Rethinking Church: Formal Church Membership

“Bring up church membership and watch people squirm.” -Ed Stetzer

Isn’t that the truth? I squirmed just typing that and you probably did too as you read it. Formal church membership can be an explosive subject because people either see no need for it or they have a deep-seated emotional investment with it. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who is truly neutral to the idea of formal church membership. We seem to either run from it as an unnecessary burden that can in some instances be abusive, or we run to it with robust fervor because we’ve convinced ourselves those who aren’t a formal member in an institutional church are either in sin or fringe Christians who don’t really get it, or both.

In this post, I want to talk to you about formal church membership. It’s a subject that keeps presenting itself to me on this journey God has me on, so I want to address it. My views on formal church membership haven’t changed much in the last 44+ years but more recently, I’m seeing a trend in many institutional churches that is alarming. Allow me to say at the outset that I’ve pastored churches that have formal church membership and I’ve pastored churches that don’t. I’ve been on the inside of both systems and I’ve seen the positives and the negatives of each. I’ll talk more about that in a minute. First, let’s review where we’ve been in this Rethinking Church series.

Review and Rewind

This is part five of a five-part series I’ve called Rethinking Church. If you haven’t read parts one thru four yet, you can use the links below to do so. In this post, we’re going to continue building on what I introduced in parts one thru four as we tackle the subject of formal church membership. What is formal church membership? Is formal church membership required of me? Is formal church membership a Biblical mandate that I am compelled to obey? If I choose not to become a formal member in a local church, am I sinning? Should I feel guilty? To refresh your memory, I’m presenting this five-part series in the following order:

I urge you to read these in the order they were written, as each builds on the previous.

In parts one thru four of this series, we’ve been interacting with something Ignatius penned around 110 A.D. I keep pointing out what he said because I want us to understand that a large part of our modern practices originate in tradition, not in the New Testament. A large part of our traditions flow out of what Ignatius said:

Shun divisions as the beginning of evil. Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow your presbyters as the apostles; and respect your deacons as you would respect God’s commandment. Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the church. (Emphasis mine.)

I’ve previously noted that this directive by Ignatius was firmly in place in most local assemblies by the middle of the 3rd century (250 AD). By that time, it was considered the norm that “Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed
the Father… Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop… Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes.” was a biblical directive. But it is not. Tradition and tradition alone has given us this model. It is nowhere in the New Testament.

We’ve already shown that this top-down authority structure, present in most modern institutional churches is a product of tradition that started as early as Ignatius. The one pastor authority model that we unquestionably accept as a biblical one, is actually something that has been handed to us by church history and tradition and we accept it without question. Not only do we accept it without question, but we’ve also complicated it by adding layer after layer of hierarchical organizational strata where pastors are over pastors, and those pastors are over other pastors, and the higher the structure rises, the more sophisticated and complicated the honorific titles become. Our church authority structures are complicated and more closely resemble the corporate America CEO model than anything in the New Testament ekklesia.

We’ve taught tradition as the commands of God for so long, it doesn’t dawn on us to look past the traditions, open our New Testaments, and ask hard questions, questions that threaten 2,000+ years of those same entrenched traditions. But with so many leaving the institutional church, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel the church has, it’s time to ask why. Will Ignatius’ words, “Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes” stand in the light of scripture, or should we jettison it as tradition that has proven harmful to the church, it’s elders, and the functioning of the priesthood of all believers. How does this top-down authority structure that is present in so many institutional church settings impact our understanding of church membership? Let’s take a closer look.

What is the Church?

I guess a better question to ask before talking about church membership is “What is the church?” Google the word “church” and your search will yield endless images of buildings or directions to buildings in competition with one another to draw you in, including web site addresses, phone numbers, and contact info. What you’ll see is one organization after another, scrambling for your attention and support. It’s been so ingrained in our thinking for so long that church is a building, location, or event, that we accept it without question and we consider it normal. Most formal church membership contracts assume the Continue reading

Advertisements

Rethinking Church: Community and Accountability

Photo courtesy: https://unsplash.com/@mashaissomasha

This is Part Four of a series I’m calling Rethinking Church. If you haven’t read parts one – three, I encourage you to read them before reading this one because they build on one another. Here’s a glimpse of all five parts so far:

I’ve previously noted that the directive by Ignatius (ca. 110 AD) was firmly in place in most local assemblies by the middle of the 3rd century (250 AD). By that time, Ignatius’ words, “Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father… Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop… Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes” were considered the norm and assumed to be a biblical directive. But they are not. Tradition and tradition alone has given us this model. It is nowhere in the New Testament.

