Setting Church Boundaries
Last Thursday night we held the latest MennoNerds discussion oriented around how a peace church ministers who those to take part in “justified” violence and see no problem with it. While we failed to record it again, Deborah did give us a great recap. There was a lot of great and important stuff in that conversation so check out that summary for the whole thing. One topic stuck in my head, though, and didn’t go as far in the conversation as I would have liked. Here’s Deb’s general comments from the conversation:
Yet, this tension increases when we think about membership issues. On the one hand, it is fine to include all people into church life, but those who are taking the step of baptism and/or membership perhaps should truly believe the set of doctrine laid out before them. In one way, it might not make sense to allow “just anyone” to be able to be in a position to instruct and lead others. We talked about the need to look after our “flock”. When someone comes in and starts teaching theology contrary to what the pastors and elders believe it can really upset and damage the church. Perhaps there should be some type of “fencing” that we put into practice…
Some of this will be doubling up from what Deborah recapped, but I want to set the stage on how I was thinking of the questions throughout the conversation and since.
We came to pretty easy agreement on how we should be treating people that disagree with our peace ethic: go after them and love them exactly as they are and where they are. It reminded me a lot of the conversations that conservative evangelicals are having around LGBT persons. The clear bare minimum articulated by Jesus and elsewhere throughout Scripture is loving those people to the point of giving your lives for them. The MennoNerd conversation mostly stuck to this aspect. In other words, there should be absolutely no fences for people investigating: not moral fences, not theological, not racial, gender, class, sexual orientation, or anything else.
On the next “tier” of sorts – and I don’t like the “tier” language but there isn’t any better way to say it that I can think of – we have baptism. Baptism, we believe, is fundamentally a declaration of the decision to follow Jesus. It doesn’t really carry any other moral or theological statements with it. Although some did seem to think that it is hard to say you’re trying to follow Jesus without striving for peace, the general agreement seemed to be that baptism should still easily be extended to those people as well as others who disagree on a variety of issues theological or moral. In an age when the majority of Christians are not pacifists, I also think it would be practically stupid to refuse this and alienate so many people who do genuinely want to get closer to Jesus.
Those who expressed hesitation at this level of openness to baptism did so not because they thought it devalued baptism but because of the fact that most Anabaptist churches tie voting membership with baptism (the kind of things I’m getting into below). I want to keep those separate because I really do think that baptism and membership are separate functions for separate purposes. Otherwise we’re either making baptism a much more demanding process than Jesus and the apostles did or we’re making membership relatively easy.
And making membership too easy can be a significant problem. Whether we like it or not, the church operates as an institution. No, that’s not the core of what the church is. But since the earliest times there have been institutions for the sake of helping organize this radical Kingdom-making movement of Jesus-followers. Even the earliest church had some clear boundaries on who could join membership in any kind of decision-making role. Soldiers who continued in the service, for example, could not (some early church leaders allowed soldiers to finish what they had already signed up for; others required that they become deserters). For another example, Paul wrote to the church of Corinth that they needed to discipline somebody who was sleeping with his step-mother.
So here’s the question: at what point do we deny church membership? Robert attempted to broaden the conversation and move away from the lines/fences way of looking at things. Instead, we should look at it like Jesus is the watering hole in the middle who we are all coming toward from different directions. It works very well for ecumenical conversation, working through issues where you are all moving toward Jesus just from other directions. But there’s a major way that I’m not sure it works as often in practice even though it sounds good in theory.
What do we do about those who want to join the community but don’t have any interest in moving toward Jesus at the centre? Others in the conversation seemed confused that this is possible but it very much is. A lot of people are drawn to the friendly community who does good justice work in the world. But they don’t really have interest in Jesus. They even want to become official voting members but they still don’t care about Jesus or God in general, let alone specific stances like the acceptability of violence. The effect that this creates, I think (and I have seen it happen in the denomination I grew up in), is to just scrap the “watering hole” of Jesus entirely. Those hanging around the outside not interested in Jesus use the governance granted to them to completely shift the focus away from Jesus. And it continues on as a nice social club, but it’s not the church in the theological sense of the term. We have a breakdown caused by the tensions of the ideal – where everybody involved in the institutional church loves Jesus passionately – and the reality that a lot of people attend church for other reasons.
There’s also the point, briefly mentioned by Deborah in the Hangout, of there being a wide array of options for Christian churches in pretty much any part of the Western world. Suppose somebody came and wanted to join my pacifist church – I mean actively teaching it regularly, not just a bullet point at the bottom of statement of faith – who was active in the military. I wouldn’t feel nearly as bad about denying them that precisely because I could point them to other churches where they would not be living in the constant tension. Deborah put it this way:
The other side of this is that because there are thousands of denominations, people have a chance to “choose” the one that is right for them. Many denominations do not require members to be pacifists, so why would someone who is not a pacifist intentionally choose a church which is against war?
Of course I would continue to consider that person my brother or sister and I would still keep open lines of communication about our disagreements as much as possible. I’m just not sure it would make sense on a practical level to introduce somebody into voting leadership if they disagree with such a core stance of that particular church institution. Seems like asking for trouble to me.
And I know the counter-point. It creates a form of two-tiered membership, or maybe even three-tiered membership like I’ve explained it here. Those who are just attending may not feel as included as those who are baptized but not members or those who are baptized and members. And the reality is, to a degree, they would be right. But if we blur the first line, we’ve given up the meaning of baptism as a declaration of discipleship and even more importantly we’ve given up the sense that discipleship is central to being the church (in the theological sense). And if we blur the second line, we are abandoning any sense of stability centred around Jesus and we are asking for a whole host of practical arguments amongst church leadership. When inclusion clashes with the centrality of discipleship to Jesus, discipleship must win.
Feel free to give other practical suggestions in the comments. I know my church does some creative things to avoid the whole problem of “membership,” which does alleviate a lot of the tension, but as I understand it there are a lot of challenges inherent in this approach from the legal perspective with regards to taxation. It can be confusing, too. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have voted in the general meeting even though I would like to and align with the church’s teachings on almost everything. I think I would need to be an elder (HomeChurch leader), but I might be wrong on that. I’m not sure this kind of creative rearranging is even an option for most churches, but maybe something else is and please comment if you can think of it.