By John Angell James, 1822
ADMISSION OF MEMBERS TO THE CHURCH
WHO ARE WE TO RECEIVE?When an individual is known to be desirous of fellowship, information of this should be conveyed without delay to the pastor, who, upon conversing with the person, and making suitable inquiries about his character and conduct, may mention him as a candidate for fellowship. No member should bring forward a candidate in opposition to the opinion of the pastor. It is of course to be expected, that he will never reject an individual—but upon grounds which appear to him to be quite sufficient, and which he will, without hesitation or reserve, communicate to the person himself.
On the part of the church, there is sometimes a very unscriptural reluctance to receive people into membership, until after they have had a long trial of their Christian steadfastness and integrity. It is very common for some members to exclaim in surprise, when the name of a candidate is mentioned to them in secret, "What, is he going to be proposed to the church? Why, he has not been converted three months." I wish these over-cautious Christians to tell me, what length of time ought to elapse after conversion, before the individual is introduced to communion? Has Jesus Christ stated any term of probation, which we must pass through before we are received into the church? Certainly not. What right have we then to fix upon any? Is it not establishing terms of communion, which he has not established? Is not this a direct invasion of his authority? If we consult the precedents furnished by the practice of the apostles, they most decisively condemn the overstrained caution of those, who would put a Christian upon the trial of a year or two, before he is admitted to communion.
In the book of Acts, the very day in which a man professed himself a Christian, he was added to the church. In fact, his joining himself to the church, was his profession. I would have every step taken to inquire into the knowledge, faith, and conduct of an individual who proposes himself for fellowship; and if they are satisfactory, I would admit him, although he had been converted but a single month; and I call upon the person who would refuse to join in such admission, to show on what ground he acts. Let him not talk about the necessity of caution, and the possibility of being deceived; this is very true—but it must not be allowed to interfere with the rules which Christ has laid down for the government of his church.
OUR views of policy cannot improve HIS institutions, and ought not to oppose the practice of his apostles. The rule of our proceeding is simply this, "We must receive those whom we think the Lord has received." Abandon this rule, and we have no directory for our conduct. One person may think a year's trial enough—but another may think two years' necessary. It is truly shocking to see how many excellent and exemplary Christians are kept by some churches, month after month, at a distance from the fellowship of the faithful, under the pretense of testing their steadfastness. "We must not take the children's bread," say these ultra cautious disciples, "and cast it to the dogs." Nor have you a right to starve the children--any more than you have to pamper the dogs! Our rule is this, "evidence of personal piety, whether that evidence be the result of a month or a year."
The LORD'S SUPPER is intended no less for babes than fathers in Christ; and who will contend that the right way to treat a new born infant, is to neglect him, and leave him to himself, to see whether he will live? To nurse and feed him are the ordained means to preserve his life. It is precisely the same in spirituals as in temporals. And if it be proper to say of a child that died in consequence of neglect, that he would have lived if proper care had been taken, it is not less correct to say of some people that once appeared hopeful—but afterwards returned to the world--that perhaps, they would have proved honorable Christians, had they not been neglected by the church.
The same unscriptural caution is sometimes displayed towards those converts, who are young in years. It is surprising to see what a panic some members are thrown into, when a young person is proposed as a candidate for fellowship; and if they happen to discover that the youth is only fifteen or sixteen years of age, they seem to feel as if the church was either going to be profaned or destroyed. Is there, then, a biblical age of membership? Is the same rule established in the kingdom of Christ, which is observed in the kingdoms of the world, and everyone considered as unfit for the privileges of citizenship, until he arrives at the age of one and twenty? If not, what right have we to speak or think about the age of a candidate? Piety is all we have to inquire into; and whether the individual be fourteen, or forty--we are to receive him, provided we have reason to suppose, "that Christ has received him."
TheMODE OF ADMISSION is various in different churches. On this subject we have no other scriptural guide than mere general principles. The church is to receive the member, and any mode which they may adopt to ascertain the sincerity of his piety, is lawful, provided that it is not so rigid as to deter people from applying for admission. In every case, the church ought to have the means of ascertaining the piety of the individuals; without this there can be no real communion. In some churches, the pastor only examines the candidate—but this is too great a power to delegate to any one person--and too great a responsibility for any man willingly to incur. In other churches, the individuals are examined before the body of the brethren. Another plan is, for the pastor and two of the brethren to converse with the candidate in private, and then state their opinion to the assembled church. In addition to this, some churches require a written statement of the religious views and feelings of the candidate. To make this an inflexible standard of admission, is unscriptural and absurd, since many cannot write at all, and others are so unaccustomed to commit their thoughts to writing, that their letters are so incoherent as to be scarcely fit to be read in public. It is admitted that there are some advantages connected with the plan.
It is deeply interesting to hear a simple, artless account of a sinner's conversion; and by his particularizing the very sermons which were the means of his conversion, he helps in no small degree to raise the pastor in the estimation of the church, by these proofs of his usefulness and success, and to endear him to their hearts.
"In most of our American churches, candidates are required to appear before the assembled church, and detail the methods of grace by which God brought them to his knowledge and service." (Choules)