Every May my denomination, the Evangelical Congregational Church, has a conference for all pastors and for one representative from each church. At the conference we attend worship gatherings, business meetings, and hear reports about what God is doing throughout the life and ministry of the denomination. From what I have heard from other denominations, our EC National Conference is quite common.
What is not common is that the EC Church also asks each local EC church to have their own conference, called, not surprisingly, Local Conference. Each church is supposed to convene a meeting of the Local Conference at least once per year. Members of the Local Conference include the members of the church’s leadership team, any EC pastors who are members of the church, and that church’s District Field Director (a part-time employee of the denomination, having oversight of a geographical region of about 10 churches). The Local Conference is a confidential meeting, as the agenda includes approval of the pastor’s salary package, and a spiritual examination of each member the church family.
Yes, you read that right. An examination of the church family. Does it sound creepy? In fact, the Local Conference, according to EC Church guidelines, is to examine whether or not there are any situations in the church family for which a member of the church should be excluded from taking communion. The heart behind this examination is to help people overcome sin and brokenness and become more like Jesus.
If you’re reading this and wondering if Faith Church’s Local Conference meets and does this examination, the answer is No. We have chosen not to follow the denomination’s guidelines about Local Conference. In fact, in my 20+ years at Faith Church, not once have we held a meeting of Local Conference precisely like the denomination asks us to.
Years ago, during each December Leadership Team meeting, we’d take five minutes to convene a session of Local Conference to approve the salary package already approved by the congregation at the November annual congregational meeting. In more recent years, we’ve skipped that Local Conference meeting entirely, as the congregation, at our annual congregational meeting, has already approved salaries by voting on the annual budget.
While there have been times when our Leadership Team has entered into a confidential session to address matters of church discipline, we have never had a discussion about the entire congregation, person by person, to evaluate whether or not they should be barred from taking communion. Instead, we allow individuals to make that choice, between themselves and God, at each celebration of communion. At at nearly every celebration of communion there are some who abstain.
So why do we choose not to follow the EC guideline about Local Conference’s examination of members? We discussed this many years ago at a Leadership Team meeting. While we definitely have a heart to address sin in our congregation and help people restore broken relationships, the majority of Leadership Team members at the time felt that they could not judge others in their church family.
Those Leadership Team members reasoned that they themselves were not perfect, and therefore, who were they to judge others? Didn’t Jesus himself say, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you”? Yes he did. That is a direct quote from Jesus in Matthew 7:1-2. In the end, our leaders, based on Jesus’ teaching, chose not to have Local Conference evaluations of our members before communion.
You might be wondering, then, why the EC Church asks Local Conferences to hold these evaluations. Is the EC Church wrong? Is the EC Church unbiblical? Should we try to get the denomination to change its way and become biblical? Should we be concerned?
While we should always be concerned about whether our denomination is following biblical teaching, in this case, they are. Wait…didn’t I just say above that our leaders, based on Jesus’ teaching, chose not to have Local Conference? Yes, I did. In other words, our leaders were saying that the EC Church was not following biblical guidelines in that specific situation. But now I am also saying that the EC Church is following biblical teaching in that specific situation. Can it be both ways?
Maybe…Maybe not. As we will see in our continuing study of the life of Jesus, as told by his friend John, we’re going to observe Jesus’ fascinating interaction with a person who had been judged and was on death row. What will he say to this person? Will he also judge? What Jesus chooses to do is genius, and we would do well to learn from him. It should affect how we interact with all the people in our lives.
Read the passage ahead of time, John 7:53-8:11, and then we’ll discuss it further on the blog next week.