Chad at Addison Road has posted on the subject of church membership, as in, â€œAnd also, I think that church membership is kind of a silly, outdated notion.â€?
Chad, I’m with you — mostly. If part of the argument is that church membership (as in “membership roll”) doesn’t appear in the Bible, then the conclusion is that it’s far worse than just being outdated. Interesting theme, with discussion going on. Church membership has always seemed off-base to me in the manner in which its practiced. Kinda like saying you aren’t really a part of the family into which you were born — unless, of course, you can produce a birth certificate to prove otherwise. What’s with the paper hangup?
The only compelling argument I’ve heard for church membership is protection against being acused of discrimination. It’s a loophole, basically. If you require membership in the church for certain “leadership” positions, then if someone does not live the life you ask of those in leadership you can revoke their membership from church… which in turns disqualifies them for their position.
A church I’m aware of in California was sued (and they lost) and the financial loss basically destroyed the church, because they fired someone who openly and blatantly defied the church’s position on one or more issues.
While I am for openness to all sorts of issues, I still feel a church has the right to practice their religion the way they see fit. I do not see it as a loss of civil rights for someone who clearly does not believe in what a church teaches and practices to not be able to work there. I think that’s ridiculous.
So, if you have an organizational style of church which requires incorporation (I imagine nearly all churches do), then the entity you created can be sued. Membership, then, could be a way to protect the church.
This is the sort of scenario that keeps my little 1/4 German, sorta-republican brain awake at night. One of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite films is the scene where Thomas More lets his daughter’s boyfriend have it for suggesting that the laws of England were corrupt and should be leveled.
More, a lawyer and Christian and genius, repies like this:
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
That’s from http://www.imdb.com, if anyone’s interested.
I know that structures (church, civil, federal) are necessary. I am really not into anarchy and chaos. I like cops, security cameras, truth telling, Jack Bauer, and yeah.. solid moral standards and serious discussions about doctrine. I voted for Dole, dammit.
I guess I just want the structure to be something that I could imagine Jesus looking at and saying, “Yeah man… there we go.”
I understand some of the legal reasons for membership, but on a more theological note:
I think the language involved becomes a confusing factor. “Membership” connotes ideas of benefits and discounts in our culture. Originally it had more to do with Paul’s “you are all members of one body” idea. As such, the concept makes perfect sense, when you think about what happens in baptism (especially as it was thought about in the early church – you were literally joining a new family: the new humanity). I think this idea of fierce commitment to one another is lacking in Western churches, where church is treated more as a commodity to be consumed than a family to be embraced and loved.
So maybe we just need to call it something else. Mosaic in LA calls the process “coming on staff” and asks you to commit to a certain kind of lifestyle. I’ve heard other churches call the process “partnership”. You could call it “joining the revolution” or something. Pete Greig talks about making vows and wearing rings to symbolize our commitment to God and one another.
If “membership” was more like this, I think it something that’s missing from our churches: the sense of stepping up to the plate, making a commitment that will cost you something.
So membership as benefits and discounts and social prestige is silly, yes. But membership as family, as partnership in the gospel, as joining the revolution, becoming part of God’s new humanity, that makes some good sense.
I think the problem is that in order to be a member, you must be “approved” by a select few who decide what doctrines and practices are neccessary for a member. Who gave them authority to make these decisions. This is an arrogant and childish practice.
Many who are sincere Christ-followers are denied membership because the “leadership teams” don’t agree with them on certain issues. Certainly to be a member of the Body of Christ you must trust in Jesus as Lord. But on other questions, how as humans can we know who is in or out of the Kingdom.
Besides, every Christian is in process. How would denying younger, immature Christians church membership encourage them to grow spiritually? I’m sure it makes them feel terrible and rejected. If even one hadn’t made the decision to follow Christ, and they seeking amongst a Christian community, shouldn’t they be considered “members” of that community? I think the word “membership” is entirely impersonal and alienating to those simply wishing to be accepted as brothers, sisters, and friends. Where is the love in this practice?
There is an element that is very important for discipleship though. I was a gang member and a child of addicts before I came to christ. Part of my discipleship process was to learn to make commitments to a group larger than myself. AA calls it a group conscience, the church calls it membership. Becoming a member was the most radical commitment that I made during my discipleship. Without it, I may have floundered and stopped growing. Wiht all of the people in our world that have grown up in broken families, membership to something, and a commitment to community are key steps in the learning journey we are all on.
At the moment we don’t have “membership” at my church. We speak in terms of “orbits.” Some people orbit fairly closely. That is, they come every week, they probably are involved in one or more of the ministries of the church, and are centrally know. Others orbit little further out. They might or might not come every week, some are involved in a ministry, others are not. Then there are those who might only come once a month, or only for parts of a service. And there are those who only are on our e-mail lists. Their orbits are very distant. But all are welcome and part of our body, part of our family. They are known by someone. The distant orbiters can show up at anytime and contribute to the conversation just as if they’d been coming all along.
Having said all that, I think there are some flaws in that system. Especially because we seem to be entering a period of some growth and we are going to have reassess things. So I’ve enjoyed the comments here about what the postive aspects of “membership” and it’s history in the church.