Membership standards for the modern church?

Irreverent from Rev. magazine May/June 2005

Several young bucks (and does) in my denomination are questioning the church’s membership standards. They believe the multi-tiered membership categories are as silly as the Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded terror threats (Green: complete apathy, vacation in Baghdad; Yellow: mild paranoia, buy duct tape and plastic sheeting; and Red: complete panic, don’t bother renewing your subscription to Rev.).

Perhaps a color-coded membership system wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Green Membership: Bible-believing (Scofield KJV, of course), sin-hating, faith-sharing, entirely sanctified, pre-trib, Holy Spirit-filled, demon-fighting Christ-like non-smokers. Members must be able to recite the Apostle’s Creed and renounce the flesh and the devil (meaning, of course, no smoking, no drinking, no gambling, no worldly entertainment nor appearances of evil).

Blue Membership: Bible believing (NIV acceptable substitute for KJV), sin-hating, lifestyle evangelism advocate, progressively sanctified, pre-millennial, Holy Spirit-directed, Christ-like non-smokers. Members must be able to recite “The Four Spiritual Laws,” renounce the flesh and the devil (meaning, no smoking, no drinking, no casino gambling, no R-rated movies and living an exemplary lifestyle).

Yellow Membership: Believe the Bible is inerrant in original manuscripts (may use NLT for devotional reading, but not for serious Bible study), believe sin has a much broader meaning than simply Ten Commandments, share faith when seekers ask specific questions, profess to initial sanctification, have read the Left Behind book series, believe in the Holy Spirit and are Christ-like social drinkers Member must be able to recite first verse of “Amazing Grace” or any Bill Gaither chorus, avoid illegal drugs and porn movies, and live a lifestyle above the community standards of their area.

Orange Membership: Believe the Pentateuch was written by several editors rather than Moses (use The Message for Bible study), believe that love is all you need, view most evangelism as deceptive proselytizing, think sanctification is a new dry-cleaning process, believe the book of Revelation’s prophecies have already been fulfilled with Nero as the anti-Christ, smoke less than two packs a day and drink a little wine for their stomach’s sake. Members must be able to recite mission statement of the National Council of Churches, only use marijuana for medicinal uses, and have no outstanding arrests for felonious behavior.

Red Membership: Think Jesus is a pitcher with the Houston Astros.

Then again, maybe the whole problem with the membership system in churches is—the membership system. The apostle Paul (quoting Jesus, who was quoting the Old Testament) wrote that loving God and loving one’s neighbor “fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). That expanded to three more in the early church: “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (Acts 15:20).

The Didache (circa AD 60-100) expanded that list with four membership requirements (baptism, fasting, daily prayer and Communion) to over 80. (In defense of the Didache, most requirements were drawn from the teaching of Jesus and the early disciples.)

My denomination now has a 522-page book—with lots of membership requirements!

It seems to me that membership standards can become awfully gray and thus require way too much human judgment on the would-be members.

For instance, the adult Bible study teacher in our church is a brilliant scholar and talented writer.
(She should be writing this column.) She obviously has a love for Jesus and Scripture, as well as others, but—gasp (cough, cough)—she smokes, so she can’t become a member. But she’s okay with that quoting the old Groucho Marx line that she’d never join an organization that would accept her as a member.

On the other hand, my denomination would have no problem with accepting as a member a 300-pound glutton with diabetes and kidney failure who is the source of gossip and dissension.

One of my best friends in ministry is as close to the character and spirit of Jesus Christ as I’ve ever experienced, but could never be ordained in my denomination because he’s a pro-choice social drinker who goes ballroom dancing on Saturday nights.

While I believe Scripture establishes strict criteria for church leaders and expects all believers to live out the teachings of Christ (read that again so you don’t think I’m a complete heretic), I don’t think I can defend my church’s membership standards for laypeople with Scripture.

What would happen if the Church (capital C, universal, holy catholic church) simply said, “If you love Jesus and want to grow into his likeness through fellowship with this group, welcome, you’re a member! We’re going to encourage and admonish you to keep moving in that direction, but we’re not going to remove you from membership if there are some speed bumps along your spiritual journey”?

Rather than strict green, blue, yellow, orange and red membership requirements, the Body of Christ ought to be a rainbow of fellow believers at different stages of their journey to Christ-likeness.

Copyright © 2005 James N. Watkins

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