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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Church Membership: Introduction

“To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints”

“To the church of God that is in Corinth

“To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia:”

“To the churches of Galatia

“To the saints who are in Ephesus

“To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi

“To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae

“To the church of the Thessalonians”

“To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion”

“To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion”

“My little children, I am writing these things to you”

When we read the Epistles of the New Testament, something should stand out to us – these books are written to churches. There are letters to church leaders (Timothy, Titus, 2 & 3 John), and a letter of direction regarding a specific case (Philemon), but even in those the letters are written to believers who are part of a fellowship of believers. They are written to be read and applied by individuals, but read and applied by individuals in community.

Yet today, many professing believers give short shrift to church membership. They feel that being intimately connected to a body of believers is of little consequence. Some are honest enough with themselves to say it, others simply do not join themselves to a fellowship and make excuses. The result is the same – Christians who are supposed to be a part of the body of Christ, yet have little connection to that body.

This series covers two interrelated themes – the need for church membership and how one lives in community with believers. I’ll give a bit of sneak peek into a major idea – our failure to live properly in community is inseparable from our failure to live in community at all. I’m not yet sure which led to which, but a lack of regard for community is not likely to encourage us to make the harder choices to live properly in community, and a failure to live properly in community necessarily creates disregard for community living.

First I will talk about what church membership means, followed by a Biblical and historical support for the communion of saints. Then I will describe the lost ‘secrets’ to living in community that makes it everything it should be. This will necessarily involve examining the reasons given for abandoning the fellowship of our brothers and sisters and weighing their balance against the body of Biblical and historical evidence.

As I consider this short series, I marvel that of those who have commented in the past, many who oppose me on several issues are likely to agree with me on this issue, while some of those who have supported other doctrinal positions I have presented will not Perhaps I will better understand that dynamic when we are completed.

Next: What church membership really means.

16 Comments:

  • Nice to hear from you again :-)

    One thing I'll be interested to hear your opinion on is the nature of church membership - does the church consist of a group united by a common ideology, or is it a community of people centred on Christ? The former is the result of a "conversion" theology and requires assent to doctrines; this is the general non-conformist theology. The latter is the Anglican/Catholic/Orthodox understanding, and doesn't place the same emphasis on conversion (children, for example, may be seen as full members) or common doctrine.

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 12/13/2006 05:24:00 AM  

  • I am also interested in the definition of membership.

    It is interesting how ritualistic and religious it can be, or it can simply be a joining of a family, as it is in the church we attend.

    While our church doesn't boast formal membership, it is implied as the pastor and associate pastor will call "members" at home to check on them during illness or extended absence, and Jackson and I are required to be at church an hour early before any service, as we are on the worship team.

    In our church, the sense of family that comes from fellowship of like-minded believers is irreplaceable and highly desired. We are at a point now, where I know my children could call upon any "member" of our church and they would be taken care of. That's the membership our family grows on

    By Blogger Rightthinker2, at 12/13/2006 12:16:00 PM  

  • Yet today, many professing believers give short shrift to church membership. They feel that being intimately connected to a body of believers is of little consequence.

    Hammer, you and I have briefly discussed this before. I would place myself in this camp, if the wording was less dismissive and over simplistic. Put another way: the above strikes me as a premature indictment of those who, like me, question the conventional wisdom with respect to “the church”, i.e. corporate worship, in this post Roman Catholic (and indeed, post Reformation / Great Awakening) era.

    The result is the same – Christians who are supposed to be a part of the body of Christ, yet have little connection to that body.

    Like John and RT, I look forward to your definitions and supporting arguments, but I’m rather skeptical that you can demonstrate, from scripture alone, that the elect are “supposed to be a part” of “the church”, which has evolved considerably since the Epistles were written. Also, I wonder if you’ll make a distinction between “the body of Christ” and “the local church”, or are they indistinguishable, as your post seems to imply.

    By Blogger Robert, at 12/13/2006 01:34:00 PM  

  • RT said:
    "fellowship of like-minded believers"

    This is really the question I was posing above - should a church be a "fellowship of like-minded believers" or should it be a diverse community drawn together not because they agree but because they all follow Christ?

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 12/13/2006 02:59:00 PM  

  • John,
    Why does it have to be either-or? I intend to present that it doesn't.

    Robert,
    I recognize that I tipped my hand, mostly because, while I have heard reasonable counters to reasons for joining a church as a member, I haven't seen reasonable reasons for abstention. My wording is poor, so let me try an analogy.

    In the 2004 elections, there was a general consensus that Kerry failed to win because he wasn't able to effectively communicate something other than "Not Bush". When people looked at "Bush" and "Not Bush", it wasn't that "Not Bush" wasn't a good retort - it simply wasn't enough of an answer on its own.

    I have seen "Church" and "Not Church", but I haven't seen a solid "Individual". I haven't enjoyed the presentation of why abstention is simply better. I'm sure it will come up, as the series program allows for that.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 12/13/2006 03:59:00 PM  

  • Hammer, while I appreciate your analogy, I would argue that "Church", "Not Church" and “Individual” are not the only options, though I’ll concede that those seem, at first glance, to be the only available ones. However, you first need to establish a Biblical connection between “Current Church” and “Original Church”.

