Sorting by

Skip to main content

The board of Elders at my brother’s church (which is not in the Reformed tradition) had a woman come to their meeting to profess her faith and seek membership in the church. As they visited with her, they discerned that she was a practicing witch, much more interested in occult ideas than anything remotely having to do with the gospel. They politely invited her to keep attending, but concluded that she was not ready to profess a faith in Jesus that she didn’t yet seem to have. 

They could have ignored her lacking faith and let her join the church. As some say, you can belong before you believe. But that didn’t seem wise in this case. Though it was difficult to say “no,” the Elders believed they served an important “gatekeeper” function.  

It is easy to disparage gatekeepers as exclusivists who operate with the mentality of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. Everyone seems to know a story or have an experience of gatekeeping gone wrong. Are some gatekeepers judgmental bigots? I’m sure they are. Are some gatekeepers overly-zealous to keep people out who are not “our kind,”  “who shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Mathew 22:13)? Undoubtedly. Are some gatekeepers too focused on sexual matters and neglecting of some of the weightier matters of the law — or the gospel, for that matter? Indeed. 

Still, I want to put in a good word for gatekeeping. 

First things first. Jesus is the gatekeeper par excellence. Even more, Jesus is the gate itself (John 10:7). The flock enters the fold at night, and the only “door” to the sheep-pen is the Good Shepherd himself as he lays in front of the opening. Anyone that enters has to get through him first. And mostly Jesus does his gatekeeping by welcoming his flock as they gather for the evening. And this is not just an in-group thing. Jesus wants to welcome sheep from far and wide, even those who had been in other flocks elsewhere (John 10:16)

But in spite of this welcoming work, there are those who do not belong among the flock at all — thieves and wolves who want to steal, kill, and destroy. It’s the responsibility of the shepherd to keep them out in order to protect the flock. So gatekeeping is not always or automatically an evil attempt to wrongly exclude people. There is a kind of excluding that is necessary. This may be why Jesus said elsewhere that “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14). 

Although Jesus is the primary Gatekeeper, I believe he has entrusted that work to the church and its officers, who are under-shepherds for the flock (1 Peter 5:2). I’d suggest this is what Jesus is getting at with his hard-to-understand words about entrusting the keys of the kingdom to his church, so that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). 

Right now the church around the world is in the process of figuring out whether some forms of same-gender behaviors should be “loosed” or allowed on earth and in heaven. You may be impatient for the church to figure this out one way or the other. In the meantime it isn’t helpful to disparage the difficult work of gatekeeping. I’m guessing that even the most inclusive of all Christians wishes the Elders of the church had been better gatekeepers of the pulpit so that that MAGA-pushing pastor would not have the microphone on Sunday morning. 

And don’t forget — gatekeeping also involves the wonderful responsibility of welcoming people in. When Elders greet people at the door, talk to people in the fellowship hall, and hear professions of faith, they are involved in a great work. Although everyone should be in “welcome mode” at a worship service, good gatekeepers are intentional about extending a right hand of fellowship — and even a left hand. 

I’m curious how gatekeeping went in the early church. It obviously did not mean that people involved in various misbehaviors were barred from hearing the gospel or coming to a worship service (however that actually functioned back then). In Corinth, for instance, the sexually immoral, the idolaters, the adulterers, the thieves, the greedy, the drunks, the gossips, the swindlers, and also people involved in same-gender behaviors were showing up to hear the gospel. No gatekeepers were blocking the door. All were welcome. 

And then transformation happened. All these folks who could have been barred from entry, but were not, were washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:11). Although there were probably a few cases of complete and immediate transformation, it’s likely there were also people who changed through a longer, messier process. It’s the role of gatekeepers (especially Elders in the Reformed tradition) to figure out how that process is going and when to open the door to further influence in the congregation.

The tension between an open welcome for all and the gracious discipleship of people toward maturity is difficult to maintain. We want to say “come as you are” as well as “come and be transformed.” Because of this tension, it’s so tempting to resolve it in one direction or the other. Some people advocate that gatekeepers just do the welcoming part and leave the transforming part completely in God’s hands. That seems like a dereliction of duty for a church called to disciple the nations. Others gatekeepers neglect the welcoming part and work instead at making rules to measure who’s discipled enough to be allowed in. But gatekeepers need to be involved in both the welcoming and transforming work of God. 

Gatekeeping is difficult work. These under-shepherds need our support, respect, and prayers. We might wish there was no need for gatekeeping in the church, and we may not always agree with their decisions. Still, pray that gatekeepers have the wisdom and grace to do their work well.  

Photo by Jason Mavrommatis on Unsplash

# # # # # #

Reformed Journal Book Club
Click here to register for July’s Zoom gathering

David Landegent

David Landegent is a retired pastor in the Reformed Church in America, now living with his wife Ruth in Oregon. He spends his time carting grandkids and writing books on biblical studies (Colossians, 1 Peter, and Christmas) and renewed lyrics for classic rock songs. For the past 39 years he has been a weekly contributor of discussion questions to The Sunday School Guide, and its editor for the past 21 years.


