How I'd change membership rules

In my denomination (The Wesleyan Church) most of the heat over membership discussion is generated on what we call “Membership Commitments” and not on doctrinal matters like the “Articles of Religion.” Our Membership Commitments are rules we expect every candidate for membership to commit to following and we expect every member to live by them. We don’t like to call them “rules” but that is really what they are—rules, and we all know it.
There are dozens of them as I have shown in my summary earlier. But people can’t remember most of them and actually only talk about a half dozen of them. I bet if you put 100 Wesleyans in a room and asked them to compose the list of membership commitments they’d get four or five right off the bat but after that there would be no agreement. That’s funny isn’t it? For instance our members commit to visiting people in prison and having family devotions just like we require them to not drink alcohol. Yet most everybody forgets the prison rule and remembers the alcohol one. So to be honest there is a “canon within the canon” of rules. Frankly you can’t even get a serious discussion going by asking, “Do all of your membership candidate fast regularly and visit sick people?” Those are commitments but we don’t treat them seriously But you can get a good discussion going if you ask, “Do all your membership candidates never touch a drop of alcohol?” See what I mean? Though we have more than 30 different commitments there are really only about four that we do all the discussion about—you might call them the “Forbidden Four:”

Alcohol—do we refuse membership to one who drinks the spiked punch at the company Christmas party?
Tobacco—do we turn away the fellow who puffs a cigar once or twice a week to relax or who smokes a pipe when at the hunting lodge?
Gambling—do we exclude the woman who buys a lottery ticket with her coffee once a week at the 7-11 store?
Lodges—do we turn down a guy who wants to stay a member of the Masonic lodge but also join our church?

These are the questions we like to discuss. I only expose the forbidden four to alert you to what almost every reader will automatically do in any proposal made—they will simply scan it to see how it treats the “forbidden four.” Why? Because these (and perhaps a few others) are the only “rules” we’re really serious about enforcing on the list. They are the true inner canon of our membership commitments.

So how would I change the membership commitments?

First, I think we need three categories whatever we do, or at least two.

1. Minimum Membership Requirements—this would be the list of only those things we’re willing to kick a member out over or that would keep a new candidate from joining. Nothing more. A true minimum list. That is, it would not include things that make up a “good Christian life” but only those things that comprise a “minimum Christian life of a member.” I think there comes a time in a denomination when the people have to “ratify present practice.” That is, when the common practice departs widely from the rules for more than a decade it gets time to either a) crack down and enforce the rules, or b) change the rules to reflect the common practice. Denominations don’t have enough power any more to do the first, so the second option is all that’s left. There was a time when my denomination practiced the “membership = leadership” approach (an approach I personally liked). We left that approach in the dust by the 1980s and there is no turning back. In equalitarian democratic countries it is difficult to keep people out of the church when you let them in the kingdom. Membership for us has become entry level, it is no longer a leadership matter. Membership is for people who are saved by grace and want to join our church and grow. We’ve rejected the notion that membership is reserved for advanced states of grace and leadership. Given the realities of this shift that has already taken place we need to adjust the rules to reflect the reality. No use crying over spilt milk or looking for someone to blame—the deed is done. This change has already taken place in local churches—they now wait for the rulebook to catch up to them. We will soon make entering membership entry-level: something done soon after a person is saved. I think we ought to make an honest list of our minimum requirements and call them something like “Minimum Membership Requirements.”

2. Expectations and admonitions—But I’d have a second list too. In this second list I’d put most of our present “rules” (though I’d quit calling them “commitments”). I like “Expectations and admonitions.” I think we should honestly reveal to prospective members what we stand for, what we’ll preach about and how we’ll teach about an expected lifestyle. I’m not even interested in getting the prospect to make a “commitment” to the list—I think the church should be the one making the commitment. In the expectations and admonitions we should—as a church—promise the candidate that if they join our church we’ll constantly be trying to persuade them toward this sort of lifestyle—we commit to teaching this way. The expectations and admonitions are a “head’s up!” to the prospect on what they’ll be hearing from the pulpit and in Sunday school classes in this church. They need not be shocked when the pastor pronounces abortion wrong—they heard it ahead of time in the expectations and admonitions. This is not an excommunication list—we wouldn’t excommunicate people who fall short of these expectations. However we won’t treat them casually either. We will try to persuade, correct, help, and disciple a person toward this lifestyle with all our might. If a member doesn’t have family devotions or is still buying lottery tickets or puffing on a cigar our church will try to change that and persuade them to line up with our expectations. The significant change here would be to shift the list from a commitment the prospect makes to a promise of what the church will be teaching.

