Last night Mary Beth and I attended one of the quarterly “All Members Nights” at Vintage21. This is a night where all members and membership candidates join together for a time of worship, updates, and planning. During the meeting the pastor made an unsettling comment: “All of you here tonight, the members, are the local body of Christ.”
Now, I am forced to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, Vintage21 is a church composed of Christians, doubters and seekers. It would not be accurate to say that all these individuals are a part of the body of Christ. But is it accurate to say that only the members of a local church are to be considered part of that local expression of the body of Christ? Are individuals who have attended, served, given financial over a period of weeks, months, years not considered to be a part of the local body of Christ?
This forced me to consider my theology of membership in general. Where does the concept of being a “member” of a local church come from? I can’t recall any particular biblical text that lends to the concept of membership; believers gathered together weekly for worship, communion, baptism, fellowship, and song, but there is no mention of membership logs. Where have we derived our theology of membership?
Please don’t misunderstand me. The modern church practice of membership has many benefits. Membership allows the church to distinguish between her regenerate and non-regenerate attendees (only God ultimately knows who is regenerate and who is not, but signs and evidences of true faith are usually required for membership). Membership allows the church to exercise church discipline. I remember an incident in a previous church I attended where a man was openly having an affair, refused to repent and was publicly disciplined by the church. Later he attempted to sue for defamation of character. Yet, in becoming a member the individual submits himself to the church’s authority. Membership in congregational churches insures that only the regenerate vote for those who will lead the church.
Despite all these benefits and more, I struggle to find a biblical basis for the concept of membership. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist. I simply don’t have the answers. Do you? Does membership in a local church have biblical basis? How has the concept of membership developed historically? Drop me a line!