Up for debate in United Methodist Conferences around the world this month: who can decide which people are allowed membership in a local United Methodist Church. The ammendment to the UMC’s Constitution, which passed General Conference in 2008 and now must pass 2/3 of all Conferences by a 2/3 vote stipulates that no one can be denied membership in the local church. Not even if they are disabled, or an ethnic minority, or a convict. Not even if they’re gay. Not even if they are left-handed. Not even if they are repugnant to some way to the members of that church, to the pastor, or to whomever. No one gets to close the doors.
The chief argument agains this amendment is that membership should mean something, something defined by the pastor and/or the local congregation. Where are the standards? they ask. What if a member of the KKK wants to join my church; do I have to let them?
Let’s push this. I mean, really push this. What if a member of the KKK wants to join my church? A child predator? A serial killer? Safety aside, because someone who is actively engaging in hate crimes, assault of children, or murder must not be allowed out the doors of the nearest correctional facility, let alone in the doors of a church, but could they be members? Would we allow membership vows to be taken? And if not, why not? Are there some sins that are too deep for the grace afforded in a church community? Why are some people shocked when a doctor who provides controversial medical care is a Christian, but not when a tabacco executive or weapons manufacturer or big-business lobbyist is? When you are? When I am?
I’m going to make an argument here. Feel free to disagree. I believe it matters what we consider membership to be. I think those who want to see standards, qualifications for membership, believe it to be a privilege. Something earned by committing to the journey. Something not to be taken lightly. Something available to most, but not to all.
I think membership is something else. I think it’s what John Wesley referred to as a means of grace. It is a confession that, while we are all broken, we are undertaking a challenging journey together. It is a place where God’s grace might touch us, effect us. Might acceptance into a community of love be part of how God reaches out and transforms a person? Might the embrace of those different than ourselves be a way that God transforms us, teaches us to love as God loves, to see the world as God sees it? If membership in church is not about us, not about the church, but about God, then how can we earn it? How can we limit it? It must never be taken lightly, but that by no means says that it must be limited to the few.
If church membership is about God and God’s grace, then it follows the same pattern as everything else about God– it is a crime to offer it to anyone less than all of humanity. God–and God’s grace–is for all.
And all means ALL.