Practicing Resurrection

Florence needed God’s slow patience and a loving community that believed the Spirit is still at work in her life.

Florence* always had a prayer request during the Sunday morning service. One of the microphones would make its way to her pew. She cleared her throat to make her confession to the congregation. “I want ya’ll to pray for my live-in boyfriend, Jose. He has not been treating me right. I need help with my kids, and I have several people I am not speaking with. Thank you.” She calmly handed the mike back. People were shocked by her vulnerable honesty during a church service.

Florence had been coming to the church I pastored since 1994. She knew her imperfections and sins very well. She found a women’s Bible study at church that became her lifeline. She connected with other women who were struggling with real-life issues. Leaders and other church members showered Florence with love and support. She found the spiritual home she needed. This was her church.

A few years later, Florence came to my office. She had a smile on her face and a lightness in her step. She’d been thinking about become a member of the church, she said. We sat down at the table in my study to talk about it. She said her children felt at home at the church too. She loved sitting in the balcony or her pew as she worshiped God.

She declared she wanted to become a member. 

But there was one problem. She was not going to kick her man out of her home. In Florence’s mind, a piece of a man was better than no man at all. She didn’t think I would ask her to make a tough decision that might leave her lonely. However, I brought up the issue of her boyfriend living in her home. The smile ran away from her face. She dropped her head as I explained the moral obligations of church membership. Florence stopped listening to me. I told her about the new members’ class coming up and invited her to come. She mumbled that she might come. She brought her six children to the meeting. She never brought up membership ever again.

Florence isn’t a rare person. Many churches and leaders who are seriously reaching out with the love of Jesus and welcoming those who are seeking to become his disciples are finding that their membership requirements are daunting. Some potential members can’t accept theological values. James and Shirley couldn’t wrap their heads around the doctrine of the Trinity. They said they would not become members if they had to sign a membership agreement to accept it. Others, like Florence, face a difficult choice between a person they love and the church they love.

A Few Good Disciples

Jesus asked twelve guys to join his discipleship group. He never used the word “membership.” Maybe we need to take that word out of commission for a while. For most people, it has certain baggage that distorts the real issue, which is being a disciple of Master Jesus. The Savior was looking for a few good disciples.

All kinds of people followed Jesus during his three-year ministry on earth. Yet he chose only twelve disciples, each representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel, chosen as “a light to the nations.” Was there more to it? Did Jesus have discipleship standards? You bet he did! He chose those who were ready to drop everything to follow him (Matt. 4:18-22). He chose them because they were ready to learn from him (Matt. 10). His disciples had to unlearn a lot of bad things and learn Jesus’ way of doing things (Matt. 12:46-50). Jesus invited crowds to follow him, but he had different standards for his disciples.

Discipleship is the process of learning Master Jesus’ truth and doing things the Master’s way. We give up our agenda and our plans because we submit to Jesus’ lordship. The Jesus way, which in most churches is emphasized by way of membership standards, isn’t easy. It requires helping people who have no clue about discipleship to be pruned and redirected from self-centeredness and self-absorption to become God-centered, Jesus-driven, and Spirit-led followers.

The invitation to become a disciple of Jesus, via joining a church, is a significant step along the journey of discipleship. But Jesus doesn’t allow us to choose the road of least resistance. Discipleship begins in a church that is practicing the resurrection of Jesus in all members. “The practice of resurrection,” wrote Eugene Peterson in his book Practice Resurrection, “is the intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in the resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life.” Discipleship isn’t a one-act play but the lifelong drama of dying and rising in Christ.

The Gospel Is a Process

Florence didn’t stop coming to church. She didn’t quit going to her Bible study. She knew she was not ready to make the decision to become a member, but nobody stopped loving her and her children. She still had a place in the family of God at our church. She was still our sister on the way.

Our Lord has not given up on Florence, nor has he given up on any of us. We are not finished products or self-help projects. Instead, we are all being shaped in the Potter’s hands. Florence needed God’s slow patience and a loving community that believed the Spirit is still at work in her life. God’s Spirit was redeeming Florence, allowing her to experience the gospel in new, yet hard ways.

Invited and Included

In the early 2000s, Patty began attending church. She grew up in the church, but life had taken her down some rough roads. She was burned out on religion. She started coming to my church with a family member. She enjoyed the energetic worship, open prayer request time, and the preaching of the Word. She came to my study to share her story. She was living with a man, but she wanted a clean start. We began to meet and I tried to answer her questions.

