Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Membership/Partnership in the Local Church

Church Membership as Partnership and Participation in the Local Church

Our Union with Christ is part of a Cosmic Communion. It includes believers from past and present; from far and near. Our Union with Christ is expressed by our partnership and participation with a local body of believers, a local church. The local church keeps in mind and serves the interests of this Invisible Church.

In the Bible, the term “Invisible Church” is never used. The Bible uses the word “church” both when speaking of that communion that surpasses location and date, and when speaking of the local church, which has a specific location and time.

This dual sense of “church” renders other terms a bit confusing. We often use the word “member” with regard to the local church. But the Bible, so far as I can tell, never does. It speaks of individuals being members, or parts, of the larger Body of Christ. Also, it is now common to hear of the local church being a “covenant community.” But the New Covenant is that which centers in Christ’s shed blood, for all believers in all places. Just as there are not numerous Bodies of Christ, so there are not a multiple of covenants with Christ. And so, when we use the words “membership” or “covenant” in relation to the local church, we are actually stealing, or borrowing, terms that the Bible reserves for a more grand relationship. The purpose of this paper is to attempt to guard against cheapening these important Biblical terms as we tend to the “house-keeping” duties of local church organization.

We do not wish to reduce the importance of the local church or one’s partnership and participation in the local church. We just struggle to state that connection properly, in a way that does not make the local church an end in itself, or an entity that overshadows the fellowship for which we await. To be fair, the local church is to take seriously Body membership and Covenant inclusion. We say as much when we baptize with water, with reference to the Spirit’s baptism into the Body of Christ; and when we extend invitation to the Lord’s Table, enacting a kind of covenant renewal. There can be an analogy between one’s immersion into the Body of Christ, and one’s participation in a local church; in one’s renewal of covenant enjoyment and commitment to Christ, and one’s partnership with a local church. But these are analogous. They are not identical. And I fear that often, the visible overshadows the invisible; the local outstrips the cosmic.

And so, when speaking of church membership, we stress the terms “partnership” and “participation” (one could also pursue the term “fellowship”). And these are not without difficulty. Some participate in aspects of the local church without showing many characteristics of partnership. We have to ask questions about the degree to which one should participate without partnering. And we have to ask what expressions of partnership are necessary to be considered a partner in the local church.

I suggest that there are three areas where we ought to expect agreement if we are to be in partnership together at a local church level:
1. Conversion and baptism –
2. Doctrine and life –
3. Prayer and service - 
  1. We hold to a believers’ church. Therefore, you must have begun in the Christian life. You must be born again. We rely on your profession of faith, as expressed in believers’ baptism.
  2. Also, we need to stand in large (but not complete) agreement on the teachings of Scripture. Local churches take particular doctrinal stances as they seek to understand the Scriptures. The Bible is not ambiguous. It gives clear, though not complete, knowledge. But doctrinal agreement also assumes an application that shapes one’s life in a godly or Christlike way. We partner as we live lives that behave according to our beliefs.
  3. And third, we partner as we pray and serve together. We are not partners together merely to have names on a list. We are not partners together merely to exist. We are here to serve God’s interests, which depends upon the Spirit’s leading in our midst. This means that, alongside Scripture, we must pray, and then serve. If you are not praying and serving, then you are not partnering.

So our use of the term “church membership” means first partnership, and then participation with other believers who have joined together in this time and at this place to serve the interests of our One Head, Jesus Christ, and to function as a “part” of His one Body, the church. 

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