Hippolytus was a leader in the early Christian church who lived from 160 to 235 C.E. He wrote “The Apostolic Tradition” which is best described as a “church manual” that includes information about the role of bishops, presbyters, deacons, sub-deacons, widows and readers.
It also includes some humorous (by today’s standards) instruction about which occupations prevent someone from being a member of the church:
“If a man is a sculptor or painter, he must be charged not to make idols; if he does not desist he must be rejected.”
“If a man is an actor or pantomimist, he must desist or be rejected.”
“A teacher of young children had best desist, but if he has no other occupation, he may be permitted to continue.”
Other occupations to be rejected were gladiators, charioteers, huntsmen, heathen priests, magicians (who did not even receive a hearing) and soldiers.
The early church was a very small minority trying to find its place in the largest metropolitan cities of the Roman Empire. In order to try and establish itself as a religious alternative to the worship of the Greek, Roman and Egyptian gods and goddesses, the Christian churches enforced strict rules against the worship of these other gods.
Skip ahead about a millennium and a half to a particular Baptist church in North Carolina in the 1780s. The Biblical Recorder tells us that this church removed Sister Mary who drank too much, another brother who suffered “dancing in his house” and a father whose children were either separated or getting a divorce.
The list of those censured or dismissed does not end there. Selling corn for “20 pr. barrel,” or buying a bull known to be stolen, or attending a “shooting match” and wedding, or telling “big stories” that could not be proven also resulted in disapproval from the church.
Yet ironically the church wondered in a business meeting why its Sunday school was not growing! One also wonders if those who exercised the excommunications lacked kindness, goodness and gentleness—or if some of those who were dismissed possessed those “fruits of the Spirit” while they may have been lacking in others. Who draws the line?
The early church wanted Christians, not worshippers of Artemis in its congregation. The pioneer churches wanted a social and moral purity in its congregation based on Puritan definitions of Christian conduct. In the first instance, the strict delineations of membership were necessary and served to protect the church from other religions. The second was symptomatic of the sense of self-righteousness that the church displayed at times in history.
What does all this mean about membership in our churches today? Many of us recognize that perfection, or even blamelessness (required in Scripture) is not necessary for church membership. At the same time, conversion to Christianity is non-negotiable—we still exclude from membership worshippers of other religions.
In most churches today, grace operates first with regard to church discipline.
Whoever seeks to follow Jesus, stumbling along the way as we go, has a place in the church. Most churches do not accept only mature Christians in our midst, but intentional Christian, growing Christians, hoping Christians.
Anyone seeking Jesus Christ is welcome. If God loves you, then we will try, too. Perfection is not required. Involvement is expected. Growing in faith is the goal. These are things that we can only do when we do them together, not when we turn each other away.
Jeffrey D. Vickery is co-pastor of Cullowhee Baptist Church in Cullowhee, N.C
Jeffrey D. Vickery is co-pastor of Cullowhee Baptist Church in Cullowhee, North Carolina, and a part-time instructor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.