Soon Patty began attending the same Bible study as Florence. A change was happening in her heart. She talked about joining the church. We discussed the discipleship standards. She was willing to submit to Jesus as her Lord. She knew there was a community in her corner and a Savior who was patient with her. Gradually, the Spirit revealed what she needed to do. She told her boyfriend he had to go because she wanted to be a disciple of Jesus and a member of the church. I saw a woman growing in confidence in her identity in Christ. In 2004, Patty was welcomed into the joys and pains of membership in Christ’s church. In 2015, I had the honor of marrying her to a wonderful man who cherishes God’s workmanship in her.

Did this happen overnight? Of course not. Patty needed the assurance of God’s support through his people, through worship, and through the power of Jesus. When she stood before God’s people and reaffirmed her faith in Jesus, she received the warm embrace of many people who had witnessed the work of God in her. Florence was there too, invited and included. Membership isn’t a destination, but the patient work of God in all of us until we submit to his amazing grace and become obedient disciples.

*All of the names of people in this article have been changed.

About the Author

Reginald Smith is director of race relations and social justice for the Christian Reformed Church. He attends Madison Square Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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Comments

I appreciate the loving care that the people your described in your article received from the church.  Our churches need to be more like this one in how we treat those that come through our doors.

Question to think about -  Why is a live in boy friend or girl friend such a focus in the church.  It may not be God's will for this but what about the person who wants to become a member and does not disclose or does disclose their "sins" of gossip or poisoning their bodies "temples of God" with cigarette smoke or as the saying goes - "cusses like a sailor".  Do we talk to them about being denied membership due to these life style choices?  Why do some sins eliminate the possibility for membership and others don't?  Are all sin equal?  If the "gossiping" or "cussing" church attender asks for forgiveness daily for this sin but the next day falls right back into it and follows the forgiveness routine over and over and over - will they be declared ineligible for membership?  Would the woman in the article be allowed to be a member if she never disclosed her sin during the prayer time?  Are all single attenders asked if they have a live in boy or girl friend prior to joining the church?  What happens if this person  is  already a member when sjhe decides to have her boyfriend move in with her? Hmmm?

I love to ask questions like this for us to think about why we do things they way we do them?  Are they consistant for all people or only the vulnerable ones who are not so filled with the sin of "pride" to publicly disclose their sin?  Oh boy,  we can start a new discussion on pride....

 

Thanks for the great article, Reggie, and your commitment to being honest yet loving with those who need both.

Responding to Bob, I would think any sin that a would-be member insists on holding close and not letting go of would be a cause for denying a request for menbership, which of course does not cut that person off from the daily life of the church and it's congregation.

Now you can perhaps raise the issue of how hard it might be for a local church to exhaustively interrogate for all possible sins the member requestor might want to hold onto, but that would be a logistics challenge I suppose, and certainly not a challenge that would defeat the reason for membership requirements in the first place.

Yes we could get rid of the word itself, "membership," but if we did, we'd need to just create another word for the local church's declaration that one is assumed nominally qualified to teach and lead in that local church, and that one should be part of the body that makes serious decisions about the preaching, teaching, and overall functioning of that local church.  Wherever various lines are drawn, membership, by whatever name, necessarily involved a list of requirements.

I appreciate the church's commitment and responsibility to holding its members accountable.  I appreciate more how Regie responded to the committed attenders in such a way as to maintain their commitment to the church.  In so many cases similiar to these I see people pushed out of the church community due to how the issues were presented/addressed with them.  I hope all of our churches will respond as Regie did to maintain the relationship with those that yearn to be part of the church family.

I won't disagree with you Bob that churches can and have "done this badly."  On the other had, it is as bad, or perhaps worse, when we take the view that it's been done badly and so we should really just toss out any requirements for membership.  "Say you love Jesus and you're a member."  That's today's trend direction, including in the CRC.

Now the key word I've used above is member.  Folks shouldn't even have to say they love Jesus to be a part of the church family in many ways.  Nuance, balance and love (defined correctly) are all required in dealing with this issue.

Thanks Reggie for your article concerning membership standards of the church.  Or is it discipleship standards, or learning to do it Jesus’ way?  I notice an interesting pattern in your article, as well as in the comments.  There’s an emphasis on the negative, what it is that Christians should not do.  I grew up in a Baptist family, and the standard of Christianity was you didn’t smoke, drink alcohol, didn’t gamble or play cards, didn’t go to the movies, didn’t date non Christians, didn’t miss church services or activities, and there were a few other things, as well. The Reformed church people had their own list of things too. Those, in a sense, were the marks of a Christian.  I remember a CRC church member telling me that Mr. Jones was not a Christian because he was out plowing his field on Sunday.  Christians tend to identify the faithful by the things they don’t do rather than by the things they actually do (love for God and neighbor).