    I don’t want to preempt the series, so suffice it to say: I think that you bear the burden of proof here, in that you’re asserting a proposition that, in your view, ought to be accepted universally by the elect.

    By Blogger Robert, at 12/13/2006 10:48:00 PM  

  • Hammer,
    Of course, the two ideas aren't mutually exclusive, but they can't both be normative. One idea or the other is usually uppermost, and I was interested in which take you have on the issue. As you know, I'm not big on the idea that "like minded" be the most important thing in a church - the body is diverse and should be so. If we all start to agree, we begin to think that we understand God completely (a Bad Thing). But if we determine to live together despite our differences, we learn love and true tolerance - and have plenty of opportunity to exercise those fruits of the Spirit, especially patience and self-control. :-)

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 12/14/2006 04:17:00 AM  

  • John,
    Great - we start in agreement!

    Robert,
    Clearly, as the presenter of the series, the burden is on me. I was just explaining why I was dismissive of the other choices.

    RT,
    Why doesn't your church have an "formal membership"? Like my brief exchange with Robert above, I have yet to see a good presentation of why we should prefer non-formal membership. Robert's issue is more central to the series and will be explored in following posts, but this one is less central, so I'd like to discuss it here, if you like.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 12/14/2006 09:35:00 AM  

  • Hammer,

    I can't speak for exact reasons why our church doesn't have formal membership. I can, however, speculate as to why we do not.

    Our church is smaller and does a huge deal of evangelising. Often, this is reaching out to members of the community who would likely be turned off by the pressure to join an organization, rather than just coming to Christ, and having public worship and prayer at a Bible teaching church.

    We also have many members who come from more formal and more religious denominational churches. Many of them that I have spoken to are fond of being part of the body of Christ, and not part of "religion". I can identify with this, as well.

    I see nothing wrong with formal church membership! Our church simply doesn't have a requirement for this.."where two or more are gathered"...It just so happens that our church, with the 'come as you are' attitude truly focuses on The Cross and not any measure we could take to make us worthy. I think our pastor also uses this to place less emphasis on what we can do through our acts than what He already did for us. Sometimes people are really confused by that...just check out the Methodists..

    By Blogger Rightthinker2, at 12/14/2006 05:32:00 PM  

  • RT,
    You mention that you see nothing wrong with formal church membership, but you certainly present a case against it!

    First, I can't comprehend that someone would deny themselves, take up their cross, follow Christ, and particpate in a community of believers but be somehow put off that it includes having your name on a list of people who also attest to being part of that community. Are you saying that not having a formal membership makes people more likely to believe the gospel? It sure sounds like it. Do you have any evidence of this?

    Secondly, I assume the other members you speak of come from liturgical church traditions (since Southern Baptist would be anything but formal!). Their perception of 'religiosity' has nothing to do with a membership roll. For whatever reason, they view scheduled visitation nights and pot luck meals as less traditional than a liturgy, communal vocal reading of Scripture or robes and candles. I honestly don't think that if you asked every one of them what it was about your church that they found less "religious", membership would never be the first thing they speak of.

    I don't see a connection between a formal or informal membership and the cross. My argument for a formal membership is behavioral - my argument for any membership is Scriptural and historical! There are plenty of "come as you are" churches with and without formal membership. Why does one somehow make the invitation more clear? I'm having trouble connecting the dots.

    I know you are on vacation and probably won't read this for a while, so I'll post a comment with a case for formal membership.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 12/19/2006 01:27:00 PM  

  • Ah, but my family appears on many "lists" associated with church membership, without having to ascribe to being a formal "member" of a church.

    We appear in the "Church Family Phone/address directory", Jackson and I appear on the worship team list in the bulletin, my dad is an elder/usher, and my mother and I both attend the weekly women's study early to help clean the church.

    Is a list to prove this desire to serve necessary? I don't see that biblically. Were all of the initial followers of Christ recorded publically, or did that somehow grow as a desire to be publically recognized as a member of an organization became more beneficial to a person than simply following Christ? I don't know how that works, really, just wondering the roots of it all.

    At our church, visitors are asked to fill out a visitors card, and they are given a small token gift from the church. Our effort is certainly to grow the church, but only to grow the church with those who wholeheartedly participate...not just show up because they formally belong.

    As I said, if it works for a church to include a formal membership plan, then great. However, for our church, the message is to come to the cross because we are broken. I can't see ex-con's being all that intereseted in a church preaching they need Christ because they are sinful, but sign here so we can make sure you are a formal member.

    Your citation of Hebrews 10:24-25 is most certainly important. However, being a member of the body of Christ doesn't imply that membership is a formal and recorded singular act. God has recorded our names already, in the book of life.

    Additionally, it is important to remember what formal membership can imply for some. Bill Clinton was a formal member of a church at the time he was committing adultery with Lewinsky. We can insert a whole lot of people's names here. Church membership doesn't obsolve us of our sins. Christ does, and regular weekly+ attendance at church is a response to that.

