8th September 2008

Blog :: Cobwebs in the attic

I haven't written anything about theology for quite a while... I haven't really had a post waiting so much as some random thoughts on various topics gathering cobwebs and waiting to be cleared out...

One thing I'd been meaning to write about at some point is the idea of Church Membership. I made some offhand comments in Sunday School at Church earlier when we were still going through the book of Hebrews. I've had several conversations with people since then - enough to know I didn't express myself particularly well... I have one moderate opinion on Church Membership and one opionated conclusion.

So first the moderate opinion - I'm generally for the idea of Church Membership. If I was setting up a Church from scratch I'd probably include the idea of meaningful membership. I have, on the other hand, attended Churches that don't have formal Church membership and of course the specific idea of having a formal roster of Church Members isn't an obvious Biblical command.

The New Testament does teach, however, that Christians will find themselves in relationship with a particular group of fellow believers that will involve commitment and accountability. The New Testament's descriptions of Church Discipline presuppose (to me at least) some formal sense of commitment between Christians - and similarly the message that growth in Christ is found in the practice of the ecclesia seems to me to require a close intimate repeated connection with a particular group of believers. You don't need a roster of membership for all that - but you do need a meaningful way of defining the family. This can vary in practice (a house Church of 10 adults probably doesn't need a formally defined concept of membership - participation by definition is high commitment and intimate. A MegaChurch should have formal rosters.) but all methods ought to point to the same ends - moving Christians into more intentional community with a specific group of other believers.

While I don't have really strong feelings about any particular method of accomplishing this goal I do have strong opinions about how Christians should behave in a given situation. Here's that opinionated conclusion - I believe that if you go to a Church that practices official membership of some kind you should be working towards becoming a member or you should have plans to leave. If membership is the expected sign of commitment by the fellowship you attend than you should become a member (even if you aren't enthusiastic about the concept in general.) And of course if your church indicates commitment by hosting house Church meetings or volunteering to be a greeter or "parking lot pastor" instead than you should do those things too.

What you shouldn't do is say "This is my Church and I'll attend here but I can't be a member." Seriously - Go find a Church with whom you can be mutually committed. It is essential - I believe - for both a Church and an individual to be able to mutually claim one another. (Heb 13:17 Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.)

I've partly been thinking about this issue because or the series the ever excellent Internet Monk had recently. After his initial post The Church Membership Question he did a series of interviews on the question - all worth reading - but I particularly liked the quote from the interview with Jonathan Leeman

I would argue that the person who claims to be a member of the church (universal) without being a member of a church (local) is in an analogous position to the person who claims to be righteous in Christ (by position) but does not pursue a life of righteousness (in practice). In other words, let me propose that such a person is in a very dangerous position, and it raises real questions about the nature of their "faith."

That's a great quote and leads nicely to the next theological topic that's been popping up from time to time on me.

Last Sunday the sermon was on Assurances of Salvation. The focus of the sermon as I understood it was the traditional idea of assurance - looking for evidence in you history and life that demonstrates the Spirit in you, drawing you closer to Jesus.

After the sermon, however, we heard a little bit from a brother who wanted to make sure that no-one would hear "X is assurance of my salvation" and think "I don't have X, therefore I must not be saved". He was elucidating the Eternal Security point of view that justification (salvation in the sense that I'm going to heaven when I die) is unconditional and irrevocable, not based in any way on anything we might do. The only salvation we might lose in this life (he explained) is sanctification - the saving power of Christ working in our lives now. It was possible, he explained, that given the Arminian background of the Brethren some might be confused on this issue.

As the only person who would self identify as Arminian in theology my ears perked up a bit at that. For one thing - it isn't only Arminians (who believe it is possible to fall away or reject salvation) who look for assurance of salvation. Traditional Calvinists do as well. Perseverance of the Saints (the P in TULIP) does not mean that if you've ever said the sinners prayer you will be saved no matter what else you do in life. Instead it places the responsibility for Salvation with God and finds evidence of that salvation in the fruit of the life of the believer. If there is no fruit, perhaps there was no election and never any salvation at all...

