Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Polity Matters (Part 9): How High Is the Fence for Membership?

John MacArthur said during a QnA session at Shepherd's Conference this past March that he is sometimes asked, "What do people have to believe to get into your church." His response:
If you can get into God's Kingdom, you can get into our church. We have no higher standard. "Well, don't people have to sign a doctrinal statement to get in?" No. "Well, don't they have to believe certain things?" No. If God lets you in His Kingdom, we'll let you in our church. It's that simple. We'll take the responsibility then to do our best to train you and grow you up and shape your thinking and your theology and your understanding of the Word of God. That's why we're here. We're not here to wait for you to perfect yourself somewhere else.
When I first heard that statement, there was something attractive about it. Who are we, after all, to put stricter standards on church membership than God puts on His Kingdom? For a moment I wondered if it is really a good thing that we Baptists are growing increasingly demanding about affirmation of things like doctrinal statements and church covenants prior to church membership. Then it dawned on me. In a church like Grace Community, where leadership and decision-making is so centralized in the eldership, there is comparatively little need for the congregation to be of one mind. The congregation simply does not have the power to dilute the theological purity of the church as they would in a congregational church.

When I say that leadership at GCC is centralized in the eldership, I'm referring to the interaction between Mark Dever and MacArthur in a 2002 interview in which Dever asked concerning the polity at GCC, "Can the congregation at Grace Community ever override the elders?" MacArthur's reply
No. The only way they could do that would be every year—every year, all elders' names are posted, and if anyone in the congregation knows any reason why they believe that man should not be an elder, they have the responsibility to go to that man first before they would tell somebody else that they know—to go to that man. If they can't resolve it at that point, then they can go to another elder, and the two or three can endeavor to resolve that and then the congregation will affirm—at the only congregational meeting we have in a year—they affirm by standing in affirmation of that group. My name's on that every year. So we give the individual person that might have a problem an opportunity.
"But the congregation could remain seated?"
They could . . . [But] if one guy stood up and said "You know, I don't like this," people would look at him like this guy must be a mental patient, because the process is so open.


Donald C S Johnson said...

Hello Paleo

I believe in open memberships, and ours is basically like GCC, except we do have congregational polity. Unfortunately, our problem is getting people to make the commitment of membership. We have much resistance to that. I don't know if it is Canada, if it is our secularism, or what. We have had a lot of people who are content to attend for the great preaching (!!!) or the traditional music, or whatever, but they resist joining. I don't particularly like MacArthur's polity and I don't think it is biblical.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Steve Brower said...

Hello Paleo,

It appears evident to me that there are doctrinal issues that MacArthur and the elders at Grace Community hold too. In fact, it is those every doctrinal issues that they are attempting to train their people in. It is not as if they do not have a doctrinal stance, it is only that they allow people to join before they are fully ready to accept that doctrinal stance.

As you indicated, it seems the rationale behind this is that even if they bring error into the church, they are not going to necessary corrupt the church because of the centralized and strong leadership. So here are two thoughts.

First, is it not possible for that to happen even in a church like you grew up in? Or perhaps in an independent fundamental baptist church even? I am a pastor of such a church, and we do have a doctrinal statement that members must adhere too. That is not to say that all who attend our church are adhering to that statement, only the members. Some attend our church who have taken a stand against one or another thing in our doctrinal statement. As we continue to minister to them hopefully they will be persuaded biblical that our statement is right. The only difference between this and Grace Community is that they have the opportunity to become members right away...albeit with more of a limited role than a member of our church.

Second thought, how does this match up with Scripture on separation from believers who are living in error? In other words, it is possible, (presumably) for a person who held to heretical (read unorthodox/unbiblical) views of the Bible to be a member of their church. Is it possible for someone to be a believer and still hold to heretical views? Certinaly, unless we are willing to say that ALL Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, etc. are going to hell. How then does this mesh with a pure church in their community? Is it a problem for them for a member to believe something contrary to all that the elders and preaching/teaching and for the community at large to see him/her as a representative of Grace Community as a whole?

Just my musings,

Ben said...


Provided that you have taught thoroughly on the importance of membership, perhaps it is better that the uncommitted not join so that their shallowness is not on your head. Nevertheless, God's grace seems to work on His time, not ours.

I am less inclined to call GCC's polity "unbiblical" than you are. I would certainly agree that it is less consistent with the biblical pattern. But if GCC's polity is unbiblical, certainly the common Baptist polity of de facto single-pastor or deacon rule is just as unbiblical and probably more so.

Donald C S Johnson said...

"But if GCC's polity is unbiblical, certainly the common Baptist polity of de facto single-pastor or deacon rule is just as unbiblical and probably more so."

Oh, I agree with that. I tell my BaBtist friends (note the two "B"s and case) that they are closet Episcopalians without the hierarchy.