So how should someone decide on which congregation to join? What’s most important?
It’s a tough question — and I’ll admit to struggling a bit with how to articulate my own thoughts.
But I’ve found the comments in the earlier posts very helpful. Thank you.
So here’s a stab at it –
Obviously, like all kingdoms, the Kingdom of Heaven has boundaries. Not everyone is a member of the church. Not everyone is saved. Nor is it impossible to tell the difference.
Universally, Christendom interprets the scriptures to treat faith in Jesus as a blackline boundary. No faith, then no salvation, no church membership.
Obviously, there are all sorts of fine tunings one could argue regarding the exact requirements of “faith.” But I’m good with what the Bible says –
(Mat 16:16 ESV) 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
(John 11:27 ESV) 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
(John 20:31 ESV) 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
(Rom 10:9 ESV) 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Hopefully, we can all agree on this much.
Baptism as an absolute boundary condition
I understand why someone who considers believer baptism by immersion intending to obtain remission of sins an absolute boundary issue in terms of fellowship. I spent much of my life holding to that very position. However, I have changed my mind (for reasons considered here many, many times).
Obviously, we can’t ask anyone to sin against his conscience, and countless members of the Churches of Christ can’t conscientiously consider those improperly baptized as baptized at all.
However, the Churches of Christ have long been guilty of adding hundreds upon hundreds of other boundary conditions as tests of salvation. The logic is along the lines of: If false doctrine regarding faith in Jesus or baptism damns, then so must false doctrine regarding instrumental music, communion, the use of the church treasury, and on and on.
This line of thinking, in my opinion, jeopardizes one’s soul, as Paul teaches in Galatians. It’s a different gospel. It’s destructive of the freedom we’ve been given in Christ. Thus, our insistence on “sound doctrine” as a test of fellowship is a very dangerous thing indeed. I’m big on sound doctrine, but not as a means of dividing brother from brother. None of these other issues is a requirement to become saved and so none of these is a requirement to remain saved.
Worse yet, we tend to define “sound doctrine” in ecclesiological terms, that is, in terms of how to conduct the assembly, how to ordain leaders, how to name the congregation, and how to use funds in the church treasury. This bias in our thinking causes us to ignore the far more important issues — issues that I believe should more properly drive our congregational choices.
You see, we’ve become blind to what Christianity and the Kingdom are really all about, preferring a checklist of hot-button doctrinal issues, defined by our editors. But if we define fellowship primarily in terms of prohibitions inferred from the silences, we’ve obviously emphasized what the Bible doesn’t say over what it does say. That’s a problem!
So let’s see if there’s a way to think about this issue in terms of what the scriptures affirmatively teach.
Financial support and attendance
I’m deeply concerned regarding the tendency of some commenters to speak of congregational membership in terms of “financial support” and “attendance.” Describing church membership in terms of financial support and attendance is like describing fatherhood or motherhood in terms of financial support and attendance: “Yes, I have children and therefore I pay the required weekly donation and am physically present at the required hours of the week.”
Surely that entirely misses the point. Those are important — very important — but they are not the core of what it means to be part of a congregation of the Kingdom.
The meaning of “placing membership”
It’s about pursuing Jesus — not for salvation but to become like him. It’s about following in the Master’s footsteps, being transformed into his image, becoming more and more like him because we desperately want to emulate our Rabbi.
Thus, the primary determinant of selecting a congregation is, first, as Adam said, the leadership: whether the leaders are pursuing Christ and asking the church to follow them in so doing. It’s not whether the leaders are perfectly Christlike (not going to happen), but whether they are consciously leading the church toward the green pastures of Jesus, however imperfectly. It’s about the church’s direction.
To join a congregation is to place oneself under the oversight/shepherding of the leaders there. It’s an act of submission.
(Heb 13:17 ESV) 17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Further, it’s to enter into covenant community with the rest of the membership — a community that should be expressed through service to one another and to the city where the congregation is situated. It’s like family — except these are people we expect to live with forever.
Thus, additional core elements of congregational membership are found in the “one another” verses.
(John 13:34 ESV) A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.
(Eph 5:21 NIV) Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
(Col 3:12-13 ESV) 12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Notice how Jesus is held up as the standard in each of these passages. Sacrificial love is at the core of membership. It’s submission, service, and sacrifice. It’s pursuing the image of Christ together. It’s extending to each other the grace we have each received from God.
Now, if we’ll recall that Jesus models for us service, submission, sacrifice, and even suffering for the sake of the Kingdom, we shouldn’t be looking for a church that seems too altogether perfect. Jesus spent his time with sinners and outcasts.
Some churches are a little too pristine, too pure, too … (I’m searching for the right word here) … antiseptic. They have no problems (that they see) and hence no problems to solve
– and hence little need for submission and sacrifice. Who has to sacrifice when the church repeatedly affirms them in every possible way?
No, the church that helps someone grow in Christ is that the church that knows its own faults and struggles with them — openly. The members of the less-than-perfect church have to extend grace to each other the way Jesus does because their faults are too challenging to get along otherwise. The flawed church, full of members who confess their sins and failings, gives each one the ability to serve, submit, and maybe even suffer for each other.
Hence, I’d look for a tension between knowing the ideal — Jesus — and honestly admitting to be far less than the ideal, together with a zeal, especially among the leaders, to do better, to become more Christ-like, and to bring the weakest of the members along in the process.
Any lousy leader can “improve” his church by running off the weak. That’s easy and cheap and lazy. But to accept the hard to love, the stubborn, and the weak, well, that’s really tough — and exactly like Jesus.
Therefore, give me a church that knows it has problems and intends to solve them by pursuing Jesus. That’s real church, and that’s how we become like the Jesus revealed in John’s Gospel — the Jesus who let himself be introduced to the Samaritan nation by an immoral woman, the Jesus who refuses to stone the adulteress, the Jesus who heals on the Sabbath, even when it makes the Pharisees so mad they want to stone him. Oh, and this is the same Jesus who made disciples out of the Pharisees Nicodemus and Saul of Tarsus.
Target practice for stones
To become like Jesus we have to be willing to heal on the Sabbath. That’s a major theme of John’s Gospel. If my congregation’s view of righteousness is to do good even if it results in some stones being thrown, well, nothing could be more Christ-like.
But if the approach is to appease and affirm legalists, so that they never reach for their rocks — and so their Sabbaths remain sacrosanct, no matter who is never healed or how many sinners remain unconverted, well, that’s not like Jesus. A Jesus-centered church will be scarred from hurled stones.
Look for leaders who pursue Jesus. Look for people who get along because they recognize the grace they’ve received and so the grace they must grant. Look for a church made up of people you’d never find together in the world — people whom only grace could unite. Look for a love that sacrifices. Look for members who understand submission. Look for scars still healing from stonings.