“What does it take to become a member?” (pt. I – beliefs)

shieldA number of people have asked me what it takes for them to become a church member. Most recently, I talked to someone who was concerned she couldn’t become a member because we United Methodists believe a person can “make shipwreck of his/her faith” and lose salvation. She, on the other hand, believes once someone is saved, they are always saved. Did that disqualify her for membership?

What about the man cheating on his wife who wants to join the church? Can he join? A situation a friend of mine had a few years ago.

How about the nominal Buddhist, atheist, Mormon, or agnostic who wants to join to please a spouse?

If they’re willing to attend my membership 101 class, memorize the mission statement, and turn in a financial pledge, are they ready to join?

My answer to the question, “What does it take to become a member?” is the same for anyone. You must be baptized and be able to answer the questions we ask at baptism without winking.

The Questions we ask at baptism

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:

  • Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? 
  • Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
  • Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
  • According to the grace given to you, will you remain a faithful member of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representative in the world?
  • Do you believe in the Father? Do you believe in the Son? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? Candidate recites the Apostles’ Creed.

Three major things I see these questions asking:

  1. Have you turned to God in repentance?
  2. Do you share the historic Church’s faith?
  3. Will you be a faithful member of that historic Church?

Again, my standard: you need to be able to respond to all of the above without winking. Over this next series of posts, I’ll address those one at a time. I’m starting with question 2.

Do you share the historic Church’s faith?

Specifically, here I want to know if someone can make the claims of the Apostles’ Creed with integrity. They believe God is creator of heaven and earth. They believe Jesus Christ is his only son our Lord, who became human, lived, suffered, died, and was raised to save sinners. They believe in the Holy Spirit, who gives life to and empowers the holy catholic Church. And as the question above asks, the grace of Christ is where they put their whole trust.

Some people don’t think my standard for faith is enough. They want more specifics as far as someone’s beliefs.

Some churches want to know that you agree with them on the role of women in the church, whether the creation accounts are literal history, or whether certain individuals are predestined to salvation while others aren’t.

I’m okay admitting a staunch Calvinist, even though his beliefs about salvation aren’t in line with mine. We may disagree, but I believe we’re both still well within the broad stream of orthodoxy. I can do the same for someone who believes women shouldn’t preach, someone who believes the Lord’s Supper is a memorial only, or someone who believes in purgatory, even though I and my church hold none of those beliefs. This is why I use the Apostles’ Creed as a measure. It provides a great, concise standard for the Church’s historic, orthodox belief.

Others think my standard here is too rigid. From my above examples, I couldn’t admit the Buddhist, atheist, Mormon, or agnostic to membership. They can’t make it through that Apostles’ Creed without a lot of shrugs, winks, and qualifications. This would also be a problem for anyone who doesn’t accept the historic death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. So if someone says the Jesus account is no more than a nice story or a great, figurative depiction of God’s power and love, I can’t in good faith admit her as a member. This isn’t just a disagreement in theology. From the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy, it’s heresy.

Some will call such a rigid standard closed-minded or bigoted. But I think this is more a matter of honesty and factuality. If you can’t hold to the Apostles’ Creed as it is, you’re not a Christian, in the historic sense of the word. And at least in the historic understanding of the Church, its members should be Christians.

So what do you think? Is the Apostles’ Creed as a standard of faith and a requirement for membership too much? Too little?

13 thoughts on ““What does it take to become a member?” (pt. I – beliefs)

  1. I agree with you here, with the only caveat being the addition of a catechism class for those who wish to join. We just instituted a ten-week class using Kevin Watson’s “Blueprint for Discipleship.” We have existing members going through it who are learning more about our doctrines while also engaging in group life around the Wesley question, “How is it with your soul?” Most churches have a very nominal membership class and requirements. We are finding that high expectations lead to more engaged and theologically grounded church members.

    1. Hi Bob,

      I don’t know if you’ve read anything else I’ve written here, but I’m quite a fan of using a catechism class. Thrilled to hear that you’re using one. Kevin Watson has done great work encouraging people toward class meetings.

      A catechism class isn’t required for us (at least not just yet), but we strongly encourage everyone in our community to participate in a catechesis group. These groups examine Scripture, the Echo catechism, and each other’s lives together. See my posts under the category “Catechesis” for a lot more about what that entails.

      I’d love to hear more about your experiences with this as requirement for membership.

  2. Great post! I agree with your approach. The membership vows are the baptismal vows, which includes affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed. We are one expression of the universal (catholic) Church, so that should be the minimum standard. I also explain to membership classes the distinctives of United Methodist theology (p. 45-49 of the 2008 Book of Discipline). They may not agree with all of that, but they need to understand this is the basis for what they will be hearing preached and acted out in ministry in this church.
    I also agree with Bob on the need for discipleship or catechesis. Without continuing Christian formation, we are just a country club.

    1. Thanks for the comments and encouragement, Tom. I agree with you about the importance of teaching the distinctives of United Methodist theology. Using a catechism for that purpose has been particularly helpful for that.

  3. Teddy, I love these topics!!! I promise, I really am going to get by to see you in person someday soon. I’m looking forward to talking with you.

    But to your point here, in my heart of hearts my biggest problem with the Methodist church is that in an attempt to be more inclusive and accepting, we have made the process almost irrelevant. I have actually told people that “I sometimes feel like my church thinks there are ’10 Suggestions’, not Commandments.” I am FAR more conservative than most of our members (almost certainly due to my early years in the Southern Baptist church) and don’t believe in situational ethics or translating a Bible passage “in a 21st century context”. It is what it is, The Word is the Word. He said it, I believe it, nothing further need be added.

    So, do I think there should be a secret handshake, a formal initiation and a night of hazing to be a member? Obviously not. But neither do I think we should be able to order up our requirements cafeteria style either. Again, it is what it is.

    Thanks Teddy.

  4. Excellent post, Teddy. I think you draw very good lines here.

    Is it just the candidates or the entire congregation that recites the creed?

    1. Thanks, John. And many thanks for linking from your site.

      Even though I wrote “candidate recites the Apostles’ Creed,” we do have the whole congregation recite it. I said candidate because what I emphasize with preparing members is that they’ll be standing before the congregation affirming this as their faith.

      And for what it’s worth, we have all new members use the whole set of baptismal vows, even if they’re simple transfers. I like to put in front of people exactly what we expect of members – and of the congregation toward them.

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