Rebuilding and Defending United Methodism Today – Part 4 of 9, Covenant Accountability: Counting the Cost of Church Membership

on December 13, 2013

The following is an excerpt from the text for a speech delivered by UMAction Director John Lomperis on Thursday, November 21 at historic Boehm’s Chapel.  The gathering near Lancaster, Pennsylvania was hosted by the Eastern Pennsylvania Evangelical Connection. That evening included lively discussion with the audience. For the convenience of online readers, the speech is divided into nine sections here.   

Part 4 of 9 – Covenant Accountability: Counting the Cost of Church Membership

According to Paragraph 217 of our Book of Discipline, to become a member of a United Methodist congregation means to “covenant together with God and with the members of the local church to keep” seven vows of membership.

A contract is a temporary agreement between two human parties that lasts until it reaches its expiration date or one person decides to break its terms.  But a covenant is a lasting commitment that people make to both each other and God, and which they have no right to step out of later just because they no longer like it.

Covenant accountability is at the very heart of Methodist DNA.  We were known for the intense, loving moral and spiritual accountability in our classes and bands.  Yet as early as the 1800s much of our church started getting lax in our culture of accountability, which eventually trickled up from the laity to the clergy to our bishops.  So today we have the historically curious spectacle of some people claiming the name “Methodist” while expressing outrage over minimal Christian moral standards being insisted upon for our clergy, let alone laity.

Now I want to talk about first of all why we must not rush people into the covenant of membership, and secondly, somewhat paradoxically, how and why we must exhort people into this covenant, and thirdly, how this can enrich the life of our whole denomination.

Growing up in the UMC, every time I sat there participating in solemn-sounding vows to God and each other whenever we baptized some family’s baby or received someone into membership and then I never saw those people again, this sent a very clear message: the sorts of vows and commitments people make in church are meaningless and not to be taken seriously.

1 Corinthians 5 is very clear that any church faces an unacceptable level of spiritual damage, like a little yeast working through a whole batch of dough, by having even one member in open, ongoing, unrepentant sexual sin.  Now I see no reason to believe that God changed his mind after He inspired Paul to write those words.

So yes, we should make no apology for the fact that God clearly calls us be the sorts of people who care about each other’s sex lives!  If you’re my fellow church member and you’re single, I don’t want you to have one.  If you’re married, I don’t want it anywhere else.  And we must also be compassionately concerned about church members being greedy or idolatrous, getting drunk, slandering others, or treating people unfairly (1 Corinthians 5:11).  I realize outsiders may wonder what right we have to care about how other members live their lives.  But as biblical, evangelical, Wesleyan, United Methodist Christians, we have no right to not care.  Because the only alternative is to not truly love one another.

With sin, we need to start with the log in our own eye.  Our goal must be restoration.  And the best contexts for living out such biblical accountability are the sorts of single-gender, biblically grounded, and accountability-focused small groups that were the building blocks of the early Methodist movement.  Scott Kisker at Wesley Seminary [recently moved to United Theological Seminary] and Kevin Watson at Seattle Pacific Seminary are two United Methodist scholars who have written some good stuff about ways in which such reclamation of Wesleyan spirituality can be done today.

But the most fundamental, biblical, local covenant community for a Christian is not my small group but the congregation with whom I have entered into a sacred covenant of membership.  And while there are practical limits to what you can do, when pastors prematurely rush someone into church membership without even making sure of a very minimal level of basic Christian beliefs and lifestyle, this harmfully gives that person false assurance while inviting false teaching and sin into the body of Christ.  While I love church growth, the last thing United Methodism needs are more people becoming members, and therefore eligible for leadership in the congregation and beyond, before they have repented of their sin and submitted to Christ as Lord.

Even a not-very-evangelical United Methodist church consultant I know points out that when you get people to become members, that tends to lock in place whatever level of commitment they had right beforehand.  So people whose church involvement consists of little more than sporadic Sunday worship attendance can be expected to keep doing the same as nominal members.  And the easier it is to join your church, the easier it is to leave.

Earlier in our denomination’s history, and in many thriving congregations today, it’s been normal to see church attendance be several times the size of membership.  So the life of our church should be consciously structured to always include large number of folk who are interested in us but not yet committed to a life of Christian discipleship, and so not yet people who should be rushed into church membership.

Part 1: The Need to Rebuild Our Church Cultures

Part 2 : Biblical Groundedness

Part 3: Oriented for Conversion

Part 4: Covenant Accountability, Counting the Cost of Church Membership

Part 5: Covenant Accountability: The Obligations of UMC Membership

Part 6: Why United Methodist Liberals are Now Focusing on “Biblical Disobedience”

Part 7: The “Biblical [Dis]obedience” Siege vs. the Basis for Unity in the UMC

Part 8: The Latest with Melvin Talbert

Part 9: Where Do We Go From Here?

  1. Comment by John S on December 26, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Hmm, from what I’ve seen, the main requirement for UMC membership is a willingness to give tithes.

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