This is Part 6 of a multi-part series I’ve called Rethinking Religion. Here’s a look at the entire series thus far:
I urge you to read these in order because each post assumes a reading of the previous posts.
The Apostle John, in his first letter, makes the statement: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9). It would be an understatement to say that this verse has been misunderstood and misapplied throughout much of the church’s history. Those in top-down religious positions of authority have wrongly used this verse to insist we must continually be on high alert and constantly confess their sins in order to receive forgiveness up to that point in time. John MacArthur explains 1 John 1:9 this way,
“It is a subjective, relational kind of forgiveness. It is the restoration to a place of blessing in the eyes of a displeased father. …it is a spiritual washing to rid you of the defilement caused by sin in your daily walk. The verse is speaking of an ongoing pardon and purification from sin, not the cleansing and forgiveness of salvation.” If We Confess Our Sins, Emphasis Mine
He continues by adding,
“The pardon of justification and the washing of regeneration do not eliminate the need for you to deal with the subjective reality of sin in your life.” If We Confess Our Sins, Emphasis Mine
MacArthur insists that 1 John 1:9 is referencing an accumulation of sin caused by my daily walk. In other words, as I live my life, sin accumulates and requires periodic confession in order to be restored to a Father who has become displeased with me in between my confessions because of accumulated sins. For him, it is a “subjective, relational kind of forgiveness” that depends on my faithfulness to repeatedly and continually confess all of my sins in order to receive “ongoing pardon and purification.” In his own words, I become defiled and unclean just be living my life every day, apart from continual confession of sins. For MacArthur, the forgiveness and pardon you received at conversion doesn’t “eliminate the need for you to deal with the subjective reality of sin in your life.” In short, you’re forgiven but not really.
Desiring God Ministries adds a new layer of confusion by insisting:
“You’re not saved through faith alone. Be killing your sin.” Twitter 10/14/2017
“Bring up church membership and watch people squirm.” –Ed Stetzer
Isn’t that the truth? I squirmed just typing that and you probably did too as you read it. Formal church membership can be an explosive subject because people either see no need for it or they have a deep-seated emotional investment with it. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who is truly neutral to the idea of formal church membership. We seem to either run from it as an unnecessary burden that can in some instances be abusive, or we run to it with robust fervor because we’ve convinced ourselves those who aren’t a formal member in an institutional church are either sinning or fringe Christians who don’t really get it, or both.
In this post, I want to talk to you about formal church membership. It’s a subject that keeps presenting itself to me on this journey God has me on, so I want to address it. My views on formal church membership haven’t changed much in the last 44+ years but more recently, I’m seeing a trend in many institutional churches that is alarming. Allow me to say at the outset that I’ve pastored churches that have formal church membership and I’ve pastored churches that don’t. I’ve been on the inside of both systems and I’ve seen the positives and the negatives of each. I’ll talk more about that in a minute. First, let’s review where we’ve been in this Rethinking Religion series.
Review and Rewind
This is part five of a multi-part series I’ve called Rethinking Religion. If you haven’t read parts one thru four yet, you can use the links below to do so. In this post, we’re going to continue building on what I introduced in parts one thru four as we tackle the subject of formal church membership. What is formal church membership? Is formal church membership required of me? Is formal church membership a Biblical mandate that I am compelled to obey? If I choose not to become a formal member in a local church, am I sinning? Should I feel guilty? To refresh your memory, I’m presenting this multi-part series in the following order and there is more on the way:
This is part four of a multi-part series I’m calling Rethinking Religion. If you haven’t read parts one – three, I encourage you to read them before reading this one because they build on one another. Here’s a glimpse of what I’ve written so far:
I’ve previously noted that the directive by Ignatius (ca. 110 AD) was firmly in place in most local assemblies by the middle of the 3rd century (250 AD). By that time, Ignatius’ words, “Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father… Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop… Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes” were considered the norm and assumed to be directives originating in scripture. But they are not. Tradition and tradition alone has given us this model. It is nowhere in the New Testament.
