Recently, Westminster Presbyterian, Santa Fe held a new member class in which those who participated were asked to write a brief personal statement of faith and present that to the session when they sought to become members. Those who did this exercise opened themselves up, and shared things they believed and things they did not believe. Through their honesty they made themselves vulnerable and subject to critique. We have never done this before, so many questions and concerns have presented themselves, which can be explored here.
The concept of membership in churches, in and of itself, is quite strange.
Why does our church have "membership"? Are we joining a club?
Here’s some of what the Book of Order says about membership:
“The incarnation of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives to the church not only its mission but also its understanding of membership. One becomes an active member of the church through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and acceptance of his Lordship in all of life. Baptism and a public profession of faith in Jesus as Lord are the visible signs of entrance into the active membership of the church.” G-5.0101a
“The congregation shall welcome all persons who respond in trust and obedience to God's grace in Jesus Christ and desire to become part of the membership and ministry of his Church. No persons shall be denied membership because of race, ethnic origin, worldly condition, or any other reason not related to profession of faith. Each member must seek the grace of openness in extending the fellowship of Christ to all persons. (G-9.0104) Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the gospel.” –G-5.0103
And once becoming a member:
“An active member of a particular church is a person who has made a profession of faith in Christ, has been baptized, has been received into membership of the church, has voluntarily submitted to the government of this church, and participates in the church's work and worship. An active member is entitled to all the rights and privileges of the church, including the right to participate in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, to present children for baptism, to take part in meetings of the congregation, and to vote and hold office. Other conditions of active membership that meet the needs of the particular church and are consistent with the order and confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) may be adopted by the session after careful study and discussion with the congregation.” G-5.0202
Most of my experience in ministry has been in campus ministry where there was no such thing as “membership.” We didn't care who participated, so long as they were coming to the ministry and growing in their faith. However, only those who demonstrated maturity in their faith, and a belief system that was compatible with that of the campus ministry were invited to be in leadership roles (this criteria was not very well defined). We felt like it's better they come grow in their faith, than to have certain requirements for participation. Were we to transpose that model to this context, perhaps we would have "looser" standards on membership, so that all who feel called would feel welcomed "into the fold" so as to grow in their faith, but for officers we would have a higher standards which conform more to shared values and beliefs. To me, it seems like if certain requirements are made on membership, it would have more of a club type feel.
That said, when considering those who want to be members or who might be considered as an officer: Is there a requirement in terms of beliefs?
Should the session make a "standard"? What are "essential tenets" in terms of Creed? We must be very careful in discerning what those are, as we have seen over the history of the church that what has been considered essential in a particular place and time has been looked upon with suspect by later generations. A debate that comes up from time to time at General Assembly has been to define "essential tenets" as referred to in Book of order W-4.4003c. (For an example of what this debate has looked at see: http://index.pcusa.org/NXT/gateway.dll?f=templates&fn=default.htm&vid=pcdocs:10.1048/Enu
How do generational differences, as well as varying worldviews--post-modern verse modernism--play a role in determining these things? Is being a Christian desiring to be Christ-like? Can you follow Christ and not believe in heaven or miracles? The notion of heaven is actually more platonic than it is biblical in terms of the whole scope of the Bible? And in the Gospel of John, we see a very critical attitude of those who believed because of the signs, or miracles they witnessed (cf John 4:43-54, John 20:19-31).
Finally, what's key in this discussion, in my mind, is relationship. Before we judge or concern ourselves with beliefs or orthodoxy, have we had a chance/ taken the time to get to know someone and sought to be in relationship with them? What does Jesus' example teach us? In this relationship: can we sit down on the same pew with someone who feels called to belong in this church but may think very differently from us (on both essential/ non-essential issues), and sing worship songs together, pray together, break bread together, and love one another.
I think the early church reflected a variety of creeds and beliefs because empire had not yet standardized, or normalized "Christian belief". Nothing had been formulated except for very basic creeds passed through oral transmission:
"Lord I believe, help my unbelief"
“Love the Lord your God...”
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“I believe you are the Christ, the son of the Living God.”
“Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Jesus dined and hung out with “sinners” not because of what they believed in terms of the piety and orthodoxy of the day that “Pharisees and scribes” upheld among the religious community, but because they sought after him. Do those who seek to be members in churches seek after Christ. I certainly hope that would be the case in our church as we continue to proclaim Christ Crucified, through our worship and day-to-day living.
For more discussion on this download the podcast: godcomplex.com
and listen to the first show called: “the first” and listen beginning at minute 32:40