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.