  • William C Haverkamp says:

    The Synod 2024 of the Christian Reformed Church seems to indicate that our denomination has some over zealous gatekeepers. Their kind of gatekeeping is about removing people–whether or not they are passionate Christians who sincerely believe in Jesus as their Savior.

    • Peter Tig says:

      Thanks, Bill. To quote from a 4th Pres. sermon, “…the church is always stronger when we are known for who we let in rather than who we keep out.”

    • Victoria Karssen says:

      We lament the treatment of people and congregations in the CRC this recent synod. While the RCA is a work in progress, please know we welcome you for listening, conversation, inclusion, a new home, whatever you may need, our arms are open to you. Vic Karssen

  • Dave Timmer says:

    You make some valid and valuable points here, especially about the need for gatekeeping, and about our tendency toward “selective outrage” against it. But I think there is a deeper danger in the gatekeeping mentality that needs to be addressed: the way our gatekeepers (sometimes official, sometimes self-appointed) can play on the flock’s fears to aggrandize their own power. We’ve been getting a masterclass on that in the past decade of U.S. political life, and I think some in the church have learned the lesson very well.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks for raising this. I think you are right to wonder how gatekeeping went in the early church, because we know from the Patristic writings that it certainly was practiced. But elders (presbyters) were gatekeepers because they were sacramental ministers, and not the other way around. So let me report my experience at Old First, Brooklyn. Being an “institutionalist” (see two days ago) and a traditionalist, I instituted the old RCA tradition of the quarterly “solemn inquiry” by the Board of Elders, reading through every name in order to ask “the constitutional quesion,” as it’s called in the RCA. I also introduced weekly Holy Communion, with the elements served by the Elders. We partook Hungarian style, not in the pews, but everyone coming forward and standing in a large circle, as the elders brought the bread and the cup around. Early on, Holy Communion came to be for the Elders an active pastoral ministry, as they came into weekly contact with the congregation, person by person, face to face, members and visitors, and they also became aware of those who were absent. So when we did the Solemn Inquiry, the Elders knew the members, and had a spiritual feel for every member. I feel alot better about Elders being gatekeepers when they themselves are doing shepherding and performing the care and feeding of each sheep in the flock.

  • Hopeful says:

    I hope the council also politely offered to have a female believer sit with her in church, as well as encourage and teach her as she readied to profess Jesus as her Lord and Savior.

  • RZ says:

    Matthew 20 : 25,26… ” You know the Gentile leaders lord it over the people… Not so with you. Whoever would be great among you must become your servant.”
    Maybe I am hung up on semantics, but somehow I have a hard time with the term gatekeeper right now. We all need accountability and guardrails, and leaders should not expect to remain popular. Yet, gatekeeping must be exercised cautiously as just one element of leadership. As other readers have noted, perhaps the hammer is just too irresistable and automatic. Leadership is difficult, granted, and many lead for the wrong reasons, servanthood not being one of them. In the Greatest Commandment and Shalom traditions, leaders are not simply judges, but balance-restorers, hope-providers, mediators, neighbor-keepers. True leaders seek to discern and to do no further harm. Jesus was that kind of gatekeeper.

  • Thank you for your thoughtful essay on how you feel it is important that the office bearers in our congregations take their duties as “gatekeepers” to heart. However, never having been an office holder in any of the CRC and RCA congregations I have been a member of for much of my adult life I cannot speak of any experience as a gatekeeper, in the sense you are discussing. However I have been watching with horor as self-important gatekeepers (leaders) in the RCA churches who have left the denomination and the CRC delegates to the last few CRC Annual Synods and they strike me as being more like the Pharisees that Our Lord spoke out against again and again while he was here on earth. I believe that the leadership of our churches are instructed by Our Lord to be loving, forgiving, gentle and supportive of all their fellow Christians who are struggling with their beliefs and how they relate to the Church.

    The leadership of the Church you site with having a “Witch” wanting to join their congregation without demonstrating true faith or knowledge. But they didn’t tell her to leave and not come back. They suggested that she attend regularly and with the help of the congregation learn what is involved in true faith. They did not drive her out of the church!

    Unfortunately we witnessing the those who feel that they are the moral gatekeepers are driving those who disagree with them out of the CRC or leading their congregations out of their denomination. Would Christ feel that they are doing their duty by keeping his flock safe or are they driving and keeping believers out of their Church as modern Pharisees or would He admonish them to change their beliefs and behaviors.

    As an 81 year-old straight male who is a believing and committed Christian [of Calvinist conviction] and alum of Calvin University deeply saddened watching two of my beloved denominations tear themselves apart. I’m praying that these modern Pharisees take a step back and consider how Our Lord actually feels about what they are doing.

  • Pat says:

    I am troubled by the power some gatekeepers exercise. The CRC Synod found it necessary to decide that differing interpretations of portions of Scripture merits shutting the gate to many who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and have served him faithfully for years. That doesn’t fit with “discipling” as some attempted to claim-purely exclusion if you disagree with us. Sadly, the CRC will lose some of its most faithful disciples. Using one anecdotal situation to justify this”purging” resembles what politicians frequently do to justify their slogans.

  • Scott says:

    At the risk of self-absorption, today’s essay reminded me of another one in RJ.

Leave a Reply