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.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • How about you start differently….rather than trying to reorganize an already established Christendom-based church (and even Mennonite congregations have that characteristic), you start on the smaller, more organic level…what if, instead of trying to figure out institutional membership, we do what Meeting House home groups do already? Let the teaching happen by those who teach, but when it comes to community gathering on the small scale, let the watering hold do it’s thin?

  • The Meeting House still has a strong overarching structure, including I think about 100 paid employees (some full-time, many part-time). While we emphasize the community hermeneutic for Scripture and the teachings we get in the sermons, it is still pretty obvious who are the main influencers in thought. The HomeChurches are somewhat organic, yes, but still structured. Leaders, called elders, don’t just step forward and that’s it. They are nominated by their current leaders, pretty much apostolic succession, and go through a training which is essentially the same across all the sites as prepared by the top leadership. These elders are the same ones who vote on the big questions for the overarching organization, albeit with a lot of feedback from the people in their HCs.

    I’m still toying with the idea that anything much less structured than that could actually work. It sounds great in theory but I don’t see how it could really translate into practice.

    • Mike

      “I’m still toying with the idea that anything much less structured than that could actually work.”
      The A.A. model does

  • Arthur Sido

    “Whether we like it or not, the church operates as an institution.”

    Which begs the question, if we don’t like it and we don’t see it in Scripture why should we keep trying to tinker with institutionalism and then wonder why we keep getting the same results? There is just no warrant in Scripture to create competing local groups that form “membership” boundaries to keep people out or deny them full fellowship in the church. It is not my baptism or yours, it is not my Supper it is His. The language and intent behind membership is based on control, mostly top down control historically, and that has no place in the church.

    House church is not the end all and be all but at least it is a step in the right direction, a direction that gets away from an event and organizational focus for the church.

    • I’m definitely not suggesting that we need an event/organization *focus* but that doesn’t mean we can do away with events and organization. Without them nothing happens. Somebody has to set a time and place to meet. Someone has to make sure costs are covered. (Usually) Somebody has to organize a topic, preferably with some knowledgeable teaching. Structure, when submitted to the purpose of bringing people closer to Jesus, is a good and necessary thing.

      Membership to me is similarly about practicalities. We need to report to our government what our donations are being used toward. Membership numbers is one of the things they look at. Does it come down to tax fraud vs this ideal of never having that “tier” of church membership and its potential implications? I have to think there’s a better way than that but maybe I’m just being optimistic as I’ve never experienced membership as a form of top-down control as you describe.

      • Well… you only need to report to the government what your donations are used for if you want to maintain a tax exempt status and/or an organizational foot print. Individual gifts and pooling resources between people isn’t covered by tax law. So, if I have 20 people, each gives 20 dollars within a friend-to-friend relationship to help pay the $400 rent for a struggling couple, the government can’t touch it.

        Some of the other things you mention presuppose some sort of formalization of the structure of an organization. I agree, structure is necessary to some extent, but is it necessary to the extent that you are proposing? Again, what if a group of 20 people decide to get together semi-regularly for a shared meal. Over that meal, conversation takes place and gospel is proclaimed. When it comes to the teaching/discipling, authority in that sense comes not necessarily from some institutionally recognized ordination, but through reputation amongst the gathered. Again, not as much top-down, but more on the lines of organically organized.

        Some of the logistics are necessary, but if the gatherings maintain a small size, the logistics are much easier. You need a LOT of structure to support a congregation of 50-100 or 100-1000 or so on. But when you have a gathering of, perhaps 5-10 families sharing a meal together, it’s a LOT easier to handle the logistics because the relationships are a lot closer.

        See, the presupposition that I hear in this conversation is that, naturally, gatherings will always grow to be large. That’s fine in a Christendom context that supports large institutions. But as our nations head away from Christendom, large institutions will find it harder to maintain. This is why I think the meeting house model will work with some modifications. There will be a “pool” of recongnized people who exhibit various gifts for ministry that will be drawn upon by the dispersed communities but, structurally, the communities will be smaller, more mobile, more agile, and more fluid. Orthodoxy is maintained through teaching, training, and discipling, but the specific manifestations of the church are smaller. Again, probably no more than 5-10 families per.

        *shrug* I’m kinda talking off the top of my head but, from my internship in seminary, this is what I learned. And my mentor, Scott Roth, had done a lot of studying from this perspective. Neil Cole and “Church 3.0” played a lot into this as well as other organic church teachers and authors.

        • I’m quite content with letting what structures work best for the postmodern/post-Christendom era emerge as organically as possible. They just will emerge somehow or another and I’m not convinced that it would really emerge that much differently than the current idea of membership to maintain some kind of group definition other than “if you want to hang out with us, go ahead!”

