We're going to have problems. Right now this is just a church plant. They haven't granted it 'formal' congregational status. The leader is a 'licentiate'...another office they've created out of thin air. Since he's not ordained there's no Lord's Supper as of yet.
I have no problem with ordination. Timothy had the hands of the Presbytery (local not regional) laid on him. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 outline the office of Bishop. They have the authority to teach and the people are to submit to him, but Presbyterianism doing something more with this and the whole membership system.
The Church or a Bureaucracy
Membership ends up being about binding yourself to the authority of the elders...but ultimately the authority of the elders at the regional level...the guardians not of the congregation, but the faction.
Pastors or as they somewhat disingenuously call them 'Teaching Elders' are not 'members' of the local congregation. They are 'members' of the Presbytery...in the sense meaning the regional body.
The local elders or Ruling Elders are 'members' of the local congregation. They are not allowed to serve the Lord's Supper, Baptize, or even raise their hands and perform what is commonly called 'the Benediction'.
Again the authority rests in the regional body or faction... a wholly extra-Scriptural creation. Again I'm for ordination and officers, but what they're doing is hierarchical...it's really clericalism. This body of clerics (as opposed to local elders) holds the power and they manage the forms (they've created) which hold the faction together.
Since they've gone far beyond what the Scriptures have established, they've initiated a whole universe of offices, committees, and terminologies.
We have the 'licentiate' who preaches every Sunday, but since he's not 'ordained' we don't call it 'preaching', we call it 'exhorting'.
Since our group isn't a formal congregation and we're under the auspices of a mother-Church about an hour away, we always have to have a Ruling Elder and Deacon present from the main body, but not to grant legitimacy. It doesn't yet have that in the eyes of the hierarchy. The symbols, Baptism and the Lord's Supper are held from all of us.
The Elder and Deacon are there to prepare the congregation for joining the faction, to keep an eye on the licentiate as well as the prospects, report to the Elders of the mother Church and if necessary, intervene to stop someone introducing false teaching. They're also there to fill the chairs and to help promote the faction to any incoming people who are considering attendance.
The man who is the functional 'pastor' doesn't really have any authority yet. He and his family are 'members' of the mother church, but when he's ordained he will cease to be a 'member' of the mother congregation and instead will become a 'member' of the Presbytery or regional body. Yet his family of course will remain in 'membership' at the local congregation. They have to be 'under' pastoral care. Presumably when our church-plant is granted 'status' his family will become members over at our congregation. They're not 'members' there yet, even though they've been attending there (by that time) for a year or more.
When the 'pastor' is ordained since we're not yet a true church in terms of their bureaucracy he will be 'installed' as an 'Assistant Pastor' at the Mother congregation, even though he won't be part of that congregation at all. He'll be with the church-plant an hour away. But he has to be 'installed' somewhere. He can't be 'installed' at the place he's serving...because it's not technically a Church yet.
None of this has anything to do with the Bible. These are bureaucratic games. This about the faction imposing a form on the Church in order to hold it together. Personally I find myself getting enraged as I listen to them go through it all. To me it's like they're playing a game of find the marble under the walnut shell. They're quite serious about what they're doing, very concerned with procedural detail. I find it to be a mockery of truth and clarity.
If their form is the means, they've also made it the end itself
Membership is about the faction. It has nothing to do with the real concept of Church Membership which is rooted in the signs and symbols typifying the gospel. This is something else entirely.
Over the years we've watched the game playing. We attended one OPC where they goofed and forgot to 'formally join' one man's wife to the Congregation. They were married and he was a member at a Church in another state and didn't wish to 'transfer his membership' because of some denominational issues. He was looking to become a pastor and wanted to keep his 'membership' in his original 'denomination', even while away at school. His wife was a 'member' of another congregation in another state and obviously when they married she moved to be with him. So here they're attending a local church for more than a year but they both have 'memberships' in other states. They were answerable to these elders in other churches in other states, churches they don't attend because they don't live there. But they're not considered 'members' where they attend because they haven't formally 'joined'. I hope you find this all as absurd as I do. In fact it's beyond that, it's really a mockery of the Church.
