Occasionally things happen that cause us to reevaluate, or perhaps just more deeply consider, what we or the organizations we are associated with stand for. Just such an event has recently captured my attention and created no small amount of conversation around the subject of the doctrines that we hold dear. It’s not a new conversation, but it has received renewed vigor as of late and raised the question, “What can or should a church require of its members?”
Churches exist. This might seem a simplistic place to start, but it really is fundamental to the conversation. As organizations, churches, associations of churches, denominations, and many other religious organizations exist and have the right to define themselves. This right certainly isn’t restricted to religious institutions. If you want to join the Rotary, the PTA, or become a board certified lawyer or surgeon, you will be expected to meet the minimum standards of that organization.
Likewise, churches define what membership in their organizations means and what is required for entrance. The requirements vary widely but seem to have a common point of contact. Almost invariably, churches have some body of doctrine that must be intellectually acceded to in some public forum before a person can be accepted into membership. This in itself is not a bad thing. I believe that Christ himself established this pattern.
Good churches that desire to honor Christ and protect his people believe this and strive to understand what a “good” christian should be. As a result, churches codify expanding lists of doctrine that the potential member needs to understand and accept. Elders and theologians gain some new insight, and a few decades later it’s a required belief for all members. The administrators and gatekeepers of the organization observe a weakness or abuse, and another “fundamental” teaching is defined and codified. The church organization becomes involved in preserving and protecting the institution of the church with ever-enlarging circles of protective doctrines. And that’s our right.
In fact, our government protects and defends that right. The problem is that, while we have every legal right to define the human institution known as the church, that organization is not Christ’s Church. Christ’s Church is the body of Christ that has Christ as its head and every believer in Christ as a part of the body, and we have no heavenly right to exercise our legal rights in Christ’s Church.
Christ has defined what it means to be a part of his Church and has defined a criteria for entrance. On our best days we try to organize our human churches to honor the standards that Christ established; some days we do better than others. But when we claim the right to define what is required, we move into extraordinarily dangerous waters. And when our requirements for entrance exceed Christ’s we move from danger to peril and quickly arrive at the place where our church organizations can no longer claim part in Christ’s Church.
We must understand that there is a standard; in fact, there is a double standard. God’s requirements for entrance into his kingdom are so high and exacting, and we are so flawed and depraved, that we have no hope of ever crossing the bar. We do, however, have an advocate in Christ. He has cleared the hurdle and removed it. Having accomplished the work of the law and completed the work of salvation, he has reset the bar and this is it . . .
Believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God,
and receive eternal life.
All those who believe in Christ and receive his free gift of eternal life are brothers and sisters in Christ’s Church and, by God’s grace, I want them to be accepted in my church.
May our church organizations and denominations always remember that we’re not here to preserve and purify the church. We’re here to walk with people and to love them into a life-long friendship with God.