After my last post on membership, a friend brought up some questions that really got me thinking more about the idea of membership. So, I wanted to address some of her questions from my standpoint. I know that I won't answer them exactly, so I won't necessarily list the questions out. The questions dealt with where church membership requirements come from, were they created by man or by God? The questions also addressed the participation in church activities for those who are not members of that specific body.
Becoming a member of a church with a simple piece of paper attesting to it is certainly man's requirement. It's something that we have created to give a more clear sign and symbol of what we see in Scripture. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of covenants, He has made and makes promises with covenants.
I do not have space in this post to go into a long and detailed explanation of covenants, but an overview is essential. If we look throughout the Old Testament, we see the covenants that God made with His people. He promised them that He would watch over them and care for them, that He would set them apart from other nations. To Abraham He promised that all peoples would be blessed through him.
Some of the covenants that God made with His people were one-sided, there was nothing required from them. But there were other covenants that were made that were mutual, covenants that were conditional, under which the covenant would be voided should the terms not be followed. Whenever covenants were entered into between people and God or people and each other, there was generally a blood requirement, blood needed to be shed in order that the covenant would be signed and sealed.
Covenants seem to be an antiquated idea in our society, we don't hear of them often. We talk of contracts and agreements, but just the mere sound of those words makes it seem a bit formal with no relational aspect to them at all. Covenants were things that were to be taken seriously and when we continue to enter into covenants, we should take them as seriously as they were in Old Testament times.
I say all this because, while the requirement of church membership is man-made, this requirement ties into the idea of the biblical covenant, entering into an agreement between us and God. We join with Christ to be a part of his work on the earth, agreeing to be in partnership with Him, through the power of the Holy Spirit. With this, there is an accountability required, which is why churches have established membership. We enter into covenant with God and each other in order that we can keep each other accountable, to hold each other to what we are called to as members of the body of Christ. Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians, the idea of a body with many members.
When we are baptized, whether as infants or as adults, we enter into a covenant with God. Infant baptism is a sign and symbol of the fact that we are set apart, called by God, not in and of ourselves, but before we have done anything. Adult baptism is a public profession of faith, acknowledging that we have been called by God to be a part of His family. We enter into the family of God and just like our earthly families, we might not have contracts or membership forms, we know that there are still requirements of us to be a part of our family.
Herein lies the difficulty: how do we become members of an organization, a club, or a church without having some kind of membership requirements? Like any relationship, we expect it to be two-sided. If we were to join a club and feel that we were not getting the benefits of membership, we might either quit the club or simply stay a part of it for status sake. But church should not be like this, we join not so that we can tell people that we are a part of it, but so that we can have a group of people who walk with us, holding us accountable to our covenant and commitment, encouraging us, praying for us, teaching us, and learning from us as we journey through life.
At the same time, if a church does not feel that members are holding to the requirements that they are called to uphold as members, what do they do? Many churches differ. Some remove members who no longer contribute or attend from their rolls. Other churches allow members to stay on their rolls regardless of their status, giving an unclear picture of the make-up of a church. While this may be a denominational thing, it is also fairly diverse on a church by church basis. While I believe that each body needs to determine what works best for them, it seems fairly insincere to beef up membership rolls with people who don't positively contribute to the overall health and advancement of the body of Christ.
The idea of membership as it pertains to participation in certain church activities, most likely things such as the sacraments, is a different questions. Are we united through Jesus Christ regardless of our denominational affiliation? My general answer to that question is, "yes." My non-general answer is, "it depends." More and more, churches have begun to put statements of faith on their websites in order to explain the specific things that they believe. Unfortunately, this practice can easily be transformed into legalistic lists, but I certainly don't think this is always the case. It is essential to hold to convictions and to be able to specifically explain what you believe and why you believe it. The danger is not falling into the trap of listing everything that you don't agree with rather than making specific statements of what you do believe.
Some denominations would get specific by listing the things that they would consider to be essentials and non-essentials. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church has as its motto, "In essentials...unity, in non-essentials...liberty, in all things...charity." This seems to be a fairly good motto to embrace as long as we distinguish the things that are essential and non-essential to us. We need to lay those out, by ourselves, working out our salvation with fear and trembling. If we are unsure, we must search the Scriptures rather than simply take someone else's word. Belief may involve faith, but it certainly does not mean blind belief without struggling and wrestling to come up with answers. Contrary to popular belief, faith can be cerebral.
Do denominations and membership within them pull us away from the specific mission and purpose of God's Church? Sadly, I think this is becoming the case more and more. Instead of seeking to reach a world who needs to understand and know the love of Jesus Christ, we bicker and argue and spend significant amounts of time debating things that should be essential beliefs and trying to convince others of things that are non-essentials. These conversations are important, if they are indeed conversations, but we need not let them displace our true calling to make disciples of all people. If we are to make disciples of all people, we need to be able to articulate our beliefs, so this gets kind of sticky. It really becomes essential for us to know which things fall into essentials and which things fall into non-essentials and then be ready to move on from there, holding loosely to the things which should be held loosely and holding firmly to those which should be held with firmness.
I'm still wrestling through so much of this. Membership to a church is something that is not specifically stated within Scripture, but it is certainly implied, at least the idea of being a part of God's Church as well as being held accountable to standards. We cannot think that we will successfully journey through this life as individuals with no help or accountability. If we think that we are capable of being islands, fulfilling all of our own needs, we are sadly mistaken. Membership is a mad-made concept while covenant is a God-made concept. Frankly, membership is a softer notion than a covenant, and we really should enter into our relationships with covenants, especially our relationships with the body of Christ on the earth.
I don't claim to hold the corner on the market with these ideas, but I have continually wrestled with them. Feel free to question my thoughts, there may be some that I have not thought through as well as others. I hope and pray that I can hold loosely to things that are non-essentials and yet be firmly convinced of my convictions. May we all seek to grow more in wisdom and knowledge, but may we never lose sight of the fact that wisdom and knowledge without practice is nothing more than good ideas without any implementation.