Sunday, November 8, 2009

Church Membership and the A-word

John 15, Matthew 18, Romans 12, and Hebrews 10

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All these scriptures we just read are about
belonging to God to and to each other in the body of Christ.
They say, in different ways, that being members of the same body
makes a difference in how we live, and how we relate.

Membership Sunday is one of my favorite services here at Park View.
It’s church at its best, I think.
It’s always a joy to welcome new people into covenant with us.
But the heart of that service are their faith statements,
which are personal, often profound,
and always deeply moving.
Those are sacred moments in the life of our church.

But I have to admit,
despite the warm glow Membership Sunday leaves in me,
I have a nagging discomfort afterward.
It has nothing to do with the persons we receive,
and their wonderful expressions of faith.
Those are heartfelt, precious gifts.
My nagging feeling has to do
with what this all means after Membership Sunday is over.
Let me make an honest confession.
Church membership is something I struggle with, considerably.

I struggle because I see a huge disconnect between
what scriptures like these say about being
members of each other in the body of Christ,
and what “church membership” has become in most churches,
including ours.

Membership in the NT was a completely organic metaphor.
The apostle Paul was so eloquent,
in picking up on this metaphor and expounding on it.
In another text, 1 Corinthians 12, he said to the church in Corinth,
“You’re all members of one body.
One of you is a hand.
And another an eye.
But Eye, don’t ever say to the hand, I don’t need you!
And Hand, don’t say to the foot, I don’t need you.
And some of you may be some less respectable part.
But don’t let that bother you.
We also need you to be complete.”

That sounds so right.
And the church today adopts that metaphor wholesale.
But the trouble is . . . that Paul was writing to house churches.
He was writing to people who met in homes, frequently.
Who ate meals together at each other’s tables,
and then broke bread and shared the cup of Christ,
often daily.
Who listened, discussed, discerned, shared resources,
and knew each other’s heart as they knew their own.
People who were, in every way,
members of each other.
Members of each other.

I wonder whether we should be a little more cautious,
a little more humble,
when we apply that metaphor to our experience of church.

In a church of 400-plus members, if we are really honest,
is there any member, myself included,
who is absolutely essential to the life of this body?
Is there any member that, if it became separated,
would inflict a mortal wound to this body?
No. There would be pain of course,
as there is in any loss,
but the body would go on, likely in health and wholeness.

And of course, there’s the vine and branches metaphor.
One vine, Jesus Christ, the source of our life.
And all of us are connected to that vine,
and therefore, connected organically to each other.
The life flows from the roots, through the vine,
and in, out, and through each of us
interconnected and intertwined branches.
It’s a great analogy, and fitting,
when our lives are genuinely connected to that extent,
when they are truly and deeply interconnected.

But, can a congregation of 400-plus different branches,
actually be one plant, in that metaphoric sense?
Does what is happening in one branch,
really have an impact on another branch . . .
especially when that branch always sits
on the other side of the sanctuary?!

These precious, and profoundly true, biblical metaphors,
begin to crumble, I’m afraid,
under the weight of the large, complex, and institutional church,
that we have come to accept as normal for Western Christianity.

Now don’t get me wrong.
I have no problem referring to Park View Mennonite Church
as a “body of Christ.”
I can even talk about Virginia Mennonite Conference as a body.
And Mennonite Church USA.
And ecumenical groups like Christian Churches Together.
And World Council of Churches.

But every step we take away from the table—
and the worship and fellowship
that happens at a table,
with the broken bread and cup of Christ in the center,
and a deep sharing of our lives with each other—
every step we take further from this core function of the church,
stretches this analogy.
It gets a little thinner, and a little weaker.

Take the global church for instance.
Mennonite World Conference met recently in Paraguay.
From all reports, it was much like other assemblies I’ve been to.
It’s wonderful, and glorious, and spirit-lifting,
to worship in this multitude of languages and cultures.
Profound connections and deep conversations happen there,
and we need to keep doing that,
for the health of the church.

But it is oh, so hard to take it home with you when it’s over.
Those persons I worshiped with and sang with
and embraced as my very sisters and brothers,
how am I living with them now?
How am I treating them as I would a sister or brother?
I have scarcely any connection to them whatsoever.

To talk of the global church as a real body with various members,
is certainly true at some symbolic level,
but I think it stretches the biblical metaphor pretty thin.
_____________________

But let’s bring the metaphor back home here, to Park View.
How are we doing at being a body
where we are members of each other?
where the pain of one member radiates through all the parts?
where the gifts of each are seen, valued, and used?
where each and every member is known so deeply
that the body actually functions as a single living being?
where a disease or injury in one member
can be addressed openly and honestly
in a healing and restoring way?
where each member actually shares responsibility
for the well-being of each part and of the whole?

Which brings us to the very complicated, and slippery,
and sometimes dreaded A-word: accountability.
We can’t talk about membership
without talking about accountability.
To be a member of something is, by definition, to be accountable.
What it means to be a member in an organization
is usually very clear and specific.
In a civic club, for instance, you are being accountable as a member
when you pay your dues,
you attend the required number of meetings,
you meet the other specific membership requirements.

But in a living, organic body,
accountability isn’t spelled out as a set of rules.
It just is.
It happens by nature.
Accountability is inherent to life in a living organism.
You never have to instruct any members of an organism
to be accountable to that organism.
That would be like telling the hand,
“Now listen, stay in touch with what’s going on around you!
When the arm moves, you go with it. Okay?”

In a living organism,
belonging and being accountable are one and same.
When we are close, and connected,
there is always action and re-action.
Whenever an action of mine causes a reaction in another,
I am being held accountable.
A young child growing up in a loving family
knows how accountability works,
without ever hearing the word.
Let’s say a two-year-old girl, while playing,
bites her four-year-old brother,
and her brother starts crying and runs away.
Well, the little girl realizes, hey, I love playing with my brother,
and whenever I bite him,
he stops playing with me,
so I have to stop biting him.
That’s natural accountability.

