our church. While we do not expel members who fall short of these standards we do not treat them casually and we expect them as the norm for our leaders and teachers. Our discipleship efforts in the church are geared toward helping people have both right beliefs and right behaviors. These expectations and admonitions exemplify the sort of behavior we aim toward encouraging you toward—thus in joining our church you should accept that these expectations represent the kind of lifestyle your growth in grace should take you toward.

1. Grace—I have experienced God’s saving grace in conversion and have obeyed the command to receive water baptism and this grace has cleansed my life of such sins as murder, sexual impropriety, witchcraft, the occult, and heresy.

1. We believe committed Christian members of our church should totally abstain from receiving, performing or aiding in the performance of abortions except in the case of endangerment to the life of the mother—and only then after prayerful counsel.

2. Growth—I am growing spiritually personally and see evidence of God’s sanctifying work in gradually making me more like Christ.
2. We believe committed Christian members of our church should totally abstain from the production, personal profit from the sale of or personal use of beverage alcohol or tobacco and we are committed to help those addicted to such use to become totally released.
3. Group—I regularly attend worship, and receive the sacrament of communion and I also participate in some smaller group of believers where I am known relationally who provide encouragement, support and accountability.
3. We believe committed Christian members of our church should totally abstain from gambling and other addictions that are poor stewardship and we even believe that small stakes gambling in lotteries and even small stakes games could be a gateway to larger and more serious gambling addictions and thus we encourage our members to resist even these more moderate involvements in gambling.

4. Gifts—I have discovered my spiritual gifts, abilities and talents and am involved in at least one active means of service in this church where I use my abilities to build others up in the body of Christ.
4. We believe committed Christian members of our church should resist any secret society that requires an oath that takes precedence over the loyalty to Christ and the Church.

5. Giving—I am a regular giver to this church and to other kingdom ministries including the needy remembering the principle of the “tithe” that is the historic standard for giving.
5. We believe committed Christian members of our church should uphold the sacred role of traditional marriage for life and thus should never personally initiate a divorce except in the case of adultery, homosexual behavior, bestiality or incest, and even than only after prayerful counsel.

6. We believe committed Christian members of our church will respect individual rights regardless of race, color or sex.

7. We believe committed Christian members of our church should work in harmony with others, seeking peace, walking in Christian fellowship with all other Christians treating them with gentleness and affection while avoiding division, strife and malice toward any.

8. We believe committed Christian members of our church should practice compassion by helping others in distress, giving to the needy, providing food for the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned and generously giving to support missionaries and aid programs for the needy in our world.

That’s what I think they’d come up with. If we locked all the “big guys” in a room they’d come up with something not too far off from what I’ve outlined above I bet. Especially if there were a lot of pastors in the group. However, starting from blank paper is a dangerous thing to do. When you do all you get is a “snapshot” of whatever is the current position on everything. The church simply puts into law whatever “everyone in their right mind believes.”

That’s how we got the list we now have. Don’t think for a minute that when the church wrote down rules about alcohol or tobacco or gambling or even buying things on Sunday--that anyone had to change. Not at all! When the church “took a snapshot” in those days, EVERY Christian felt this way—100%. Since nobody in the whole church drank alcohol, or gambled, or bought on Sunday they simply wrote it down—it cost nobody anything—they merely took a snapshot of how everyone already lived. Hey, before 1950 hardly anybody bought on Sunday—even non-Christians!. Most of our (serious) church rules came from serious social movements in the country.
When the powerful prohibition movement swept the country Christians had to take sides—now which side do you think they’d take? Of course they joined the not-a-drop side and it became practice and church law. Same for the “Blue Laws” movement, and the anti-Masonic movement. Not that these movements had no church folk—they did, but when they got extreme they forced church organizations to make strong statements. These were not primarily church sponsored movements though. They were gigantic social movements that the church got caught up in. And like all social movements they tended toward the extreme. “Temperance” which in its very name might have indicated “moderation” came to me being a tee-totaler. There was no room for discussion—you were either for booze or against it. We didn’t like the boozers so where could we go? We joined the total abstinence crowd and wrote it into our documents. As for tobacco my denomination ignored it for years until the anti-tobacco forces forced us to declare ourselves. (There may still be some North Carolina tobacco farmers in my church who were grandfathered in and allowed to keep growing their weed.) The point—taking snapshots using blank paper is why we have rules today that seem out of date.

