Why does GCC limit serving in formal church ministry to members only, and how does this limitation affect unbaptized children of members?
We received this question this week and thought its answer would be beneficial to the whole body, so we’re writing the response here. This is obviously two questions but answering the first helps us to answer the second. The context might help frame this question. How might we consider whether an unbaptized child of a church member could volunteer to serve the body in something like watching kids at a parent’s night out (coming up on November 16th, btw), or helping out in the nursery, or providing a helping hand with the newly formed special needs ministry? The first thing to say is that we’re glad that parents want their children involved in ministry and as a church we want to facilitate the service of all members of the body to one another. Of course, everyone is taken on a case by case situation, so no hard fast rules can ever replace true discipleship.
First, we need some distinctions. We are claiming that there is a marked difference between formal and informal ministry in the church. Informal ministry happens all the time and is often spontaneous and we have no desire to manage or mitigate those activities. Informal service would be what any person could partake in, whether we had any confidence in their standing before Jesus. Examples of this service would be acts of kindness, like holding the door for someone or helping set up chairs after a fellowship meal. There is no need to formalize such a ministry. But there is a need to have some ministry that is recognized as partaking on behalf of the church, and this is what we would call formal ministry.
As we’ve already stated, we’ve limited serving in a formal ministry to those who are members. What would we say to an adult who moved to the area and started attending our church? Could they just jump in and help out in formal church ministries, like the music ministry or the greeter ministry? We hope you can see why that would be problematic. When someone joins our church in membership we are acknowledging their profession of faith and their obedience to Christ to self-sacrificially exercise their spiritual gifts. And every time someone serves in a church ministry they are operating out of that public declaration. Subsequently, as someone comes under church discipline one of the first steps is that they are removed from church ministries. All service is done from a context of discipleship.
So, what about unbaptized children of members? They too are in a context of discipleship, but until they are baptized, that context is limited to the spiritual headship in the home. We are thrilled that children would desire to serve the body of Christ, but we are convinced that their first act of obedience to Christ ought to be the public profession of their faith in baptism. This is how Christians are recognized as a part of the family of God and the context from which all other acts of service flow. The more important question is, “Why aren’t they baptized?” and then the next question is, “Is the reason they are not baptized also a sufficient reason for not participating in formal church ministry?” Ministry must be connected to membership.
So, in what way can unbaptized children of members grow in their experiential understanding of ministry? Isn’t there some way in which they can participate? Or do we cordon them off, prohibiting them from service until they are ready to go public with their faith? Of course not, and of course there is a way they can participate. Until a child is baptized, their discipleship is within the context of the headship of the home. Their parents may oversee any participation in the body. This means that a child could participate in our upcoming Christmas musical (December 8-9 for shameless plug #2), or they could volunteer in the nursery under the supervision of their parents. In fact, their parents can even explicitly delegate another member of the congregation to mentor their children and oversee their participation in church activities. For the teenager helping with parent’s night out, if they are not a baptized member, we wouldn’t have them be independently responsible for any of the activities, while a baptized member would potentially be given some responsibility. When someone is baptized the elder’s take on a role of spiritual headship in their lives, but until then a child remains under her parent’s discipline.
In conclusion, we would have you meditate on the responsibility of spiritual headship found in 1 Peter 5:1-3,
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”
The Great Shepherd will return one day holding elders accountable for their oversight of a specific group of people. The way God has given to us to know whether someone is our responsibility is that they are a baptized member of our church. We are praying with you about the best time to introduce a bit of independence in your child’s discipleship through a formal connection to the body of Christ.
As always, thank you for your questions and let’s continue to dive into these issues with the grace and unity known only in the people of God.