When the Church is More Like an Exclusive Social Club Than an Assembly of Believers
I have watched changes occur in my church over the years–some changes good and some not so good. But one thing that seems to always stay the same is our tendency to have people among us that are “outsiders.” They worship with us, they love our people and we love them, but they will always remain outsiders because of some idiosyncratic distinction that sets them apart from us. It is usually an outward thing, an application of scripture that they interpret differently than the rest of the church. We view it as the one thing that they refuse to “give up.” And because of that “one thing”, they will always remain an outsider. We don’t deny that they are believers, we don’t doubt their salvation, we just can’t include them as being a true part of our particular assembly.
We point out our “outsiders” to others and say, “Look how inclusive we are! We have people from the community that worship along with us.”
Never mind that they can never be members. They are and always will be permanent visitors unless they are willing to give up more and look like the rest of us.
Is that being inclusive or exclusive?
Recently I was reading about some exclusive social clubs and I was struck once again by the similarities of many of their requirements and the requirements of our Anabaptist churches.
What is a social club? The Wikipedia defines it like this: “a social club may be a group of people or the place where they meet, generally formed around a common interest, occupation or activity.”
There are many different kinds of social clubs. Many are centered around golf, others around art, hunting, sailing, yachts, music, writing, etc. Basically, you could probably find a social club for whatever interests you may have. But in order to join a club, you must be able to prove that you are worthy to be a part of the club before you can be a member.
In some clubs, anyone can apply for membership; in others you can only apply if you know someone who is already a member. In one club, the Loblolly Pines Club, a current member must sponsor you and four others must second it before you can even apply. The most exclusive clubs do not allow applications– you can only become a member by invitation. For others, lineage and money are the key to get in.
All clubs have some standard or expectations you must meet in order to join. Some are not open about information regarding their membership requirements, saying, “If you need to ask, don’t bother..” Dress codes and decorum are strictly enforced, and rules regarding language, etiquette, and lifestyle keep members from being an embarrassment to the club. Not keeping up with all expectations could result in getting your membership revoked. Some clubs, such as the Plainfield Country Club, will give the errant member a written reprimand, and if they receive several written reprimands, their membership is suspended.
The purpose of a club is to foster a sense of community, a feeling of belonging. It promotes the idea that people will grow closer in their relationships with each others that have the same social status, interests, and lifestyle. The idea is to be with those that are like-minded and to keep out the undesirables.
Exclusive clubs vary in their levels of exclusiveness. Some will allow visitors to come freely, others will only allow visitors to come with other members, and the most exclusive rarely allow any visitors. For some, visitors are allowed only at special events, and then only to observe. Each club has their own rules about visitors, but the most exclusive clubs tend to look down on those clubs that are not as exclusive as they are. Each club varies in what visitors are allowed to do, but none allow visitors to participate in all that members can do.
So I ask again, are we as Anabaptists inclusive or exclusive?
If we claim to follow Jesus, we should do as He did. Did Jesus ever turn certain types of people away? What about the early church? Was there ever a dress standard or social status or lifestyle that needed to be met in order to be considered a “member in good standing?”
Certainly, if there is sin, it needs to be rebuked; but that is not what I’m addressing. When other believers are at a different place on their road of life than we are, are we willing to be patient and let the Holy Spirit work at His own pace? Or do we insist that all who wish to be a part of our assembly should also be at the same place that we are?
That is where I see the resemblance of an exclusive social club. We wish to keep out those that are not of “like-mind”. We tend to view those who don’t look like us, talk like us, and live the same lifestyle as us to be an undesirable that we really don’t want to share membership with us unless they are willing to change to become exactly like us. It’s a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of mentality. If we can do it, you can do it! We don’t leave much room for the changing power of the Holy Spirit. We want to see change before you join.
An exclusive club generally only attracts those that want to look like, sound like, and be like those in the club. Only a certain type of people are attracted to that specific club. Is this what the body of Christ should be like? Did Christ die for all, or only the ones who manage to clean up and look right on their own first?
If we really believe that Christ died for all, then we should want to extend His invitation to all, not just the ones that are like-minded with us. If our evangelizing becomes more about telling people what they need to be willing to give up (in order to look right and meet our church dress standards) than it is about what Christ did on the cross, we are not comprehending the Gospel or the Great Commission.
Most of the time we are content not evangelizing. It’s hard inviting someone to a church that will require an entire cultural change in order to be accepted. We figure if someone wants to join an Anabaptist group, they will find one to join. So if I’m only going to tell someone about Jesus, I need to have a church ready to recommend that they could join in case they don’t want to look like us.
