Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Membership Case Study: The Wesleyan Church

Thinking of how to set up a discussion for a seminary course that contrasts what churches require for membership and what God requires for a person to be in His Church. What do you think about this set up? ... thought it might be helpful to get feedback before it went any further.
Protestant groups make a strong connection between their beliefs and the Bible. The sixth of the 39 articles of the Anglican Church (1563) reads that "Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation, so that whatever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any one, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." The Methodist tradition followed suit in its Disciplines (e.g., the Methodist Episcopal Church of 1784; the African Methodist Episcopal Church of 1816; etc.). And this statement made its way into the The Discipline of The Wesleyan Church as well.

In practice, however, the "reading" and "proving" of things in Scripture has resulted in an immense variety of beliefs and practices among Protestant groups. This last century has suggested some fundamental reasons why. The default mode of reading the Bible seems to be a strange mixture of anachronistic interpretation, failing to recognize differences between how the words strike us and how they would have struck their original audiences, and this largely without realizing it. A person might think they are simply believing or requiring things that can be "proved" from Scripture when in fact they may be "contemporizing" the meaning, seeing things in the text that were not originally there. Alternatively, they might apply Scriptures to today that arguably do not apply directly to our context.

The second potential misstep is one of application. For example, the Wesleyan Discipline has some general statements in relation to modesty. Although these are stated generally, fifty years ago they would have kept from Wesleyan membership a woman who did not wear long enough dresses or who cut her hair short. In conservative groups that separated from Wesleyan and other holiness churches, such requirements remain at least implicit and sometimes explicit membership requirements even today.

Can a requirement that a woman should not cut her hair or should not adorn herself with fine gold be required on the basis of Scripture? Yes, arguably they can, if one applies 1 Corinthians 11 or 1 Peter 3 directly to today. But does long hair on women or the absence of any jewelry mean the same thing today that it did in the first century? Most American and European Christians would say it does not, as is evident from the way most Christian women dress today. These are, then, potential instances where not taking into account the cultural distance between ourselves and the biblical texts has at least potentially led to misapplication of Scripture in relation to membership, even though requirements could in theory be "proved" from Scripture.

But far more requirements, ones that are considered very important to believe or do, are very difficult to prove from Scripture. The second potential misstep is one of interpretation. For example, the Wesleyan Church has struggled of late over the issue of whether to require all its members to abstain completely from alcohol. In years past, reading modern concerns into the ancient words, Wesleyans had argued that the Bible, properly understood, did not in fact allow for any drinking of alcohol. This is the dynamic we mentioned above, practiced by Christians throughout church history, of "contemporizing" the meaning of the biblical text to reinforce and embody what a particular group senses to be its identity at a particular point in time--or its sense of how the gospel plays out at a given place or time.

We do find verses that rail against the evils of drunkenness. So my forefathers and mothers extended such passages to the first drink. After all, you can never get drunk if you never take a first drink. Then they reinterpreted "naughty verses" that did not easily fit into their paradigm. We say that wine back then wasn't like the strong drink we have in our supermarkets. And maybe, just maybe, the Greek word oinos referred to unfermented wine. We find a group of people we consider scholars to go to work to see if they can finesse the evidence to support the conclusion we want them to reach.

When these sorts of dynamics first come into view, the first impulse is to adjust membership requirements to the real list, the boiled down, absolute list. So we will allow our women to cut their hair and follow their consciences as to what modesty might mean today. Perhaps we start a movement to allow our members to drink alcohol as long as they do so in moderation.

But perhaps we have still missed the underlying principle. Even if there were some bottom line set of principles that we can abstract from the concrete admonitions of Scripture, they would still have to be played out concretely in the varied contexts of today. We are often open to the idea that some biblical injunctions do not apply to today because of cultural differences--so our women may not veil themselves any more as in 1 Corinthians 11. But it is a virtual certainty that there will also be things we cannot do today that they could do in biblical times, playing out the cultural principle. It is thus possible that there are modern contexts where it is not appropriate for Christians to drink, even though believers could in Bible times. There will likely be things that Christians in New Zealand or Nicaragua should not do that American Christians can... and visa versa.