          And yes, I am presupposing that groups will grow, assuming you’re doing the whole loving each other thing. People are drawn to that. Including people who don’t necessarily have any interest in Jesus but do enjoy the group because of that love. And what do we do if one of those people want to play a large role in the decision-making process? At some point there is either discernment of who is at that higher “tier” to make those decisions, whether you call it membership or something else, or the original group’s purpose will dissipate.

          If there is somebody being paid for leading this group (everybody pools money, don’t bother with non-profit status, etc), I guess that paid person could claim it as contract work to justify the lack of any organization paying them. Everyone involved would be giving up a lot of breaks that they’re currently used to – at least in Canada – but yeah, that’s possible. I’ll leave the tax aspect of it alone since that was never the main point anyway.

          • I think you still represent some presuppositions based upon the institutional model of church as being the “norm” for church formation. You assume that the church depends upon membership roles where as Scripturally the church is made up of relationships. You assume that large gatherings are the norm rather than looking at a “reproduction” model once a group reaches a certain size. You assume a need for paid staff rather than a “calling out” of gifted people from within the “rank and file”.

            The key to it all is not an institutionalized structure but relationships built around discipleship. You start with a disciples of Jesus, following Jesus, and aiming for transformation in the character of Jesus. That person disciples others. They disciple others. And so on. Leaders are trained and called out and “sent” to establish other gatherings where discipleship occurs. This is the “organic” model. It basically says that institutions, while not evil and so on, are not the be all and end all. If the society supports them, then they will happen. But I believe we’re coming to a point in Western Christianity where our society, if we want to really be about discipling Jesus followers, will no longer be able to support large institutions of established Christianity. It’s not going to happen all at once, but I think we need to take a look again at our 16th century Anabaptist fore-fathers and at the early church to see what church gathering looks like in an unChristianized culture and learn from them.

            The key, of course, is discipleship. If all we are doing in our gatherings are creating consumer Christians who come to the gathering to get “fed” and to have their egos stroked, then yes, “boundaryless” churches will fail… and, honestly, we see this happening even in the churches WITH boundaries. But if we are honestly seeking to “go and make disciples”, then the specific structure of the church doesn’t matter a whole lot so long as people are being faithfully discipled into being followers of Jesus through the relationships that arise within church communities.

          • Nothing to say except clarifications on a few things you just said. I assume some structure, as do you, yes. I do not assume that the church depends on membership roles; I assume that a local church requires some kind of definition as to who is making decisions and who is not. If you want to call it membership or priesthood or “calling it out,” go for it, but yes, I do assume there is some discernment necessary there. And I agree wholeheartedly with the reproductive model, as The Meeting House has, but it doesn’t get around the point that we still need to discern who is making decisions and who isn’t.

            I do assume a need for paid staff because I have no idea who can afford to give away for free the crazy amount of time necessary to maintaining a community: teaching prep for the main group, counselling, obviously the meeting(s) itself/themselves, weddings, funerals, baptisms. For most pastors of 50 people churches this is already a 60 hour work week so a 15 person church is probably still going to approach 40 hours to do it well. Plus many of those things cost money to do. I guess if leadership were restricted to those who already made enough money to retire on from a previous career and/or were supported by a spouse making well above average money? I would clearly be discounted from leading such a group for such reasons even though I do think I would be qualified (ironically, the cost for the education that helped me be qualified would be a large part of why I wouldn’t be able to in this model).

            We may have to agree to disagree on this one 🙂

          • Well, a couple of items. When it comes to “who is making descisions and who is not”, again, if discipling is taking place properly and an environment of mutual submission is occurring, the decision making process is probably not going to be quite so onerous. Also, if you keep a smaller community, again, something like 20 people, mutual discernment may not be quite as difficult for leadership, etc., as it would be in a congregation of 100’s.

            As for the second part, the assumption I hear is that one person does all the roles. Why not spread the load? Why must one person do all the teaching AND the counseling AND administer the rituals AND… well, you get the picture. If there is a more mutuality about the gathering and less of a dependance on a “jack of all trades”, then that 40 hours a week gets MUCH reduced. I mean, let’s say my wife gets sick again. What if, when it came to hospital visitation, it was done more relationally? Rather than one “pastor” doing it, it occurred through ALL the people in the group? Actualy, that’s what happened for us. Our pastor NEVER VISITED US IN THE HOSPITAL. He didn’t need to because we had at least 10 other people who showed up regularly.

            So, again, the presupposition seems to imply large gathering and professional mindset rather than “priesthood of all believers” and smaller, organic gatherings. Change the model, and some of those problems go away. Agreed, not all… but it seems there are other ways of achieving the same kinds of ministries.

