Thursday, February 15, 2007

Drawing Lines

My denomination has membership commitments that are (at best) anachronistic. They draw a clear “line in the sand” defining who can and who cannot become members of any local church.

For the moment, I want to set aside the fact that this line is drawn in the wrong place.

I want to address, instead, the whole rational of lifestyle membership regulations. There is biblical warrant for a very limited number of lifestyle “concessions” (
Acts 15:19–21). But they are clearly concessions, and there are only four of them.

Trying to define what serious discipleship looks like creates all sorts of cultural problems. These definitions, by nature, lag behind the rapidly-changing culture. By the time they are written, they are out of date.

They also tend to emphasize things that are not important and to overlook things that are important.

Leslie Newbigin points out the well-documented errors that western missionaries have made in this regard:
The place where the virus of legalism gets into the work of evangelism is the place where the evangelist presumes that he or she knows in advance and can tell the potential convert what the ethic content of conversion will be.
Leslie Newbigin, The Open Secret, p. 136
Much as the act of measurement irrevocably alters a quantum event, the attempt to delineate rules, or even guidelines, imposes a time-bound and culture-bound reduction on the gospel.

We can see this clearly with groups like the Amish. But most evangelical Christians are different from them only in the degree to which their cultural regulations lag behind the current time.

But the real danger is much more serious. A detailed list of lifestyle regulations inevitably turns Christians into Pharisees. They had a list of activities which were forbidden on the Sabbath; we have a list of activities, associations and occupations that are forbidden for membership.

With such a list, we tend to focus on the periphery, thinking about what is allowed and what is forbidden. Our focus should not be on the periphery, but on the center, Jesus Christ. Again Newbigin has a good word:
When the light shines freely one cannot draw a line and say, “Here light stops and darkness begins.” But one can say and must say, “There is where the light shines; go toward it and your path will be clear; turn your back on it and you will go into deeper darkness.”
Leslie Newbigin, The Open Secret, p. 175

These kinds of regulations actually discourage serious discipleship. Paul addressed this in Colossians 2:21, 23:

“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

They seem reasonable, but they have no real value in producing holiness.

These kinds of rules cause harm as Dallas Willard warns:

If in spiritual formation you focus on action alone, you will fall into the
deadliest of legalisms and you will kill other souls and die yourself. You will get a social conformity…. To focus on action alone is to fall into pharisaism of the worst kind and to kill the soul.
Dallas Willard, The Great Omission

But this is not an issue of balancing freedom with obligation. This is not an issue of how much we should accommodate to the host culture.

Paul was not sliding down some slippery slope. He was not “becoming liberal.” In the very next verse, he continues:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things…. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry…. You must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator…. Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with
compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity…. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Colossians 3:1–2, 5, 8–10, 12–14, 17
When we give people a list of what they should do and what they should not do, we change the dynamic of discipleship. This does not mean that discipleship has no demands. It means just the opposite. Discipleship demands much more than simply keeping a list of rules.

Michael Frost could be talking about a rule-based approach to holiness:

This version of Christianity is a façade, a method for practitioners to appear like fine, upstanding citizens without allowing the claims and teachings of Jesus to bite hard in everyday life.
Michael Frost, Exiles

In its essence, discipleship is about developing character from the inside out. It is about the kind of people we are becoming.

Spiritual formation for the Christian is a Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self –our “spiritual” side—in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself. In the degree to which such a spiritual transformation to inner Christlikeness is successful, the outer life of the individual will become a natural expression or outflow of the character and teachings of Jesus.
Dallas Willard, Living A Transformed Life Adequate To Our Calling
Jesus said that anyone who wants to be a disciple must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow the example of Jesus. He said that true disciples are becoming the kind of people who naturally turn the other cheek. They are people who bless those who curse them.

Paul said that true disciples can be easily identified by their love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

But I’ve shifted this discussion from membership to discipleship. This is a shift that is often made unconsciously when arguing the question of membership commitments. An argument is made for what a mature Christian should look like (from the point of view of the person making the argument) and that is translated into membership requirements.

But is it reasonable to require of church members the characteristics of Christian maturity?

Do we allow only healthy people into hospitals? Do we enroll in college only students who already have a command of the subject for which they desire a degree? Do we leave our children at an orphanage until they can take on adult responsibilities in our families?

But somehow we think it is reasonable to expect maturity at birth when it comes to the spiritual life.

Some would argue that we shouldn’t just let anyone become a member of our churches. I agree. We should limit membership to baptized believers who are serious about following Christ.

There is no correlation between the nonconsumption of alcohol and the desire to be a serious disciple of Jesus. The same could be said regarding smoking.

