Mailbag #16: Dual Membership; Does Marriage Require State Involvement; How Much Agreement Among Elders
Should churches allow dual membership (such as “Watch Care” in the SBC) or should we encourage members to faithfully commit to one church? This seems to be a common desire among college students who would like to keep their membership at their “home” church while also having privileges at the church they serve during the school year.
I have noticed that this question arises not just with college students, but with retirees who like to spend the winter months in a warmer climate. The basic counsel our church gives is, join the church where you spend the majority of the year. If you’re in one city from September to May, join a church in that city.
For church membership to be meaningful and not just an empty symbol, we need to be able exercise it among people who see and gather with us. If I’m not gathering with a church for nine months of the year, how can the people in that church fulfill their obligations and responsibilities to me, and me to them? The problem with a dual membership, or with retaining my membership at a place where I spend only three months of the year, is that it effectively turns my membership into a sentimental attachment.
That said, if I’m going to be spending three months (or even one month) in one place, I might make myself known to a pastor, tell him that I’ll be attending and praying for the church for the next few months, and ask him if there is some way for me to help the church in that time.
Hope this helps.
A couple has been attending regularly for several months. They have been through our membership course and are interested in joining, except they were living together and not married. They would like to get married but are hesitant to because the woman is on Medicaid. She had cancer and the insurance covered everything and is still paying for expensive medicine. The husband has very poor insurance with a high deductible. If they get married, she will lose her Medicaid coverage, and they cannot envision how his current insurance would be able to provide for her situation.
I did perform a ceremony for them where they exchanged vows before God and a few witnesses after our meeting, which they gladly jumped at. However, I told them I didn’t know what to tell them about the state’s involvement. We agreed to read Romans 13 to seek the Lord’s direction on this. Does marriage require state involvement? Or can a man and woman be married before God without it being recognized as a marriage by the state? Thank you for any help you can give me.
Talk about a situation that makes someone count the cost of getting married! That’s a tough situation for them to be in. But here are a couple of rock solid biblical principles they can trust:
- God does not want them to sin.
- Obedience to God can be costly, and the obligations to obedience don’t vanish even when there is a cost.
- If they belong to God in Christ, he will care for them, and all things will work together for their good. How? I don’t know, but they must choose the path of obedience, trusting his care for them.
Now, what’s the path of obedience? It’s either to separate entirely, or to get married. And in the terms of marriage in our society, your couple is not married.
Nowhere does Scripture explicitly say that the state must sanction a marriage, but in Scripture marriage is a covenant between a man and woman that extends to all domains of life, including the domain of government. It’s a kind of relation that everyone in a society recognizes as specially set apart, sanctioned, exclusive, including a nation or people’s government. This was the case from the beginning. Think of Pharaoh’s response when he discovered Abram and Sarai were married: “Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?” (Gen. 13:18; see also the account with Abimelech in 20:2-7). If, then, a government is unable to recognize something as a marriage, and if the majority of the citizens of a nation are unable to recognize something as a marriage, you can be pretty sure it’s not a marriage. (The whole hullabaloo about same-sex marriage has occurred precisely because the state’s recognition is significant.) And of course we have a pragmatic interest in the state sanctioning marriages for the sake of protecting children, preventing property disputes, and so forth.
You might ask yourself, Jacob, by whose authority did you “marry” them? Nowhere do the Epistles say anything about an elder’s authority to marry people. So Scripture doesn’t directly give such authority to you. The state can delegate such authority to you (or to any one of its citizens to perform this function). But since you haven’t involved the state, you aren’t acting as the state’s delegate.
Bottom line: there are people who would disagree with me (like some of the editors over at First Things), but I don’t believe your couple is married. They need to be married or to separate. And I would not baptize them into membership in the church until they did one or the other. How will they deal with this financially? I’m not sure. But you now have the wonderful opportunity to show these young believers that prayer works, that God is faithful and cares for his people, and that the church will rally around its own, even financially, when occasion requires (Acts 2:45; 11:28-30; 1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 8-9; etc.). You have the opportunity to call them to walk by faith. Don’t deny them that, or tempt them into sin. Remember how Jesus called the rich young ruler? He requires nothing less from all of us! I pray my counsel is useful.
We are currently working through qualifications for eldership. I’d love some input on views on this. I’m not necessarily asking about the qualifications according to 1 Timothy/Titus but instead what the doctrinal agreement between elders should be. How do we apply the “theological triage” here?
Thanks for the good question. You certainly don’t want the elders to agree on less than the church’s statement of faith. If the statement of faith is the set of truths around which your church gathers, than the elders are to be an example to the flock when it comes to trusting those truths.
So if your statement of faith is pre-trib/pre-mill, or cessationist, or Arminian, or whatever, your elders should believe all that. (Now, this should make you think twice about including some of these kinds of disputed matters in your statement of faith in the first place.)
But can you ask for the elders to be united around more than what’s articulated in the statement of faith, such that the additional matters become a kind of litmus test for prospective elders? Well, that depends on who you think possesses authority for guarding doctrine in the church (i.e. the keys of the kingdom). If you think the elders possess that authority, as in a presbyterian conception, then, yes, you can ask the elders to affirm, say, the whole Westminster Confession of Faith, while you ask the members to affirm a few basic principles of the faith. If, however, you think the congregation as a whole possesses the priestly role of being the final guardian of doctrine, you probably don’t want to require the elders to affirm more than the church as a whole must affirm. That is the practice of our church, anyhow.
Now, at the risk of sounding like I’m contradicting myself, I do think it’s probably fine to make sure your elders agree with one another on a basic philosophy of ministry (else it will be hard to work together). And I think it’s probably fine to informally make sure your elders agree on certain culturally disputed matters like complementarianism that you might not require of the whole church (again, else it will be hard to work together). But I don’t think there should be much of that.
Sometimes when I’m teaching a Sunday School class and I’m about to give my opinion on a touchy doctrinal subject that’s unspecified by our church’s statement of faith, such as whether or not the gift of tongues can be practiced today, I might start my comments by acknowledging that our statement of faith says nothing on the matter, and that people with different opinions than my own are certainly welcome in the church. Or I might acknowledge that I’m not speaking for all the other elders, only myself. Making this kind of distinction in my public teaching between what’s me and what’s all the elders gives me the space to teach what I think the text says while not burdening the other elders with feeling like they have to back me up in places they disagree. Our statement of faith provides a transparent standard for knowing which doctrines unite all of us.
Hope this is helpful.