Mailbag #17: Renting Out Church Facilities; Too Busy to Elder; Transitioning to Closed Communion; Problems with Secret Societies

Mailbag
10.14.2015

Renting Out Church Facilities »
Too Busy to Elder »
Transitioning to Closed Communion »
Problems with Secret Societies »

Dear 9Marks,

Can you help me think through implications of lending/renting a church-owned facility to another faith-group, whether for religious OR non-religious use?

—Eric

Eric,

I can perceive at least several issues at stake here.

Space. Unlike Israel under the old covenant, there is no sacred (geographic) space at this moment in redemptive history. Your church building is not sacred, set apart, holy unto the Lord. Jesus was born in a stable, and you could, if you wanted, use your building as a cattle stall. What this means is, there are no absolute set of rules for how your building should or should not be used. Your question belongs in the “prudence” drawer.

Tolerate or Sponsor? Someone might quickly throw out the religious freedom argument: if we Christians expect the space to gather, we should afford other faith groups with that privilege as well. I think that would be true if you were the government, but you’re not. Your obligations are a bit different. Yes, I think churches should tolerate the presence of other faith-groups, but there is a line between tolerating other faith groups and sponsoring them. Christians should not sponsor false religion. And the question you want to ask yourself is, to what extent are you sponsoring false religion by renting your space? I don’t expect there is a clean answer to that question, but it’s worth asking.

Confusion? Something else you want to guard against is confusing your members and outsiders about the exclusivity of the Christian gospel. You don’t believe there are multiple legitimate ways to be reconciled to God, and one danger of interfaith partnerships is that you implicitly communicate otherwise through your partnership. Ironically, I might even be more nervous about partnering with a liberal, gospel-denying “Christian” fellowship than I would a non-Christian religion, because a false Christ can be more dangerous than the outright denial of Christ.

Precedent with legal implications? In our present legal environment, you should always be aware of what precedents you are setting if you begin to say “yes” to this group but “no” to that group. Should you ever be called upon to defend why you said “no” to a certain group, will you be able to demonstrate in a court of law that you have clear criteria that you consistently apply?

Common to Humanity? One criteria I would use is to ask whether the group wants your building for something that is common to humanity or something that is specific to their particular form of false worship. So I might happily rent the space to an Indian group who needed space to organize disaster relief packages, but I might not rent space to that same Indian group now asking to use our building for a meal as part of a Hindu festival. Before the age of same-sex weddings, I might have rented out the building for non-Christian weddings, but in light of the possibility of same-sex marriage and the possibility of a legally-significant precedent (last point), I might not rent out the building for any marriages outside of church members. (Incidentally, I do believe same-sex marriage is in its very structure a form of false worship.)

To return to where I began, your question is a matter of prudence or judgment, which means, to some extent, the answer will be case-by-case. I pray God would give your leaders wisdom as they consider the particular request before you now.

Dear 9Marks,

Our church is currently evaluating and assessing lay elder candidates. Even though these men meet the New Testament qualifications, one challenge has been the tension of family and ministry. A couple of men have young children and are generally pressed for time. They want to serve the church more, but they also have family needs. Can an elder be limited in his time for a season (say, caring for your children), and still be brought on as an elder? Or should we consider waiting for a more appropriate time?

—Sam

Sam,

Thanks for this question. As the father of four daughters under 10, I feel this question! Here are a couple thoughts. First, you don’t want to nominate men for elders who are just qualified; you want to nominate men who are qualified and are already eldering. So if you are considering a guy now who is qualified and already eldering, then, apparently, he’s not too busy! If he’s not eldering already, then, apparently, he is too busy.

But you ask, won’t making him an elder make him even busier? Well, it doesn’t have to. Yes, he will have to add the elder meetings once or twice a month. And, yes, being an elder means a man will probably get more requests from members for care. But he doesn’t have to say yes to those requests. So the question you want to ask him and his wife is, at a minimum, is your schedule capable of absorbing a few meetings a month? Start there.

Second, a man cannot compromise his family in order to elder. If he does, he’s no longer qualified (see 1 Tim. 3:4-5). So to answer your question directly, yes, of course, there are seasons in which a man should not formally assume the office of elder. And stepping away for that season will help him to be a better elder for the other decades of his life.

I can’t tell you what a burden Mark Dever lifted from my shoulders in 2009 when, in the midst of working, fathering, eldering, PhD-ing, and generally feeling crushed by it all, he gave me a free pass to step off the elder board for a couple years. “Jonathan, you have the rest of your life to elder. And you’ll be a better elder later if you serve your wife and kids now by stepping away from it.” What a relief that was to hear! Maybe the brothers you’re considering can elder now. Maybe they need your encouragement just to focus on being awesome husbands and dads while still working to love and serve the church where they can.

Dear 9Marks,

The church I have been pastoring for two years practices open communion and closed membership and has done for many years, in common with many free evangelical churches in the UK. Do you have any advice on transitioning to closed communion? I am trying to make membership functionally more meaningful but yet with an open communion table this provides a certain ceiling to my endeavors.

Related to this subject, what ministry roles should be reserved for members only? In theory someone could come to our church, serve in a variety of roles, and take communion regularly without becoming members. At present teaching and office bearing are the only two roles reserved for members.

Thanks.