Jesus, was very critical of the institutionalized Jewish religion.  What do you think his main criticism was?  The Jews, and especially the leaders, thought they could be faithful members of Judaism by the rules they kept.  Break the rules, even the arbitrary ones, and you didn’t qualify.  The institutionalized Jewish religion had become a religion that Jesus became totally critical of.  Jesus main concern in ministry was doing the things that reflected a love for others and in so doing also reflected a love for God.  Just check out the parables of Jesus.

So here we are in this article and its comments, seemingly more concerned with the rules of the institutionalized church, what we shouldn’t do rather than judging a person by a life of love and service.  Maybe our standard of membership needs some changing.  Perhaps Florence was better to forget about membership and simply love and serve the Lord as best she could. After all, she wasn’t barred from church. Yet.

Roger: Hmmmmm.  Didn't Jesus tell that woman about to be stoned that she should go and sin no more?  Wasn't that a don't?  And didn't Jesus chastise the Samaritan woman, even if gently, about her non-husband man?

For that matter, didn't Jesus tell the money changers not to turn the temple into a den of thieves.  Another don't?  And, speaking of parables as you have, didn't Jesus also condemn the debtor for not refraining from collecting the debt to him after he plead for and received the forgiveness of his debt?

Isn't the command to love also a command to refrain from actions as well as a command to engage in actions?  Isn't "saying no" a part of being loving?

You say that perhaps Florence should "simply love and serve the Lord as best she could" and forget about admonitions as what she shouldn't do.  That's sounds nice at first blush, but if that is generally applied (to more than just Florence), doesn't that means, does it not, we should avoid telling, or if you like encouraging, an alcoholic to stop drinking, an abuser to stop hitting, a bully to stop taunting, a drug addict to stop taking drugs, an obese person to stop eating too much, a sex obsessed person to stop watching pornography, a rich selfish person to stop hoarding his money?

Doesn't "lov[ing] and serv[ing] the Lord as best as [one can]" often, perhaps always, mean, in part at least, refraining -- that is, not doing -- some of the things we do?  Certainly, it means affirmatively doing too, but why would you want to avoid restraining (not doing) that which is harmful (sinful)?  Are you so afraid of legalism that you can't ever say no?  (I suppose that would be another no, as in do not say no :-) ).

I think being loving means saying both yes and no.  Jesus said no plenty of times, as did Paul, Moses, God in giving the ten commandments and other laws -- the list could go on of course.

Thanks Doug.  I guess I may have pushed a little hard on the one side.  Your point is well taken.  But still.  When Jesus talked about the sheep and goats, it was those who cared for those in need that Jesus said had done it as unto him and would be rewarded with eternal life.  And when Jesus talked about building your house upon a foundation of rock, it was a foundation of doing good that was rewarded with an enduring house and found approval by Jesus.  When Jesus talked about being a good neighbor, it was the one who went out of his way to care for one who was even an outcast (a Samaritan) who was really the good neighbor.  When Jesus spoke of who would be rewarded in using the talents given them, it was the two who used their gifts to bear the greatest fruit.  It was those who had done the good that either were rewarded or promised eternal life for the good they had done. When Jesus was asked which of the commands were the greatest, Jesus answered that it was love for God and neighbor. 

And yet in this article and in your comments it didn’t seem to be a factor that a person’s love for neighbor or God that should stand out in judging a person for church membership or learning to do things Jesus’ way.  What stood out was that church members don’t do this or that, as you point out in this last comment.  But if I understand Jesus’ teaching, you could abide by all these rules that you suggest, but if you don’t do the good (love your neighbor and God) then your rule keeping doesn’t count for anything.  Wasn’t that Jesus’ admonition to the rich young man who asked what I must do to enter heaven?  So, to me, this article and the comments weighed heavy on the negative side, which misses the emphasis of Jesus.  But sure, Doug, you make a point.  But, then I wonder, why there are so many obviously obese over eaters who are members in good standing in our churches, even serving as elders and deacons.  Shouldn’t they stand the same review as Florence?  I guess the membership review board or the pastor gets to pick and choose which sins can pass under the wire.  I’d rather leave it to God.

Just looking once again at your last paragraph.  When Jesus summarized the law, including the ten commandments, he turned them around to state the positive rather than the negative in a simple statement to love God and neighbor.  That’s the greatest.  Not so in this article or your comments.