When someone from a non-Anabaptist background wants to join an Anabaptist church, there are often so many unspoken rules (along with the written rules), that they end up discouraged and give up– even if they were trying to follow the written rules. And I am suddenly hearing “If you need to ask, don’t bother…”
We view those with some sort of an Anabaptist background as having a better chance at fitting in. There is usually some truth to this because they are already somewhat familiar with the culture. But here I see “lineage” being of importance to us. We think this raises the chances of them fitting in our club better.
Having money helps too. In our culture, we believe this shows that you are a good steward. Those that don’t have much money will be spoken of negatively as others critique any financial decisions and purchases made.
Many of us don’t know what to do with the “outsiders” in our groups. Some members complain. They worry that they might have a bad influence on the rest. But it’s not just the “outsiders” that other members complain about. Anyone who deviates at all from the standard is viewed as a troublemaker. Have you ever heard remarks like, “Why can’t they go find a church where they can be with people more like themselves?” Or if people do leave, comments are made such as, “It’s just as well. They didn’t really fit in and they didn’t meet the dress/social standards anyway.”
I wonder what Jesus says when one of His lambs goes astray? Does He say, “Oh well. He/she never fit in well with the others anyhow. He/she didn’t look the same and didn’t perform as well as some of the others.”
(Luke 15:4,5,7 “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing…likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.”)
Maybe the reason we aren’t concerned is because we know they aren’t lost sheep. They just have a different view of scriptural application than we do. So we don’t want them in our club.
Some of my sources:
When Culture Takes Precedence Over Evangelism
The early church was described in Acts as adding to their numbers daily. While I realize that some of the dynamics were different then, we should still have the same heart of spreading the Gospel and wanting to reach those that are lost. Anabaptists have been accused of not being evangelistic enough. Our numbers seemingly increase more by reproduction than by adding converts from the outside world to our numbers.
I’ve heard of many churches across the world growing to have thousands of members. But I have never heard of any mega-churches in conservative Anabaptist circles. (That said, I can’t say that I’ve ever hoped for mega-churches to start showing up among our people.) What is it about our churches, though, that tends to keep others out rather than “bringing them in”? What needs to change for us to make an impact on the harvest waiting to be gathered?
Anabaptists tend to have smaller groups that know each other well and have a close “brotherhood”. This closeness is often noted by outsiders and looked on with envious admiration. But often it is our close brotherhood, much like an exclusive social club, that keeps out the very ones that we should be bringing in. Is it possible to evangelize without losing that closeness and even our culture (the customs of a particular nation, people, or group) that we guard so zealously? And if it is not possible, which is of greater importance –culture and close brotherhood, or reaching the lost?
Mat. 10:34-38 ESV 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
What are the most important things to us about our culture? Is it our dress rules? Our work ethic? Our disciplined lifestyle? The way we help each other? Our a cappella singing? Our good cooking? Our non-emotional approach to worship? Our facial hair (or lack thereof)? Our large families?
These are all things that we value and guard within our culture. Many of these can be of good value. And while each of these are loosely based on a scriptural principles, most of them are not commanded by Jesus or any of the apostles. So why do we hold our cultural standards higher than specific Biblical commands?
For example, we have the Great Commission as the “last will and testament” (so to speak) of Jesus Christ. We are preach the Gospel, baptize those who believe, and teach what Jesus taught. Yet, we are more likely to stay separate from all nonbelievers; our baptisms generally consist of young teenagers that have grown up in the Mennonite church; and we are more likely to teach our culture than the words of Jesus.
We are to love others as much as we love ourselves. We are also told to share Communion with other believers that are part of Jesus’s ONE body in “remembrance” of Jesus. But we are more likely to confront, refuse Communion, and even excommunicate people among us for dress standards not being up to our man-made codes than for disobeying direct commands given by Jesus and the apostles. Why is that?
Could it be that we hold our culture to be more important than Biblical commands? What is our opinion of other cultures or denominations that have things that contradict the Word of God (regardless of right intentions)? Think of denominations that accept homosexuality because their application of the Biblical principle of showing love to others.
Even those churches that ordain women bishops believe it’s about culture and that culture is more important than direct commands in the Bible.
We are quick to point fingers at other churches, but excuse our own tendency to do this in other areas. We believe our culture is the best culture without noticing that this is also what many others believe about their own. When we refuse to baptize those who “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” and refuse to take communion with other believers (who don’t dress exactly as we do) we are no different. When our culture does not evangelize much because we cannot assimilate people into our culture, we are holding our culture higher than a direct command of Jesus.
If our cultural hard work ethic (application of 2Thess. 3:10) contradicts the command to love our wives and train our children, we must choose which is more important. If our cultural disciplined lifestyle causes us to turn away those that don’t have the same amount of discipline that we do, we need to decide whether Paul’s command to “esteem others better than” ourselves is more important(Phil. 2:3-4). When our cultural rules of dress, with prescribed colors and numbers and shapes and lengths, are more important to us than comprehending the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ (Eph. 3:18-19), do we need to rethink things?
