December 14, 2019

In Support of Open Membership

I find it difficult to belong. You would think it wouldn’t be that hard. I am a Christian who sees many positive things in many traditions. I feel quite comfortable in many types of church settings. I am, however, in my core beliefs an Evangelical.

The problem is that where I live, Evangelicals are in the minority. In my community of 27,000 there is one Evangelical church. I helped start it. It was a Pentecostal church, and although I am not Pentecostal I figured that having one Evangelical church in town was better than having no Evangelical church, and so I offered my help.

My wife and I served under two Pastors there. We led worship, served on the leadership team, served on the pastoral search committee, taught Sunday School, and organized outreaches and banquets. All the while I was dreading the time when the church would become large enough to receive its “organized” status. For when the church received this status, membership would have to be formalized. We didn’t qualify. Membership required agreement to the statement of faith, and we didn’t believe the Pentecostal teaching on tongues.

Eventually we felt God calling us away from this church community, and we had a very amicable parting of the ways. We ended up at a church in another community, which unfortunately due to competing visions within its elders’ board closed its doors three years later. As we looked at other churches, most had something in their statement of faith that excluded us. They were either too Calvinist, or too fundamentalist, or too dispensational, or too anti-Charismatic for us to fit.

After a long search we found a church in a third community. We quite love it, and I have some very good things to say about it. Again, we didn’t qualify for membership, this time because my wife’s mode of baptism differed slightly from theirs. Although we do not believe in rebaptism (especially for those who have already been baptized as believers), our desire to belong eventually became stronger that our distaste for rebaptism and my wife was rebaptized. We became members shortly afterwards.

Are there others like me who have difficulty belonging? Conversations with people at places like Internetmonk.com make me think that my experience is hardly unique. So here are some questions I would like us to consider:

1. Does requiring agreement with a statement of faith lead to increased fragmentation within the body of Christ?

2. Or are there essentials that need to be agreed upon no matter what in order for someone to be accepted as a member?

3. If Christ has accepted me as a member of his body, are there ways to make it easier for me to be accepted into a local church body?

4. Could we lessen the requirement of membership in many evangelical churches, so that prospective members do not have to give complete agreement to a statement of faith, but instead will agree to uphold it and not teach contrary to it?

5. Are there similar situations in other faith traditions? If so, are there resolution that have been seen to work?

6. Finally, what could you do in your church to help people in my situation become part of your congregation and membership?

I don’t have a problem with a church having a statement of faith. I feel it is a good tool to say “this is what we are about as a church.” Is it not possible to say that “We welcome those who have slightly differing viewpoints” as long as they agree to uphold and abide by the statement of faith”?

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Comments

  1. People have mentioned creeds and I would recommend this Speaking of Faith program with Jaroslav Pelikan – “The Need for Creeds”:

    http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/pelikan/

  2. After I received Christ (in my garden one afternoon!) I wasn’t baptized for more than 5 years, because I couldn’t affirm 100% of the statement of faith for the church we were attending. How wrong is that?

  3. Very relevant topic since that is one of the issues my own church has struggled with. In order for it to change, however, it requires a change in ideology among the leaders who enforce the requirements. And I have found that to be very difficult. My own approach has been to walk away from the topic and let the church be forced to deal with it when their numbers of members continues not to grow. At some point, they’ve got to get tired of whining about why more people won’t join and look within and say, “what can we do differently?” Until that happens, I’m afraid that change won’t come any time soon. Some people feel very threatened by the very thought of people not believing every single thing that is outlined in the denomination’s doctrinal stance. To t hese people, not having 100% conformity is as foreign as 100% conformity is to those of us who are more open thinkers. Sometimes I think it’s just easier to move on to a place where one finds more compatibility rather than trying to force one’s views on an institution. That only tends to lead to frustration and a lot of hard feelings and for the cause of Christ, is it worth it?

  4. “I find it ironic that Jesus himself wouldn’t qualify for the highest level of membership…”

    I hear that frequently from folks who are opposed to membership. What, exactly, do they mean? It’s easy to say “Jesus would or wouldn’t… whatever”. I’m not sure any of us could say, ultimately, what Jesus would or would not do in all situations.
    The “Jesus wouldn’t – couldn’t” arguement becomes an end-all statement.
    Also, I can appreciate the concern of so many who consider themselves “called” or “gifted” in a particular area of service. Fine. But, I want to know if your “calling” or “gift” allows you to teach my children that they need to be (or, not be) baptized in order to be saved – whether they can lose (or, not lose) their salvation, etc.
    There is a reason many churches require a statement of faith, and it isn’t simply to protect a clique or private club. There are many believers who are earnestly concerned that what their children are taught to believe lines up both with Scripture and their earnestly-held convictions as to those beliefs.