Our goal cannot be, in the end, to model church membership on all the exact specifics of the way some portion of those in the Bible looked or even believed! They differed from each other in how they looked and believed, in terms of all the specifics (not denying that we might find a common core among New Testament believers). By the same token, the transfer of biblical requirements to the many different contexts of today will also result in varied expectations, not only meaning the differences between Singapore, Moscow, and New York City, but also the differences between New York City and a place like Marion, Indiana.

No doubt some will object strongly to the notion of membership at all. Does not God decide who is in His Church? Who are we to put requirements on others once we recognize that any list we create is bound to be laden with the idiosyncrasies of passing culture?

In many respects, this is a great thought. Would we really turn away anyone from our doors who was truly seeking God with all their heart? Don't we want to recognize humbly that we do not have a corner on God's mind and, indeed, that our tradition may not be correct on everything?

On the other hand, whoever preaches, whoever teaches, whoever has a "word from the Lord" is going to make truth claims. At some point, we will find disagreement among those who call themselves God's children. Groups meet together because they have some common vision or understanding, something that binds them. A group that was non-committal on everything about which Christians disagree would be a truly bland group indeed, with little to teach and little to do. Church groupings embody a kind of vitality that a vanilla, boiled down core could never have.

And in practice, few of us are going to go start--or attend--a house church. That means we are stuck with existing churches and denominations. And even non-denominational churches stand within traditions. They will almost certainly baptize in a certain way, preach that you should or should not do certain things. Do they believe in speaking in tongues or not? Do they believe in eternal security or not? What do they think evangelism means? How is the church's leadership structured? Answers to these sorts of questions identify the influences of Christian traditions on a church, whether it is connected to other churches or not.

So if there are clear limits to the churches in which we find ourselves, then in practice we simply do not have the authority to decide fully who can be a member of our church and who cannot. These are more givens. The vast majority of believers are located in specific churches in specific denominations and traditions with specific understandings. This will never go away, no matter how much momentum the house church movement gains.

A second practicality has to do with leadership. It is a wonderful theory to consider anyone in your church a member who attends and makes some sort of confession of Christian faith. But who do you allow to lead the church? Who can bring a word to the congregation and who will steer those words when they seem to go off track? If a group holds certain beliefs or practices dear as central to their identity, how will they keep them from disappearing when individuals from other traditions start worshipping with them or broader cultural influences take hold? Should they even be worrying about such things?

The title of this piece proclaimed it a case study in local church membership, based on The Wesleyan Church. This church has been wrestling with these sorts of issues now for a couple decades. On the one hand, it was earlier a denomination of relatively small churches, and small churches hold their unique identities well. Membership requirements were extensive, delving into the minutia of a believer's life and playing out various artifacts of its nineteenth century origins, things like prohibitions on dancing or playing cards.

The last few decades have seen a pruning of some of these many particularities, sometimes because the general populace--including church leaders--had come to ignore them. What is the point of having a statement about not going to movies when your general officials themselves go to movies? It trivializes the instructions we do value. At some points changes were made because of increased maturity in biblical understanding. For example, the New Testament does not equate the Jewish Sabbath with Sunday, so there is no biblical basis for prohibiting a Christian from buying and selling on Sunday (though ironically we might have been justified in forbidding it on Saturday).

In recent times, however, a point of real growth has taken place because of the dynamics of our larger churches. These churches have attracted many believers from other traditions. They worship with us. They give tithes and offerings to us. They are clearly believers. Will we really tell them that they are not members of our church because they drink moderately, which is clearly allowed biblically? Will we keep them from voting on whether to start a Christian school because they believe a person cannot lose their salvation--especially when they want to give $10,000 toward that new wing?

This tension has caused some changes in the way The Wesleyan Church structures its membership. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, it is impossible to claim that only those who look, believe, and behave the way we do are truly Christians. Clearly there are many believers out there who are our brothers and sisters but who simply disagree with us on the particulars of our faith and practice. They are part of God's Church, but history has left it difficult for them to be members of my church. How can a tradition, embodied in a local church, remain true to its identity as a witness to a certain understanding, and yet acknowledge all those who truly confess faith within its halls to be Christians?

