In most Evangelical churches, there are no requirements to be baptized, only a verbal commitment to Jesus, his saving grace and your desire to become like him. In fact, if a prostitute or drug addict wants to get baptized, the congregation will likely cheer, applaud, and tell the story for weeks about how big God’s grace is and how God always accepts us where we are.
In most Evangelical churches, there are several requirements to be a member of that particular church. There is typically an application that spells out the expectations for you to give financially (ideally the 10% “tithe”), for you to have “no known sin in your life,” to participate in the weekly worship service, to participate in a “Small Group,” and perhaps a few others. And if a prostitute or drug addict wants to be a member, the leadership will likely be uneasy and ask them to submit to some form of accountability. And there will likely not be stories about how big God’s grace is and how God always accepts us where we are, only stories about how important it is to the vision of the church that everyone that is a member is aligned.
So the same question keeps haunting me: Why is it okay for a prostitute to get baptized into God’s family as a declaration of faith, but for them to join our specific household they have to promise to clean up their act and give us money? Why is it okay for anyone to get baptized but only those who meet certain qualifications can be members? Isn’t that essentially saying “Sure, anyone can get into God’s family but around here we have higher standards.” Who do we think we are?
When I asked these questions in the context of a leadership meeting once, the response was that membership was the “filter” we use for those who qualified for church leadership and that we needed to be strict about members since they represented our specific church. I said that made sense as an organization but why not create a different category of membership for those who wanted to be in church leadership? What I got was a blank stare and crickets chirping in the background.
But this entire system adds requirements for people to feel they are being “good Christians,” something I see Jesus explicitly condemning the Pharisees for. They too “added weights” to people in the name of being a “good Jew” in Luke 11: 46 Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”
Why is everyone okay with a simple statement of faith to become a Christian, but to become a member of a certain congregation you have to sign a specific (and often very narrow) statement of belief and agree to other commitments? We don’t scrutinize anyone when we go out to “evangelize” and we wear a badge of honor when someone “gives their life to Christ” even though we know nothing about them. But when they want to be members of our church, we ask questions like they are asking to marry our daughter. And more importantly, I thought part of the good news of the gospel was that people didn’t need to clean up to belong?
In my former days, I thought my job was to keep the faith “pure” and make sure we didn’t let “in” those who would just give Jesus a bad name by their behavior. But I think this is exactly what Jesus was so vehemently against. The message of Jesus seems to be “All are welcome in the family. When you follow me, you are the promoter, not the bodyguard.”
Woe to us if we continue to make barriers for people to experience the life-giving relationship found with Jesus and the rest of his family.