Another email from a reader brought up the topic of church membership, specifically in terms of the commitment a church demands up-front, and the shape of the constitution. I stride forth to offer a few thoughts.
Now, it is important that we note this right at the start: we are not reinventing the wheel here about church membership. I am assuming that you are grown-up enough to see its importance. Honestly, any time someone trots out the whine-line of "why should I have to join a church?", my main mental response is "Oh, grow up!" I had that same thought when a well-read, white-haired brother started it up: "Dude, grow up." So if that's your thought, there's my response, and it's not a topic for this discussion.
Having said that, what should a church ask from folks, and lay on folks, in order to admit them to membership? Here I see two extremes:
That sounds mighty spiritual, and to some is a discussion-ender. But meanwhile, here on Planet Earth, we aren't able to see hearts and control events sovereignly, and God has entrusted to us the responsibility of seeing that things run decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:10). Pastors have to lead, even insistently (Titus 2:15). It's their job.
Also, is the mere profession of Christian faith, as defined by the professor, sufficient? Is there any fruit? God Himself calls on all converts to be water-baptized. Has the application taken at least that initial step of discipleship? What's the shape of the faith he professes? These questions can't just be ignored.
Plus, there are legal issues that we must keep in mind in America. On the one hand, God demands that churches maintain discipline over sinning members (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; Titus 3:10, etc.). But in America, unrepentant sinners can and will take churches to court and ruin them, if some in-writing preparation hasn't preceded the situation.
Finally, there has to be some mutual understanding about how things work. That's part of the point of having a local assembly, as opposed to occasional free-wheeling spontaneous outbursts of group chaos in Christ's name. Who's in charge? How do they get to be in charge? What are the ordinances? How are they observed? How is discipline handled? How are finances handled? What are core, non-negotiable beliefs? How can any of the above be changed? These are the sorts of minimal details a constitution should explain.
But then there's the...
Second extreme: control-freakism. Other groups yield to a tendency to front-load everything, and lay it all on the applicant. They go far beyond the minimal concerns laid out above. Their documents are longer than the American Constitution, and could be the text for a very dense semester course in a college.
(Full disclosure: I once composed a constitution for a local church. It was twelve pages, total. Those included the statement of faith [which you can read here] and the church covenant. There were truckloads of Scriptural references. I tried.]
To become a member, you must commit to specific patterns of church attendance (beyond Sunday morning), of financial support, of family devotions, of personal ministry. You are probed thoroughly about your spirituality, and expected pretty well to have your flesh completely contained. You must be mature and arrived, spiritually and doctrinally and emotionally and behaviorally. Then and only then, you maybe can be admitted into the rolls.
Confronted with this, one of my first responses is itself clichéd, but I think it's appropriate: this approach doesn't leave much for the Holy Spirit to do. The person needs to be There, before he can be Here. But then, what is the church for? What are the elders for? People have to get everything in order before they can become members? So elders have no responsibility for helping people to get There? They have no need of patience, forbearance, long-suffering, parent-with-child, nurse-with-children, shepherd-with-sheep slow work of ministry? Is that a Scriptural model? I don't think so.
It's one thing to have the essentials in place: this is what we believe, this is how we operate — will you commit to that? There should be no objection to such a table-setting minimum. But it's quite another thing to say, Please initial these forty-seven demands, submit your résumé, and then we'll consider your application and get back to you in 2-3 weeks.
I'm hardly advocating admitting just anyone who applies, but really, you just don't want to be troubled with imperfect, slow-learning plodders? Is that it? You don't want to have to persuade anyone, win anyone, convince anyone, motivate anyone? Is it all about getting around the need to keep up the pastoral ministry of visitation, of one-on-one (or one-on-family) discipleship? Is that it?
Otherwise, why is everything all front-loaded on the applicant? Where is the elder-board's (or whoever's) list of commitments to the applicant, initialed by each one of them? You know, such specifics as
- I promise to avoid multiplying rules on the church that don't directly derive from Scripture
- I promise to treat the time of church attenders with respect
- I promise not to become lazy, self-indulgent and undisciplined in how I conduct public meetings
- I promise not to go off on personal hobby-horses
- I promise always to put people over programs
- I promise never to take faithful long-timers for granted, in preference to seeking and cultivating exciting newcomers
- I promise not to view members in terms of what they can do for me and my ministry, but in terms of how I can serve them for God's glory
- Thus, I promise not to neglect members when they enter their twilight years
- I promise to lean equally on each word in the phrase "servant leadership"
- I promise never to become incapable of accepting criticism humbly and graciously
- I promise to remember that I am the only one who gets paid to do church-work fulltime, and that almost everyone else in the church has jobs, responsibilities, and commitments