3. Ideals toward which we aim. There might be a third list too. There are some things in our lists that are just plain ideals. They are subjective sliding-scale things like “living peacefully with others” or “visiting the sick.” (How often do I have to visit the sick to meet this membership commitment—once a quadrennium?) I don’t think we should put sliding-scale things in a list like this—we ought to preach on them for sure, but they don’t belong in a list of rules. It too easily sets up someone saying, “I break #9 (I use alcohol) but you break #34 (you don’t visit people in prison) so we’re even, there!” So I need a separate category for “values” we pursue. Actually I wouldn’t even have this category at all if I had my way—I’d just make a statement referencing the bible’s values as our aim. But my self-assigned homework for this article was to rearrange the present membership commitments into a new format—so I had to make this third category so I had a place to dump all these sliding-scale things.

So here is what I did. I took all the present Membership Commitments and Special Directions and stuck them into the three categories suggested above. (The Elementary Principles could be put in with the “ideals” too I suspect, though I didn’t deal with them). I came up with the following rough draft that does not provide “the answer”…but asks some of the right questions at least.

Assigning present Membership Commitments & Special Directions to three new categories

Category one:
Minimum Membership Requirements
Category two:
Expectations and Admonitions
Category three:
Ideals toward which
we aim
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 itself 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 churches. This is the sort of lifestyle we urge each other toward. 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 life we will help you live—thus in joining our church you should accept that these expectations represent the kind of lifestyle your growth in grace should take you toward.

While our minimum membership requirements and expectations and admonitions are easily measured and often involve abstaining from practices, our values are not so easily measured and comprise the expandable qualities of holy living we believe all Christians should work toward. Judging the extent to which a member exemplifies the values is difficult thus each of us is careful to judge his or her own life and not that of another. Yet if you join our church you will hear these values repeatedly emphasized and urged as worthy goals of the Christian life.

From the present Membership Commitments
(The numerals refer to my own summary list of the Membership Commitments)

1. Honor God’s name.

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

3. Honor the Lord’s day by avoiding detracting activities.
2. Honor the Lord’s day by going to church. 23. Attend public worship.

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

6. Give to the needy.
5. Give to the church (“remembering” the idea of tithing).

7. Total abstinence from gambling.

16. Live peacefully with others.

12. Total abstinence from sex outside of marriage.

11. Total abstinence from joining any secret societies.

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

14. Total abstinence from child and or spouse abuse.

13. Total abstinence from personally initiated divorce for any reason other than adultery, homosexual behavior, bestiality or incest.

18. Work together with others at church.

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

24. Participate in the Lord’s supper

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

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

25. Have family devotions.

20. Pray for others at church.

26. Have personal devotions.

21. Help others at church in sickness and distress.

27. Practice fasting.

22. Demonstrate love, purity and courtesy to everyone.

28. Total abstinence from teaching that tongues is a sign of baptism of Holy Ghost.

31. Give food to hungry people.

29. Total abstinence from speaking in tongues in public worship

32. Give clothing to the destitute.

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

33. Visit people who are sick.

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

34. Visit people in prison.

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

From the present Special Directions
(The numerals refer to my own summary list of the Membership Commitments)

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.

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.

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 when they appeal to the cheap, the violent or the sensual and pornographic. We also urge great caution in engaging in playing games which tend to be addictive or conducive to gambling.

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.

3. Military Service. If a member thinks military Service is contrary to the teaching of the New Testament we will support that person.

9. Public School Activities. If a member thinks social dancing is contrary to the teaching of the Bible we reserve the right of our members to seek exemption.

10. Judicial Oaths. If a member as a matter of conscience refuses to “swear” in court we reserve their right to “affirm” the truth of their testimony.

13. Modesty in Attire. We urge our people to dress modestly.

8. Religion in Public Life. We believe prayer in government activities or in schools should be permitted.

7. Merchandising on the Lord's Day. We think merchandising on the Lord's Day should be illegal

No where. As soon as I finished I was dissatisfied. It isn’t right. It looks like someone took a list of membership requirements from 1958 and stuck them into new categories. Which is exactly what I did. It just doesn’t work. My homework led me down a dead end street. It simply doesn’t work. It looks like I just wasted my time going down a box canyon. (And you followed me down here!)
But thinking is never wasted effort. Why? Because the right answer is often a byproduct of the wrong answer. So, having fully developed an elaborate system of rearranging the present membership commitments into a new format and found them wanting… I now ask, “What are the byproducts of this wrong answer that might be worth developing into a right answer?” I can think of these:

1. The idea of “Minimum membership requirements.” It is too late to go back to the membership=leadership model that I personally prefer. We long since past that exit on the thruway. Thus we ought to determine what the true minimum standards of membership are today. What will keep a person out of our church? What will get a member kicked out? That’s all we really believe anyway isn’t it? The rest is just window-dressing if we won’t enforce it. Do we really believe standards we won’t act on? I suppose the denominational scribes won’t allow for such plain terminology as “Minimum Membership Requirements” but I think the idea should prevail whatever they name it. We should list in this category only those things that if violated we are willing to expel a present member or refuse a new candidate admission. We should not “pad” the minimum list with nice things Christians “ought” to do. Our list ought to be what we’re willing to enforce—everywhere at all times and in all places. This is a notion worth investigating more. If we actually did this, what would be on that list? What are the standards you’d insist on for a new members? What do you feel so strongly about that if a present member violated them you’d initiate discipline immediately? Do we have the guts to make this list? Would we be willing to face how short it already is?

