Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Rules & Regulations

I have written before about the theological, cultural and exegetical mess of the membership requirements of The Wesleyan Church. I strongly believe that the whole idea of having such a list is wrong-headed. And its practical result is that it short-circuits the process of serious discipleship.

I read this post by my fellow-Wesleyan Ken Schenk. In the context of free academic dialogue I would like to respond to several points he makes. (Ken's words will be in red.)

The Wesleyan Church is not the universal church. It would be both silly and unwise to pretend like our identity is simply that of generic Christianity. Membership identity in a denomination is not a question of "What is a Christian?" or "What does the Bible require of a person to be a Christian?"

I agree that The Wesleyan Church is not the sum total of the universal church. But how does it differ from "generic Christianity"? Are we somehow superior? Are we the Jesuits of the holiness movement?

Ken argues that denominational membership should not be determined by what the Bible requires to be a follower of Jesus Christ. But here's what The Discipline says:

No person who loves the Lord Jesus Christ, and obeys the gospel of God our Savior, ought to be deprived of church membership (p. 27).

This seems to be in direct conflict with Ken's point. The Wesleyan Church seems to think that only those who keep the membership commitments are obeying "the gospel of God our Savior." Besides, what does it mean to obey the gospel? I don't follow the logic.

In a section describing the history of The Wesleyan Church, there is this statement:

The Covenant Membership Commitments found in this Discipline
(260-268) represent in revised form the General Rules which Wesley gave to
the members of the societies to enable them to test the sincerity of their
purpose and to guide them in holy living (p. 3).

In effect, The Wesleyan Church has taken rules that Wesley set up for discipleship groups and used them as membership rules for a denomination. These rules earned the Wesleys and their followers the pejorative of "Methodists."

Ken continues:

Most of those who frame membership requirements in this way reflect fundamental blind spots in the way they think. For one, the Bible did not set down its requirements with a view to 21st century America and the broader world. Its books addressed various contexts in the ancient world. To think our membership requirements would simply be a mirror of what the Bible required them reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the contexts of biblical instruction.

I'm not sure what membership commitments have been developed as a result of the special challenges of the 21st century. Wesley's rules for his class meetings were conceived in the 17th century, and The Wesleyan Church (as The Wesleyan Methodist Connection) was established in the 19th century. I think the critics of the membership requirements would welcome some reflection on what church membership means in the 21st century.

With respect to Ken (And I have a great deal of respect for him.) it strikes me as disingenuous to dismiss all appeals to the biblical text as naïve.

Ken argues:

Secondly, to make the identity of The Wesleyan Church into "every church"--as if we obviously would only require what God requires of every Christian, the lowest common denominator of all Christians--is to insist that the ears be the eyes be the feet be the nose.

Paul's metaphor about the body was addressing the differing roles of individuals. To apply this to whole denominations is to do violence to the point that he was making. Would we think that it is healthy to have a congregation made up just of elbows? Who wants an entire denomination made up of spleens?

Ken seems to think that the membership commitments alone give The Wesleyan Church a "personality." Unless we tack on special requirements for church membership, we will lose our identity.

Ken again employs elitist language, decrying "lowest common denominator" requirements. But how does this square with Acts 15:28–29?

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

This was a response to cultural differences between the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers. The Apostles (and the Holy Spirit!) seemed to be looking for minimal requirements. Christianity cut itself free from cultural ties very early.

Ken shifts to his second point:

Denominations do a service to the body of Christ when they do "their thing" well. The Amish do forgiveness well. The question we Wesleyans need to be asking as we look to our denominational identity and our membership requirements is "What do we do well?" Optimism of grace comes to mind, victory over sin as a doctrine, social compassion was mentioned in my small group at the conference.

How do membership commitments translate into "what we do well"? Is there any relationship between the Amish wearing long beards and eschewing electricity and their willingness to forgive a mass murderer? (Maybe we need to develop a "Wesleyan uniform" so that don't lose our identity.)

We certainly have victory over sin as a doctrine, but do we have it as a reality? Do our membership requirements encourage people to be vulnerable and transparent about their struggle with sin (as an essential step to obtaining victory over it) or do they institutionalize duplicity and dishonesty? Does refusing membership to anyone who has a glass of wine (at a wedding, for example) advance the cause of social compassion? Do smokers feel optimistic when they are excluded?

Peter's words seem appropriate here:

Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? (Acts 15:10).

I wonder how far Ken would be willing to apply his principle that every denomination has the right to establish whatever requirements that it wants. What if a denomination forbad the eating of pork? Or required circumcision?

And I have not even addressed the rank hypocrisy that we have tolerated within our ranks. We have turned materialism into a virtue as long as donors give to our churches and institutions. We encourage gluttony while denouncing the dangers of "social drinking." We make excuses for pastors and church officials who are mean and rude, because they are "effective."

I'd very much like to see The Wesleyan Church become a demonstration of the power of God's grace to overcome the grip of sin. But I don't see our current membership requirements as a means toward that end. Rather, I see them as a significant obstacle.

That's what I think. What do you think?

Pastor Rod

"Helping You Become the Person God Created You to Be"

1 comment:

daniel the smith said...

I read his post, and it sounds like I would have liked his presentation quite a bit.

However I don't buy any of the membership stuff.

I would suggest that the extent to which a denomination has a "specialty" is the extent to which it is deficient in the rest of the stuff it should be doing.

This may be a little silly, but I think there is ample evidence in the Gospels to conclude that Jesus himself would not be able to join the Wesleyan denomination...