Would you jump too?

You may have heard or read already about City Church in San Francisco announced this past March that the church would “no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation,” by which the church meant that sexually active gay and lesbian couples in homosexual marriages would be permitted to become members of the church. This was a reverse of position for the church, which had taught the church “was holding and would hold to the historic Christian view of homosexuality,” according to a report in the July 11, 2015 issue of WORLD. This change “shocked” church members and “surprised” a group of some 40 pastors who subsequently sent a letter to Fred Harrell, the pastor of City Church, questioning the process by which the decision was made as well as the decision itself. I have written enough here at other times on the biblical position on homosexuality that I need not elaborate on it here, and that is not the main point of this post. Rather, I want to consider one of the reasons cited in the WORLD report for the City Church position change.

Marvin Olasky reported that in October 2014 City Church elders met and a majority of them decided to accept a gay man as a member of the church without any requirement that he remain celibate. However, the individual did not join the church and, according to Olasky, “almost all church members remained unaware of the imminent change.” It was in January that Harrell pushed the elders to make that vote the church’s official position, and the five elders present at the meeting agreed. Here is where my concern heightened. Olasky reports that there were “two developments” in January that prompted some at City Church to believe the time had come for the church to change its position on homosexuality in general and homosexual church membership in particular. What were those developments?

First, “two big evangelical churches in other cities–GracePointe in Nashville and EastLake in Seattle–announced they would now admit non-celibate gays.” That is the extent of Olasky’s commentary on that motivator and I do not know anything further about the impact that may have had on the City Church position change, but this rationale smacks of the age-old parent-to-child question, “If all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?” The decision by any church to compromise the teachings of Scripture should be an impetus for other churches to shore up their own position and ensure their own adherence to the Truth, not an excuse to join in and throw out the biblical instruction. This is why Paul instructed that believers need to test what they hear in church against the Bible, so that they are not misled by the “position of the moment” being espoused by any teacher or church when that position is contrary to Scripture. (This is also why, by the way, men literally gave their lives to see through the translation of the Bible into language the people could read for themselves–so that churches and church leaders could not mislead the people by ignoring parts of the Bible or claiming Scripture said something it does not say).

Second, Olasky reports, “An article in The Guardian on hip Bay Area churches focused on new entries: Reality, Epic, C3, and The Table. City Church didn’t receive even a mention.” Sadly, this too is an incredibly childish motivation. This reads like one child seeing that another was getting more attention than he, so he decided to throw a tantrum or do something outrageous in order to ensure that all attention shifted back his way. Churches that concern themselves with being labeled “hip” by any publication, much less a secular one that tends to lean to the left, are clearly churches whose priorities are in the wrong place. I do not know how much connection there is between the article and the church decision, but it troubles me deeply to think of any church suddenly embracing any position that contradicts Scripture even in small part in order to attract media attention or improve some kind of hip-ness rating. Jesus said that the world will hate His followers because the world hated Him first. Peter said that followers of Christ are blessed when they are insulted or persecuted for the name of Christ. I am unable to find anyplace in Scripture that commands, encourages or even suggests that Christians are to seek out the approval of the world.

City Church was not the first church to flip-flop on the issue of homosexual marriage or homosexual church membership and it certainly will not be the last. Anytime a church, a pastor or teacher or any individual Christian, for that matter, does a 180-degree change on any position to which he held previously there needs to be careful evaluation and examination of why the position or conviction was changed and whether or not that change was truly informed by Scripture–and a proper interpretation and understanding of Scripture, at that. Sometimes there may be legitimate reasons and sometimes the change will be one that needed to be made. When the change results in a new position that is clearly contradicted in Scripture, though, Christians need to take a stand and call the position change what it is–error, false teaching, heresy. When the change is motivated by a desire to follow the crowd or get back into the in-group, not only should the position change be questioned, so to should the very church making the change. Any church that changes a foundational position of the church’s faith for such shallow and temporal reasons will surely have other, far deeper problems.