It gets better. Now they were moving again, and the elders panicked realizing they forgot to 'transfer' his wife into membership and the letter they had was for a transfer from her previous congregation in the Mid-west to the present one in the Southeast. Now if she moved, the new congregation would have to get ANOTHER letter because the paperwork would be wrong. So on the Sunday before they left, they stand up and quickly 'receive' her into 'membership' just so that they can 'transfer' her to the new congregation where they were moving to. Of course her husband is standing there too, even though he apparently had absolutely nothing to do with that local congregation. Even though he'd been there for a year or more, he never 'joined' because he was still in his other denomination that he was seeking ordination in.
On another occasion, the elders realized the problems I had with what they were doing and decided to try and find a way, find something in the Book of Church Order that would allow them to 'let me in' without having to jump through all the hoops. So now we're trying to find bureaucratic loopholes in order to get around the rules of the bureaucracy they created in the first place?
This kind of thing makes me want to tear my hair out. I realized long before this I could never function as a 'pastor' in this system. I think as a system, in terms of function, it borders on sacrilege. The Church is reduced to a business style bureaucracy. They've taken 1 Corinthians 14.40 to realms beyond what Paul could have ever dreamed of.
But again, they're trusting in the form to hold it all together. This is what happens as a result.
Stuck within the circle
"But you have to have membership," one OP Teaching Elder/Pastor told me. "How could we hold you accountable?"
I replied, "If you saw me on Saturday night walking down the street completely drunk and you stopped and said, 'What are you doing? Drunkenness is a sin.' and I replied 'Leave me alone, I don't want to hear it.' And then I showed up the next morning, would you serve me the Supper? Regardless of whether or not I was a 'member'?
"If you're not a member I don't have any authority over you," he replied.
This is ridiculous. The Bible has given him authority. If I'm attending the congregation he's an elder of...then he has authority, in fact more than that. He has a duty. In this case his man-made form has actually taken his authority away. I've met other elders who have admitted they would block me, but it's a big problem for them, because in that scenario I'm not a 'member'.
I would say if I've been attending there, participating in the life of the congregation and partaking of the Covenant sign...the Lord's Supper then I'm 'in communion' with them. That's membership. And that makes you accountable. I realize it's not all neat and bureaucratically tidy for forms and all that, but why should we care about such things? Why do we let cultural practices and tax issues dictate to us how we structure the Church?
Presbyterianism is trying to foster a level of conformity and the regional focus I think really stems not from Scripture but from historical contexts where they're trying to enforce Sacral models...Christendom. You need that kind of form-unity if you're trying to create a "Christian" country. This is what Scottish Presbyterianism was all about and I don't hesitate to say the Scottish Presbyterians were quite wrong and paid dearly for it.*
The man's wife who was stuck in the 'membership' circus was not a member of the Church in the Midwest. She didn't live there anymore. She was a member of the local congregation in South Carolina. The form prevented the elders from seeing it.
I have a friend who was a member of another OPC on the east coast. He went overseas and living in Europe he never formally 'joined' a group. So his membership just continued on at the OPC. They'd contact him via email once or twice a year. This went on for close to ten years. How is it they were 'shepherding' him? How was he a part of their congregation? But they wouldn't drop him because he hadn't formally 'joined' anywhere else.
He shares my views and we often laughed over his 'membership' with a congregation he hadn't attended for years. He wasn't a 'member' there. That makes no sense, unless you're thinking about Church Membership in the way you think about registering to vote or getting a Social Security Card. But for them they've rested one's Christian status in this man-made form...this un-Biblical construction of Church Membership which actually is harmful to the true form of Biblical Church Membership. So they can't just take you off the rolls so to speak. That would mean you've dropped out of the Church, the Universal Church altogether. Again a sign of their sectarianism.
They recognize 'membership' from other denominations. If I'm a 'member' at a Baptist church I can take the Supper at a PCA. But if I'm not a 'member' anywhere then I'm barred from participation. This is promoting schism and I think they're in sin for it. I know I'm being harsh here and I ask for your forbearance. As you can tell I've been through a lot. I've met many good men in these circles and I don't hate them or mean to malign their motives or their persons. But this issue in particular brings out an equal fervour on their part. And it's unpleasant to be on the receiving end. It's been good though. It has forced me again and again to return to this issue and work through it. And in the end I have to say I think though they are sincere, they are profoundly wrong in how they're thinking about the Church and these issues bring out the worst these men have to offer.
