Study Committee on Secret Societies [2003]

Report of the

Study Committee: Secret Societies

      The Secret Societies Studies Committee continued its work based on concerns expressed by the 119th Annual Conference with the previous report. The Committee reexamined the issues raised by the existing “Standard on Secret Oath-Bound Societies”. We sought input from concerned members of Annual Conference. A representative also met with the Inter-Cultural Ministries Study Committee concerning proposed changes to particular Biblical Principles For Living. Those changes will be reflected in their report.

      Clearly the existing Standard (Article 112) has been viewed by the BFC as addressing primarily the matter of Freemasonry. The Committee believes that membership in Freemasonry is not consistent with a commitment to Jesus Christ or to the Christian life. The issues are well documented in the BFC study pamphlet titled, “Secret Societies”. However, Article 112 does not specifically name the Freemasons. It was this article’s problems which we addressed.

      We maintain that it is difficult and perhaps impossible to write a prohibition that only prohibits certain groups. There are thousands of organizations, many of which require some form of oath or affirmation; are all of them included in the prohibition? Are all oaths or affirmations wrong? Which are and which are not prohibited? Who determines which organizations are prohibited? For instance, are fraternities included under the present prohibition? In addition, the present article on Secret Societies raises questions. Is secrecy always wrong? It seems to us that the biblical basis for the present article prohibiting secrecy is insufficient. The only thing we are agreed on is that the Masons are included. This is the problem of using general language to prohibit a specific instance. A large net will catch more than one kind of fish!

      For the following reasons, the Committee believes that the best way to deal with the issues raised both in the booklet, Secret Societies and in Article 112 is through the formation of a new “Declaration on Particular Issues” rather than through a BPL or specific membership rules:

1. It seems that the only way to write a prohibition which would prohibit the Masons and not unintentionally prohibit other organizations would be to specifically mention Freemasonry in the prohibition. This the committee does not feel is appropriate in a document intended to give transcultural biblical guidelines.

2. Any general prohibition would not include every objectionable organization. There are many organizations which are not covered by the present article which are clearly unbiblical. To target separate prohibitions for all other organizations we feel are inconsistent with a Christian lifestyle would be to lose ground made by the whole BPL project.

3. There may be some very unusual instances where the leadership of a particular church may choose to allow an individual who has not yet removed himself from membership in Freemasonry to become a BFC member. Although we believe this would be most exceptional, we prefer to give the church biblical guidance and leave the final decision to the leaders of the particular church.

      Important issues are raised by Article 112; included in which are the matters of oaths, affiliations, secrecy, and the proper exercise of eldership in the local church. Most important for the proposed “Declaration” is the matter of a believer’s affiliations with organizations or societies other than the church. We want to be on record that there are organizations or societies whose beliefs and practices are problematic for, if not completely contrary to, the preeminence of Christ in our lives. Such groups may require the swearing of an improper oath; an allegiance higher than our allegiance to Christ; commitment to beliefs which are contrary to the teachings of Scripture; or even practices which are wrongful according to biblical standards.

      Secondly, there is the matter of the oaths themselves and of proper speech for the Christian. We agree with the booklet, Secret Societies, and with Article 112 that the Scriptures “admonish against oaths”. The Bible also includes clear teaching by principle and practice that there is a proper exercise of oaths. The proper use of oaths is discussed in detail by the Westminster Confession (chapter 24). However, the teaching of Christ plainly warns the believer that oaths can be improper. Among the improper uses of oaths is swearing contrary to our allegiance to Christ or avowals that are not according to truth.

      Secrecy is a complicated concern which the committee did not feel it necessary for us to resolve. Nevertheless, we were agreed that the secrecy that is characteristic of questionable affiliations cannot promote godly living or witness. Secrecy which is a cover for erroneous or illicit teaching and practice can have no place in the life of the Christian. How could we ever justify the hidden intake of poisonous beliefs for our spiritual health, or covert practices destructive to the testimony of saving truth?

      Finally, we want to affirm the ongoing teaching ministry of elders and pastors in evaluating, rebuking, and encouraging all who enter into membership in our churches. There are a multitude of issues (only one of which is membership in Freemasonry) which impact whether a person is accepted into membership in the church. The way to deal with these many issues is not through writing a multitude of rules but through the proper application of biblical principle by godly leaders. This is a more difficult path and requires greater maturity by the leaders, but we believe that it is the better way.

      Furthermore, let us note again that the Annual Conference has always allowed Particular Churches to create specific rules which govern their local congregations. These rules may always be more restrictive than those of Annual Conference but not less.

The committee presents the following resolution:

Whereas, the committee believes that the present article on Secret Oath-Bound Societies (Article 112 of the Standards of Worship and Life) is not transcultural, and

Whereas, the committee believes the present article on Secret Oath-Bound Societies, as traditionally understood in the BFC, is not appropriate for formulation as a separate BPL, and

Whereas, it seems most appropriate to deal with the legitimate concerns raised in the present Article 112 with the adoption of a new Declaration on Particular Issues, entitled, “Affiliations”, therefore, be it

Resolved, that the 120th Annual Conference approve for First Reading, Declaration on Particular Issues: “Affiliations”.

Proposed Declaration:

Article 1005 – Affiliations

1005-1. It is highly inconsistent and anti-Scriptural for Christians to be members of organizations or societies that bind their members with oaths or affirmations that require involvement in practices or with philosophies which are contrary to our allegiance to Christ. We urge believers to refrain from joining any such organization or society. In addition, believers must look with grave concern upon organizations or societies which require secrecy for their basic tenets and practices.

1005-2. The Scriptures teach about both proper and improper taking of oaths.1 While oaths are not forbidden, the kind of oaths taken by members of such associations are clearly against the teaching of Christ.2 The secrecy and higher allegiance required by such associations are not in keeping with the believers’ call to be light-bearers in the world. This violate Christ’s example of openness that rejects secret hidden agendas.3

1005-3. Often, being a member of such an organization or society violates the commands of the Scriptures not to be yoked together with unbelievers4 nor to have fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness.5 Of supreme importance is that membership in any organization or society must not supercede our relationship with fellow believers6 and must not violate our allegiance to Christ.7 We cannot serve God and another master.8

1005-4. Therefore, elders are encouraged to consider most seriously the affiliations maintained by persons who are seeking membership or hold membership in a BFC, giving godly counsel whenever necessary. Elders may choose to withhold membership or exercise church discipline in certain circumstances based on an individual’s affiliations.9

1 Lev. 19:12; Num. 5:19-21; 2 Cor. 1:23 Heb. 6:13-16

2 Mat. 5:34-37; Jam. 5:12

3 John 3:21; Matt 5:14; John 18:20

4 2 Cor. 6:14

5 Eph. 5:11,12

6 John 17:21

7 Matt. 10:37

8 Matt. 6:24

9 Lev. 20:26; 2 Cor. 6:17; 1 Pet. 1:16

Secret Society Study Committee: Ralph E. Ritter, Chairman; Richard D. Harris, Secretary; Jonathon W. Arnold; Dennis M. Cahill; Jonathan P. Tait.

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