One of the most frequently used terms in relation to Christian churches is the word Membership. It tends to be one of the most common means of measuring the growth of a specific church as well as a denomination. However, some churches have started to do away with membership Church membership consisting of a certain group of requirements as commonly defined by believing in Jesus, Baptism, length of time attending the church, and sometimes many more requirements. These requirements while at times useful, have become the general consensus for determining membership in a church. However, the idea of membership as it is commonly used in North American churches is not the model as shown through the Bible and the Book of Acts or the rest of the New Testament.
The goal of this project is to evaluate how the concept of church membership should be taken in the context of Evangelical churches in America. The goal of the paper is to evaluate what defines church membership, evaluate the role of the members of the church, and evaluate the scripture sources that would address church membership to come to a Biblical understanding of the organization of the members of a church. We also must take into account the status of the church in America today. The church in the United States of America does fluctuate highly with a myriad of sizes, organizational structures, and even coming together for different purposes. On top of this, there are para-church organizations, which complicate the doctrine of the church as well.
Defining Church Membership
Generally there are two methods that define church membership. The traditional church was the Roman Catholic church which had a huge basis in the state, local, and regional governments. Citizenship in the state required membership in the church in many of the countries throughout Europe. It is from this model that membership has continued to be implemented. We see this also implemented in the Old Testament through the terminology of the People of God referring to the Jewish people. However, “God’s elect people are no longer a nationality. They are a people who do something, namely, believe.” This idea of God’s people also lends to the doctrine of the church because the church is composed of God’s elect.
With the reformation, the standard model of government would change from an Episcopy to a congregational model of government based on Luther’s concept of the priesthood of all believers. To help sort out who would belong to a specific church as well as who would be involved in the government of the church, the sacraments of Baptism and Communion. These two sacraments have been generally either restricted or required for membership.
Theological Basis for Membership
As I’ve been reading about the reasoning we have church membership there tends to be an underlying assumption that membership is needed or at least accepted in all situations. There is this idea that because of Peter’s speech at Pentecost where several thousand joined the church at once. Without membership, how did the church know who belonged to it? This goes along with the idea corresponding to how each letter that made its way into the epistles were written to the church leaders as well as the congregations at those churches. This would presuppose an intimacy and familiarity with those they are shepherding. Therefore, how could they have known who it was written to without some form of membership?
Along with this pattern of familiarity, is a concept of inclusion and exclusion. Specifically, how can the church keep out false teachers and include only those who make up the Body of Christ. One of the primary methods of accomplishing this is through the concept of regenerate church membership. “Our conviction for a regenerate church membership is not an arrogant claim that all those who are members of Baptist churches are truly converted. My contention is that, when we are faithful to this conviction, we will intentionally attempt to exclude unregenerate persons from church membership.” This helps to have the church made up of all believers who should all be following the leading of God to prevent false teachers and also allow for church discipline.
Theological Basis against Membership
On the other side of the argument there has recently been a number of churches that do not practice membership in their church body. With these churches, they look at the ideas of being more focused on the mission of evangelism and spreading the gospel. These churches tend to include anyone who attends the church for a regular amount of time. They then allow for many people to serve with the main requirements being under the supervision of an overseeing pastor of some sort as well any necessary background checks. These churches tend to accept a wider degree of doctrinal positions. These churches do take seriously the commands of scripture and look more at the command of baptism to indicate inclusion whether at their church or not. “The command to be baptized is clearly taught in Scripture, is simple to obey, and is significant for the boundaries of the church. To require it is to do no more than Scripture does of Christians.” This typically is where their inclusion ends, and many will even allow people to be baptized multiple times.
These churches look at the historical basis of the New Testament Church and look at the context in which the church operated. They would see the context of the New Testament church in which the church faced persecution which kept many non-believers out of the church. These are people who are “people persuaded by Scripture that the church should be composed of believers only, people who formed such churches in the face of severe persecution.” They recognize a fluctuation in the role the church is playing within the society between now and when the church first started.
Practical Benefits of Membership
One of the first things to look at in regards to church membership is the practical benefits of having a roster composed of all the believers in the church. Several of these benefits have been alluded to or mentioned already. Membership allows for accountability and discipline for the members. If a member is teaching false doctrine, or is in sin, they can be excommunicated as well as any other corrective actions that can be taken. On the more positive end, membership allows the church to check in on each other and make sure everyone is doing well and minister to the body and help each other in times of trial. Also, it does allow for the congregational method of church government which is based on the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.
