A Reply to Mark Snoeberger
Thank you for your interaction with a recent Nick of Time essay on your weblog. My piece was on the necessity of not singing some songs, and your response pointed out the covenantal nature of church membership. I don’t think that there is much real disagreement between us, and I was minded not to spend time on a reply. Evidently, however, your response has attracted a bit of attention around the internet, and I think it might be well to draw attention to the points at which we emphasize things differently.
I should say that I appreciate the concerns you are raising and understand the idea at their center. We live in an age when the covenantal nature of church membership is not taken nearly seriously enough. The last thing that I would want to do is to undermine it any further.
Still, I think that your concerns are unnecessary in this instance. Let me give three reasons why.
First, I think your analogy between eating and singing leads to an equivocation of the term “unhealthy.” In what sense does your wife think that hamburgers are unhealthy? Surely not in the sense that they are poison. Hamburgers are food. If you are starving, they can keep you alive. When she says that they are unhealthy, what she means is that they are not as good for you as some other food might be.
Some hymnody is unhealthy—or less healthy—in exactly this sense. It is not false. It is not overtly demeaning to God. It is simply second-rate (or third, or fourth, or fifth). For example, the better productions of the gospel song era probably fit into this classification. I will sing most of these songs, though I constantly find myself thinking of hymns that could have served the purpose better.
On the other hand, your wife is not likely to feed your children arsenic, however much you demand it and however seriously she takes your covenant relationship. One simply does not serve poison. One does not eat poison. Not knowingly. And one does not speak falsely of God. One does not demean or degrade Him. Not knowingly.
Second, the analogy between church membership and marriage should not be pushed too hard. You may understand marriage differently, but (contra Pat Robertson) my reading of Scripture leads me to believe that the marriage covenant is inviolable. It cannot under any circumstances be dissolved while both parties live—not in the sight of God.
This is certainly not the case in church membership. Churches make provision for receiving members from other churches and for dismissing members to other churches. Furthermore, we are all quite convinced that, under certain circumstances, leaving the membership of a church is not only permissible, but virtuous and even obligatory.
The two covenants (marriage and church membership) exist in different spheres and for different purposes. Because their purposes are different, their execution is also different. Nothing in the New Testament would lead me to believe that Christian persons leave their individual responsibilities behind when they unite in membership with a local assembly. They surely do add responsibilities, but they do not lose any. Neither the church nor its leadership stands in the jure divino role of husband to particular believers. We have only one Bridegroom, and His authority relativizes all ecclesiastical relationships and authorities.
Effectively, the church covenant represents a solemn agreement between believers at two points: first, that they intend to function as a church, and second, what functions they understand that intention to entail. The covenant does not specify every detail in the ministry of the church, but rather the matters that must be held in common by all members. This is the third reason that your concerns, while understandable, are (in my judgment) misapplied. Whatever is not part of the covenant should not be enthroned and treated as if it were vital to church membership. In matters not specified by the covenant, particular members have liberty of conscience.
To be sure, church covenants do specify the necessity of public worship, and members are bound to participate in the corporate worship of the church. No one argues, however, that this participation requires involvement in every element all the time. For example, I believe that giving is a financial priority, and I always do my giving in the worship service immediately following payday. This means that I will not participate in giving during most of the worship services of the church. Furthermore, if the church is receiving an offering for a project that I have questions about, I am not obligated to give. That is the choice of the particular believer.
Of course I still have the responsibility to earnestly endeavor to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. I ought not to conduct myself obnoxiously. The offering is not the time to raise public objections to the ministry for which the offering is being received. The same is true of singing. But to suggest that one is covenantally obligated to sing whatever is announced in the service is, I think, to take a significant leap.
On the other hand, we cannot be too careful when we join a church. I always have had a list of questions for the church’s leadership. Among other things, I have wanted to know specifically whether my convictions or conduct will be taken as a transgression of the covenant.
When I joined Fourth Baptist (and came to Central Seminary), I spent hours of time and thousands of words ensuring that I would have the liberty to make such decisions for myself and my family. Only when I was given explicit assurances that my views and behavior were tolerable was I willing to consider becoming a member at Fourth Baptist or a professor at Central Seminary. The leadership invited me here knowing exactly what they’d be getting.
Whenever a church and its leadership are not willing to tolerate the convictions of particular members, then historic Baptist polity provides an alternative. It is called a “peaceable dismission.” It occurs when the membership of a church no longer shares the same vision for implementation of its covenant, and so the majority dismisses the minority to establish a church in accordance with its (the minority’s) understanding of biblical faith and order.
And, of course, in non-church situations, all bets are off. Camps, conferences, colleges, and other parachurch endeavors are not churches. Whatever dilemmas may arise in a church situation, the only dilemmas in parachurch organizations are pragmatic in nature.
Incidentally, I was a pastor for more years than I have been a seminary professor. As a pastor, the approach that I took within the congregations to which I ministered is exactly the approach that I have articulated here. Within the confines of the covenant, confessions, and other formal agreements, variation was both tolerated and fostered. I think that makes for a healthy church.
Anyway, I’m afraid that I have to disagree with the conclusion of your essay. I do not think that choosing not to sing particular songs in a worship service is a specially big deal, even within the covenanted community of a local church. Every church needs to have leeway for particular members to exhibit some variety of belief and practice within the overall structure of the church’s governing documents. If a member chooses to exercise this liberty, then no one should be surprised.
from A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner, upon the 51. Psalme
Anne Locke (1530-c. 1590)
Sinne and despeir have so possest my hart,
And hold my captive soule in such restraint,
As of thy mercies I can fele no part,
But still in languor do I lye and faint.
Create a new pure hart within my brest:
Myne old can hold no liquour of thy grace.
My feble faith with heavy lode opprest
Staggring doth scarcely creepe a reeling pace,
And fallen it is to faint to rise againe.
Renew, O Lord, in me a constant sprite,
That stayde with mercy may my soule susteine,
A sprite so setled and so firmely pight
Within my bowells, that it never move,
But still uphold thassurance of thy love.