You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
- John 8:32
It was a policy moment at our discussion group, and the subject was absenteeism.
If members miss, say, four meetings in a row, asked one, should we consider them off the list? Since most of us consider the group an option rather than a duty, we chose the come-when-you-can principle over the fine and forfeit route. Had we been members of early Columbia Countys White Oak Methodist Church, however, we wouldnt have had that choice.
The year was 1796, the church (and later campground) was still in Columbia County, and Bishop Francis Asbury was presiding over the General Conference. One of the bishops first policy matters was absenteeism.
Church discipline was summary and certain in those days, write McDuffie County historians W.C. McCommons and Clara Stovall. Three times absent and the preacher erased your name from the book... . To be turned out of the Society was a constant dread of the conscientious member, and neglect to enforce discipline was the most serious charge that could be made against a preacher.
Today if we were to erase every name who was three times absent, many of our churches would be empty.
Many centuries ago God asked his people, the Jews, to worship only Him, and to be careful in their relationships with others. But religious leaders made so many rules out of the Ten Commandments the people couldnt possibly obey them all. Even Jesus came under their scorn: When he told a sick man to take up your bed and walk, they accused him of working on the Sabbath.
Jesus spoke often about the difference between the letter and spirit of the law. I have not come to abolish the law he said, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Fulfilling the law didnt mean making it more rigid, but tempering it with love and mercy.
This conflict between legalism and grace contributed to the Protestant Reformation and continues in some churches today. One Sunday, 50-60 years ago, a visiting minister rode a Boston streetcar to the church where he planned to speak. As he arrived he was shocked to see a group of men smoking cigarettes outside the church. He vowed to say something about the sin of smoking as he went inside. But when it was time for the service only he, the organist, and a few women were in the room. The baffled speaker asked why the men hadnt come inside.
Oh, sir, one woman replied. They would never listen to a man who uses a public conveyance on Sunday.
Its been 26 years since I walked in that ministers shoes.
As an officer in the military chapel systems Protestant Women of the Chapel in Europe, I had been invited to the Military Council of Catholic Womens Conference in Germany. One morning as the women gathered for mass, my host offered to sit with me in the balcony. I appreciated her kindness until she asked me to remain in the balcony while she went to take communion.
This was the first time I had ever been excluded from taking communion, and I wondered: What if I really were excluded from Gods love and grace because I didnt go to the right church? It wasnt long before I felt a quiet reassurance that I was still Gods child - and a gentle reprimand because, concerning the sea of women below me, for a long time I had excluded them.
The truth, Jesus said, will set us free from our own doubts, and help us understand the difference between the Word of God and the rules of men. Our minds may never completely grasp that truth, but perhaps we can learn to concentrate on our own spiritual quest, and keep the absentees and sporadic attendees in the book and at the communion table, until their glimpse of eternal truth sets them free, too.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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