Practical benefits of no membership
For churches that don’t have membership, as mentioned previously, they tend to focus on evangelism. These churches will look at their ministry as one taking over from “Our Lord Jesus Christ is the sun about which the whole mission of the church revolves. Public worship is the encounter of the risen Redeemer with his people; evangelism is calling men to the Savior; publishing the law of God is proclaiming his lordship; Christian nurture is feeding his lambs and disciplining his flock; ministering to the needs of men is continuing the work of the Great Physician.” This is reflected in an emphasis on not just seeking to minister to the members of the church but also their community with the same types of programs. Not having membership allows these churches to interact with more people and can lend to an higher degree of acceptance among people visiting the church even though there is much beyond membership contributing to the levels of acceptance visitors feel.
Present Day Status of the Church
The present day status of the church is an important aspect in what role the church should take as well as how to govern and oversee the church. It is interesting to look at the church throughout history as a means by which the body of the risen lord meets together. The overall purpose of the church represents two aspects of ministry, one to the body of Christ, or ministry within, and the other to the rest of the world, or evangelism.
While “many theologians look to the history of the church to tell them what the church is: the church is what it has been. Some of them look on the church as strictly a phenomenon of the New Testament; that is, they limit their historical study to the earliest period of the church, regarding it as normative.” However, it might be better argued for at least 5 stages of the church. The first stage of the church being the nation of Israel which God intended to be His chosen people who would be a light to their neighbors. This was replaced at the time of Jesus with the New Testament church during the Apostolic age in which the scriptures were given to the church. Shortly after the Apostles died would be an age of the church fathers who would face even more persecution than during the apostolic age. However, these two stages can be seen as a similar time period because the church held what was essentially the same social standing. The third era would then be noticed during the acceptance of the church in the Roman Empire up until the Reformation. This era was characterized by the control of the state by the church during which the two organizations were intertwined. The fourth stage can be classified as the church started to break away from the control of the government and the pinnacle would be the creation of the United States of America where the government is now prevented from interfering in the affairs of the church. The last stage of the church to this point is what is currently happening. This is where the church is actually returning to the prior stages such as the Apostolic age where the church was rejected not only by the government but also by most of the people outside the church.
In this final stage, the church in America now can reflect a rejection by the government, which can only culminate in one of two ways, either in full persecution such as the Apostles faced, or back to the fourth stage where the church is respected in the society instead of facing nearly constant rejection. For the last 2 stages of church history Christians, or at least those who would call themselves Christians and submit to the authority of the church. However, now in this most recent stage, there is a shift whereby the church has lost influence within society, but it is still common for non-Christians to even attend the normal meetings of the church. It is during this period where the focus on evangelism for the main meetings of the church might be the best method as well as having smaller meetings such as in community groups where the body of Christ, those who have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit can experience community for the ministry to within the body and use the weekly meetings on Sunday for external ministry.
Ecclesiology may possibly be one of the least understood concepts among Christians today. “Among the reasons for this lack of understanding is the fact that at no point in the history of Christian thought has the doctrine of the church received the direct and complete attention that other doctrines have received.” Studying the doctrine of the church will allow us to better understand the best methods of government for the church as well as the best ways to make sure the body of Christ is being ministered to. While many other doctrines such as the resurrection are clearly laid out, church government and even membership is relatively untouched by scripture. There are several principles by which the church can look for guidance, but the fluctuation of the roles and responsibilities the church has fulfilled throughout history leads to a position on church organization that can be best understood as a dynamic position. The church must change to meet the needs of the people, both within the church, as well as for the purpose of spreading the Gospel. And due to the different sizes of the church, as well as what each church does, a single church may start out in one position where the needs are best suited by having defined members, and then visitors to the church, and as the church grows may find a better situation one where there are no members but rather government by elder rule as they seek to reach those who come to the church every week but who are not necessarily Christians. It is this dynamic mentality where the church is not set in its ways that needs to be embraced regardless of what position the church is in so the Holy Spirit is able to lead the church in all areas.
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