I’m still having a difficult time with this article.  It still seems to miss the point of a valid church membership standard or doing things “Jesus’ way” as Reggie (and Doug) suggests.  Of course there are things that Christians or anyone shouldn’t do.  Your list, Doug, would make sense pretty much to anyone, even the American justice system.  The O.T. commandments regarding one’s neighbor seem to be at the base of almost any justice system.  But that wasn’t the system that Jesus’ advocated.  That was the system of the institutionalized Jewish legal system.  Judaism had become a legalistic moral code that bound people to a minimal standard of not hurting your neighbor.  Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t abuse alcohol, don’t take drugs, don’t hoard, don’t cheat on your taxes, don’t overeat, etc., etc.  You see, abstaining from such things will make you a good American citizen, but not necessarily a member of God’s kingdom.  This, in a sense, was the standard of institutionalized Judaism, and was the system that Jesus reacted against and rejected.  For Jesus, such a system was hardly even the starting point.  That’s why Jesus turned the law from a system of negatives to one of simply doing the loving thing even if it went beyond fairness. “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. 28Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. 29If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. 30Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. 31Do to others as you would like them to do to you.” (Luke 6:27-31) The standard of membership that Jesus advocated was not the standard of first century Judaism.  Jesus was a revolutionary that overturned the system of the Jews.  That’s why the Jewish leaders hated him and wanted him put to death. Jesus was making a sham of their religion.

This article sounds to me to resemble the legal system that Jesus came to tear down and supplant with a system of radical love.  “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34,35) Reggie seems to be holding up the wrong standard of membership, not Jesus’ standard.  And I hear other commenters doing the same.   Doug, in regard to the woman about to be stoned and some of the other examples you give, you missed the point of the story.  Jesus wasn’t present at that incident to criticize the woman, but rather the Jewish experts of the law.  He was criticizing the legalism that says, live by the law or be judged.  His rebuke was of the legalistic system that says don’t do this or that (not of the woman).  Instead, “Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”“No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”  (John 8:9,10) That’s quite different from Doug’s comment and suggestion in regard to this story.

No one accuses Reformed theology of being antinomian.  In fact many theologians of other Christian denominations accuse the Reformed faith as being overly legalistic, holding the law in a very high esteem.  I hear this in this article, although there seems to be an attempt to mask this legalism in niceties.  Of course, Florence is welcome to come and worship.  We will continue to love her.  But she will be asked to remain in the court of the Gentiles.

Maybe the source of our disagreement, or at least your discomfort, Roger, is our presumably different view of what "membership" means.  The thief on the cross would never have become a CRC member but yet was declared as one who would be with Christ in paradise.  I'm good by both ends of that.

No one needs to be a CRC member to be right with God.  But yet there is an institutional church.  Its purpose, I would argue, is not to keep a list for God as to whom he may or may not claim as his own.

Once you relieve the institutional church of that responsibility, perhaps you might allow for some restraints on membership, which in the CRC is fenced by requirements of "faith and life."  This fencing is no declaration proxy in God's ultimate behalf but rather a means by which there might be a communal witness to the world.  Remove the fencing and the institutional church need not preach Christ, since that is a matter of "faith" fencing, nor say a word when an elder doesn't bother to feed his children, for that is a matter of "life" fencing.  

We may have disagreements about fencing particulars but I'm not sure you really would want the institutional church to take them all down, even though you essentially argue that in your last comment.

There is some merit in what you suggest, Doug.  I might agree that we are looking at membership in different ways from each other.  There is the visible versus invisible church, the church as institution versus the church as organism. You are right that no one needs to be a member of the CRC to be right with God.  In fact, no one has to be a member of any institutionalized church to be right with God.  Jesus made that very clear in his teachings, as I suggested earlier.  I think you are also right to say that the church’s purpose is not to keep a list as to who God may claim as his own.  But that seems to be the very thing that Reggie Smith is claiming (in this article) for himself and his church, a list by which to exclude certain people from membership.  And as lists go, it’s a list that Jesus seems less concerned with, than the standard (or list) that he proposes for his followers.  As to institutionalized religion (Israel), Jesus didn’t seem too concerned with the institutionalized rules, in fact he quite regularly was breaking them. But he wasn’t too impressed with the institutionalized religion of Israel either. As the Jews of Jesus’ day thought, salvation was achieved by being a member of the Jewish religion and keeping its rules.  Jesus faulted the Jews for this.  Keeping the rules of Judaism didn’t make you a good child of God.  The Jews were using the wrong standard altogether.  Maybe he wouldn’t be too impressed with the institutionalized church that the Jewish converts and Paul set up either.  I rather doubt that he would be congratulating Reggie either.  But there is a difference between the church as an institution and the church as organism.  But I do think that the church visible should be more reflective of the church invisible. I thought the institutional church was the gathering of those whom God has claimed as his own.  If I was Florence, I would be less concerned with my membership in the church as an institution, at least this particular church.  I do appreciate your thoughtful comments, Doug.  And I do agree that we at times (maybe often) look at things from different vantage points, hence your point about fencing (which I didn’t quite understand).  But when we get to heaven, you will likely see that I was right all along.  I’m kidding.

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