“Bring up church membership and watch people squirm.” -Ed Stetzer
Isn’t that the truth? I squirmed just typing that and you probably did too as you read it. Formal church membership can be an explosive subject because people either see no need for it or they have a deep-seated emotional investment with it. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who is truly neutral to the idea of formal church membership. We seem to either run from it as an unnecessary burden that can in some instances be abusive, or we run to it with robust fervor because we’ve convinced ourselves those who aren’t a formal member in an institutional church are either in sin or fringe Christians who don’t really get it, or both.
In this post, I want to talk to you about formal church membership. It’s a subject that keeps presenting itself to me on this journey God has me on, so I want to address it. My views on formal church membership haven’t changed much in the last 44+ years but more recently, I’m seeing a trend in many institutional churches that is alarming. Allow me to say at the outset that I’ve pastored churches that have formal church membership and I’ve pastored churches that don’t. I’ve been on the inside of both systems and I’ve seen the positives and the negatives of each. I’ll talk more about that in a minute. First, let’s review where we’ve been in this Rethinking Church series.
Review and Rewind
This is part five of a five-part series I’ve called Rethinking Church. If you haven’t read parts one thru four yet, you can use the links below to do so. In this post, we’re going to continue building on what I introduced in parts one thru four as we tackle the subject of formal church membership. What is formal church membership? Is formal church membership required of me? Is formal church membership a Biblical mandate that I am compelled to obey? If I choose not to become a formal member in a local church, am I sinning? Should I feel guilty? To refresh your memory, I’m presenting this five-part series in the following order:
- Rethinking Church, Part 1: What is a Pastor?
- Rethinking Church, Part 2: The Pastor’s Calling, Authority, and Our Use of Honorific Titles
- Rethinking Church, Part 3: The Clergy/Laity Fallacy
- Rethinking Church, Part 4: Community and Accountability
- Rethinking Church, Part 5: Formal Church Membership (this post)
I urge you to read these in the order they were written, as each builds on the previous.
In parts one thru four of this series, we’ve been interacting with something Ignatius penned around 110 A.D. I keep pointing out what he said because I want us to understand that a large part of our modern practices originate in tradition, not in the New Testament. A large part of our traditions flow out of what Ignatius said:
Shun divisions as the beginning of evil. Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow your presbyters as the apostles; and respect your deacons as you would respect God’s commandment. Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the church. (Emphasis mine.)
I’ve previously noted that this directive by Ignatius was firmly in place in most local assemblies by the middle of the 3rd century (250 AD). By that time, it was considered the norm that “Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed
the Father… Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop… Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes.” was a biblical directive. But it is not. Tradition and tradition alone has given us this model. It is nowhere in the New Testament.
We’ve already shown that this top-down authority structure, present in most modern institutional churches is a product of tradition that started as early as Ignatius. The one pastor authority model that we unquestionably accept as a biblical one, is actually something that has been handed to us by church history and tradition and we accept it without question. Not only do we accept it without question, but we’ve also complicated it by adding layer after layer of hierarchical organizational strata where pastors are over pastors, and those pastors are over other pastors, and the higher the structure rises, the more sophisticated and complicated the honorific titles become. Our church authority structures are complicated and more closely resemble the corporate America CEO model than anything in the New Testament ekklesia.
We’ve taught tradition as the commands of God for so long, it doesn’t dawn on us to look past the traditions, open our New Testaments, and ask hard questions, questions that threaten 2,000+ years of those same entrenched traditions. But with so many leaving the institutional church, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel the church has, it’s time to ask why. Will Ignatius’ words, “Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes” stand in the light of scripture, or should we jettison it as tradition that has proven harmful to the church, it’s elders, and the functioning of the priesthood of all believers. How does this top-down authority structure that is present in so many institutional church settings impact our understanding of church membership? Let’s take a closer look.
What is the Church?
I guess a better question to ask before talking about church membership is “What is the church?” Google the word “church” and your search will yield endless images of buildings or directions to buildings in competition with one another to draw you in, including web site addresses, phone numbers, and contact info. What you’ll see is one organization after another, scrambling for your attention and support. It’s been so ingrained in our thinking for so long that church is a building, location, or event, that we accept it without question and we consider it normal. Most formal church membership contracts assume the Continue reading