Denominational Membership

Somehow an entire month has passed since my last post. I assure you it has not been an uneventful month! However, I never wrote the final post in my series on the importance of church membership. I have alluded to some of these final concerns in other posts, but the importance of church membership is relevant beyond the local church when that local church is part of a denominational body. As has been seen in many recent denominational decisions, the people who are permitted to officially make up the local church then also officially make up the denomination and then also officially decide what the denomination believes and allows.

How does it ever happen that a denomination can decide to allow something that the Bible prohibits–like homosexual marriage? It all starts with church membership. The members of the churches within that denominational body are elected to leadership positions and/or as delegates to the denomination’s national (or even global) assemblies where there are votes taken on what the denomination believes, sanctions, practices, etc.

This is also, of course, one of the dangers of a church being a part of a denominational body. I know there are some advantages, and I will let you figure those out for yourself if you do not already know them (because, frankly, there are various opinions on such benefits). The dangers, however, are that the local church that has remained faithful to Scripture in its teachings, beliefs, practices and membership requirements is a part of the larger denominational body. This means that money from the local church may be going to support ministries and institutions that the local church does not support (and may even oppose) and it means that the local church is officially expected to believe and practice as the denomination as a whole decides. When the local church that has remained true to Scripture wants out of the denomination after it begins to stray from Scripture, the local church finds itself in a legal quagmire, since the courts have usually ruled that in such instances the church buildings belong to the denomination, not the local body. Accordingly, some of these churches have been forced to forfeit their local church buildings, and in some cases these have been hundreds of years old and/or worth millions of dollars.

I have been a member of one church in my adulthood that was a part of a larger international denomination. I joined it because it was the strongest and most biblically-based church in my community. At the same time, there were a lot of things I did not like about the church’s denominational membership, including where some of its dues to the denomination went and the denominations program for international missions. In that case, the international denomination had (remarkably) turned back toward biblically-accurate positions, but the state chapter of the denomination had not. The result was that there were then two competing state chapters. The church I was a member of had always been a member of the one chapter, because for a long time it was the only one. When it strayed, though, older members rejected efforts to leave it because of the church’s long affiliation and connection. So, this local church was dually aligned. Between you and me, I find that to be even worse. It’s like straddling the fence. It’s being lukewarm. It’s a church’s refusal to take a stand for truth because an elderly member might get miffed. For me, when the choice is between a miffed senior citizen and the Bible, I’ll choose the Bible every time.

This will likely sound like I am opposed to denominational membership and favor an independent local church. That would be accurate. However, that is not the purpose of this post. Rather, my hope is that those who are members of larger denominational bodies will recognize that the serious responsibility of defining, filtering and enforcing church membership will have an impact far beyond their local body.

Discernment and caution

In the last post, I described why it so important for churches to exercise discernment and caution when deciding who will become a member. Though not referenced explicitly in that post, it is just as crucial for individual believers to exercise discernment and caution when selecting a church to join, or when weighing a decision to stay in a church.

The extreme dangers of both are exemplified in an article in the January 26 issue of TIME entitled “A Change of Heart.” The article provides an overview of the varying positions on homosexual marriage within evangelicalism. The church that is spotlighted in the story is Seattle-area EastLake Community Church. The article’s lead paragraph describes all of the ways that the church “looks like a lot of other evangelical megachurches,” but is really praising the trendiness of the church. And before I address that church’s stance on homosexual marriage let me address this trendiness issue. The TIME article says that EastLake “boasts 13 weekly services at six locations…; the head pastor is a bearded hipster; and the main campus is a warehouse turned sanctuary where greeters serve coffee, a tattooed band rocks out beneath colored lights and attendance swells whenever the Seahawks are not playing.”

