Can a true Christian be a member of the Church of Scotland – given that, in recently years, droves of evangelicals have left a denomination they no longer consider to stand for biblical truth? Or can a true Christian be associated with the Catholic Church? Even the thought of such a question, in my childhood religious tradition, was anathema! Or can a true Christian be a Freemason? Another question that has caused great debate in some of the circles I have been associated with. Or how about this one – can a Christian be a member of the Mafia? Not a question which I have heard raised in Scotland of course – but In Italy – well perhaps?
I pose these question partly with tongue in cheek – but underneath is a genuine issue which troubles me greatly. And it is this – how far down the road can we go before becoming guilty by association – or indeed is there such a thing? And this is not an idle, theoretical question – it is a question that has consequences – a question, the answer to which can be life changing, can result in the loss of many friendships and lead you down the road of misunderstanding, vilification and loneliness – to say nothing of financial loss for some.
As a teenager, after leaving school, I worked for a vehicle parts company in Inverness. Of course all the men were older than I. One of these, a much older man, during our tea breaks, would go in to a corner by himself to eat and drink. He would not associate with the other workers at this level. It was some time before I realised that he was in fact the member of a narrow presbyterian church and that he was acting out of deference to his denominations interpretation of the scriptural injunction not to eat with sinners (1 Corinthians 5:9–11). For him it was a question of guilt by what we might call “eating association” (an interesting concept) – so he separated himself at tea times. Of course his was, to me at least, an extreme and twisted view – but nonetheless it shows how far some will go in order to avoid guilt by association.
Many of us will have heard the saying, subscribed to by many both inside and outside the church – “Show me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are”. Sounds good – but unfortunately Jesus would not have fitted the rule!
But for me the whole issue really has to do with church, church organisations and groups that go by the name of “Christian”. Does it really matter what church (in the common use of the word), group or organisations one associates with? And can one be culpable (before God) as a result of ones association with them?
Of course, let us recognise at the outset, that the answer to the question is fraught with disagreements and varieties of opinions. For instance, and I have observed this more than once, it is much easier for a member to leave his or her church over a matter of conscience than a minister who earns his daily bread from his position. I have also heard some poor excuses made by ministers whose conscience appears to be telling them one thing – but their need for a livelihood tells them another. But that is between them and their God! And therein, for me at least, lies the rub! Conscience before God!
Xerxes the Great, king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire was not exactly a paid up member of any protestant denomination when, in his unsearchable wisdom, Jehovah called a beautiful young God fearing Jewish girl to become his queen. But in it all God had a purpose, which, I suspect, most of her contemporaries could not comprehend. And I think the General Purposes Committee at First Baptist Church, Jericho would have chosen someone other that a young prostitute called Rahab to welcome the people of God to town. In other words – God is God – and he may ask people to do some very strange things!
But to ground this discussion in the here and now – because that is where most of us live – I suspect many people are struggling with this questions like this today. It’s partly why we see so much movement between churches – mostly within our evangelical tradition – and partly why so many serious believers have given up on church (again in the commonly understood meaning of the word) altogether. I have heard it said – “You will never find the perfect church, if you do, leave it alone, if you join it, it will no longer be perfect.” That may sound a right and a rebuke to some of us who find ourselves outside the walls of any traditional church – but in truth it glosses over the real issues for many and can in fact be an excuse for much imperfection!
Again, for me personally, the big questions is this – when is a church not a church? Or at what point does God look at a church, denomination, organisation or group and say – “You no longer represent me!” Or to use biblical language – “I know your works, that you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead .. ” (Revelation 3:1 KJV). What then? Does my association with an organisation that masquerades as “church” when God has declared it otherwise deserve my support and devotion? How long can you flog a dead horse? I have heard sad stories of ministers who have spent their whole lives trying to bring reform to their denomination only to say bitterly in the end – “We changed nothing”.
The other troubling issue for me is this. By giving my support and energy to such a “church” – am I representing as living something God has declared dead? If my answer is yes – guilt by association, for me, is complete at this point. I am in fact a false witness to a watching world for by my association I may well be drawing others in to death. To my conscience and to my God I will have to answer. So just as I would regard a member of the Mafia who claims to be a follower of Jesus – even although his association is involved in murder, extortion and corruption – as stretching his conscience to breaking point – so too, on a spiritual level, I suspect the same may be true. So – is there such a thing as “guilt by association”? Absolutely! However, and it’s a big however – it is not mine to judge another on this matter – God alone is the arbiter of these things.
And it is this – our conscience before God that I suspect is the key to the conundrum. It is why my conscience before God may lead me to one conclusion – while another may take a different stance – as well as leaving open the possibility that God may have someone do something so random that others thinks he or she is way off beam – or to use another common expression, has – “gone off the rails”.
Perhaps by now you think I am not going to come back to the specific questions I asked at the very beginning because they are controversial – but I will. And the answer goes something like this. If I’m to be really honest I once argued that if I had been brought up in a different tradition I would still have arrived at the truth I then believed. However – with a little bit of maturity (I hope) I have changed my mind. For instance – if I had been brought up in the Catholic tradition – there is a good chance that, at least for the early part of my life, I would have remained in it. The same goes for the Church of Scotland – or any other tradition. Of course, perhaps, I would by now find myself outside them all! But that is a matter for me – my conscience, my respect for God and the things I believe. But it goes without saying that whatever tradition one has been brought up in – there are true followers of Jesus to be found within it. And that is not to negate anything that has already been said – because I believe we will all stand before God and be judged according to the light revealed to us. But the more I go on the more I realise that there are many many people outside all our traditions who are on a journey towards God – but are repulsed by the representations of religion they see around them. My overwhelming concern is how do we show to them the God we claim to represent.