The Wesleyan Church has struggled with this tension. Its current solution is not perfect, but it is an honorable attempt to be faithful to these two principles. On the one hand, it has what it calls "community" membership. In theory, anyone who confesses faith in Christ and manifests the most basic common understandings of what that means in belief and practice, can be such a member. These individuals fully participate in the life of the local congregation as members.

On the other hand, we have another category called "covenant" membership. It is identification with the Wesleyan tradition and the conglomeration of churches that form The Wesleyan Church. It pertains to the highest level of leadership in the local church as well as representation to bodies beyond the local church.

The matter of alcohol is a case in point. There are many American Christians who have a vibrant faith yet drink moderately. The Wesleyan Church, however, has historically chosen to be abstinent as a statement against the consequences that often result from drinking in broken lives and uncontrolled actions. And so we now have community members who drink moderately, while Wesleyan leadership binds itself--beyond the biblical requirements--not to drink at all.

As the world "flattens," it becomes increasingly hard for Christian traditions to separate themselves from one another and go off to their own little enclaves. The result is that our children know Christians from other denominations and fellowships. Indeed, they know people from other religions. We will increasingly have to defend our specific identities in ways we did not fifty years ago. And each group will have to work out how to be who they are without denying that there are other believers out there with significantly different understandings and practices--with all of us looking at the same Bible.


John Mark said...

Do you think the Church Discipline should address the issue of drunkenness even if your denomination would soften its stance on alcohol?

I deal with people on a regular basis who struggle with alcohol; this goes way beyond abstraction for me. I recently stated from my pulpit that I no longer believe that to drink is a sin, but reminded people that when they joined the church they said they wouldn't. (I had reports of drunken behavior among my membership/leadership). In addition I am sensitive to this issue because there is a history of alcoholism in my own family.
So how, in your opinion, would this be handled?

Ken Schenck said...

I would hope that this approach would help us actually focus on the real issue! I wonder if more people would find themselves moving away from drinking if we were focusing on the things that led Christians to be teetotal in the first place rather than on the peripheral issue of whether one can drink or not at all.

John said...

Your discussion topic is fascinating - especially from my own denominational context, Disciples of Christ, where we invite all believing Christians into membership (and leadership) without creedal pre-qualification. The question of what constitutes a "believer" is generally left open to the member and not questioned by the community - though I suppose a community could put someone out who was truly 'off the reservation'. But is the Disciples subjective approach Biblically sound?

While I would argue that it is supportable, I am sensitive to the theological confusion to which this approach exposes the congregation.

The support comes from a number of directions. The New Testament witnesses to profound division among early church leaders on major issues. The conflict resulted in name calling and efforts to undermine the authority of the opposition and even removal from the membership in the community, but I am not aware that they denied their right to claim the label “Christian”. Paul was often under attack from within the community. Paul contested the correctness of their opposition to him but he did not deny that his opponents were authentic members of the Christian community. Interestingly, today few if any would suggest that anyone who believed exactly as Paul taught (and was challenged in regard to) should be denied admission to any denomination of congregation. This would suggest that creedal principals are indeed flexible over time.

Furthermore, the New Testament does not set forth a creed or a set of faith requirements for entry into the community. Such requirements were derived from Scripture later - and they too were flexible.

Also, there is the very practical truth that the beliefs and tenets of sincere believers undergo growth and change over time. And even with such change, the changing believer does not lose faith, but they become deeper and richer in their relationship with God, their faith communities and with each other.

In terms of ethical and lifestyle choices, its not about consumption of alcohol or length of hair or modesty, but about what it means to live lives which reflect hearts which truly love God and truly love one another (including ourselves) as God loves us. All of us are poor ambassadors of Christ in our weak moments, and all of us have many weak moments - some of us are just very good at hiding those moments. But God loves each of us unconditionally in our weakness as well as in our strength. As hard as it may be, to truly model God, communities of believers must learn to love each other unconditionally in their weaknesses as well as in their strengths.