We’ve already shown that this top-down authority structure, present in most modern institutional churches is a product of tradition that started as early as Ignatius. The one pastor authority model that we unquestionably accept as a biblical one, is actually something that has been handed to us by church history and tradition and we accept it without question. Not only do we accept it without question, but we’ve also complicated it by adding layer after layer of hierarchal organizational strata where pastors are over pastors, and those pastors are over other pastors, and the higher the structure rises, the more sophisticated the honorific titles become. Our church authority structures more closely resemble corporate America than anything in the New Testament. We’ve taught tradition as the commands of God for so long, it doesn’t dawn on us to look past the traditions, open our New Testaments, and ask hard questions, questions that threaten 2,000+ years of those same entrenched traditions. But with so many leaving the institutional church, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel the church has, it’s time to ask why.

Will Ignatius’ words, “Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes” stand in the light of scripture, or should we jettison it as tradition that has proven harmful to the assembly and the priesthood of all believers. How does this top-down authority structure that is present in so many institutional churches impact genuine community? Let’s take a closer look.

Does Accountability Produce Community?

Most of us think community and accountability are the same thing, or that one is necessary for the other to be genuine. Community is the agreed upon goal and we think accountability is the bus that will take us there. But it’s not. That bus is traveling in the opposite direction. We mistakenly believe that accountability is the magic ingredient that will lead us into genuine community. In fact, we try to use accountability as the catalyst to form community. Stop going to a Sunday morning event or tell someone you’re not currently involved in an institutionally sanctioned small group and they’ll respond with, “Who are you accountable to?” We’ve so equated community with accountability that we don’t recognize how far apart the two are from one another. I was in a recent conversation with Continue reading

Rethinking Church: The Clergy/Laity Fallacy

This is Part Three of a series I’m calling Rethinking Church. If you haven’t read parts one and two, I encourage you to read them before reading this one because they build on one another. Here’s a glimpse of all five parts so far:

Ignatius (ca. 110 AD) said this:

Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father… Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop… Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes.

I’ve previously noted that this directive by Ignatius was firmly in place in most local assemblies by the middle of the 3rd century (250 AD). It was assumed to be a biblical directive, but it is not.

We’ve already shown that the top-down authority structure that is present in most modern institutional churches is a product of tradition that started as early as Ignatius. The one pastor authority model that we unquestionably accept as a biblical one, is actually something that has been  handed to us by church history and tradition and we accept it without question. Not only do we accept it without question, but we’ve also complicated it by adding layer after layer of hierarchical organizational strata where pastors are over pastors, and those pastors are over other pastors, and the higher the structure rises, the more sophisticated the honorific the titles become. Our church authority structures more closely resemble corporate America than anything in the New Testament. We’ve taught tradition as the commands of God for so long, it doesn’t dawn on us to look past the traditions, open our New Testaments, and ask hard questions, questions that threaten 2,000+ years of those same entrenched traditions. But with so many leaving the institutional church, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel the church has, it’s time to ask why. Will Ignatius’ words, “Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes” stand in the light of scripture, or should we jettison it as tradition that has proven harmful to the practice of the one anothers within the assembly and to the priesthood of all believers.

In part two of this series, we talked briefly about the clergy/laity separation that exists within most institutional churches. I presented the idea that church tradition, not the Bible, has given us this distinction. Our continued practice of referring to pastors with honorific titles that mark them out as a special segment within the church called “clergy” while assigning everyone else to the lower class of “laity” has caused a deep rift in the body of Christ and in many instances, has led to the Continue reading

Rethinking Church: Pastors, Titles, Authority, Calling

ben-white-292680This is Part Two of my Rethinking Church Series. To see all the posts so far, click the Rethinking Church category in the sidebar.

We talked last time about how in his zeal to detour divisions in the church, Ignatius set in place a false structure of authoritative leadership designed to dole out punishments for non-compliance and rewards for compliance. This hierarchy of authority that Ignatius implemented, centered around pastors and in particular, the one pastor model, was firmly in place by the mid-third century and is still with us in most institutional churches today, where there is a top-down authority structure in place and one person at the top, guiding the ship. There are certain actions in the assembly that Ignatius decided can only be performed by the church’s sole lead pastor which is why he could say,

Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the church.

