Saturday, February 3, 2007

Thoughts on reception

Reception has been historically a difficult topic in so-called "assembly" circles. There are two general schools of thought on the issue of reception. While there are certainly degrees within each position, the two general positions are "closed" and "open" with regard to reception. In general terms, "open" reception is the idea that anyone claiming to be Christian should be welcome to participate in assembly meetings (usually the breaking of bread, although that's by no means the only meeting that's implied); while the "closed" position is that participation is reserved for certain specific people.

Interestingly, these two positions are by no means exclusively "brethren". Not long ago I read the blog of an [apparently lesbian] Episcopal (Anglican) rector boasting about her church's "open table". So the terminology is by no means a "brethrenism". Further, the infamous "closed table" position is not just a "brethren" thing either: Baptists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics; all sorts of denominations and churches require membership before allowing someone to "take communion".

So a discussion of reception in so-called "assembly circles" is really just a discussion of a sub-topic in the greater realm of modern Christendom. This isn't to be taken as a statement that all the various opinions out there are equally valid or anything: just that we're not the only ones who have this argument.

Typically, the argument against a "closed" policy goes like this: it is most unrighteous to reject a known godly believer simply because they aren't a member of our group. Limiting participation to just those in the group is setting up a de facto membership list. Rather than receiving people as those whom Christ has received, we are receiving them as members of our sect.

The argument against an "open" reception policy typically sounds something like this: receiving someone who is completely unknown to the group, based solely on the statement "I'm a Christian" is by no means described in Scripture. There is such a thing as being a partaker in other men's sins, and this is one way to do it. Anyone---a member of a cult, a false teacher, someone who is blatantly immoral---can make a glib profession at the threshold and be allowed in.

I've mulled this one over for the past 18 years or so, and have finally arrived at some conclusions that might not be popular with people holding either position. My personal conviction is, the only way to maintain a Biblical caution about fellowship on the one hand and sectarianism on the other; is to maintain "closed reception" and allow "occasional fellowship".

So to me, reception would look something like this: if a stranger were to appear at the door on a Sunday morning and want to remember the Lord with us, the answer should be "No". Not because there's anything wrong with him or her, but because they are unknown. On the other hand, if a stranger were to appear with a letter signed by someone who is known, the answer is certainly "Yes". So far, that is in line with everyone who holds to a "closed" reception.

But we can also consider the case where someone who is unknown comes without a letter. There may be several valid reasons for this: in my own experience, I often fail to plan adequately for a trip, and suddenly realize I haven't gotten a letter yet, and it's the day before I leave. What to do then? I would suggest the common-sense approach would be to call ahead, and explain the situation to both the assembly where I live and the one where I plan to be. That way, there can be communication between them about me before Sunday morning. Thus, there would be someone there waiting for me, who can vouch for me to the brethren at my destination.

Now, this scenario raises an interesting question: is the recommendation of someone in the assembly sufficient to receive someone? Obviously the answer is "yes": the Biblical precedent is the Jerusalem assembly's receiving Paul on Barnabas' word.

The next logical question would be, what of the person is known to the assembly already? For example, should a visiting preacher be expected to bring a letter? For the purposes of reception, I would say "no". Similarly, if there is someone visiting an assembly where they are known, the letter is really unnecessary. By the same token, if an assembly were to withdraw from someone for some moral or doctrinal reason, I would expect them to inform other assemblies where the person is known, precisely so he or she wouldn't be received based on personal acquaintance.

So in the case where someone is "in fellowship"---i.e. fellowshipping with another known assembly---I can't think of a reason not to receive them, with or without a letter, as long as we can be certain they really are who they claim. A phone call, email, personal acquaintance, or letter is enough for me to receive them gladly.

To my mind, that summarizes the scenarios involving someone "in fellowship". But what about someone who isn't "with us"? This is where I diverge from the brethren in the assembly where I fellowship. I have come to the conclusion that if we refuse to receive someone solely on the ground that they aren't "in fellowship", we are a sect. Or, to put it another way: as soon as we make membership in something besides the Body of Christ mandatory for fellowship, then we have created a sect. So, I have concluded that we must be "open" to receive any Christian walking with the Lord, regardless of whether he or she is "with us".

Now, before we jump to conclusions, let's add a caveat: a Christian walking in known evil is not to be received, whether he or she is "in fellowship" or not. This is a sword that cuts both ways: not only does it mean we are not to receive people from "out there" that are walking in known sin; it also means that being "in fellowship" doesn't remove the responsibility to walk uprightly. Sadly, I have seen a lot of concern on the part of brethren with the moral standing of people "out there", but very little with the people "in here". And to clarify, there might be a scenario where someone's other association might be problematic. But I cannot see Scripturally that there is ever any excuse to demand exclusive fellowship with someone.

So, for example, if someone in the meeting were to bring some friend or relative to the meetings, and were willing to vouch for him or her, that he or she is a believer; then there would be no sin in receiving that person, regardless of whether that person were planning to go back to their "other church" again the next week. We are not called to demand exclusive loyalty of anyone, except loyalty to Christ.

The principles of reception, in my mind, are summed up like this:
  1. we are not to lay hands suddenly on anyone: we only receive those we know, or who are recommended by people we know and trust
  2. we receive someone as a member of the Body of Christ, not as a member of our sect
  3. if we are confident that someone is a member of the Body of Christ, and that they are not walking in known evil, then we have no choice but to receive them.

There is a final note I ought to make: some of the brethren have taught in assemblies that 2 Tim. 2:22 applies here: "Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love {and} peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart." (NASB). According to these brethren, pure heart means "undivided heart", so that no one has a pure heart who might try and fellowship in two assemblies without leaving one. Or to put it another way, we've been called to walk with those who fellowship exclusively "with us", not with those who might drop in to visit.

This is wrong on many levels:
  1. I can find no evidence that "pure" means "undivided" in any translation, Greek dictionary, or Greek lexicon. In other words, the English word "pure" might mean "undiluted" in some sense, but that's equivocation: the Greek term here is speaking about moral purity.
  2. This reduces to an absurd position: if "pure" means undivided, then those who have undivided loyalty to their churches (say, for example, a devout Roman Catholic) are "of a pure heart", although it is impossible to fellowship with them: by definition, they will only fellowship with other Roman Catholics.
  3. This makes exclusive loyalty, rather than moral purity, the test of fellowship.

To deny "occasional fellowship" to those true believers walking uprightly with the Lord is nothing more than the sectarianism we condemn in others.

1 comment:

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