Anytime an organization draws a line of required behaviors, those behaviors tend to clump on either side of the line. As a church, we shouldn’t be calling people to cross our lines. We should be calling people to become more and more like Jesus.

The early church didn’t have detailed membership requirements. Peter even had to revise his presumed requirements on the spot in the home of Cornelius (Acts 10:47). And while the early church had a few problems, there was a vitality and commitment that we rarely see today.

This does not mean that leaders should never label certain actions as sin. The truth is that we need more of this. But our membership rolls will become very short indeed if we only accept those who are free from any sin.

There are many arguments for supporting the status quo.
  • We should submit to the authority of the church.
  • We should respect the tradition from which we’ve developed.
  • We should honor our spiritual “fathers.”
  • We should limit our freedom so as not to offend the “weaker brothers.”
Quietly accepting the status quo is the easy position to take. But is it the right position to take?

A good friend once asked me, “Do you really want to be known as the person who made drinking permissible in the Wesleyan Church?” (His point was that we only get one legacy and that we need to choose it wisely.)

Framed in this way, the obvious answer is “No; I’d rather be known for something more important.”

But what about being known for calling the Wesleyan Church to be serious about true discipleship, about a compelling and powerful holiness that is a true work of God?

I think I could reply with a “Yes” to that.

Pastor Rod

“Helping You Become the Person God Created You to Be”


Anonymous said...

I love the blog that you have. I was wondering if you would link my blog to yours and in return I would do the same for your blog. If you want to, my site name is American Legends and the URL is:

If you want to do this just go to my blog and in one of the comments just write your blog name and the URL and I will add it to my site.


Pastor Rod said...


Thanks for the kind words. As you can see, I am quite selective in adding links to my blog roll. There are several sites that I read and like that I do not link to from my blog. There are several reasons for this.

You are welcome to comment here whenever you like. I also have no problem if you want to give links to posts at your site that address issues that are raised here.

God Bless,


Keith Drury said...

I've been doing a lot of thinking on this subject lately too. I note that there are actually only 5 of the "rules" that are taken seriously--the rest are treated as obvious or admonitions. And I note than my students would make a list too--just a different list. But you are calling into question the list itself, right? This is worth thinking about--and I shall.

Pastor Rod said...


Yes, I think the whole idea of a list is completely wrong-headed. And my point is not that it creates "man-made hoops" for people to jump through, but that the existence of such a list becomes a distraction and even a barrier to serious discipleship and true holiness.

The more I think about this, the more important I think it is.


P.S. Did you catch the reference to you in the article?

jeff franczak said...

"How do we grow Kingdom minds? If we focus solely on suppressing our sinful behaviors and thoughts instead of letting the Word of God change them, then we are setting ourselves up for failure."
Pastor David Clack, Conejo Valley Community Church

Sermon Link
39 min., Windows Media audio

Off Topic
"Due to recent cold temperatures, Ventura County [California] has suffered record crop damage and loss. Our local farm workers are now out of work. These are families who live on the extreme edge of poverty." - CVCC Missions Team

Please consider helping by going here to make a donation to our local food bank.

jeff franczak said...

I read the following story this afternoon:

“Even after Dad became a committed Christian, he continued to smoke. He tried to stop many times, but always reverted. Tobacco had a grip on him that he couldn’t break. Then...I got a call from my dad. ‘Son’, he hold me, ‘I was baptized [in the Holy Spirit] last night.’ Two of the things that happened because of this: (1) My dad became a board member for most of the rest of his life, and (2) he was completely delivered of his bondage to tobacco. What pious efforts from a good Christian couldn’t do, the fullness that came from God’s Holy Spirit accomplished.” (emphasis mine)
Ken Horn in
Today’s Pentecostal Evangel

Bill Barnwell said...

I honestly think that when a person really looks at all the Biblical evidence and really thinks critically in terms of modern application, this whole idea of universal black and white bans against ALL movies (minus "The Passion of the Christ," the horrible "Left Behind" movies, and the handful of other Approved Films of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists) etc), dancing in ALL forms, ALL temperate drinking, etc, completely fall apart. Just like in Paul's days, these bans and "membership/lifestyle covenants" appear wise and holy, but pompously define a false version of holiness and promote simplistic thinking.

Plus, I'll take the fundementalists seriously who constantly rail against temperate drinking (which isn't condemend by the Scriptures) because it's "bad for you" when they start paying attention to the high obesity rates in their own denominations-- rates that research is proving is higher than the already unhealthy general public. Certainly this is "bad for you" also, only the Scriptures actually have something to say about this.