This is Part II in my series. The other posts are here: Part I, Part III
The question for me is why I seem to have a significant disconnect in my mind about rules. Why am I OK with standards of dress for work and school, but not church? Why do I think that membership rules don’t apply to me? Why is it that my taste in movies generally limits itself to PG-13 and below, but I’m the most vocal supporter of an individual’s freedom to watch R-rated movies?
At least part of it for me personally is that in the two situations I mentioned in Part I, the rules were not there to begin with, or at least were not enforced. Someone then decided to implement them. From my viewpoint the rules changed, my inner 3-year-old cried "No fair!", and I had to re-evaluate how the new rules affected my participation. But then again, I've been in jobs where rules have changed and there was little weeping and gnashing of teeth. Maybe a touch of "No fair!", but then I adapted fairly easily. There has to be something distinct about church which triggers my unease.
My thought process goes something like this—at work, they pay my salary, so that gives them some pull in my life. If I choose to work for my company, I need to abide by their rules. If I cannot bring myself to abide by their rules, I’ll probably be happier working for someone else anyway. The same can be said about church, to an extent--if I don't agree with the rules of a particular church I will probably be happier at a different one. But somehow I have a problem at a deeper level with the existence of the rules in church. Part of it could be that church is a volunteer-thing. At least at work I’m getting paid to follow the rules. At church I'm showing up on my weekend time. I want to minister and contribute, but does God really need me to jump through a certain set of hoops and sign my name in blood to qualify?
Taking myself out of the equation for once, I ask why pastors and church leadership have rules to begin with. Why do they feel they need a dress code, rather than trusting people to dress appropriately? What do they stand to gain by requiring that people take formal membership in order to participate in ministry?
Well-meaning pastors want to protect their congregations. They (rightly) feel a certain amount of fear or concern that a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” could come in and hurt their flocks. And as discussed in Part I, a natural human reaction to fear is control, so that’s how rules get formed—If there is a dress code, people will know exactly what is expected of them, so we won’t have to deal with people dressing inappropriately. If people are members of the church, we’ll have a chance to “pre-screen” them before allowing them to minister and/or lead in the church, and that way we’ll know we’re putting good people into those positions.
My problem with the dress code is that it isn’t Biblical. I don’t have a problem with a dress code at work because it isn’t a spiritual issue. I have a problem with it at church because God tells us very clearly that He is not about appearance, so why should we be concerned with it? Of course, if someone is dressed grossly inappropriately, deal with the individual situation. But don’t try to spiritualize the issue and somehow twist it into obeying God or not, and do let the nonoffenders live within their freedom of personal style.
My problem with membership as a requirement, which I'm pretty sure isn't in the Bible either, is that it doesn’t guarantee anything. Most membership processes consist of sitting through one or several meetings where the church leadership tells you what that church is about. And then you get to vote in business meetings if your church is structured as such. It lets the leadership learn your name, and verify that you at least claim to be a Christian before you go off teaching Sunday School.
The element that’s missing in all of that is relationship. The only way to be as sure as possible about the people in leadership and ministry is to know your people. This is both the tougher and scarier route. It’s easy and quick to implement policy or hold a weekend-long meeting where people give their testimonies in a nutshell. Relationship takes the time and effort of getting to know someone on a deeper level. Not just how they became a Christian, but what events in their life have shaped how they view God? What are their greatest gifts, their greatest struggles? What sorts of ministries has God put on their hearts, rather than which vacancy can the church stuff them into? Does their yes mean yes and their no mean no--ie, when they commit to something do they follow through?
Recently, we attended a newcomers' lunch at our church. It was a relatively simple meeting where they told us what the church is about and we got to ask questions. It was suspiciously similar to what we might encounter at a membership class, except that our church doesn't have formal membership.
Here's the difference: that meeting neither qualified us for anything, nor obligated the church in any way toward us. It was just a time to start getting to know each other. At another point we called the assistant pastor and said, "Hey we're into music and we'd like to come talk to you about how the worship team works." Over the past several weeks, we've begun to integrate into the worship team, meeting regularly and getting to know people. They know us well enough to know that we love Jesus and music is our "thing," and we know them well enough to know that we want to be part of the team and grow & minister with them. No way do we know them (and they us) as well as we would like, but that will begin to happen over time. We're not taking over or in charge of anything, but we're part of the group.
Then there’s the scary element of trust—no matter how well you know someone, there are never any guarantees. If we are honest about this life and human relationships, all of us will hurt and be hurt, even in church. How do we deal with that without kicking people out every time they mess up, or resorting back to standards and regulations?
Part I, Part III