Monday, August 15, 2011

Church membership 101

A couple years ago I read What Is a Healthy Church Member by Thabiti Anyabwile and thought it would make a good small group study. The last few weeks I've been using it to teach our adult Sunday school class. There are lots of books on the subject of healthy churches, but not as many geared toward the individual church member. The book assumes that some kind of formal church membership is biblical. In other words we can find a mandate for it in the Bible. I like to use the word covenanted. Much like the marriage covenant a relationship with a local church shouldn't be entered into lightly. Vows are taken before God and man, and along with the privilege comes responsibility. While it's true that church membership isn't explicitly commanded in the New Testament, many NT passages simply don't make sense unless there was some kind of formal membership even in the earliest churches we read about in Acts. Pastor Anyabwile briefly discusses a few of those examples in the book.

So if church membership is biblical then it must be good for us. Good for us as human beings, and good for our flourishing as individual members of the body of Christ. What Anyabwile is pushing isn't "churchianity" it's basic Christianity. The New Testament assumes that personal salvation is accompanied by identification with the visible body of Christ (i.e. the institutional church with all her flaws). I like how the author puts it in the introduction.

Whether your Christian life began yesterday or thirty years ago, the Lord's intent is that you play an active and vital part in his body, the local church. He intends for you to experience the local church as a home more profoundly wonderful and meaningful than any other place on earth. He intends for his churches to be healthy places and for the members of those churches to be healthy as well. (p. 14)

The book presents ten "marks" of a healthy church member. Some of them obvious, others less so. It's an easy read, but full of solid content. And it's written by someone who clearly loves Jesus, loves the gospel, and loves the church. I don't know of a better book of its kind out there.


1955mark said...

Hi Stephen, some interesting thoughts on this post. I can't support the equation of formal, institutional church membership, with the concept of marriage. Biblical marriage is between one husband and one wife, not between one husband/wife and a non-profit corporation...Organizational vows, can be almost impossible to keep. I alone, have a short list of institutional churches, with which I'm no longer affiliated. Then most of us, could be accused of "marital unfaithfulness/adultery".

Also, if one supports "legalized" church membership, then one is obligated to support "legalized" excommunication. Unfortunately, there is no Biblical basis to assume that any human person, committee, etc. has such authority. If there were, then reformers like Martin Luther, (Calvin, Knox, etc.) are in deep trouble...

Earthly churches, often try to structure themselves within the framework of a congregational or republican polity. However, we know that the Body of Christ, is actually a monarcy, with our Lord Jesus as the head/king-priest. Only Christ knows the actual members of the Church, which is his Body.

"Legalized" membership, can/has been used to silence dissent, and enable prejudiced exclusion. I'm all about inclusion. Can you support home churches, with no legal capitalization, and a minimal institutional mindset? This is actually our only New Testament model. I know of some professing Christians, who claim the legalized, earthly institutional church, could actually be "the whore of Babylon", mentioned in Revelation.

Mark Kirschieper

Stephen Ley said...

Hi Mark, you articulated well the anti-formal church membership position taken by many believers. I respectfully disagree and I find Anyabwile's book convincing. I believe there is biblical basis for church discipline and I would want to make a distinction between the invisible church (i.e. the total number of the elect known only to God) and the visible church -- which will be a mixed body. Think of it as a wheel with Christ as the center, us as the spokes, and the rim as the institutional church.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

1955mark said...

You're very welcome, and thanks for the new wagon wheel analogy. I don't see scriptural support for the notion of two churches; I Cor. 12, and Eph. 4 repeatedly emphasize the concept of "one body", not two...

If I read you correctly then, the primary motive for membership, would be to get oneself in the position for potential church discipline...It makes me wonder why discipline is so important, in your paradigm...

I propose we leave the discipline to Christ, as He is the proper judge of the universe. If I find the bahavior of a fellow professing Christian of some great offense, then all I need to do, is make every effort to love that person "back into the fold", (should they so desire). What are we supposed to do, lock the church doors, to some?

Incidentlly, I refuse to accept the label of anti-formal. I've worn a tuxedo on several occasions!