Over the years the question of Church Membership swirls around the Christian world, and is debated and discussed, sometimes fought over, and sometimes just taken for granted.
Now by “Church Membership” here, I mean it in the commonly used sense of the phrase, referring to formally joining a particular local church, in a formal way, maybe agreeing to some doctrinal statement, or agreeing to some written covenant, and actually being put on a list of “Members”.
Is that Biblical? Is it O.K.? Is it demanded? Is it optional? And so forth.
Today I want to open a discussion in what I think is a new direction regarding Church Membership, especially as it relates to Fellowship.
See, I believe that the discussion of Church Membership is in one sense missing the real point of what the Church is to be about.
Is Membership Fellowship?
There’s a big elephant in the room that no one mentions. This elephant is ignored, walked around, or maybe mentioned only in passing. The big elephant in the room is Fellowship.
Now I’ve read many extensive studies which attempt to prove from Scripture that Membership Lists are taught in the Bible. And I will admit some of them SEEM logical, and SEEM to make sense in a certain way.
But the truth is, there are no commands for Church Membership Lists in the Bible. There are no examples of Church Membership Lists in the Bible. And there are no examples of formal joining of the local church in the Bible.
Because of this, and in relation to Biblical Fellowship, I have come to believe that Church Membership Lists, and the formal joining of a local church, is a man-made result of a lack of true Biblical Fellowship, or what the Bible in Greek calls Koinonia.
No let me make a disclaimer, before I go any further. If you attend a local church that practices Membership Lists, I’m not saying you shouldn’t join, or formally become a member. Because the Bible also does not PROHIBIT the making of Membership Lists. So I want to be clear on that. The Membership List itself is not the problem.
With that, I want to look at three aspects of this question of Church Membership:
1. What does the Bible teach about membership in general?
2. What made one a member of a local church?
3. What does Fellowship have to do with it?
1. What does the Bible teach about membership in general?
Romans 12:4,5, “For as we have many MEMBERS in one body, but all the MEMBERS do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually MEMBERS of one another.”
1 Cor 6:15, “Do you not know that your bodies are MEMBERS of Christ? Shall I then take the MEMBERS of Christ and make them MEMBERS of a harlot? Certainly not!”
1 Cor 12:12, “For as the body is one and has many MEMBERS, but all the MEMBERS of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.”
1 Cor 12:18, “But now God has set the MEMBERS, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased.”
1 Cor 12:20, “But now indeed there are many members, yet one body.”
1 Cor 12:25, “…that there should be no schism in the body, but that the MEMBERS should have the same care for one another.”
1 Cor 12:26, “And if one MEMBER suffers, all the MEMBERS suffer with it; or if one MEMBER is honored, all the MEMBERS rejoice with it.”
1 Cor 12:27, “Now you are the body of Christ, and MEMBERS individually.”
Ephesians 2:19, “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and MEMBERS of the household of God.”
Ephesians 4:25, “Therefore, putting away lying, let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor, for we are MEMBERS of one another.”
Ephesians 5:30, “For we are MEMBERS of His body, of His flesh and of His bones.”
Acts 2:47, “…praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”
2. What made one a member of the local church?
Acts 15:41, “And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”
Acts 16:5, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily.”
“The Church” vs. “the churches”
Belief in Jesus Christ, baptism, and then practicing “church”.
Acts 2:42, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.”
3. What does fellowship have to do with it?
Fellowship = “koinonia”, “commonality”, as in “koine” greek.
1 John 1:3, “…that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have FELLOWSHIP with us; and truly our FELLOWSHIP is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.”
1 John 1:6, “If we say that we have FELLOWSHIP with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.”
1 John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
Biblical “membership” involves “fellowship” — a commonality of spiritual Life in prayer, teaching, breaking of bread, drinking of cup, knowing one another, bearing one another’s burdens, sharing in one another’s financial needs, fervently loving one another, recognizing the hurt in one another and applying the balm of Jesus with warmth, stirring one another up to good works, exhorting, encouraging, blessing, hugging, welcoming, caring about, feeding with the true Bread, Who is Christ.
In other words, church discipline which may lead to dis-fellowshiping someone presupposes there is something to be dis-fellowshiped *from*. Something infinitely valuable, something one doesn’t want to miss, if they are a believer.
The modern American “church service”, where everyone files in at 11 and files out at Noon, with a, “How you doing?”, “I’m gr-r-r-eat!, how about you?” to a few people, followed by going home for another week apart from everyone else (or maybe till Wednesday for the truly “spiritual”) — doesn’t know what fellowship is. So it substitutes Membership Lists.
Then it either never dis-fellowships anyone, because “who cares?”, or it practices the church discipline of taking the unrepentent publicly sinful “off the Membership List”, whereupon the unrepentent publicly sinful either goes to the next church, or is “shamed” back onto the Membership List, not because they really miss the so-called “fellowship”, but because they are humiliated (too often they remain humiliated, with a red letter on their back…marked as a lesser being, not ike “us” who are incapable of falling so low…”How are you doing, Lesser Being?…O.K.?…go-o-o-d…see you next week…Ciao!”).
This is not meant to be a cynical comment at all, but a mere observation of many churches over many years, and a heart’s cry for a continual renewal of Biblical Fellowship.
“Church Membership Lists” is not primarily an exegetical question, it’s a spiritual one.
May God work His Fellowship in the churches.
Posted on March 23, 2013