“The clergy-laity tradition has done more to undermine New Testament authority than most heresies.” – James D. G. Dunn
This is part 3 of a multi-part series I’m calling Rethinking Religion. If you haven’t read parts one and two, I encourage you to read them before reading this one because they build on one another. Here’s a glimpse of what I’ve written thus far:
Ignatius (ca. 110 AD) said this:
“Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father… Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop… Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes.”
I’ve previously noted that this directive by Ignatius was firmly in place in most local assemblies by the middle of the 3rd century (250 AD). It was assumed to be a biblical directive, but it is not.
We’ve already shown that the top-down authority structure that is present in most modern institutional churches is a man-made product of tradition that started as early as Ignatius. The one pastor authority model that we unquestionably accept as a biblical one, is actually something that has been handed to us by religious history and tradition and we accept it without question. Not only do we accept it without question, but we’ve also complicated it by adding layer after layer of hierarchical organizational strata where pastors are over pastors, and those pastors are over other pastors, and the higher the structure rises, the more sophisticated the honorific the titles become. Our church authority structures more closely resemble corporate America than anything in the New Testament. We’ve taught tradition as the commands of God for so long, it doesn’t dawn on us to look past the traditions, open our New Testaments, and ask hard questions, questions that threaten 2,000+ years of those same entrenched traditions. But with so many leaving the institutional church, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel the church has, it’s time to ask why. Will Ignatius’ words, “Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes” stand in the light of scripture, or should we jettison it as tradition that has proven harmful to the practice of the one anothers within the assembly and to the priesthood of all believers.
This is part 2 of a multi-part series I’ve called Rethinking Religion. To see all the posts so far, click the Rethinking Religion category in the sidebar.
We talked last time about how in his zeal to detour divisions in the church, Ignatius set in place a false structure of authoritative leadership designed to dole out punishments for non-compliance and rewards for compliance. This hierarchy of authority that Ignatius implemented, centered around pastors and in particular, the one pastor model, was firmly in place by the mid-third century and is still with us in most institutional churches today, where there is a top-down authority structure in place and one person at the top, steering the ship. There are certain functions within the assembly that Ignatius arbitrarily decided can only be performed by the church’s sole lead pastor which is why he could say,
“Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the church.” Letter to Smyrna (ca. AD 110)
But this idea is foreign to the New Testament, man-made, and comes to us via tradition alone. There is no biblical reason for such thinking. Note Jesus’ words that we alluded to at the end of Part One in this series:
To say people are becoming disillusioned with institutional religion is an understatement. People are becoming disillusioned and are leaving it in droves. From all the statistics I’ve read the reasons vary, but a large number who’ve left are leaving, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel organized religion has. As a result, many are walking away from that system and finding more authentic community outside of its walls, myself included. They are done. Josh Packard is correct in saying,
“The Dones are people who are disillusioned with church. Though they were committed to the church for years—often as lay leaders—they no longer attend. Whether because they’re dissatisfied with the structure, social message, or politics of the institutional church, they’ve decided they are better off without organized religion.” Source: Meet the Dones
One thing almost every religious institution has in common with other religious institutions is a person in charge called a pastor. The pastor is typically the power person in charge, directing people, events, and things related to the ongoing success of the institution. In this first post of an ongoing series I’m calling Rethinking Religion, we’re simply going to sort out what a pastor is. This will be the foundation for the posts that follow in this series. I’ll be writing this series from the point of view of a former pastor with 20+ years experience pastoring various institutional churches. We’ll start by looking more closely at what scripture says about pastors because I feel one way modern religious institutions have complicated things is by making the pastor the authoritative focal point in the church, not unlike the CEO of a corporation. This top-down authority approach to doing church is man-made and has been handed to us by 2,000 years of church tradition, not by any anything mandated in scripture.