And, what about today’s social movements. The church is caught up in great social movements today too. The fact that few people even blinked when I wrote a statement above calling for total abstinence from performing or having an abortion show how we’ve all come to accept this today even though it is more strict than our present Discipline. The anti-abortion movement has radicalized and insists even that a 1 hour old fertilized egg is truly human life—and we have gone along—after all, we don’t want to be put over there with Ted Kennedy and the liberals. As for homosexuality I have no doubt that we could get a statement on paper today pounding them into the ground just like they did “divorcees” in 1950. When we say “Well, everybody knows this is wrong” we forget is this is precisely how sure our grandfathers felt when they wrote down rules about alcohol, Sunday sales and even things like television and jewelry at one point in our history. We think their rules are silly and our rules are “obvious.” But, of course their rules were just as obvious to them in those days.

If we’re going to change the church standards we’d better be humble about it. What we write down today our grandchildren will some day consider us chuckleheads for demanding. We will be the legalists. I know you refuse to believe it. You say, “But it can’t go any further—we now have clear Bible support.” But you forget that there is clearer Bible support against wearing jewelry than against abortion. Is abortion wrong. You bet! But claiming “it is obviously condemned in the Bible” won’t cut is 50 years from now when your grandchildren want to re-mint the rules for their generation. Whatever we ban may be “obvious to every Christian we know” but it will not be so obvious to our grandchildren. They will get out our list and reject it with shock at our legalism, wondering how we could be so bound up in our times and ignore so many more important things. They will “loosen up” on rules that will make us roll over in our graves—things that our corpses would say “But you can’t even be a Christian and do that!” And they’ll add new things to their list that will turn us into sinners—like we’ve added racism today and turned many of our own grandfathers into sinners. If we re-mint the book—we need to do it humbly and not announce “we finally got it.” Denominations that “finally get it” don’t get it! Our new snapshot will fade faster than the one we’re trying to replace—sow e ought to be humble about it all.

So, am I saying we shouldn’t re-mint our Articles of Religion and Membership Commitments?
Not at all!
We ought to revisit them.
Just not from scratch.
Keith Drury February 7, 2005

Appendix: Membership Ideas
Ideas and thoughts about membership submitted by my readers

I have been doing a series on church membership and getting lots of great ideas from my readers. I am impressed with the depth of insight my mail shows—there are some significant thing here that should be considered by anyone who cares about membership matters. If you need an “agenda of ideas” to consider—let’s make one together—add your ideas here by emailing Keith Drury to get your ideas added here. Just give thoughts and ideas for denominational leaders and pastors to consider—to widen the circle of thought about this subject.

Forget “membership” altogether—anyone who attends should be considered a part of the church. All we really need is “leadership” a smaller, low image, highly committed group who leads and decides in the church. (By far the most common response so far)

Membership requirements should have no objective legalistic measurable requirements—it should be about a loving lifestyle and not any one kind of behavior—including homosexuality.

The most important thing I’ve ever heard about membership you said to me once: “We have got to divide our membership requirements between the “ideal-we-work-toward” stuff and the “minimum-we-require-to-get in/stay in.” You are absolutely right—we confuse people by having both. We should label them clearly—and I think the “minimum” should be exactly that—“minimal.”

The term “membership” is so nauseating to my generation that I can’t believe you are even having a discussion on it.

Membership rules are the way dead people control the behavior of the people still alive. We should have automatic “sunset laws” on all membership requirements—and start with a blank sheet of paper every four years like “zero based budgeting.”

The idea that a church or denomination could control the behavior of an individual is so quaint—where are these people living—in 1855?

All membership rules beyond the Apostle’s Creed should be local—anything more is asking for trouble.

Your very first article pointed out the reality—church membership is like joining the Masons—it is something old people in mostly small towns used to do. Membership is deceased—let it be buried.

What you are struggling with isn’t membership at all—it is the fact that denominations no longer exist in any sort of way where they have common agreement and can bind any behavior on their members. Denominations exist for ministerial pension plans and nothing much else.

"Membership" as a concept does seem to be as out of style as a "Members Only" jacket these days. However, in some way we must re-discover and re-language the concept of membership. Perhaps we can come out on the other end of the membership valley with a pattern in the church that helps people publicly identify themselves with Christ, increases belonging to the church, and provides something for those not yet following Christ to reach for. Of course, we may re-discover that Baptism should do all of these things instead.

Membership should NOT be forgotten entirely. However, some of our current requirements should be dropped. Personally, I have always viewed membership similar to marriage. It's the difference between living with the woman I know call my wife or actually making a public, long term commitment to her in marriage. Yes some marriages don't work out. That is not my problem. My view of marriage is final.. as is my view of membership. I join a local church body and intend to stay there through the good, the bad, and the ugly.

(add your comment here)

Keith Drury January, 2005

[1] Well this is not totally accurate—they must grant a one-time authority later for the canonization process that extended several hundred years.
[2] I’m not saying that method does not shape theology, or that some methods are incompatible with good theology here—but that’s another article.

[3] 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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