    Again, I'm not entirely sure what makes us a member of a church and "the church", other than being saved and actively and regularly participating. Ceremonies are grand, but they can be given too much weight

    By Blogger Rightthinker2, at 12/27/2006 08:09:00 PM  

  • RT,
    I am surprised I have to say this to you, but - read what I wrote.

    I am not advocating a Biblical basis for formal church membership, just a Biblical basis for church membership as we both have described it.

    How does your church decide who to put in the directory if there is no membership list? Whoever wants to be? Isn't that a form of list?
    Secondly, who can serve in any capacity? Anyone who wants to?

    I'm not sure where you get the idea that formal membership dissuades anyone from coming to Christ, or that having a formal membership is something people try to get without Christ. Please give a scrap of evidence for this.

    You are consistently presenting a false dilemma that goes like this - "Either you have a church with no formal membership and real Christians, or a church with a formal membership and lots of fakers and people who are scared off by it who might really be real Christians." Again, provide a scrap of evidence for this. Are you telling me that everyone who attends your church is a regenerated follower of Christ Jesus, specifically because you have no membership roll? That is what your words mean.

    What I present is that there is no downside to a membership list. Of course, failure to have any church discipline leads to bloated rolls of non-attendees, but no roll at all makes discipline even more unlikely.

    How does your church decide who it can and cannot do discipline on? Of course, I know that your church never does (because, my church included, so few do), but if it did, what do its by-laws or constitution say? How would the congregation know that someone is a valid "target" for discipline? Mustn't someone first submit to an authority to be disciplined by it? The church does not have force, only the authority granted it by its members to do such a thing.

    Think of the proceeding - who can bring the brother to the church? Who can give suggestions on what the discipline should be? Who can vote on it? What prevents the person under scrutiny from packing the crowd with his drinking buddies? The majority of who shows up at the meeting carry the day?

    It's worth more thought than you are giving it. I'm not sure where you got the idea that membership actually scares people off, especially since it comes AFTER they are saved.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 1/08/2007 04:38:00 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 1/09/2007 07:52:00 AM  

  • Hammer,

    I had written a big response this morning, with a reply to each of your assertions and questions. However, unbeknownst to me, Blogger was down when I attempted to post it. Big dummy me didn't copy first.

    Anyway, it's probably best, since I have no real argument with you on this subject. I think you mischaracterized my thoughts and statements a bit, but that is hardly worth discussion when I fully agree with what you have presented here.

    The only question for me comes down to whether or not there is a need for a formal membership. I have no idea, really.

    I just haven't seen how that benefits or assists the growth of either 1) The body of Christ, 2) The evangelistic and soul-reaching movement, 3) The member.

    It also seems pretty dependent upon the needs of the church and community. It simply seems absurd for a church of our size. I like it that way, but as our church grows, if the Pastor and the Associate Pastor and Elders choose to begin formal memberships, I will be the first to sign up.

    Issues of discipline and the like seem easily handled with personal attention from the Pastor and Associate Pastor.

    Additionally, with being taught the Word line by line and word-for-word, not too many who are offended by the truth stick around to waste their time hanging out at the small fellowship events or clean the toilets as volunteers.

    As size changes, the needs of the church will undoubtedly change. However, at this point I am as involved as I can possibly be, and that comes from my desire to serve.

    I like that I am accepted for that, without some question of whether or not I am qualified to clean the toilets. (I am also not suggesting that any church with formal membership would do this-but I imagine some may) I want to serve as a member of the body because it is right to do so, and I firmly believe that we all have a way to serve.

    Anyway, I think we have very little to disagree on here.

    By Blogger Rightthinker2, at 1/09/2007 11:17:00 PM  

  • RT,
    Good to know that I mischaracterized your position! Well, not good that I mischaracterized it, but that what I read what not what you meant. I think you rolled on an assumption that your #2 (impact of formal/informal membership on evangelism) was an issue at all. I think it has no direct impact.

    The primary benefit of a formal membership is the signification of responsibility to and subjection to the authority of the church. Once I say, "I am in that bunch" I should have a vested interest beyond just showing up and am saying that I will be accountable to the congregation. This is often not the case though, becuase the membership issue is lack of discipline, not presence or absence of formal membership.

    Church discipline - I think that your church likely has no intent of ever doing it. No membership roll means no way to execute it. I m actually much more upset about the lack of church discipline in our churches than I would ever be about formal/informal membership. Your church is not less evangelistic or discipling because they do not have a formal membership.

    There is one point I must contend - please do not assume that the presence of expository preaching (which is rare and an excellent thing) guarantees that there are not people in the pew who think they are heaven-bound because they show up regularly and clean the toilets! The followers of works-righteousness sit in every church, especially those who do not explicitly preach election.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 1/10/2007 08:53:00 AM  

  • I agree with you that every church is going to house those with false salvation! Absolutely.

    Due to the nature of humans wanting to belong, I am positive that every gathering of "Christians" includes some who have no heart for Christ, but rather a heart for belonging to an organization-whether that be informally or formally!

    By Blogger Rightthinker2, at 1/10/2007 05:53:00 PM  

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