The idea of Eternal Security(Once saved, always saved, etc) is rather less orthodox then either Perseverance of the Saints (going back to Augustine I would say) or more Arminian takes.

The thought that's been rattling round my head lately, however, is not a defense of a particular take on assurance but rather a question. To mature believers: does it matter? Should we focus on the question of assurance when dealing with mature believers?

Just to forestall the objections - yes I'm aware of the points Christians in each camp might bring up to demonstrate the importance and application of their theology. The Eternal Security assertion that having absolute confidence in your salvation allows you to live in Grace instead of under Law, the Calvinist defense of Monergism without abandoning sanctification as an essential rather than optional part of the Christian faith and the Arminian rejection of Carnal Christianity all may be important...

But let's make a deal - lets talk about sanctification only to the mature believers. If you're a Christian and you question your salvation at times - then this discussion of sanctification is not for you. If you're a legalist and see yourself as earning God's grace because of the good that you do - this discussion also is not for you. To the rest (and I honestly believe in my Church this is most of the adult believers in the chairs on any given Sunday) we can all agree that justification is by faith through grace. No one believes that we earn our way to heaven. Nor does anyone believe that sinning and slipping and falling short (as we all do in our lives, different ways at different times) removes us from the love of God and places our Justification in jeapordy.

At that point of agreement - we should feel confident to go on and teach preach and proclaim the necessity of sanctification in the life of the believer. To often, I think, we undercut every warning and soften every admonition by retreating to justification. We weaken the dramatically stern warnings of the Bible by saying - now remember we aren't talking about losing our salvation here, just the blessings of sanctification!

Just! For the Christian sanctification is everything between the new birth and death. It is the walk and relationship with Jesus. It is the spiritual formation we seek, the discipleship that Jesus calls us to, the entirety of the life we live now by faith with Jesus Christ. Is it assuring to say - Don't worry: you won't go to hell in the next life, you'll just live in hell in this life, completely separated from the presence of the person you claimed as Lord?

The analogy that's been running through my mind is the relationship of the wedding vows to a marriage*. Imagine talking to a group of married couples at different points in their lives. All marriages have points of tension, difficulties and disagreements and so you wish to help people make their marriages better. And what you say to them is

Remember your wedding vows. They were legally binding and irrevocable before God. So no matter how you act now, no matter what you do to each other you are still married. Those vows still apply and you are man and wife, no matter what.

And if you get discouraged or have trouble making things work just remember: you said "I do"! You are legally married and nothing can change that fact!

How helpful would that be?

And yet I get the feeling we engage in just that sort of dialogue when the topic of sanctification comes up. Evangelicals tend to be very wary of offering advice beyond the most basic levels of sin management** (avoid "big" sins) and devotion (read your Bible every day).

How tragic is it that the call to holiness has to be qualified and toned down? That the Christian seeking direction and instruction in deeper participation in the daily life of Christ won't find evangelicalism taking the question seriously?

I'm not exaggerating - evangelicalism has tons of good resources on "how to live a better life" (Seminars/Classes/Books/Speakers on Marriage, Parenting, Personal Economics (budgeting, getting out of debt, etc)) but not much to say about putting on the mind of Christ, pursuing holiness or developing a devotional life. Read the comments on another IMonk piece Where does a Baptist go for Spiritual Formation to see the dearth.

Update: I'm not sure where to go with this. I find I am more interested in having a conversation on my blog than I used to be... I signed up for Disqus comments and enabled them on the post below. Want to discuss things with me? Comment away...

* I don't want this analogy to be offensive. I recognise the ways in which Justification is of ongoing relevance in the Christian life; not least in that my santification is enabled only by the gracious choice of God in choosing to die for me. Despite it's limitation I do think the analogy is useful.

**Rich Mullins on what Dallas Willard calls "the gospel of sin managment":

Well I am a good Midwestern boy
I give an honest day's work if I can get it
I don't cheat on my taxes I don't cheat on my girl
I've got values that would make the White House jealous

Well I do get a little much over-impressed
'Til I think of Peter and Paul and the apostles
I don't stack up too well against them I guess
But by the standards 'round here I ain't doing that awful

Posted on September 8th 2008, 02:55 AM

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