I love my wife Irene.
But sometimes I say something that hurts her or offends her.
There is no need for Irene to impose an arbitrary
rules-based accountability on me to keep me from offending her.
I only need to see the hurt look on her face, or her tears,
and I have just been “held accountable.”
Because I love her, I don’t want to hurt her.

When we are in honest, close, and healthy
communal relationships with others,
accountability is not something arbitrary, or external, to be imposed.
It comes as naturally as living in a healthy family.

If we truly belong to each other,
if we are genuinely members of each other,
then I will gladly, and regularly, give an account of my life to you,
and you, in turn, will be ready whenever needed,
to lovingly ask for an account from me.
Accountability is mutual conversation.
Accountability is honest exploration.
Accountability is looking for deeper truth together.
There is no such thing as true community, without true accountability.

That’s what Matthew 18 is all about, the famous text Shirley read.
This text is often just pulled out and slapped onto a situation
that doesn’t really fit it.
I’m not sure this is a text about institutional church discipline.
Jesus is appealing to his followers
to deal with conflict and sin in the body
in a way that’s natural,
and true to this organic connection we have with each other.

If I’ve been offended against, I will be honest,
and without hostility, simply let the offender know.
If that offender loves me, and loves the body we are both part of,
there will be a positive response to my loving approach.
There will be confession and forgiveness and reconciliation.

But maybe the offender already feels alienated from the body,
and they get defensive, try to deny the offense.
In which case, I am invited to lovingly expand the circle to 3 or 4,
and engage in communal discernment and accountability.
That discernment might shed light on what’s really going on.
Maybe I simply misunderstood.
Maybe I was unnecessarily offended
because I was feeling alienated.
A group of 3 or 4 people
who are part of the same healthy close community,
who are committed to stay in healthy relationship and not run away,
will in almost every case be able to sort through these things.

If that doesn’t work, then the whole community gets involved.
Remember, these were table-sized, house-church-sized communities.
These were the communities the Gospels were first written for.
The whole community, at the table—
small, committed, diverse, inter-generational—
engages honestly and openly with each other
in the struggle to stay in relationship.

If even then,
after the offender has been listened to carefully and repeatedly,
the offender stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the pain
they have caused the body,
and refuses to make amends,
then they are held to account by their own community.
The community is told to relate to them
as a “Gentile” or “tax collector.”
And, of course,
you know how Jesus related to Gentiles and tax collectors?
He ate with them. Laughed with them.
Healed their sick.
And raised their dead.
Plain and simple, he loved them, reached out to them,
sought a way to include them.

There must be accountability with membership.
That’s not the issue.
The issue is when accountability is imposed from a distance,
and not out of a living relationship.
I wonder if it shouldn’t be a principle, in the body of Christ,
that accountability should never be imposed
from any distance greater than the relationship itself.
We should be close enough both to see and to feel deeply
the hurt look on the face, and the tears.

Jesus called for close accountability.
He said, when your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
He didn’t say, when another body’s right hand causes sin,
cut off that body’s hand.

I really don’t have this church membership thing all sorted out,
as I said earlier.
I am left with searching questions.
And I invite you into these questions with me.
Come to the table, and let us wrestle with the questions together,
let us seek a more authentic way of being a body.

One of my questions, for instance, is how
eight elders and pastors in a church of 400-plus members,
can ever know enough about the spiritual well-being,
about the beliefs and doubts,
about the hidden sins, the forgiveness and victories
in anyone’s daily walk as a disciple of Christ,
that they can grant or withhold membership in that body.
That’s a lot of spiritual weight on me, and a few others.
Might that be a case of exercising accountability
at a distance greater than the relationship?
Yet that’s just how churches do membership.

And that’s how conferences and denominations
hold accountable their member congregations and conferences.
Votes are cast and counted.
Sometimes by people who never met or spoke to
those they hold accountable.
Now that’s not inherently wrong or unjust
as a way to define membership.
But I think that model comes more from organizational theory,
than from the biblical metaphor of the organic human body,
that Paul chose to describe the church.

Hierarchy has its place, even in the church, I suppose,
but I wonder if we don’t need to be much more cautious,
and more humble,
when we deal with questions of who belongs to the body.

Might there be a more biblical, more faithful, way in the body
to become and to remain members of one another?
Can we bring the question of membership back to the table?
Literally?
So that those who hold one accountable,
are also in deep relationship with that one.

I don’t have it all worked out, how this would operate,
especially as you get more distance from the table.
I’m not precisely sure how this would work
at the conference or denominational level,
though I have some ideas.
But I do wonder whether we, at PVMC,
might be a small enough body to ask the question of ourselves,
and rethink how we define membership,
and how we apply it in this body.
I invite us to the table to talk about that.
We certainly won’t resolve the question today.
But we could begin talking about it.
Using the scriptures we read as our guide.

Now I wish we had an hour for talk-back,
but we don’t.
I won’t even be able to participate in my Sunday School
discussion of the sermon today,
because Irene and I are leaving for Ohio right after the service,
for a family funeral.
But I am serious when I say I want this sermon,
and the others in this series,
to be just the first contribution to a long, extended conversation
in the Park View Mennonite Church body.

But in lieu of a talk-back, let’s do a sing-back.
HWB 420 “Heart with loving heart united.”
When it comes to what church membership means,
this song brings it all together.
Our source in God through Christ,
our deep commitment to each other in the body,
and our commitment to join, as a body,
in God’s mission in the world.

—Phil Kniss, November 8, 2009


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