Church membership: why so rigid?
Surely there are two different issues here which we need to clearly distinguish.
There is theological membership – the membership we have by virtue of being an active member of a local expression of the body of Christ. Can a person be a part of two such spiritual communities? Absolutely. Take an obvious example; students are an active part of one community in term time and another when they return home. The fact that they are committed to the life and mission of their study setting in no way lessens their commitment to their “home”
Then there is legal membership – This is the sort of membership that the BU are interested in for their records and it flows from our need to comply with legal good practise and charity law. This form of membership has no Biblical foundation, and can feel unnecessary, especially when we are talking about alternative forms of being church, but we choose to ignore this form of membership at our peril. One minister I know was talking in very superior theological terms about scrapping his church membership as outdated and bureaucratic. It was amazing how his grand ideas melted when he realised that under the terms of his church Trust Deeds when the membership fell below ten the ultimate trust was invoked and the church lost control of its own
Surely, it is only when we lose sight of these two different understandings of membership that this issue arises at all. Our churches need committed, covenanted, members who have “signed on the dotted line” in order for it to function in this modern world. I would put people who say I go to church, so why do I need to be a member in the same category as people who say we live together so why should we be bothered to get married. What’ s to be gained from it? Nothing per say, it’s all about a commitment and relationship. In this it is totally different from the membership of the Conservative or Constitutional Club.
You can be a part of a church and be parasitic on the efforts of the committed few to ensure that the church functions smoothly, with good practice, in the way we would want. Likewise you can sign your name on a piece of paper and have nothing to do with the real spirit-filled life of the
church. The key is being a committed part of the living body of Christ wherever God puts us rather than keeping count of membership cards.
Good question, challenging us to get to the essence of what church membership is!
In my view, membership, as we Baptists now tend to view and practise it, is the source of many unnecessary hang-ups and inconsistencies. Indeed it leads to deeply erroneous views of what constitutes a church. 'Membership' has become a legal fiction, enabling us to operate tidy constitutional procedures, but lacking spiritual substance. Thus, most Baptist churches find themselves in the ludicrous position of having someone who worships, prays, fellowships, serves and participates in the Lord's Supper without 'becoming a member' (not to mention the anomaly of those so-called 'members' who take no meaningful part in the life of the church at all).
In my opinion, much of the talk about covenanted membership is an attempt to put spiritual and biblical gloss onto membership practices that are foreign to the New Testament.
We need to start from the understanding that we cannot make ourselves, or each other, members of 'our' church (through the enacting of a covenant or by any other means). Through faith and baptism God makes people members of his church, and we can only recognize what God has done.
My reading of the NT leads me to believe that all who believe in Christ and are baptized are to be considered as being 'in Christ', which amounts to being 'members of his body', the church. This membership of the 'universal' church will not excuse the neglect the local church, for it is clear that the Christian life should be lived corporately: it will be normal for Christians to seek opportunities to relate to each other. So we will aim to participate in the body of Christ in its local manifestation(s).
There is no need to draw an artificial distinction between becoming a member of the whole church and becoming a member of a local church. Faith and baptism is the means of entry into both. We should consider each and every Christian who participates in a local church as a member of that church in so far as they participate in it. Their participation in the local church is actually a manifestation of their membership of Christ.
If, as a believing-baptized Christian, I attend a meeting of a local church just once while I am on holiday I should consider myself as a member of that church (and so should the others) while I am there, able to participate in its privileges and share in its responsibilities, insofar as my temporary stay allows.
So, to address Michael Shaw's point directly, having a share in the life of more than one church is not out of order according to this understanding of membership. Mutual respect would dictate that the person concerned should make sure both (or all) churches involved are aware and comfortable with the situation. Should the churches themselves conclude that the person concerned was behaving as an irresponsible church-hopper they would have a pastoral duty to advise that person so and act towards him or her accordingly).
Yes, the concept of membership set out here raises questions of constitutional tidiness like 'who should be allowed to vote?', but such questions can be dealt with by proportionate procedures, rather than being be allowed to determine the basic shape of church membership. Let us get our basic understanding and practice closer to the New Testament, and we will surely also have the wit to find ways to deal with procedural challenges.
Hi Peter, thanks for your comments. I used the idea of my Dad's club as an allegory/metaphor/illustration it works for a bit - but stretched to far it does indeed fall down. The point of my post is not that I think that this idea is perfect but to raise questions. There are of course practical and legal difficulties, but it is worth posing the questions to see if we get any new answers.
Report from Baptist Union Council
I have just read the brief report of the BU Council meeting in the Weekly News Round-up which I appreciate downloading each week, but how irritating and offensive to read the comment by the Council's Moderator, "I love it when God turns up".
What does Sheila Martin mean by this? I thought the Eternal God, our Creator and our Saviour, was with us at all times and in all places. Talk about "your God is too small"!
What do others think about this cultural jargon?
The Revd Malcolm Smalley
Report from Baptist Union Council (November 2013)
I am concerned about the virtual demise of the? Assembly as it is symptomatic of a far deeper problem. The Assembly was the? only chance for churches and ministers to network with other Baptists from?across the country. Linked with the demise of the BT there is now no longer any?active forum for Baptists to dialogue and without that what are we. ?
