On the Thorny Matter of Signatures and Assent

Article
03.14.2016

It was inevitable. I was expecting it, but that didn’t mean I was prepared for it. And then it happened this week. The words tumbled out in a mix of agitation and incredulity: “Why do I have to sign a piece of paper?”

We were talking about membership, of course. And he was clearly perturbed by the implication that his informal relationship with Jesus was insufficient without formally committing to a body.

Should we risk agitating perfectly happy regular-attenders by asking them to formally sign anything? If so, what, and what’s our rationale? And what if they really want to join, but are unsure of a doctrinal matter in our confessional statement? Is submission enough, or is agreement necessary?

THE CLOUDY WATERS OF PRUDENCE

These are just some of the practical questions every pastor must answer. And yet, as we do, we recognize we’re wading into the deep and often cloudy waters of prudence. That individuals were converted, baptized, and folded meaningfully into the life of a church body is clear enough in the NT. Exactly how that process unfolded is less clear.

But if the power of the keys in Matthew 16 is to declare the “who” and the “what” of the gospel, then our confessional documents (the “what”) and our membership process (the “who”) are among the most important aspects of our church life.

So . . . should we require prospective members to sign anything in order to join? At one level, it’s a silly question. Ask someone to sign a $1.53 receipt for a Coke, and they won’t give it a passing thought. But ask them to sign a membership covenant or a statement of faith, and it’s like you’re requesting their second kidney.

And there are of course other ways to give assent. We can tacitly assent to something by merely not opposing it. We can do so non-verbally with a nod of the head, or a shake of the hand. We can go further, and give verbal approval to something by saying “aye,” or “I agree.” Yet the signature goes a step further by codifying that agreement in a way that can be independently verified by others.

Therefore, though the Bible doesn’t explicitly require it, I think the practice of signing is generally wise, at least in a Western context. Like signing a check or an insurance form, signatures are what Westerners have used for thousands of years to say, “You can cash this promise. I’m good for it today, and I will be tomorrow as well.” It’s a way of giving great public durability to our words, and not make every public statement rely on the whims of the moment. And when it comes to church documents, we are not talking about money in an account, but something of far greater import: whether we agree with a church about the meaning of the gospel!

JUST A PIECE OF PAPER?

But doesn’t that reduce membership to “a piece of paper?” Not any more than marriage is reduced to a piece of paper when a couple signs their marriage certificate. The signature isn’t meaningless, for that signature is how we express our agreement before God and before others that we actually intend on fulfilling the commitments and promises we’re making. A signature forces people to stop and ask, “What am I consenting to?” “Do I actually agree with it?” “Will I live by it?” The signature encourages buy-in. It helps to ensure the individual understands, affirms, and thus owns it. It’s another way to make membership meaningful. (I’ll also say it’s useful in a secular court of law should any member seek to sue the church for libel or slander in the case of church discipline.)

And if someone objects, in my experience, it’s often not for theological reasons, but for moral ones. They don’t want to be held accountable. They may initially balk, saying something about how signatures aren’t in the Bible. But lean in a bit more, and usually what you’ll find is that they want to follow Jesus on their own terms. By signing, they recognize they’re making themselves both accountable to others and responsible for others.

WHAT NEEDS A SIGNATURE

So . . . what should we ask new members to sign? I would propose a statement of faith and a church covenant. The first outlines both what is necessary to be a Christian and what is necessary to meet together. And the second outlines how we agree to live out the Christian life. In other words, they define the two most important things about a church: what it believes and how it will live.

This is an argument to have relatively mere statements of faith. Disagreeing on justification by faith alone or the deity of Christ is the difference between heaven and hell. Disagreeing on eschatology is not.

That being said, there are some secondary matters that, while not necessary to salvation, are necessary for a church to settle so it can orderly gather. Baptism and polity come to mind. Will we baptize infants or not? Will we be episcopalian, presbyterian, or congregational in our government? One simply can’t punt on such questions. You will necessarily do one or the other.

Now there may be a few doctrines that don’t fit into either of these categories, but for the spiritual health of the body you decide they ought to be in the statement of faith. Take perseverance. While I don’t think that one who denies perseverance is necessarily in danger of damnation, I also don’t want them leading a small group. The spiritual damage they could cause by their counsel is too great. The same may be true with gender roles. While I certainly believe egalitarians will gather around the great banquet of our King, both practically and theologically I have concerns about where that system of hermeneutics leads. A church will have to decide how many of these “non-essential” doctrines are pastorally important enough to risk dividing over. Inerrancy, perseverance, sexuality, and gender roles are a few that come to mind.

ARE EXCEPTIONS ALLOWED?

But what if one wants to take an exception on an article? Maybe they believe in annihilationism, or they’re paedo-baptist (covenantal kind) but they’re been baptized and willing to “submit” to the ways Baptists do church. Can they do so? Is that okay?

Again, this is a judgment call, but I would counsel against this. As a congregationalist, after all, I believe it is the members who possess the responsibility to uphold the church’s doctrine. Hopefully you see the trouble, then, of putting someone in charge of maintaining and protecting a doctrine one does not believe!

Keep your confessional document clear enough, and mere enough, such that you are happy to require agreement on every point of doctrine. If you’re the only true Christian church within 300 miles, then I might think differently. But most of us are not in that position. So for the sake of body’s unity, ensure those who join actually agree with what the church believes, and how it will live. To permit “exceptions” is to sow seeds of spiritual disunity that may blossom into full-blown division over time.

BUT WHAT ABOUT ELDERS?

But what if I desire my elders to be more theologically informed and united than the average member? Should I require a higher confessional bar for my leaders?

One can, but in my experience this breaks down practically. Fuller confessions necessarily contain more doctrines to quibble over, such as the Sabbath, or definite atonement. If those doctrines necessary to join are heartily believed, then focusing on the discipling ministry of the man may be more fruitful than parsing his understanding of infralapsarianism versus supralapsarianism.

FOR THE UNSURE CHRISTIAN

But what if a prospective member is unsure of a doctrine?

Should they not sign until they are 100% convinced of every word? I tell new members that they shouldn’t have a settled or settling conviction against anything written. Some questions or doubts are okay, so long as they’re not formed opinions in opposition.

CONCLUSION

As pastors, we’re seeking to protect and foster the spiritual unity of the body entrusted to our care. By teaching clearly, drawing our theological boundaries carefully, and requiring clear buy-in from our members we go a large way toward securing that end.