That these are the characteristics considered common among evangelical megachurches does not speak well for evangelical megachurches! None of those descriptors amount to a thing when it comes to faithfulness to Scripture. God is far more concerned that a pastor is a Bible-proclaimer than a bearded hipster. His desire is that church members actually serve each other and their communities; I suspect He could not care less whether or not the greeters serve coffee. (Actually, if the coffee becomes a focal point or a distraction, I suspect He does care, and He is not in favor). I feel equally confident that God is far more concerned with the lyrics of the songs and the hearts of the singers than He is with the bodily adornment or the colored lights. And if the church’s attendance fluctuates considerably (which “swells” would imply) based on whether or not the local NFL team is playing, I think God would have a question or two about the level of commitment to Him that would be found in the members/attendees of the church. See, I may be wrong, but the notion of church attendance swelling when the Seahawks are not playing makes me think that going to church is the next-best thing to do on a Sunday morning in Seattle for those whose presence “swells” the attendance at EastLake. If the church is a trendy, fun or “hip” place to hang out when there’s no football, there is a problem. (See also: my many previous references to the need for church to be uncomfortable).

All of that aside, the real point of the introductory paragraph of the TIME article is this conclusion: “It [all of the happenings of the church described above] is almost enough to make you miss what is really going on at EastLake this winter: the congregation is quietly coming out as one of the first openly LGBT-affirming evangelical churches in the U.S.”

I will go ahead and say it, and the fact that many will disagree with me or call me intolerant, biased, opinionated or discriminatory matters to me not one bit: “LGBT-affirming evangelical church” is a contradiction. It is something that cannot be. Once a church becomes “LGBT-affirming” it ceases to be evangelical. If “evangelical” means affirming the teachings of the gospels and the authority of Scripture, as I believe most definitions suggest, then affirming homosexuality is simultaneously ceasing to be evangelical, since the Bible is quite clear on the fact that homosexuality is a sin. In other words, one cannot both affirm homosexuality and affirm Scripture. One cannot be both LGBT-affirming and evangelical. That is, of course, unless and until one embraces the relativism of our age, when there is no real meaning to anything and one can pick and choose any combination of things and put them together, ignoring the fact that they are mutually exclusive. We are not talking about toe-may-toe versus toe-mah-toe here; these are not matters of preference or opinion.

TIME goes on to explain that the transition to being “LGBT-affirming” happened slowly for EastLake. “For the past six months, the church has played a short welcome video at the start of every service that includes the line “Gay or straight here, there’s no hate here.” Ignoring the fact that the line is incredibly cheesy, I would agree that there should not be any hate found within the church toward people. The sinful choices of people, however, should be of concern. No church can be faithfully teaching Scripture and be making homosexuals feel welcome at the same time. Beyond the saccharine tag line, the church’s other efforts at welcoming and affirming homosexuals include the facts that the church’s first gay wedding took place in December, and that “one of the pastors now sends a wedding gift on behalf of the church every time she hears that gay congregants are getting married.” (Therein, too, the TIME author unwittingly provided further evidence of the fact that the church is not really evangelical; just as clear as the Scripture’s teaching that homosexuality is a sin and marriage is between a man and a woman is the teaching that women are not to be pastors).

Ryan Meeks, the pastor of EastLake, says that a “turning-point” for him came when he learned that “one of his staffers had been afraid to tell him she was dating a woman.” Says Meeks, “I refuse to go to a church where my friends who are gay are excluded from Communion or a marriage covenant or the beauty of Christian community. It is a move of integrity for me–the message of Jesus was a message of wide inclusivity.” Sadly, there is no integrity in the “move” at all, since it denies the authority and teaching of the very Scripture it purports to support and uphold. The message of Jesus was widely inclusive in one way–that salvation is a free gift for anyone who believes. At the same time it is incredibly narrow and intolerant in all other ways. After all, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by Me.” There are five resounding statements of intolerance there; Jesus said He is the only way.

I could say plenty more about the contents of the TIME article, and at some point I may. (I have, after all, addressed only the article’s first two paragraphs!). I believe, however, that I have made my point: churches need to be careful about who can become a member, because the members determine the direction of the church. Believers need to be careful about the churches they join, too, so that they do not unknowingly join themselves with a body that does not affirm and teach the Bible. (Encouragingly, the TIME article does point out that EastLake has lost 22% of its income and 800 attendees in the last year and a half, signaling that at least some of its members were unwilling to remain part of a church that no longer taught the Bible). Discernment and caution are imperative.