Rick said...


Recently I’ve been thinking of membership from a slightly different perspective.

If Jesus commissioned the church to continue his ministry in and to the world, then doesn’t the church become the visible expression of Jesus in the world? When people look for Jesus they should rightly look at the church and find him.

Based on that understanding, the church then has a stewardship responsibility for the truth and testimony of Jesus. Statements of faith become the church’s attempt to preserve and proclaim both the truth about Jesus and the truth he taught.

Then the behavior of the people becomes the testimony of Jesus. As you rightly state the cultural context significantly informs our understanding of proper Christian behavior. So then for the church to consider cultural factors when determining behavioral expectations for its members becomes not only acceptable but essential. Only then can the church present a proper testimony of Jesus.

It seems to me that when the church’s membership expectations become its attempt to be good stewards of the truth and testimony of Jesus, those expectations make sense and become more palatable. Sure Christians will likely always disagree about the specifics, but we can respect each other when the goal is to bear faithful witness by being the visible expression of Jesus in the world.

Lifestyle limits are no longer arbitrary choices that restrict my freedom. They become guidelines to support me in bearing a faithful and true witness for Christ. And just as the church plays a key role in interpreting scripture to help me know what to believe. It now interprets the times to help me know how to live.


Ken Schenck said...

Sounds good Rick. I think the two practical issues still come into play. Someone still has to decide what it means to live out Jesus' mission in our world (me for myself, at the very least) and most churches don't have the luxury of starting from scratch.

John said...


I'm not sure the Church as described in Paul's letters or in the New Testament as a whole, presents a model which supports your idea. I am not saying it is not good idea, just that it might transcend the NT.

The NT seems to present a rather diffuse and unsettled understanding of what should form a basic statement of faith (look at the rather limited pronouncement of the Jerusalem Counsel, and the fact that whatever Paul taught, he was not one of the Pillars of the Church - with whom he was in regular tension often over basic questions of orthodoxy - and what did the Ethiopian Eunuch - as well as so many others - have to profess to believe before they were baptized into the church?

The NT is equally unsettled about what should be the norm be for orthodox ethical behavior within and without the congregation. Consider the differences within the Corinthian church as well as the seemingly permissible judiaizing of the Jerusalem church especially highlighted on Paul’s final trip to Jerusalem.

Even Paul said that ultimately in the area of ethics, the discussion begins with the understanding that when one lives in Christ all is permissible. That being acknowledged, limitations are a matter of convention only, that is, the only limit is that your choices and your conduct should not cause another to stumble. Not that any particular choice is sinful, so long as it is undertaken with the mind of Christ, however, because even the best and most appropriate choices may create ethical dilemmas for weaker brothers and sisters - we must be mindful of the effect which our choices will have on the sensibilities of our brothers and sisters. And we may have to allow those sensibilities to determine our choices.

To be a faithful and true witness to Christ we must first show compassion in all that we say and do, and thereafter make choices which are heathy, and which affirm the working of the Spirit in the lives and relationships around us.

Finally, I think that to set forth a list of ethical commandments relieves believers of the responsibility to use their freedom in Christ to make Christlike choices. Instead they become captives of the commandments - not free at all but bound by mindless (though well intentioned) rules. Even the pagans obey rules. Genuine fruit would be genuine Christlike choices made with the freedom to choose otherwise - choices not driven by concern for adverse consequences to ourselves but driven by a desire to have positive consequences on those around us.

I am aware that I am coming at this from outside of the Wesleyan denomination perspective, but these are my thoughts for what they are worth. I hope you are not put off by my ramblings.


Anonymous said...

Regarding Church membership I found in The Forgotten Ways an interesting paragigm (shift): We should lower the bar on how we do church and raise the bar on discipleship.

Practically this means, I think, more flexible and informal forms of worship and gathering coupled with stricter accountability, morality and faithful discipleship.

This attitude towards discipline was how Wesley operated yet it goes against the seeker sensitive model.

We need to find a way to have genuine "believers only" gatherings while at the same time being missional and bringing Christ to the world.