Sunday, February 21, 2010

Individualism Both Allowed and Condemned - Re-Thinking Church Membership (Part 33)

In a recent post, Chaplain Mike Mercer (filling in for ailing Michael Spencer at the Internet Monk) asks some questions after reading evangelical megachurch pastor Rick Warren's article at the Christian Post, titled Following Jesus Means Belonging to a Local Congregation. After identifying Warren's thesis, "When we're called to follow Christ; we're also called to belong to the body of Christ," Mercer notes his idea that pastors today have as one of their biggest hurdles, "it is hard to convince people who attend church to commit themselves to the church family and become members."

Mercer then moves to Warren's placing of blame: '“today’s culture of independent individualism.” As a result, we have many “spiritual orphans who move from one church to another without any identity, accountability or commitment.”' Warren concludes his article with an exhortation:
We must remind those who fill our buildings each Sunday that joining the membership of a local church is the natural next step once they become a child of God. You become a Christian by committing yourself to Christ, but you become a church member by committing yourself to a specific group of believers. The first decision brings salvation; the second brings fellowship.
But then Mercer asks the following questions of Warren's argument:
■It seems, right from the start, that Warren is conceding the point that one can belong to Christ without being a member of the church. Membership in the church
is a second “step” in the Christian life—important but ultimately a matter of choice on the part of the individual Christian. Is this disjunction between belonging to Christ and being a member of the church biblically and theologically sound?
■To what extent is “independent individualism” not just a cultural problem, but also an outgrowth of the kind of gospel we preach and the kind of churches we create in evangelicalism?
■Couldn’t one logically conclude from this approach that, in the final analysis, for evangelicals the church, though important, is ultimately optional?

Mercer's last statement here has been a point of mine all along in this series. The "formal membership" systems that many churches construct ultimately place the duty of becoming members in the hands of the sheep. The two class system both allows the so-called individualistic non-member status to exist, and condemns it at the same time. If a house divided against itself cannot stand, what does this say about the membership system that many churches construct? I think it creates the very thing it is designed to prevent.

There is also the assumption that fully committed Christians who obey all the commands of God with regard to church and yet who have not signed on some dotted line somewhere are somehow deficient and neglectful of God's commands. Warren contradicts himself in his last statement. Committing yourself to a group of believers and joining the membership are two different things. One can do the former without doing the latter. But since membership is something that God does, and not we ourselves, members in God's eyes can be wrongly labeled non-members in man's eyes. This is the problem with the membership that so many men have created. Telling people that they're wrong by simply obeying God isn't going to get everybody to sign on the dotted line, and isn't a very good tactic.

Read the entire series here.

Part 32 ... Part 34


  1. It's no surprise that clergymen are willing to conflate being part of the Body of Christ with being a member of an earthly institution that hires clergymen. Admitting that the institutional church is a superfluity doesn't fill up the pews or the plate.

  2. Some of us encountered these same issues in the charismatic movement of the early seventies. Much to my surprise, I found decades later that evangelical leaders tend to be as insistent that you "commit" to their leadership as were some of the vintage charismatics. It was said way back and still is, "Church membership is a covenant relationship." Also, words like "called to a local body" and "confession" of one's identity as a local church member, are today used often by people stressing the need for formal "commitment." However, a notion of "commitment" in this sense is not to be found in the N.T scriptures. Look for instance at the words "covenant," "confession, and call" in the N.T. scriptures (Greek helps here) and see what you get. You get nothing having to do with biblical "submission" to church leaders. In scripture, you don't make a covenant with, or take an oath to, local churches or their leaders. You recognize and esteem true leaders where they exist, but this is not a matter of covenant. There is in scripture a "covenant" in the One body and blood of the Lord. There is also a supplemental covenant of works, spoken of in Galations, that has the effect of causing believers to walk in the flesh rather than the Spirit. Now what kind of "covenant" does the church membership doctrine engender? Look also at the word "call." No one in the N.T. is "called" to a local church, regardless of what Rick Warren or anyone else says to the contrary. Look also at "confession." In scripture, the "church's one confession is Jesus Christ her Lord." What is really going on is that requiring a church membership oath -- either in terms of covenant, call, or confession -- in order to be received fully into the fellowship of a local church, may well be the primary Galatian error of our times, if not also of the last 2000 years. I think the more "church leaders" insist on an oath of some sort to themselves or to the congregation itself, as a pre-condition for someone being fully received into the fellowship of a local church, the more the Holy Spirit is grieved. Leaders who believe the scriptures should forbid such oaths, rather than require them. Strange that there seems to be little difference on this subject among the vast majority of charismatic, evangelical and fundamentalist churches. This "supplemental covenant" is our great point of agreement, maybe even "unity." A disastrous unity of the flesh. Fob James ("blog-on-church at lawsouth dot com")