Monday, September 15, 2008

Hollow Trees, Fruitful Branches

As a pastor, one question that must be grappled with is how to deal with people who want to join your church. How does a pastor decide whether to allow some to join his church or not? What is necessary to consider someone a Christian? Must a person go through a new members class to be brought fully into the church? Denominations also add a level of difficulty to the situation.

All those who are baptized in the Triune name are part of the Church, unless they have been excommunicated. It does not matter whether someone is a Methodist or Roman Catholic or Lutheran, their baptism has brought them into the Body of Christ. However, there are entire denominations on the edge of apostasy. For example, the PCUSA as well as the Episcopal Church are well on their way to being hollow in their confession of Christ. There are also several denominations that are solid in teaching biblical, orthodox truth. Notables are the PCA and the Southern Baptists. One may think that I would treat someone from a Episcopal church differently than a person from a PCA church. They would be wrong in this assumption. Even if the denomination is hollow, there may be members within it who are fruitful. In fact, they may be seeking a transfer in membership for that very reason.

The individual's situation and the specific church they are coming from are what need to be considered. We should not say someone is coming from the Episcopal Church, but rather they are coming from Redeemer Episcopal Church across town. The denomination should not determine their entrance into our local body. But still the denomination matters because doctrine matters. If a Roman Catholic wanted to join our church, I would want to sit down with them and make sure they understood the differences and were willing to submit to the elders. The same goes for any other church where the teaching varies widely from what we believe. I think this is why the specific church matters a lot. While a denomination is drifting from the faith, there are often good ministers and churches within the denomination. A pastor should not assume that just because a person is coming from a corrupt denomination that they have received corrupt teaching.

Here is the process I think should be used when someone seeks to join a specific local body. The person/family should be invited over to the pastor's house, so the pastor can get to know them better. Depending upon the size of the church this could be done by an elder. Contact should also be made with the church they are transferring from to make sure the person is not under church discipline. If the person is not under discipline and they have been baptized in the Triune name, then they should be transferred in without delay, perhaps taking some vows to submit to the elders and promote the peace and unity of the church. A new members or catechism class is fine, as long as it is not a requirement to join. Failure to agree on all the details of theology, immaturity, or general prickliness are no reasons to keep someone from joining your church.

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Let the saints be joyful in glory, let them sing aloud on their beds, let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two edged sword in their hand, to execute vengeance on the nations, and punishments on the peoples; to bind the kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron. Psalm 149:5-8