Membership Matters

In an interview printed in the February issue of Tabletalk, Russell Moore said, “Our vote for president of the United States is critically important, but our vote to receive members into our local churches is more important.” At first glance, that may seem a bit extreme, but Moore is absolutely right and is making a crucial point. Yes, our vote for president is “critically important,” and each and every one of us should (1) care who the president is, and (2) be sure to exercise our right to vote when it comes time to select a president. Who we allow to become members of our churches, though, will potentially impact lives for eternity. Everyone who has accepted Christ as Savior is a member of the Church–the body of Christ. Membership in a local church, however, is what Moore has in mind, and is what I am going to discuss here.

Churches are made up of believers. Strong churches are built on the foundation of Scripture, but the functioning of the church, the teaching that takes place in the church, the church itself, depends on and is the people who are its members. As important as it is for a church to welcome anyone who walks through its doors–unless and until there is reason not to welcome someone–it is exponentially more important that the church not allow just anyone who walks through its doors to become a member.

“Membership has its privileges” is an old advertising slogan from a credit card, I believe, but it is an idea that holds true for the church, as well. In a healthy church, only members can hold leadership positions, vote, teach Sunday school or VBS, etc. Anyone is welcome to attend, but not just anyone is welcome to assume positions of leadership and influence. That is because these roles are so incredibly important that we must make sure that they are filled by individuals who are equipped and qualified to fill them. I am the administrator of a K-12 school. No matter how much I may sometime be tempted to do so, someone’s willingness to teach a class will never be enough in and of itself for me to hire that person to teach.Willingness and ability are not the same thing, and while someone may have an abundance of the former, the latter is also necessary.

I can give you, from personal experience, two examples of ineffective (and dangerous) church membership/leadership models. the first is something that happened to me in 2001. I had recently moved to a new area to assume a new position in a Christian ministry. The ministry was allowing a local church to use its property/facilities for a Sunday school picnic. I was in attendance, primarily as a way to meet people in my new community. I met the pastor of the church at that picnic. When he learned who I was and why I was there, he asked me if I would like to teach Sunday school at his church. I understand that he was desperate for good teachers. However, this question was a huge red flag in my mind. If he would ask me, within minutes of meeting me, to teach Sunday school, there were likely some other major issues at the church. (There were, too!).

A few years later I was still in the same ministry position and had joined another area church. My wife and I had attended for a while, I had read the church’s constitution and statement of faith and I had discussed a few things with the pastor. It was, we were sure, the most solid church in the area. Yet, its membership procedures were terrible–and dangerous. When someone wanted to join the church, the person would go forward during the invitation time at the end of the service and express to the pastor the desire to join. Following the singing of the closing hymn, the pastor would then present the individual to the church and ask the congregation to vote, on the spot, on that individual’s desire to join. To make matters worse, the pastor would ask for a vote of “aye” from those in favor and then from those opposed. He would say, “All opposed, same sign. And of course, there are none.” Really? I suppose there may well have been times in the early goings when there were no votes in opposition, but eventually this became a self-fulfilling prediction. After all, who is going to vote no when the pastor regularly says “of course there are none”? I often abstained from these membership votes because I often felt I did not know the individual well enough to know whether or not membership was a good idea. Sometimes I did not know the individual at all! I am pleased to say that I eventually became an elder in that church and while I was in that position was part of the church’s decision to change the membership process to include a membership class and a meeting with elders before going to the church for a vote.

I am not advocating careful procedures for church membership because someone might somehow be unworthy of joining the church. None of us are worthy, expect through the blood of Christ. I am not concerned that someone might not be “good enough” to join, either. I believe it was Adrian Rogers who said, “There is no such thing as a perfect church, and if there was none of us could join.” My concern–and Russell’s I believe–is that those who become members of a church are those who shape, influence and drive the future of the church. They vote on budgets, determine how leadership positions will be filled and by whom, have a say in curriculum and programming decisions, and more. Most importantly, those members decide whether or not the church will stay true to God’s Word. As we will see in the next post, that is the most important concern of all, and protecting the church’s adherence to Scripture is why membership votes are so critically important.