It is great thinking about using Associations, but most of them share?the same problem with only a tiny number attending their AGMs, and increasingly?centralised control which desires little reference to the constituent churches.?I do wonder if we are coming to a point where we need to ask in what?way the Union a Union at all. Is it time to fold up the whole idea (which I?think would be a tragedy), but isn't what we now have a “family” that never ?talks or meets.
In what sense (apart from the all-embracing kingdom perspective)?are we a family at all? ?I'm afraid this in this, to a large extent, Council itself is whistling ?in the wind - they are lords of the flies - trying to give a cohesive voice to?something that is no longer cohesive. Who knows what you decide – who cares?? We may give to Home Mission and BMS out of a sense of historic duty, but? what do we have beyond that?
Pray and fast for the climate
Praying for climate change: “Is that wise, Sir?” as Sgt Wilson might ask; or perhaps, in the words of Private Godfrey, “May I be excused?”
I’m afraid that this call to prayer is along the lines of a “Dad's Army” episode: a bunch of well-meaning but hapless chaps, playing at being soldiers but totally out of their league to engage meaningfully in any war, with the neither the arms nor aptitude to face a real enemy. It’s merely an entertaining distraction from the real battle we’re called to fight…
Indeed, Private Frazer was right to cry: “We're doomed – we’re doomed!” regarding the planet; for despite our best intentions, the earth will wear out, fade away, and end. I don’t recall that Capt Mainwaring said that, but the Captain of the Host did.
(Is 65:17; Matt 24:35; 28:19,20; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33; Rom 8:22; 2Pet 3:10; Rev 21:1,4;)
I'm glad the prayer starts with "Creator God" which recognizes that God created the heavens and the earth. Why then waste time and effort on the theories of climate change scientists who don't recognize or believe that God created all things and sustains them by his powerful word. If they can't get that right, what faith should we have in their theories about man-made climate change. Leave it to the atheists. As Christians we should focus on the words of Jesus - "Repent of perish". This is a much more serious problem than climate change for everybody, with eternal consequences.
My prayer is that the Baptist church attends to the business of the church, namely preaching the gospel and saving souls.
Pray for the poor of the world
There has been no climate change for nearly 20 years, now – and they don’t know why. When you look closely at the 5th IPCC report and compare it with the 4th (and 3rd) you will see that they are more certain now that increasing carbon dioxide is doing less damage to the environment than was thought. In addition the IPCC fails to recognise that carbon dioxide is one of the most effective agricultural fertilisers known to man.
I believe we should be praying for the poor of the world, that they will no longer suffer from the actions being taken to restrict carbon dioxide emissions:
- The poor suffer most when land for growing food is given over to growing fuel.
- The poor suffer most when overseas aid resources are withdrawn from power station construction projects.
- The poor suffer most when subsidies for renewable energy are levied on everyone’s electricity bills.
All this and much more in attempt to defer an uncertain warming that won’t be dangerous for many decades, when a richer world will be much more able to manage any consequences.
The climate change movement is an area of politics that I believe Christians should avoid. We should be speaking out when actions taken by rich nations directly damage the poor of the world.
The support from the BU President, Chris Ellis for the call to prayer for the climate is both welcome and timely. One of the Headline Statements in the recently issued Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is:
“Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantialand sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which together with adaptation can limit climate change risks”
The IPCC also state that the risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities at all levels of development. Paul urges (1 Tim 2:1) that prayer should be made for those in authority. The projected consequences of a failure to adequately reduce greenhouse gas emissions are such that it is appropriate that our prayers for leaders and decision makers should include prayer that they should respond effectively to the warnings contained in the Summary for Policymakers of AR5.
This call to prayer is particularly timely as representatives of the world’s nations gather in Lima at the beginning of December for the next round of talks under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. These talks are an important stepping-stone towards the conference in Paris towards the end of 2015 which is the target for an agreement to address anthropogenic climate change to be reached.
I was saddened to read of the death of Dr David Goodbourn, and particularly to note that the tributes only seemed to relate to the last 25 years. This neglected the fact that David Goodbourn was involved on the staff of the Baptist Union in the 1970s, when he co-ordinated the Baptist involvement in the Voluntary Committee for Overseas Aid and Development, and the World Development Movement.
This movement by the charities away from fundraising and towards political action was funnelled down to the associations by David, and at the time, I represented the Berkshire Association on that Working Group.
I recall that a key campaign was to try to ensure a fair price and fair trading terms for commonwealth cane sugar producers in the light of our impending entry into the EEC.
Dr Raymond Burnish
(**since receiving this correspondence a comprehensive obituary of David Goodbourn has now been published)
Though he had prepared himself and us, his parting, when it came, still crept up on us unawares. A Baptist educator with an ecumenical soul. The quiet Englishman who championed our four nations. From China to Harare and places in between, David’s integrity and capacity for the humdrum as well as the visionary was acknowledged and valued. Always gracious, persistent without ever appearing intrusive. A true friend. A good man.
His wife Lynn supplied the unconventional and the spontaneous that met his dry humour and his instinctive caution. Theirs was a perfect match and a deep love. In an article prepared for publication before he died, David compared himself to de Mello’s ‘salt figure walking out into the sea, and in the final seconds before she dissolves, saying, “Now I know who I am”.’ For those who had the privilege of counting themselves among David’s friends, there were never any doubts who or what he was. Nor any doubts that he is now in and with God in an eternal present.
Gethin Abraham Williams