2. The notion of an “expectations and admonitions” category. Again, the scribes will have to name it something else, but the idea is worth considering. Rather than insisting on the new member making commitments to the church should the church be making a commitment to the new member by telling them what we intend to teach, preach and urge as a Christian lifestyle—sort of a “religious full disclosure.” It is worth thinking about—making a list of lifestyle matters people don’t promise to live by so much as accept that they will be constantly preached about, taught about, and urged on them if they attend this church. Or at least they could commit to “move toward” that lifestyle? If they reject this lifestyle outright then why join our church—why even attend? Yet in this way of thinking we wouldn’t force them to make a lifestyle vow. We’d just let them join us with full disclosure of what they’ll be taught. Membership rules that are not preached about won’t last anyway. And if you can’t honestly preach on it—why in the dickens would it be a membership rule in the first place? I think this notion has some merit—rewording our rules into an “expectations and admonitions” category and placing the commitment on the church more than the prospect.

3. There is too much stuff. Boy once I listed them out in easy-to-read language it struck me flat in the face. Some of this stuff has got to go. It isn’t bad, it is just out of date. As a sidetrack I printed out my list and Xed off all those we either ignore today or dismiss lightly—boy there were a lot! This list is obsolete. The church has changed—we have made some things “worse sins” and others we have reduced to misdemeanors. For instance over times we’ve raised the bar on abortion (never mentioned until the 1980s) but we’ve lowered the bar on jewelry, movies, modest attire and purchasing on the Lord’s Day. The list is out of date and needs pared down.

4. There is missing stuff. That’s what bugged me most—there is important stuff missing from the lists—things we believe today more deeply than the old-timers. We need to add these more recent convictions from the Spirit. For instance I wondered why our membership commitments do not ask for a commitment to not have or perform or assist in performing abortions. It seems like this is a really big issue to us today—almost a “test issue” for a Christian? Yet we list it over in the “Special Directions” with things like guarding our TV-watching.
(SIDETRACK: Can a Wesleyan be pro-choice? Could a Wesleyan medical doctor perform abortions? Could they perform them for therapeutic reasons—for the exemption reasons we already have? Can a Wesleyan nurse work in an abortion clinic and assist a doctor performing abortions? Could a Wesleyan do all this a keep their membership commitments? Homosexual practice is the same—we ask a member to abstain from alcohol but not homosexual practice—why? Were these things “just assumed?” OK—sidetrack to this sidetrack—some say that when the church makes rules it usually makes a list of “what we don’t do” to make sure new people line up. That is the rule-making process is a snapshot of present already-common behaviors. When a new list is made nobody really “gives up” any practice—they just codify what “everybody already knows is wrong.” OK—if we made a list today I bet we’d all list things like this—abortion, homosexual practice, illegal drug use, child abuse and whatever other things we already don’t do. PRESTO! We’d all become compliant in a moment. But here’s a more disturbing question—wont the next generation come along and simply replace our snapshot with theirs? Among the students I see coming out of our homes and churches I can already see the new list of “serious sins” –dishonesty and leaders withholding any information at all form their people—stuff we boomers do as normal leadership. Yet they are far softer on homosexual relationships than we are—will they merely take a new snapshot later? While this is no reason for us to refuse to ever change (or all our women would have uncut hair and none of us would be wearing wedding rings) but it is still something thinking people should consider.

5. BUT HERE’S THE REAL QUESTION: What if we made a new list today on blank paper? That is where I finally went in this little writing and thinking exercise. Simply rearranging the present list didn’t satisfy me. I wanted to make a new one. Sort of the “Zero Based Budgeting” concept applied to membership requirements. What would the lists look like if they were written today? Today’s church doesn’t get worked up over buying on Sunday like they used to—but they have convictions about other things. “Collective convictions” change with time. Old ones are dropped and new ones emerge. So, here is my question to you: If you locked all the stakeholders in my denomination in a room (without their Disciplines) what sort of list would they come up with today? Now that’s a question worth investigating. I might just lock myself up this week for a while and try it.

Keith Drury January 31, 2005

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