I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.
(Romans 16:17 – ESV)
Part of having a statement of faith and also going through a membership interview is to identify potential problems in theology and practice among people who might otherwise seem solid. Yes, everyone has issues that they need straightening out, but there are areas in which we could not allow fellowship inside the local body and participation in Communion and/or leadership activity if someone holds to different ideas than we do among the primary doctrines.
That is obvious, but it also filters down into areas where the potential might not seem so immediate, but would nevertheless be every bit as problematic over time. There could be issues in the areas of practical living that would come out during this process, such as living arrangements with a partner one isn’t married to, horoscopes and occult practices, racism, homosexual lifestyles, alcohol and drug use, and so on.
Some of these things wouldn’t limit fellowship, but they would be potential problem areas that would be better off if known and dealt with as appropriate from the start. These things might not surface until after several months in a local body, but could be catastrophic in their effect if left unchecked and only discovered as they start to destroy.
A prime example of this would be doctrines, books, ideas and practices we might label as “pets”; these would be things that the unsuspecting church might not be aware of that the candidate might try and propagate among the congregation. This type of activity is something which the leadership would not want to be happening.
Examples might be Sabbath Keeping and other Jewish observance as a somehow “superior” form of spirituality, heath and wealth and other false gospels, an insistence that the KJV is the only correct translation of the Bible, and the use and promotion of certain books and teachers as good sources of spiritual material which the church would not ascribe to and believe to be bad news.
Perhaps the most important example would be taking in persons who left their last church with an offense and want to air their dirty laundry out in a new setting. As a subset of that group, some just cannot fit in anywhere and jump from church to church because they do not want to be dealt with biblically.
It is a reflection of the biblical record and instruction and has been our experience over time that some people will try and enter a fellowship, having been involved with previous church bodies who would not let them exercise their brand of spirituality, and they are simply trying to find a local church body who will let them do things their own (unbiblical, anti-biblical or sub-biblical) way. To this we say no way, because it inevitably starts spreading, let alone the fact that it is wrong in the first place.
Some people come into a local church only looking to show off and defend their “pet” idea or practice, while others are simply hiding their lives, and still others may not even realize that they have unbiblical notions about everyday life that might be easily addressed during an interview or pastoral visit.
There is significant room for theological and practical disagreement among members of a local body, but the idea is that these things are not items and ideas that would necessarily wreak havoc, confusion, and dissension among the members, and bring disgrace to the name of God and pervert the gospel, whereas certain other things would, which is why the need to find these things out as much as possible beforehand. It makes for a more unified local body and leads to a happier and healthier congregation and for the individuals, including those who might be excluded by such a process.
If these persons are willing to repent, in other words change their lifestyle or agree that this or that idea is unbiblical or that this or that practice is not welcomed in our assembly and that they will disavow themselves of it, and not try and promote it, then they may come in. We can certainly tolerate differing views on eschatology, for example, but we cannot allow new people to come in and disrupt the flow of our fellowship with what we view are bad theology and practice.
What we are in effect saying is that while we welcome differing viewpoints, we must all agree that certain things cannot be countenanced, and that we will try and ascertain these potential problems before they might be allowed to be planted, for the good of the local body and the candidates as individuals. In any event they aren’t allowed to bring in their “pets”.
To give a specific example of how this might look, let us consider homosexual orientation and related issues. This clearly shows the importance of a formal process for church membership.
Whereas some things may not surface immediately, such as gossip or jealousy issues, this matter is integral to the person’s identity, it usually is known, and how it is dealt with upfront is important. Even if it is someone who isn’t a practicing homosexual, but they equate same sex relations and civil rights issues regarding race, we have a major problem.
Whereas race can be identified as a category of people, “gay” is more correctly identified as a type of behavior. Those engaging in such acts might be classified as to a category type, but nevertheless homosexual activity is not the same thing as race. We must never discriminate according to race; we must always be discerning about homosexuality. The Bible is quite clear on the issue.
In anticipating a possible counter-argument, we would say that a person who had an unbiblical divorce, but who would agree that they were wrong, and that the failure of the previous marriage was sin and they repent of that failure, that sin has been recognized and membership would not be denied. They would be appropriately disciplined if events such as those in the past arose again.
If a homosexual is confronted about their sin, and if they deny that it is sin, and they feel that they need no repentance for their actions, that is a different matter.
Conversely, if the homosexual repents of their sinful lifestyle and agrees to abstain then there is nothing to stop membership and full fellowship. At the very least there has to be an admission that the Word of God is true concerning homosexuality. Also, membership allows for discipline when people fall back into sin. One can be struggling with these or other issues, but they agree that the Word of God is true as to it being sin and against God’s will.
The difference is one of struggle, between admitting that it is sin and trying to deal with it, and openly denying that it is sin and continuing to practice it. While we can call practicing homosexuals friends, we cannot call them Christians. They can still attend so that the Word can act on their lives. They forfeit that privilege if they try to win others to their “pet” cause.
We cannot say that what God calls unholy is somehow holy. A practicing homosexual who has “prayed a prayer for salvation”, and says that they love God, but disagrees with His Word on the subject of homosexuality is living an unacceptable and unchristian lifestyle. The sincerity and sweetness of the particular individual does not negate the clear teaching of scripture.
As Christians, we are forgiven people, and as forgiven people we are to become forgiving people. Having said that, there is indeed a difference between a person who is struggling with sin, and one who defiantly remains in open rebellion, when confronted with scripture. Certainly there is a difference to one who is also trying to win others to their sinful cause.
Yes we would affirm that there are certain sins that are common that we could take to this level, but it would not be appropriate; there is a matter of degree. There are consequences that are matched to the damage to person or community. We cannot affirm that a person in such obvious, open rebellion against the Word of God is in right standing with Christ. It is not simply about someone who commits sins, but one who is living in it as a continual state. It would be similar to a couple living together unmarried, yet also compounded. A man who has temper issues is in a different situation than one who also acts out and attacks people.
As leaders we must take specific actions when specific behaviors are present. To do anything less is to compromise the truth and pollute the assembly. We cannot judge someone’s soul, but we can and must be diligent to keep poison from infecting the local body.
“Living For Today With An Eye For Tomorrow”©
Labels: Church, Issues, Pastoral, Romans