And most importantly, when our cultural applications of the Biblical principle of “separation from the world” contradict the Great Commission, we must choose which is more important. What good is salt if it never leaves the shaker?
But what about unity? Aren’t we to have unity?
Unity is mentioned twice in Ephesians 4. Verse 3 speaks of the “unity of the Spirit” and verse 13 speaks of “the unity of the faith”. I don’t find either of these speaking of a need to all dress alike. Dressing alike does not create unity, nor does it keep unity. And uniformity does not equal unity.
With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit– just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call– one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Eph. 4:2-6 ESV
We are to be eager to maintain the unity of the spirit. Does that come by our many dress rules or does that have a tendency to cause divisions in the larger body of Christ?
When Jacob Ammon first started making very specific dress rules for his followers, it was to identify with the people of the poor class.1 Today, a lot of those same dress rules are more likely to keep out the very ones for whom those rules were created to identify with. It’s much more expensive today to buy material and make your own clothing than it is to go to Walmart or a second hand store, and just buy simple, modest clothing.
There are also aspects of our culture that accept only certain personality types and reject others. We tend to be, and produce offspring that are, disciplined, self-reliant, hardworking, non-emotional people. Occasionally, though, there are some artistic, flamboyant free-spirits who love odd things and bright colors that seemingly pop up out of nowhere. In our culture of discipline and sameness, this personality type is not considered a good thing. They don’t fit in well and we do our best to either get them under control or get rid of them altogether.
We then lose out on a personality type God created for a reason. What are we missing out on in our churches because we don’t allow the flamboyant, creative types? They are the “free-spirits” that have the potential to inspire us to glorious beauty. They bring vision and inspiration. They see and feel things that we may not. They often have a heart connection to God that we may not. The emotion they show that feels so uncomfortable to us, may be just what we need. Why do we squelch emotion? God created it for a reason!
We feel and show emotions to our spouses (or at least I hope we do) that sometimes may be extravagant and unrestrained. Think of Song of Solomon! Why do we think that God does not want any emotional response from us in our worship of Him? When we get rid of the very ones who could help lead us in that direction of exuberant worship filled with emotion and fervor, we lose out on an important aspect in our relationship with God.
Which personality type is better? Don’t we need both to help each other? Rigid, self-disciplined people bring stability, but they need “free-spirits” to help them not to become so self reliant that they think they don’t need God as much as others. Free spirits feel God move and are often more open to hearing His voice speak to them. They don’t feel so bound by traditions and are more open to change. They need self-disciplined people to keep them from being moved by every wind of change and to stay anchored in the Word.
Churches that allow differences in personality, temperament, social status, and dress style will have a church with a greater potential of growing. Think about it, if a doctor, a farmer, a trucker, and a redneck all attend church together, (no this is not leading into a redneck joke) that is four different types of people that could be reached by evangelism by these individuals. If we all look alike and only allow certain types of people to be accepted, we are very limited in our evangelism.
When a visitor sees a variety of dress styles, they will be more likely to feel they will fit in somewhere than if there is only one accepted dress style. When only those who feel comfortable in one particular style are accepted, new additions are very limited.
If a the church has both women who wear head coverings and women who don’t, new converts feel welcomed. Don’t chase away the women who God has not yet convicted to wear head coverings. Perhaps He has other things that He deems to be of greater importance that He wishes to work on in their lives first. We cannot put limits on God. Preach the Word faithfully and allow Him to work at His own pace. His timing is always better than ours! Perhaps He waits because there are some others He wishes to bring into the church that would never come if they were the only one who did not wear a head covering. If we truly believe that God can convict someone, than why don’t we act like it? Forcing people to do something by rules enforced by using communion as a hammer never changes anyone’s heart. Only God can change someone’s deepest heart beliefs.
For those who are fearful of “losing our culture” if people aren’t all dressing alike, is that really all that holds our culture together? Must we look alike to care about each other’s needs and help each other out? To study the Bible together and disciple new believers? To worship God together? To host people in our homes? To sing for the elderly? To work hard and teach our children to do the same? To cook good food and share it together? To have the same goals as a church body?
Having “unity of the Spirit” is so much more than dressing a certain way. So why do we think we must look and believe exactly alike on every application if it causes us to not fulfill the last words given to us by the One we claim to follow? Our unity of faith and the Spirit should be evident by our common goal to seek sinners, tell them about Jesus and baptize them– just as the early church did.
1. For more reading on this, Dwight Gingrich has an excellent article here: