Church Membership in a Post-Modern, Consumer, Society
D.W. Legg 23rd February, 2009.
How should membership of Christ's universal body be
Every Christian is a member of the universal church Eph.3:6. The question is how should this be expressed locally? It is evident from the NT that there is also the concept of a local church, e.g. Rom. 16:5, 1 Cor. 16:9, Phm. 2. Does the local church involve any more than just meeting together? The answer is "yes", and that the NT supports the idea of joining a local church, e.g. Acts 9:26 When he [Paul/Saul] came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.
In Acts 9:26, not only does Paul try to join the local church, but the reason they turn him down (at first) is because they wonder if he is a true disciple. This verses shows us that membership of the universal church should be expressed by joining a local church in some way.
Paul was not content simply to say to himself, "I am a member of the universal church." He wanted to join a local church so that he could make himself available to serve real people, in a real place. He wanted real fellowship in a local church with all the benefits and demands. He was, after all, not just a consumer, but a disciple.
The universal church is a valid and important notion, but tangible discipleship and fellowship only take place in a local church. It is impossible to serve the universal church, worship with it, be an elder or deacon in it, administer the sacraments in it or be disciplined by it. To say, "I am a member of the universal church" has almost no practical meaning. It is only when we "think globally, but act locally" (as environmental activists might say) that we begin to impact the local community for Christ. Paul wanted to:
a) make himself available to serve the local church,
b) enjoy the benefits of belonging to the local church,
c) subject himself to the authority of the local church.
Without people joining in these ways the local church cannot function biblically in service, blessing or discipline.
2. How should church membership be expressed culturally?
Given that the concept of joining a local church is taught in Scripture and exemplified by the Apostle Paul, we must decide what that looks like in the 21st Century. Paul trying to join a local church in Acts 9 did not necessarily involve being added to a formal list of members. Having lists of members is a very Anglo-Saxon, western, thing, i.e. it is a cultural thing. The question for us today is therefore, "How do we take Acts 9:26 and apply it in a 21st Century, western, church?"
Culturally, if we want to enjoy the benefits of even an unimportant, non-spiritual, organisation like a golf club, we have to gain approval from the existing members, have our name added to the list of members, join in the normal life of the organisation, and keep its rules. It would be odd if church membership were less formal.
It is therefore very natural and culturally appropriate for 21st Century churches to have formal membership lists. In this way, the biblical model is contextualised in a way that is inoffensive to modern people. At the same time, a membership list makes membership sufficiently formal for it to be taken seriously by everyone.
3. What does unwillingness to join a local church show?
What would prevent some-one from throwing his lot in with God's people locally nowadays?
a) Not being a true disciple?
b) A lack of commitment to Christ?
When Ruth wanted the Lord to be her God, she understood that this also meant making God's people her people: Ruth 1:16 "Your people will be my people and your God my God". It was the basic piece of evidence in the book of Ruth that showed that she was now trusting the Lord for herself. She was throwing her lot in with God's people.
c) An unbiblical view of church membership?
See 1 and 2 above.
d) Fear of commitment?
It has been said that post-modern people are afraid of commitment. However, commitment is both basic to the biblical notion of discipleship and normal in all walks of life, e.g. joining a club. If you want to enjoy the club, you have to commit yourself to joining the club for a year, paying the fees, attending the AGM etc. The local church is much more than just a club; discipleship is much more than just joining a club.
e) A bad experience of church membership in the past?
Openness and honesty will uncover such baggage, and show it to be mere excuses.
f) Secret sins, a feeling of hypocrisy, fear of being exposed, sense of inadequacy?
The answer to these is surely a deeper understanding and felt experience of the Gospel.
Ruth had to decide whether she was going to go back to Moab and Chemosh with her sister-in-law. She showed that her faith was real by committing herself instead to God's people. An unwillingness to become a church member demonstrates a problem which is likely to be primarily of a spiritual nature. Elders need to challenge hangers-on to be a little introspective, to be biblical about their view of the local church, and to repent of whatever might keep them from joining. There may also be areas of church life or polity that present potential members with obstacles to joining. In these cases, the elders may need to review church practice.
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