Certainly we live in age of loose commitments and individualism which refuses to submit to authority. That has to be addressed. So for example, you get a man that visits your congregation a couple of times, doesn't show up for three months, and then shows up again a couple of times, and then leaves again. What do you do about people like that?
The dilemma is due to paperwork and classification. There's no dilemma. Talk to him. Do your job. If he's just visiting on occasion because he's staying with relatives...fine, talk to him, and find out what he's about. Is he part of a Church somewhere? What does he believe?
If he's local and just has a kind of loose attitude about Church, then meet with him, explain what you believe about the Church and what the Bible says about attendance and Church life. If he rejects this, be gentle, give him some time to consider, pursue him and in the end if he rejects it all...but then shows up three months later, he needs to be pulled aside and told....yes, he's in sin. He's rejecting what the Bible says and therefore since he refuses to repent of it...no, he cannot take the Supper. His unresponsiveness to Word-based Shepherding has led the Church to question whether or not he's really a part of it.
These things don't have to be done in a hurry and they can be done with some gentleness, compassion and understanding. People need time to work through things. He needs to understand he's welcome and wanted but on the Bible's terms not his. Factionalism just seeks to create forms like 'membership' in order to formalize these relationships and plug them into a bureaucratic procedure.
I thought Elders were supposed to be wise men that know the Scripture and can sit down and figure out what to do in each individual case. Instead they flip to section A, part iii and start reading something to you out of the Book of Church Order....which in this case is functioning as Canonical Law. Again if it's binding and authoritative, they're making it equal to Scripture.
Summing up thus far
I will not be brought under such an alien authority. I will not stand up in front of the congregation and take vows which I'm essentially already bound to in Baptism and which I already reiterate when I take the Lord's Supper. The Membership rites are superfluous and not in accord with Scripture. If the Church has the authority to create rites and ecclesiastical structures, then they've just lost their reason to exist. Luther's argument against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church fails. And for that matter if the Church has this authority, I would rather go with something more historic, far older, and far more pleasing to my flesh. I certainly wouldn't waste my time with Presbyterians. If we can innovate then I would look elsewhere.
But I believe in Sola Scriptura and so I'm limited in my choices. These folks profess it, but their entire ecclesiology rejects it.
So we can assemble with them for years, but they won't regard us as 'members' because we won't take their factional vows.
This system supplants the forms God has given. It takes away from the meaning and purpose of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. They seek to impose vows which are not required. It reminds me of the popular 'purity pledges' the youth will make at camps and at Christian Schools. They try to get them to take chastity vows. Why do they need to do that? If they're Christians, if they've been baptized and identify with Christ, then they're ALREADY under the authority of Scripture. They're already bound not to fornicate. Setting up this secondary vow or commitment undermines Baptism. You don't need to make up some new thing...point them to the fact that in Baptism they are covenantally bound to Christ and they will answer for their behaviour if they deny him. They will be chastised or risk falling under a greater condemnation in professing to be in Christ and yet being unregenerate and taking his name in vain.
We're told to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, to make our calling and election sure. The Scriptures are more than adequate in dealing with modern teen issues. Much of what is called Youth Ministry seems to be rooted in the premise that the Scriptures don't adequately meet the needs of our young people. So we have to come up with new and relevant ways to reach, guide, and protect them.
When people create these forms for the Christian life, Church government, and worship, they are declaring the Scriptures are insufficient and lacking. We (man) have to fill in the gap. The Reformation tried to address some of these issues but it fell far short in properly dealing with them. And I'm afraid many descendants of the Reformation have strayed.
*See, 'The Christian and the State in Revolutionary Times: The French Revolution and After' and 'Puritan Perplexities- Some Lessons From 1640-1662' both by DM Lloyd-Jones are very helpful in working through some of these questions. Both of these lectures are found in 'The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors' published by The Banner of Truth Trust 1987.