But this idea is foreign to the New Testament and comes to us via tradition alone. There is no biblical reason for such thinking. Note Jesus’ words that we alluded to at the end of Part One in this series:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28, emphasis mine)

Jesus’ words, “It shall not be so among you” are a clear and concise warning against establishing any kind of authoritative hierarchy within the assembly that divides sheep from other sheep and sets up one sinner in charge of another. We either don’t believe Jesus’ words, choose to ignore them, or have spiritualized their intended meaning to the point that our top-down authority structures somehow fit into it without compromise.

We’ve been told through the years that because a pastor has a special calling unlike the rest of us, he or she has been given blanket authority over us. We’ve been told that so many times and for so long that we accept it without question. We believe it without blinking. But here’s the rub: tradition has given us this, not the New Testament, and we’ve been teaching this tradition as the commands of God for so long, that we’ve blurred the lines between the two and we can’t tell the difference. Let’s look closer.

What Does Scripture Say About a Pastor’s Calling and Authority?

One of the things I participated in on occasion as a pastor in institutional church settings, was ordination councils. Ordination councils vary from Continue reading

Rethinking Church: What is a Pastor?

To say people are becoming disillusioned with institutional church is an understatement. People are becoming disillusioned and are leaving it in droves. From all the statistics I’ve read the reasons vary, but a large number who’ve left are leaving, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel the institutional church has. As a result, many are walking away and finding more authentic community outside of its walls, myself included. They are done. Josh Packard is correct in saying,

The Dones are people who are disillusioned with church. Though they were committed to the church for years—often as lay leaders—they no longer attend. Whether because they’re dissatisfied with the structure, social message, or politics of the institutional church, they’ve decided they are better off without organized religion. Source: Meet the Dones

One thing almost every institutional church has in common with other institutional churches is a person in charge called a pastor. The pastor is typically the power person in charge, directing things. In this first post of what I’m calling Rethinking Church, we’re simply going to sort out what a pastor is. This will be the foundation for the other posts that follow in this series. I’ll be writing this series from the point of view of a former pastor with 20+ years experience pastoring various institutional churches. We’ll start by looking more closely at what scripture says about pastors because I feel one way the modern institutional church has complicated things is by making the pastor an authoritative focal point in the church, not unlike the CEO of a corporation. This top-down authority approach to doing church has been handed to us by hundreds of years of church tradition, not by any biblical mandate.

From my own experience and my conversations with others, I see at least five areas where I believe the institutional church has gotten off message to varying degrees, opening the door to a structure within the church that is crippling it and causing disillusionment in those that have left. I’m writing this series in the following order:

I strongly urge you to read these in the order written, as each one builds on the previous.

Not surprisingly, the New Testament talks about pastors. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul reminds us of the gifts God has given to his church for the specific purpose of building itself up in love. He says,

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, (Ephesians 4:11)

What’s startling is this is the only occurrence in the New Testament, outside of clear references to Jesus himself, of the word translated here by the ESV as “shepherds.” But don’t take my word for it. Do the research. Your version may read “Pastors” (NIV, NASB, KJV). I’m good with either translation. Both convey what I think is the meaning of the word. There are shepherds (pastors) within the ekklesia for the express purpose of equipping and building up the assembly in love. But this is the only time in the entire New Testament that this noun translated pastor or shepherd appears, outside of clear references to Jesus, and there’s nothing here describing anything specific regarding how that building up and equipping is to be done.

But we haven’t let that stop us. We’ve turned this one verse into a thing. We’ve institutionalized the pastor and made them into something bigger than real life – something bigger than any of us can handle, including the pastors themselves. Remember, I’m speaking from experience as one of those ex-pastors. The pastor has become the central figure in most of our western church structures. It’s been that way for a long time. We’ve provided them with special chairs to sit in, separate from the rest of us, or placed them on elevated platforms apart from the rest of us, or both. Sometimes, we even require them to live on the church property (enter, the parsonage) separated from the rest of us in the community. But thankfully, that is less common than it used to be. Communication on Sunday is one-way for the most part, from them to us. We address them using honorific titles that mark them out from the rest of us and puts even greater distance between us and them. Worship, communion, baptisms, etc. all flow through the pastor or the clerical staff under the direction of the pastor. The pastor’s under an incredible amount of pressure from both without and within. It’s unfair to both the pastor and to the rest of the assembly and in my opinion, it’s killing genuine community and it’s one reason people are leaving the institutional setting in droves. I’m speaking from both personal experience and observation.

But we didn’t get here by accident. It may surprise you to know that our journey here was intentional and it began a long time ago with Continue reading