            But, perhaps, you are correct… we may BOTH be right. 😉 In any case, I think the church (meaning the People of God) in the west need to engage their imaginations and start thinking of other ways of gathering and ministering togethers because I don’t see the large institutions being viable for much longer.

          • That discernment is precisely my point, though, whatever you want to call it. At some point there is a fence determining who is qualified and who is not. It may be spoken and it may not, may be determined by some higher denomination or may be determined by the current leader(s), sometimes it will happen without controversy but probably not enough. But there is a fence. And if there isn’t some kind of fence, it will die or fade away from meaningful discipleship.

            Your balanced load theory is a similarly idealistic one. Sure, strive for it. I just don’t see many people buying into the idea that their group won’t even exist anymore if they’re not all contributing several hours a week on top of being there, on top of outward facing initiatives by the group and alone, on top of a day job with a long commute, etc. As it is, most people in our HomeChurch don’t have time for the compassion initiatives which would only be an extra couple hours a week. I think most of us would much prefer to pay something to offload some responsibility to Bruxy et al for teaching, to the Weekend Service Producer for worship gatherings, to the site leadership pastors for the range of things they do, etc.

          • John Ayala

            Let me just start by saying that I appreciate your post and willingness to deal with these hard questions. The thought, time, effort and responses to comments, let’s me know that you care deeply for the church.

            I think the issue you have is with making decisions for the congregation and in a congregational model of “church”, your concerns would be valid. But the “congregational” model of church government is not necessarily the only one or the best in any given situation. In a situation that Robert is talking about, it may be advantageous to use an “elder” or “senior pastor(s)” model. Where only a few who are determined to be more advanced in their walk with Jesus to be the decision makers for the group. Although, they should not have complete and utter power over everything. This should be shared with others in the group who are more advanced in their walk as well. Discipleship to Jesus, in their everyday lives would have to be the center of this group’s focus. Out of this type of discipleship should/would flow the gifts of the spirit: service to others, teaching to others, leadership, etc. Which would produce more growth and shared responsibility, not because it is imposed but because people would genuinely want to help, out of their discipleship to Jesus. Thus, the organic reproduction would continue. I know this sounds idealistic but doesn’t much of what Jesus teach us sound that same way? Most people I know who go to church now, would not want to put time/effort into being a disciple and will try to use scripture to tell me why we should not waste our time on being intentional disciples of Jesus. This is amazing to me but it speaks to people not wanting to put in effort into their relationship with Jesus. This is that consumerism that is so rampant in the church today. If they applied this same approach to other relationships, they would have no spouses, partners, friends and/or close family for that matter. This is not the “life more abundantly” that Jesus speaks of.

            As you state though, there would definitely have to be boundaries imposed and removal from fellowship, if necessary. But this should happen in the way described in Matt 18:15-17. In a loving, relational, discipleship context, going through these steps would hopefully weed out any theological or moralistic bullying that may take place since eventually everyone in the congregation would be informed and try to reason/talk to the person/people involved (the accused and the accuser). Then at some point, if they are really found to be sinning, still persistent in “sin” (hurting themselves or others), then they must be removed from the community. This would be the responsibility of the whole congregation, not just the “chosen few.” But as we do this, we must keep in mind one thing: we must trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in all of the people who at least say they want to follow Jesus. We must have grace and allow people to get back up if they fall.

            In all, we need to “have visions” and “dream dreams”, whether we are young or old, in order to move “following Jesus” into a more real and relationship-based, post-modern context. This speaks to our using our imaginations and trying new things for God. Many things sound idealistic until they start to become concrete reality and even less so when they eventually become the norm.

            Thanks for this great post and ensuing discussion!

          • “In all, we need to “have visions” and “dream dreams”, whether we are young or old, in order to move “following Jesus” into a more real and relationship-based, post-modern context.”

            Yes. That.

          • Apparently it’s not getting through that I’m saying pretty much the exact same thing. We need structures. They will happen, whether you want them to or not. You’re both agreeing that there has to be some kind of discernment for who is making the decisions for the group. People can’t just walk in and change the direction. I am not at all saying we need large congregations. I’ve been routinely supporting the house church model. I’m not sure how else I can say it so I’ll probably leave the conversation alone unless I figure out a way to say it in a way that gets through.

          • Whoops. Yeah, in rereading, I see that. My bad, Ryan. Es copa?

          • Sorry if that came across sounding annoyed. I wasn’t and I am grateful for the conversation. I’ve just spent too much of my work day on this circling around variations of the same idea.

          • Eh, it’s all good, Ryan. 🙂 Enjoying the journey together. 🙂

          • John Ayala

            We are actually all saying the same thing but that whole idea of leadership, membership, power and such are really complicated questions. I was just trying to put more detail into exactly how it should/would work. Although, in a broad, general sense we are all saying the same thing “there must be some structure”.