Church Commitment

Forgive me if this post seems too self-serving as a pastor. I also want to avoid self-righteousness for I know I have many blindspots myself. But I’ve seen so many people slip in and slip out of our church, despite our best efforts at shoring up the membership process, and it’s discouraging. I’ve often said that in six years at Immanuel I feel like I’ve pastored 3 or 4 entirely different churches. It’s very transient. Many people have moved on for legitimate reasons (missions, job transfer, geographical move, etc…), but many have moved on for what I would consider immature reasons. And the sad part is that they have no clue how involved they are in a secular culture that shrouds its secularity in religious terms.

I’ve been reading Carl Trueman’s Republocrat this week. It’s an engaging read for Christians who are politically minded as it argues that to be conservative theologically does not have to mean conservative politics. In one of his essays he makes the case that much of America’s religious culture is profoundly secular at its root. He offers this as one example:

What is the vow most often breached, even in conservative, confessional churches? It is the vow each member typically takes to submit to the leadership of the church. While the wording varies from church to church, here is that used in my own denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church:

Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine of life, to heed its discipline?

The assumptions of this vow are clear: Christianity is a corporate phenomenon; it is bigger than me and my own agenda, and it involves disciplined obedience within the church, obedience to which we are bound by vow.

There are those, of course, who argue that church membership is not mentioned in Scripture and is therefore unbiblical. This is not the place to address this objection; suffice it here to say that church membership is the practical expression of clear principles of commitment to each other and respect for an established leadership, which are both stated in the Bible. The real problem, I suspect, with many who argue that church membership is unbiblical is not that their consciences are wounded by the notion, but rather that they want to avoid commitment. They want to treat the church as they treat, say, a supermarket or a cinema: they go along and take what they need without the troublesome issues created by a personal commitment.

That is surely the reason this vow strikes hardest against both the consumer-as-king mentality and the suspicion of authority and power structures that is typical of both the Left and the Right in the secular sphere. It is also the vow that has been most weakened by the thing that lies at the very heart of the American dream – the automobile, the means by which we can conveniently run away from any specific church authority when the fancy takes us.

My point here is that those who are confessional and rock-solid in their doctrinal commitments need to realize that secular values can yet pervade the way they think about church, and the Christians of the political Right can be as guilty of this as anyone – perhaps even more guilty, given the Right’s radical individualism, as opposed to the typically more communitarian Left.

A nation with a profound sense of the frontier, of the need for each person to look after himself and not to rely on others, has many strengths, and these things are surely part of the reason for America’s tremendous success in the twentieth century. Further, the very structure of American government, which, by and large, seems chaotic to the outsider through all its checks and balances, embodies a deep distrust of power and hierarchy at its very core – hardly surprising, given the fact that its basic shape was hammered out in the heat of a rebellion against a British monarch. But the downside of this is that Americans can be suspicious of anyone in authority, and that spills over into the church; when it does so, it represents not biblical teaching but the incursion of secular individualism. There is an obvious irony to criticizing a Joel Osteen for presenting a secular message in the language of Christianity, or the Left for selling out on moral issues and doing so in the name of Christ, when church discipline in Reformed and Presbyterian circles has all but collapsed in the face of “I’ll just treat church as another aspect of the consumer culture” mentality whereby, as soon as my itch isn’t scratched, or I am asked for some practical demonstration of commitment, I just jump into my automobile and drive to the next church where I can better preserve my autonomy and anonymity. (30-32)

Elsewhere he says:

In a world where I am the one who determines my own destiny by deciding what I will and will not buy, and where rugged individualism is so deeply ingrained in the culture, then church discipline goes out the window. Discipline me today, and the next Sunday I simply give my (spiritual) business to another church (store). That is as consistent a consumerist (and secular) ethic as it is possible to imagine; it pervades and cripples our churches. (74,75)

Much more could be said, but this says it pretty well.

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