Mailbag #29: On “Thin” and “Thick” Statements of Faith; Relationship between Lord’s Supper and Membership; Small Group Leaders Who Aren’t Church Members
Are there certain doctrinal difference for which you would not allow someone to join your church? Specifically, there are many who want to join our Baptist church who, coming from a Methodist church, do not hold to the security of the believer. Should they be allowed to join a Baptist church? It seems to go against Scripture and the Baptist Faith and Message. For some in our congregation, the fact that we would even question the faith of those who don’t hold to the security of the believer seems to be divisive. I don’t want to be divisive and I want to focus on the main issues, but I also want doctrinal unity. Where do we draw the line?
There is an easy answer and a slightly more complex answer to your question. The easy answer is, if your church’s statement of faith affirms the perseverance of the saints, you should require every member of your church to affirm it.
A church’s existence depends upon nothing if not its confession. Jesus said he would build his church on confessors confessing the right confession (Matt. 16:16-18). Therefore shepherds should be sticklers about their church’s confessions of faith, even if some of the sheep grumble. And any church which affirms either the New Hampshire Confession (like mine) or the Baptist Faith & Message (like yours?) affirms that “true believers endure to the end” (NH, 9; BF&M, 5). So, yes, require it.
The slightly more complex answer involves recognizing the connection between who is finally responsible for a church’s confessional faithfulness and how much you include in your statement of faith. If you think a church’s doctrinal faithfulness ultimately depends on the officers, because they have the final authority to exclude or excommunicate, then you can use a fairly minimal statement of faith for the members. If you think a church’s confessional faithfulness depends upon the whole church, however, you will probably want a slightly “thicker” confession for the members. All the flock must affirm all the confession because the flock is finally responsible for guarding that confession. And you as a pastor should insist that they all affirm it as a way of strengthening them!
For instance, the Presbyterian Church of America requires 5 simple affirmations of every member:
- that you are a sinner;
- that you receive and rest on Jesus (who is Lord, Son of God, and Savior) alone “for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel”;
- that you resolve, relying on the Spirit, to live as becomes the followers of Christ;
- that you will support the church’s work and worship;
- and that you will submit yourself to the church’s government and discipline (see Book of Church Order, 57-5).
Notice that members of a PCA church don’t have to affirm much, at least formally. There is no explicit reference to a doctrine of Scripture, the Trinity, substitution, justification, or the resurrection, much less perseverance. Strictly speaking, an inerrancy-denying Arian who affirmed Christus Victor and denied penal substitution could recite those 5 vows. At the same time, to be sure, these gospel specifics (substitution, resurrection, justification, etc.) belong to the church’s overall confessional and historical context. Meaning: the elders must affirm the Westminster Confession in its entirety; the elders teach everyone joining the church from that confession; and any PCA elder worth his salt, when interviewing member candidates, will make sure that a person affirms the Trinity, substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, and so forth. So, typically, a slightly more substantive confession of faith is implied when a member candidate makes these five vows.
But notice what’s going on. In a non-congregational church, the church’s confessional faithfulness depends finally upon the officer’s faithfulness, which means a Presbyterian elder will affirm everything a Baptist church member affirms (including perseverance of the saints) and more. But there is a wee bit more flexibility in the joints for what a member does or doesn’t have to affirm. An elder or a session might not like it if a member candidate denies inerrancy, but they can decide to admit such a person to membership because the church’s gospel faithfulness does not finally depend upon the members.
In a congregationalist conception, again, the whole church is responsible to protect the church’s gospel doctrine. As such, Baptist churches, historically, have required every member to affirm not just “the gospel,” but the component pieces of the gospel (e.g. Trinity, substitution, resurrection, justification, faith alone, Jesus’ return, etc.) as well as a few doctrines which are critical to protecting and maintaining the gospel over time (e.g. Scripture as inerrant revelation, believer’s baptism). If you the people are responsible for guarding the gospel, you want to make sure they know what they are talking about! Perseverance is at least critical to protecting the gospel, which is why I believe it is wise for the whole church to affirm it. Lose perseverance and it becomes easy to trust in your work of preserving.
To be sure, congregationalist churches sometimes go overboard and pack too much into their statements. I personally don’t think a church should insist on a particular view of election or the millennium or alcohol. Statements can be too long and elaborate.
Ultimately, I don’t mean to adjudicate here between the very mere non-congregationalist or the slightly fuller congregationalist approach. I just want you to see the connection between these two issues: who you believe is finally responsible for a church’s confessional faithfulness and how much to include in your members’ statement of faith, including a decision on the perseverance of the saints.
As a church we are working on bringing in meaningful church membership. How would you deal with someone who has been a Christian and has attended the church for a number of years but refuses to be a church member when it comes to the Lord’s Supper? They see membership as unnecessary for the Lord’s Supper. What do you think? Should they be allowed to partake?
—Nathan, United Kingdom
I feel slightly nervous about answering this question because a small but impassioned minority of Christians out there don’t think church membership is biblical!!! And I don’t want to spend half of this answer defending church membership. So let me write just for those who agree with me church membership is biblical.
I take three basic steps with long-time attenders who refuse to join. First, I encourage and (lightly) try to persuade them of church membership from the Bible. Failing that, I encourage them to find a church where they think they can join, explaining that it’s more important for their discipleship to be fully submitted to some church than to have one or two toes dipped into ours. Failing that, I encourage them to stop taking the Lord’s Supper.
