Is Formal vs. Family a False Dichotomy?
In part one, we evaluated some erroneous views of membership and aimed at a clear biblical definition. In this second segment, we’ll explore the scriptural basis for a formal membership process and see how this fits within a family/missional understanding of the Church.
The Formal Process
By now, you’re probably seeing the strength of koinonia for describing the commitment that members of the local church ought to have toward one another (read part one if you haven’t). While the same core ideas of commitment and submission are conveyed, these concepts are more directly defensible from Scripture when we look at the word koinonia as opposed to “membership.” I’ve spoken with many believers who struggle with the notion of official church membership because they don’t see it taught explicitly in any particular passage of Scripture. They acknowledge the 1 Corinthians 12 metaphor of a body with many members, but they point out that this passage lacks any mention of a formal membership process. “Why can’t my faithful attendance and involvement be enough to show that I’m a member?” Though I do think there remains biblical support for using the “membership” language, here again, we are helped by the word koinonia.
In Galatians 2:9-10, Paul refers to what appears to be a formal process of recognition: “and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship (koinonia) to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” While we must be careful not to build too much off of this one passage, it does provide us with a case study. To be sure, the right hand of Koinonia given to Paul by the apostles was not what made Paul an apostle (he makes this clear elsewhere in Galatians), but it was a formal recognition by the Jerusalem leaders of Paul’s God-given calling which enabled them to associate with him in the ministry of the gospel. In a similar way, the membership process provided by a local church does not make someone a Christian (only God does that), but it is a formal recognition of a person’s faith which enables the local church to partner with that individual in ministry.
A brief examination of this passage reveals that extending “the right hand of fellowship” was more than an informal act of acceptance. First of all, the apostles arrived at some level of certainty about the fact that Paul had received the grace of God. This would have required an intentional questioning of Paul and a review of his testimony. Secondly, this also seems to have involved a conversation about purpose and mission (“that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised,”) and thirdly, an agreement about one of their core values (“Only, they asked us to remember the poor.”)
It’s not hard to envision this same pattern being followed in more general situations. A man arrives in a new city and gets in contact with the local church. The elders meet with him and seek to identify whether or not he is a believer. After hearing his gospel profession, they share with him their convictions about living as a missionary people and about their emphasis on caring for those in need. Upon hearing the man’s agreement with these convictions and verifying his understanding of the gospel, they offer him the right hand of fellowship. This scenario would be strongly supported by the New Testament teaching of the priesthood of all believers. If all believers are called to partner in ministry, and yet we must not have partnership with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14), then each professing believer should be examined before being permitted to partner in the ministry of the local church. We know that in the early church, believers also carried letters of commendation when they traveled to a new city, this would have enabled partnership without as thorough of an interview. While every detail is not specifically laid out in Scripture, these are general principles and patterns to follow.
Shouldn’t Relationship Be Enough?
Why can’t the elders just evaluate a person’s commitment based off of relationship? Does there really need to be a formal process? As a church made up of missional communities, we focus a ton on relationships, but relationships and formal structures are not at odds with each other.
The formal process of a marriage ceremony brings important definition to a relationship between a man and a woman. These formalities don’t quench the authentic relationship but actually serve to give it greater stability. None of us admires a man who seeks all the benefits of marriage while avoiding the commitment it requires. This isn’t loving to the woman just as “on my own terms” church involvement isn’t loving to the Bride of Christ. Like the formal aspects of marriage, a church membership (or partnership) process is a way of bringing clarity and definition to an individual’s relationship with a local church family.
The process may vary depending on the regional culture and size of the church, but the core questions that must be answered for the sake of gospel faithfulness will remain the same. Is this individual following Christ and therefore someone with whom we can share ministry or do they lack any real understanding of the gospel? Are they just friends with someone in the church, or are they committed to the church family as a whole? Are they just fond of the preaching, or are they joyfully submitted to the spiritual authority of the elders? Will they stick through the storms and trials, or will they abandon ship when things get difficult, and the novelty wears off? The aim is to provide clarity to the relationship (in part 3 of this series, we’ll discuss why this clarity is so important).
To be clear, the nature of the commitment that one should make to the local church is not identical to the marriage covenant. However, like marriage, it has both relational and formal aspects. Becoming a member of a local church is not merely a business-like “checking off” of the boxes but composes a vital part of how we personally care for individuals and help them grow as disciples of Jesus. However, since the church is the blood-bought Bride of Christ, membership is not a casual matter either. It must be something we take seriously because our partnership in the gospel is what advances the Kingdom of God on earth and displays Jesus to the world.