The Dones

In a recent column on ChurchLeaders.com Thom Schultz described the growing number of “Dones” in the United States. If this is not a term you are familiar with, you are not alone–I had never heard it either. In fact, it may be a term Schultz coined himself, but it references a group of people that are common enough that they are the subject of research by sociologist Josh Packard. The “Dones” are those individuals who are done with church. Say Schultz, “They’re sometimes called the de-churched. They have not abandoned their faith. They have not joined the also-growing legion of those with no religious affiliation—often called the Nones.” Instead, the have just up and quit, deciding they have had enough of church and they are not going to take it any more.

According to Packard, the “Dones” are often from the most dedicated and active people within their congregation. This begs at least one question in my mind immediately, in light of the oft-repeated assertion that in most churches ten percent of the people do ninety percent of the work. Are the “Dones” getting tired of doing all the work? In other words, are they getting burned out? Apparently not, according to Packard’s research cited by Schultz.

In his upcoming book Church Refugees Packard suggests that the “Dones” simply feel like they have heard it all before. Others are tired of being told how they are to live their lives. According to one of Packard’s interviewees, “I’m tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do.” Therein, of course, lies part of the problem. Effective preaching and church ministry has nothing to do with “some guy” telling anyone what to do, unless that guy is Jesus Christ. If the pastor is insisting that he has the authority to tell those in his congregation how to live their lives, then he is wrong and leaving the church is probably wise. If, however, the pastor is faithfully and consistently preaching and teaching the entire Bible, he will, necessarily, be touching on many areas that pertain to how Christians are to live their lives. This would not be coming from him, though; rather, he is simply communicating and explaining what the Bible says. If the issue, then, is not liking the idea that God both cares about how we live our daily lives and has a right to care about it then the real issue is the heart, not the church.

Schultz also writes of another reason the “Dones” might be done. “The Dones are fatigued with the Sunday routine of plop, pray and pay. They want to play. They want to participate. But they feel spurned at every turn.” This is an interesting idea and one that requires additional investigation. Perhaps Packard’s book will shed more light on what Schultz is getting at here. On the one hand, it seems to contradict the idea mentioned above, that the “Dones” are often coming out of the most active members of church congregations. If that is true, the suggestion that they do not get to participate does not make sense. On the other hand, if these individuals are tired of listening to “some guy” tell them how to live–in other words, if that is their heart attitude and their mindset–then having them become more participatory within their churches could be dangerous to the spiritual well being of the church. There are, after all, specific biblical requirements for church leadership and additional reasonable requirements for church volunteers and ministry leaders.

Packard, says Schultz, explains that churches are not likely to get the “Dones” back in church, and would be far better off focusing on not losing them in the first place than on getting them back. He suggests seven questions that church leaders should ask church members in order to help the church understand the needs of their congregations and meet those needs before their congregants flee.

Here are his questions:

1. Why are you a part of this church?
2. What keeps you here?
3. Have you ever contemplated stepping away from church? Why or why not?
4. How would you describe your relationship with God right now?
5. How has your relationship with God changed over the past few years?
6. What effect, if any, has our church had on your relationship with God?
7. What would need to change here to help you grow more toward Jesus’ call to love God and love others?

These are actually good questions. Much to my delight they are not focused on what would make anyone more comfortable. The last question is particularly poignant, but I would caution churches implementing this approach to couple it with another question: What would need to change in your life to help you grow more toward Jesus’ call to love God and love others? After all, there may well be things that the church could do differently in order to more effectively minister to its congregation and spur on their spiritual growth. At the same time, there is nothing any church can ever do to accomplish that growth if the real issue is within the heart and mind of the individual congregant and he has no interest in changing. If, in other words, he is tired of “some guy telling him what to do.”

If there are previously committed and active members of churches making a beeline for the exit and quitting church, we do need to be concerned. We do need to seek to keep them if they have not left and reach them if they have. Let us now, however, confuse ourselves into thinking that the fault is solely with the church.