—David, Belfast

David,

To be clear, my church adheres not to “closed communion” but “close communion.” We don’t believe you have to be a member of our church to receive the Lord’s Supper. Rather, we fence the table by saying you should be a member in good standing of some church where the gospel is preached.

With that caveat, I do think you can still find ways of making membership meaningful even in your present structure, mainly by (i) finding other ways to specially recognize members, (ii) restricting certain activities only to members, (iii) giving your primary pastoral care to members, and (iv) practicing church discipline.

(i) We recognize members by asking them to stand and read the church covenant aloud before taking the Lord’s Supper. We recognize members in our directory, which we keep fresh and encourage members to use for prayer directories. We recognize members by asking them to pray in our Sunday night prayer meeting.

(ii) We also recognize members by restricting much of our church’s life to members (getting to your second question). Only members can join (non-evangelistic) church-sponsored small groups, sing in the praise ensemble, go on missions trips, work in child-care or nursery, teach, or sponsor hospitality. Of course, we work hard to welcome and embrace non-member guests, particularly in our homes and over meals. But to serve pretty much anywhere in the church you need to submit to the church’s oversight. All this, of course, has a way of distinguishing members from non-members.

(iii) As an elder, I will spend time with non-members, even taking them to lunch. But unless it’s evangelistic, I generally won’t participate in an ongoing discipling or counseling relationship with a non-member/attender. Jesus says that I as an elder will give an account for those under my care (Heb. 13:17). Who is that? All the Christians in Washington, DC? No, it’s the members of my church.

(iv) Finally, we practice church discipline, which I think you can exercise while still practicing open communion (even though it’s a slight self-contradiction to excommunicate someone from the Table even while opening the Table to everyone!).

In all these ways and more, we try to make membership meaningful, and I think yours could do the same.

Dear 9Marks,

How have you and other like-minded churches handled church membership for those who are also members of a “secret society” like Freemasonry? We are wrestling through this issue because of cautions we have. 

—Joel

Joel,

Over the years, I have probably had someone ask about Freemasonry probably half a dozen times, and I’m never quite certain how to answer because I’ve never studied Freemasonry. But let me say a couple things based on what I do know. First, Christians don’t live in the dark, but in the light. So if a portion of someone’s life is entirely closed off to inspection, he or she is in a dangerous place. This is a problem with any “secret society.”

Second, Christians must never participate in or support false worship, and my understanding of Freemasonry is that it veers back and forth between a fraternal social/good works club and deistic or even occult-like religion, depending on how deep in you go. I once spoke to an old man selling trinkets for his Masonic Lodge at Chic Filet, and he, a member of a Baptist church, tried to persuade me it was merely a social club where they agreed to disagree on God while working together for community causes, almost like an Alcoholics Anonymous group does. Well, whatever you think of that, there are surely reasons why Freemasonry has kicked up so much opposition over the years from Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox alike. Best I can tell, different voices and different lodges within Freemasonry represent different views; it’s hard to pin down; but it’s hardly a safe place for a Christian to be.

Yet I’ve chosen to answer your question publicly (in spite of my ignorance!) because it offers me a chance to articulate a middle category that I think pastors need. There are at least three kinds of organizations that the members of your church might join: unpermitted, permitted, and questionable (my middle category). The first two categories are easy. If a member of your church joins what I’m calling a “unpermitted” organization (say, the Ku Klux Klan), they should be excommunicated if they refuse to renounce that membership after joining. I don’t think I need to say anything about a “permitted” organization (e.g. a soccer club). The difficulty comes with that middle category of “questionable.” It covers everything from a multi-level marketing organization to a Masonic Lodge. A person’s membership in such an organization might indicate sin, but it might only indicate ignorance and immaturity. It’s hard to tell, both because the organization’s nature is unclear and because it’s hypothetically possible to be a part of the organization for “good” reasons only.

Now, anyone who better understands Freemasonry should feel free to comment below that Freemasonry belongs to that first “unpermitted” category. I’m happy to be instructed. But until I’m so instructed, I would place it at the more dangerous end of the “questionable” category. Let’s even call “extremely very highly questionable.” The reason is, I’m willing to believe that the old man selling trinkets at Chic Filet who could articulate the gospel is a believer and does not participate in any occult-like elements of the Freemasons; and therefore I’m willing to say that what he needs is discipling, not discipline, at least for a while. And so with any of my members in questionable organizations, I want them to sit under meaty, expositional, gospel-centered preaching week after week. I want him and them to spend a couple of years watching younger believers who love the gospel grow up around them and love them like Christ loves the church (see John 13:34-35). Then, with those fresh experiences and tastes of gospel teaching and gospel fellowship, let’s see what they make of their questionable associations.

Two caveats: One, I’m assuming that such individuals are ill-taught believers. If I became convinced they were participating in or sponsoring any form of false worship, then, yes, a discipline process would begin.

Two, I’m assuming that, like everyone else who has asked me this question, you’re a new pastor in an old church, and several years in you have looked under the floor boards and discovered that—lo and behold—a couple of your older men are Freemasons. If that’s you, then, yes, start by discipling, not disciplining. If, however, a Freemason were to try and join my church, which practices meaningful membership, I might tell him that his membership in such a secret society would prevent him from fulfilling our church covenant which calls for transparency and living in the light. Therefore he couldn’t join.

There’s my long answer to your short question. I pray it’s useful.

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.