by Terry M. Smith
Count me among EMC ministers who seek to protect sheep from wolves. This affects how some of us link local church membership and denominational distinctives.
Each branch of the Church in Canada has its tradition, history, and distinctives. For instance, Nazarenes have entire sanctification, Pentecostals have the baptism in the Spirit, Baptists have immersion, and Mennonites have pacifism.
Each denomination is protective of its distinctives: “We need to stay with the Word. Our leaders suffered for these truths. We have Scripture and history on our side.”
Ministers make choices within traditions, histories, and distinctives. I do.
Distinctives, as long as they’re biblical, are to be taught. It is wise, though, not to make a hard link between some distinctives and membership for non-leaders. (This isn’t an article about teaching standards for selecting pastors, deacons, teaching elders, and Sunday School teachers.)
The Christian Church is committed to Christ and to each other. We properly require a common, wonderful confession of faith in our Triune God (1 Cor. 15:1-8, 1 Tim. 3:9, Eph. 4:5). We are to be accountable in our faith and lifestyle (1 Tim. 4:19-20).
Still, let’s not multiply difficulties. Pastors know it is insensitive and impractical to limit membership to those who agree with all of our distinctives. Was anyone ever denied local EMC membership because they didn’t affirm footwashing as an ordinance? Probably not.
Local churches need to, and often do, take a broader view of their role. In a particular location, urban or rural, there might be a single evangelical choice—perhaps Nazarene, Mennonite, Pentecostal, or Baptist. Its responsibility to believers and the Lord extends far beyond its distinctive views.
Why? Sheep are vulnerable and wolves are many (Matt. 10:16). Jesus spoke of wolves (Matt. 7:15); the apostle Paul did too (Acts 20:28-29). Paul and other apostles warned of false leaders and false teachings (Gal. 1:6-7, 2 Pet. 2:1, Jude 4).
We are to protect the flock (Acts 20:28). Sheep, by nature, are to be together, and they are more vulnerable when alone. The Shepherd still cares about the single sheep (Luke 15:3-7).
As well, ponder a wonderful reality: Christians are members of Christ’s mystical body that spans continents, centuries, and denominations (1 Cor. 12:13; Heb.11, Eph. 4:4-5). How do we reflect this awareness when deciding requirements for local church membership?
Suppose a Christian, because of a distinctive, doesn’t become a local member. What if, through limited options and understanding, they join a group that has wandered from central truths? It’s precisely because of central truths (John 3:16; 1 Cor. 15:1-8) that we are to be sensitive as pastors (Jude 22-23).
Pastors observe the movement of God’s Spirit within a person’s life; we sense their gifts and capacities. Recognizing this, local churches do well to allow “pastoral exceptions”: for a Mennonite church to accept a non-pacifist; a Baptist church, an undipped member; a Pentecostal church, someone who hasn’t spoken in tongues; a Nazarene church, a member only partly sanctified.
Does your local church do this already? Perhaps. Probably. For sheep are vulnerable and wolves are many.
Of course, if a person doesn’t recognize our Statement of Faith as the teaching standard within the local church and becomes divisive (Titus 3:9-11), that’s another matter. The sheep need protection then too.