Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Concerning Church Membership and the Authority of the Pastor

Gayle Carlton Felton, one of our denomination's preeminent theologians and author of This Gift of Water, By Water and the Spirit, United Methodists and the Sacraments and This Holy Mystery has written a new brochure, Concerning Church Membership and the Authority of the Pastor.

This brief pamphlet looks at membership in the context of our denomination's history, ecclesiology, constitutional and disciplinary regulations and fundamental beliefs about the nature of God's activity in human lives to bring about redemption for individuals and the wider world.

Felton points to the work of Wesleyan scholar, David Lowes Watson, who said:
“it is historiographically inept to try to apply Wesley's polity for early Methodist classes and societies to membership in the church today.”
Building on the work of Lowes Watson, she illustrates the way in which Wesleyan history has been misunderstood and misused to support the right of a pastor to deny membership to individuals. Wesley's only requirement for joining the Methodist societies was a "desire to flee from the wrath to come." Indeed, she writes,
"No spiritual attainment or religious status was necessary—only only the desire to seek God. Wesley accepted any who sought admission, but made clear that there were postconditions for society membership."
While it is true that continued membership in the societies required adherence to the General Rules and equally true that those who failed to abide by the Rules were often "purged" from the societies by Wesley himself, Felton points out that it was inconceivable for Wesley to remove a person from membership of the church:
"this exclusion was from the society, not from the church. The rules of what was essentially at that time a small religious order could not be applied to the church at large—in that case, usually the Church of England of which most early Methodists were members, if not active ones."
Felton continues on to explore our denomination's ecclesiology, or understanding of the nature of the Church, that has moved from being a sect or "holy club" to being a worldwide, holy, catholic apostolic church which in accord with the wider Christian tradition roots membership in baptism. She writes:
"One becomes a member of a church by baptism. Those who advocate giving pastors the authority to determine membership ignore the significance of the sacrament. Those who want to exclude persons from the church on the basis of sexual orientation forget that many, many such persons are already baptized members. A church which practices the baptism of infants and which values baptism in accord with orthodox Christianity cannot deny membership to any class of people. By Water and the Spirit plainly states, “There are no conditions of human life that exclude persons from the sacrament of baptism.” ¶216 of the Discipline describes the process by which baptized members become professing members. ¶217 specifies that the requirements for professing membership are the taking of seven enumerated vows. No power is granted to the pastor to interrupt this process. If baptized persons are barred from professing membership, they remain members of the universal church of Jesus Christ, marked with the sign of the cross, and sealed with the Holy Spirit, yet not qualified to be United Methodists!"
Felton's work is central to the conversations, debates and votes which will happen at the coming General Conference in regard to the right of pastors to determine readiness of membership. While some in the church seek to limit membership based on the discretion of individual pastors, Felton has clearly demonstrated that to do so would be contrary to our Wesleyan heritage, theological tradition, ecclesial polity and fundamental assertions about God's redemptive power working in and through the Church.

To obtain a complete copy of this paper, please contact the Reconciling Ministries Network.

1 comment:

Keith McIlwain said...

I write this as an evangelical supportive of our current position regarding homosexual behavior, who has taken in practicing homosexuals as members (and will do so again, next month). Just a word of context.

My understanding is that those who argue that it is the pastor's responsibility to determine who is and is not prepared for church membership refer to the lines in our liturgy in which a prospective member is asked whether or not he or she repents of their sin. Given our current denominational position, which states that homosexual behavior is "incompatible with Christian teaching" (which I interpret as polite code for "sin"), isn't it understandable why many would have a problem taking in as a member a person who does not repent of a particular sin? I understand that, and wouldn't want any pastor to violate his or her own conscience in this matter.

My point has been that we can extend this understanding to those engaged in heterosexual sin, or those engaged in non-sexual sins such as smoking or alcohol abuse or swearing or gambling or refusal to reconcile with a neighbor, etc. We shouldn't single out homsexual behavior; either we address all sins (or behaviors "incompatible with Christian teaching") or we redefine membership to mean "a place in the journey...but not the destination".

As a matter of practical concern, though, I think that if we don't allow the pastor the authority to determine who is (or is not) prepared for membership, then we need to figure out who does have that authority. The local Church Council? The Bishop? And, if the pastor disagrees with the decision of whatever authority makes the call, who administers the membership vows? There's a lot to work out here.

My guess is (and this is just a guess) that we won't alter the Discipline in this area at General Conference.