Friday, September 28, 2007


I was going to move on to talk about the image of God, but I think you are right, we should talk about communities.

We all belong to various communities. In a sense we, along with all life, we belong to the creation of God on earth. In fact I think that is an important affirmation and an essential of Christian faith. We are creatures along with all the other creatures in creation. In a more limited sense, we all belong to the human community. A Christian point of view on this is that all humans are created in the image of God and all humans are sinners.

There are various other communities like nations, cities, tribes and families, all limited by citizenship or membership. In tribes and families membership is determined by being born into the community. Curiously birth is also how one enters the Jewish community and, for some entrance into the Muslim community.

Then there are all sorts of clubs and other stuff. My great aunt kept pressing me to join the Mayflower Society and the Sons of the American Revolution as I have ancestors who came on the Mayflower and fought in the Revolution. Personally I find this type of organization distasteful. I don’t see why I should be considered special because my ancestors did something. On the other hand I wear kilts because some of my ancestors were Scottish. Go figure.

And there is the Christian community. While at times the Christian community has defined itself by birth, (your family was Christian and you got baptized so you were part of the Church, no other questions asked), there are some clear and some not so clear limits to the Christian community. One limit is baptism. People who were baptized in a Christian community are part of the Christian community. The PCUSA places a limit on what baptism means to help define whether one has been baptized into the Christian community or not. For example, Jews take ritual baths at particular times in life. One of those times is when someone who is not Jewish converts to Judaism. That person takes a ritual bath as part of entrance into the community. The PCUSA would say that this ritual bath is not baptism. We limit baptism to those who are baptized with a Trinitarian formula.

For adults and youth when one joins a PCUSA congregation one meets with the session and the session sets the limits for joining the congregation. Our Form of Government makes the following statements about conscience and membership:

(1) (a) That “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.”

(b) Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others.

(2) That, in perfect consistency with the above principle of common right, every Christian Church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ hath appointed; that in the exercise of this right they may, notwithstanding, err, in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet, even in this case, they do not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only make an improper use of their own. (G-1.0301-0302)

We Presbyterians do like balance.

As you pointed out in response to my last post, John, the session sets the qualifications for membership. But there are some restrictions. Again, the Form of Government says:

The incarnation of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives to the church not only its mission but also its understanding of membership. One becomes an active member of the church through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and acceptance of his Lordship in all of life. Baptism and a public profession of faith in Jesus as Lord are the visible signs of entrance into the active membership of the church. (G-5.0101)

For those who are not Presbyterians these are from the PCUSA Constitution Part 2, the Book of Order. The numbers are reference numbers to sections in the Book of Order. The first part of the constitution is the Book of Confessions. If you want to read the Book of Order you can find it online at:

So membership in the community called the Presbyterian Church (USA) is defined as those who have been baptized and who place their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Of course in the PCUSA the session decides whether someone believes Jesus is Lord and Savior. It is my experience as a Presbyterian pastor of almost 30 years that we Presbyterians really operate on what I call the L & B method of receiving members. That means if you are living and breathing we will accept you as a member. In fact I think we might accept someone who is just living and not breathing! I rarely hear any questions from the session about the faith of a person who wants to join.

Now that’s the formal stuff. A community is not really made up of people who say the right things. A Christian community does share certain intellectual beliefs but that isn’t what the community is really all about. The community is for mutual support, love and encouragement. We worship together, prayer together and for one another, eat together, study the Bible and other things together, care for one another in times of trouble, reach out in mission in a wide variety of ways, including feeding the poor, visiting the sick and those in prison, speaking to governments about what is just and what is unjust, speaking to the larger community on issues such as gun violence, (a big problem here in Philadelphia), gathering with other members of the larger community to demonstrate against violence, and yes, evangelism. A Christian congregation is made up of people that Christ has called together to be a community. But the Church can too easily forget that it is part of a larger community. When a congregation turns inward and does not participate in the life of the larger community it begins to die.

Someone quoted Bonhoeffer on this subject and I reiterate what Bonhoeffer said: we all have to abandon our wishes and images of what an ideal Christian community looks like. We don’t build the community into what we think God wants. Jesus molds the community into what he wants. This is easy to say and very difficult to do.

Flycandler said something about membership in response to my last post which I think is very helpful. An official member of a particular congregation has one privilege that those who are not members do not have: the member has the right and responsibility to vote in a congregational meeting. Everyone is welcome at all events of the congregation. All those who have been baptized are welcome to partake of the Lord’s Supper. And frankly we don’t ask those who receive communion if they are baptized or not. We don’t give out baptism cards. Will those who attend be encouraged to become members? Of course. Most of the time evangelism is not explicit conversation about becoming a Christian, at least not in congregational events. But worship, education and fellowship all present the message of the Gospel.

What I mean to say is that being part of the community is not so much a formal reception into membership, although those who choose to join may do so. Being part of the community means that you are involved in the community. Everyone is welcomed, everyone is loved, everyone is served and asked to serve. But we will also have conversation about the Christian faith. People will be encouraged to become Christians.

To unpack the basic Christian affirmation, Jesus is Lord and Savior requires some preliminary information on subjects like sin and forgiveness so I will try to get back to that process in my next posts.

Grace and Peace


1 comment:

robert austell said...

Hi Bob,

I've been reading your conversation with John and appreciate you two hanging in there with each other even when you disagree.

In many ways, your conversation illustrates the way we talk past each other in the PCUSA, except you are both making an effort to hear each other. For example, what is required for membership. Every church requires SOMETHING for membership... but the what varies widely. For you it is Jesus as Lord and Savior (and some other things)... John points to values of the progressive Christian community.

The cynical part of me wants to say you two have little to no common ground, particularly when John dismisses "Lord and Savior". The hopeful part of me wants to say he is pushing back on evangelicals to make us re-think our jargon and get to what-we-really-mean. Perhaps underneath our evangelical and progressive lingo, we might find some more common ground than we think.

I don't know if that is the case, but your conversation with John is just the way to discover that.

As a conservative evangelical, I believe Jesus-as-Lord-and-Savior to be the very foundation of what defines the Church, but as someone born onto the cusp of modernism and post-modernism, I try to find fresh ways to talk about eternal truths.

If you are interested, you can see how this fleshes out in my "Christianity 101" page, worded for those with no background in church. It is HERE

And an example of how I talk about the particularity of faith in Jesus Christ is in last Sunday's sermon HERE

Sorry this is so long... your posts have made me think, and that's a good thing!

In God's grace,

Robert Austell
Pastor, Good Shepherd PC
Charlotte, NC
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