Admittedly, I can recall reaching this last step only once. A brother named “Matt” asked if we could talk about misgivings he had over our church’s statement of faith. We had several lunches over several months for that purpose. I also learned that Matt had not joined his two previous churches because of his quibbles with them. Finally, I encouraged Matt to stop receiving the Lord’s Supper. I explained to him that this recommendation was not a formal word of excommunication. Elders don’t have the authority to excommunicate. I was just offering a piece of pastoral counsel. He was—I told him—a free agent, the captain of his own ship, unaccountable to anyone and anything in how he represents Jesus. How did he know he wasn’t a hypocrite or heretic? Matt, interestingly, is theologically astute enough that he replied by saying he hadn’t taken the Supper for some time.
Now, I care about Matt. He still attends our church. I spoke to him just this past Sunday and told him I’d pray for him about an upcoming event in his life. He might even be reading this post! But here’s the bigger picture: the Lord’s Supper is—among other things—a sign of church membership. When you pull church membership and the ordinances apart, you turn membership into something that is unbiblical. The Supper is a family meal, for members of the family. Listen to Paul: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). By partaking of the one bread, we demonstrate that we are one body. The Supper, in that sense, is a church-affirming and church-revealing activity. And, really, that’s all that church membership is—the church’s public affirmation that, so far as it can discern, you belong to Christ’s body and are a Christian.
Is Matt not a member of Christ’s body? He might be. I can even tell you, “Sure, I personally think Matt is probably a Christian.” But it remains nothing more than my personal opinion until Matt presents himself to the church, tells us what he believes, and offers to join himself to our leadership, accountability, and care. Until then, I don’t know how the church can give the sign of membership (the Supper) to Matt, just like I wouldn’t give a team jersey to someone who deliberately refrains from joining our team, even if I think he would be a great player! We don’t have that authority in Matt’s life until he gives it.
On the other hand, there is something ironically coercive about the person who insists on coming and taking the Lord’s Supper at their own discretion (which, gratefully, Matt doesn’t do). It’s as if such an individual says to the church, “You will affirm me as part of the one body when I partake of the one bread (1 Cor. 10:17), but, no, you cannot ask me any questions or make any demands on me whatsoever. I will control this process of affirming that I am a part of Christ’s body, not you, and I will use your assembly to do it!”
Okay, fine, you “can” do that. We won’t physically stop you. But now you have robbed the Supper of its corporate meaning and turned it into an exercise in self-expression in which you unilaterally employ the Supper to say something about yourself. How perfectly postmodern. Never mind “discerning the body,” as Paul commands (1 Cor. 11:29).
For these reasons, Nathan, whenever we serve the Supper in our church, we specify the fact that it is for members of our church or for baptized members of another church that preaches the same gospel that we preach.
Bottom line: the Supper is a sign and seal of church membership. Keep them together, and encourage attenders to do the same. I hope this helps.
I am a pastor of a small, growing church and am currently developing our first small group ministry. There is a small group that has already been meeting on its own over the past several years. It is not an official ministry of our church, but the leader is a member, and some church members have joined it over the past few years. This leader wholeheartedly agreed with my vision for small groups, and agreed to join his group with our new small group ministry launch. But there’s one hang up. His co-leader an co-teacher is not a member of our church and, apparently, is opposed to any official church membership, believing that it goes beyond Scripture and imposes a legalist standard/structure on people.
I’m thoroughly convinced of the need for church membership, so I’m not debating that issue. But I’m at a loss as to what do with this co-leader. I would like to have all leaders be members, but I’m reluctant to immediately tell him he cannot teach now. Do you have any advice? Should I provide some flexibility, at least initially?
Thank you very much for any help!
You are asking for tactical advice on how to lead change in your context. So everything I say comes with the big caveat that my counsel might be entirely different if I could see all the factors on the ground that you see.
But basically, the more you make any small group an “official ministry of the church”—however you might define that phrase—the less flexible you can be with who the teachers are. If there is one thing that God has charged you with as an elder or overseer, it is exercising oversight over the teaching ministry of the church.
I would explain this to both the leader and the co-leader.
I would also explain that you are absolutely happy for them to continue as a small group. If that group has proven spiritually beneficial in the lives of its members, praise God! And may it prosper!
But I would also explain that you will not sponsor it as an official small group of your church, which means you won’t give any oversight to what’s taught, formally endorse what’s taught, or direct members toward it. And in this sense, you understand yourself to be giving the non-member co-leader exactly what he wants. By not joining the church, he is saying that he doesn’t want the church’s or the pastor’s accountability. Well, then, you won’t impose any accountability on him or the group.
Yet what this non-member co-leader cannot do, then, is to ask you to spend your pastoral “credit” by providing for the church’s “sponsorship.” Name one company in the world who lets outsiders to come in, spend company money, and yet not submit themselves to the company’s accountability and oversight. That’s crazy talk! Everything the co-leader might teach may be exemplary. But surely he can understand why, at a principial level, it would be irresponsible for the elders to let someone teach as part of the church’s ministry who refuses to be held accountable. How would that be protecting the sheep (see Acts 20:28-30)?
My own church has church-sponsored small groups, whose leaders and members must be members of the church. Yet the elders also tell the church members that we are more than happy for them to start their own small groups and invite whomever they want. Maybe a lawyer in the church wants to start a small group with the few Christians in his law office, all of whom are members of other churches. Or maybe you want to start a fellowship time with other Christians in your neighborhood. Great! Much good can come from these kinds of groups, particularly for encouragement in evangelism in the context of that law office or neighborhood. You don’t need the church’s permission to do this.
What’s more, I as a pastor will pray for this non-church small group. I’ll offer resource recommendations. I might even visit once or twice if invited. But what I won’t do is give members of that group the impression that everything taught in this group has the endorsement of the church.
Bottom line, Jason, I would unlink this small group from your small group ministry push. Explain that you cannot take pastoral responsibility for someone who doesn’t want you to take responsibility! But you will pray that God will cause much fruit to be born through their study, should they continue.
I pray this helps.