AAA, the gym, Sam's Club, fraternity, NRO, PTA, QVC- all things you could hold a membership in. You pay a fee and become a member. Such is our perception of the word "membership". We pay and get benefits. I've been thinking in regards to our perception of being a "member" in a church. It's been my observation that, by and large, the "pay a fee get a benefit" membership style is what mostly permeates the majority of Christians I know. I don't mean to condemn but do mean to challenge the biblical premise of adhering to a local body of believers known as a church in the form of membership.
As a church member, how often do we go, give, participate, and expect a return. "Return", You say? Yes, a return. I give my time, talents, and tithes and I get a sermon I like, a comfortable group to share common life experiences with, and a staff to meet my neediness. I have the right to evaluate my investment and decide to continue or shop for a better membership. If it sounds like consumerism you'd be right. But heck, we're Americans after all, we have the freedom to worship wherever the heck we please. Right? Really? I guess so in a sense; but I think of those early, first Christians, who had no other churches to choose but the one they were in. What did "membership" look like to them?
For one, I don't think they would understand our idea at all because Paul never taught it. Nowhere do we see a principle of due paying membership. What we do see is a covenant mentality and verbiage that glued those early believers together. Covenants are some serious stuff in the scriptures. God made them with all the iconic men of the Old Testament. David, Moses, Noah, Abraham, and even Adam. A study of each of these covenants always had a binding agreement that could not be edited, changed, bought out, or misinterpreted. Some of them were based on conditions, some were unconditional. So what, you say? God knows, uses, and prefers a binding agreement over a flea market style of membership where allegiances could be bought, sold, traded, or passed over.
One covenant in The Bible stands out as the paramount of all covenants. Jesus said, "take and drink this, this is the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you." New Covenant?? What Jesus is meaning is that He is the fulfillment of all those covenants, He is saying that "I am the one promised in the Adamic covenant as the one who will crush Satan's head", "I am the one covenant keeping creator that will not destroy the world" to Moses. "I am the deliverer of all the nations that I promised you, Abraham", "David- I am the Covenant King promised". The New Covenant is why we can even consider what church is. The New Covenant allows us to see our binding agreement of faith in Christ as final, unchangeable, and sure. I am a part of the family of God that is bound in covenant.
Membership will never carry the weight of being a covenant community. One of the greatest defenses in the current church culture is that of discipline. Part of membership is to be able to allow the process of church discipline to take place. If your not a member of the local church than you are unable to be called out for your habitual, rebelliousness. No dues paid, no ability to touch you. REALLY? On one hand the need for reconciling saints in rebellion is a great and terrible responsibility of all churches. But this is a weak argument for the membership idea. First, all believers qualify for being disciplined from the godly leaders whom God has placed in qualified roles. Second, the covenant community must function far more deeply than just the threat of discipline as the glue that holds the structure together.
Covenantal imagery is a deeply robust function exemplified by a covenant keeping God. Covenant community is best seen in Ephesians 5 in the famous, or infamous depending on your understanding if submission, passage of the husband and wife as paralleled by the church and Christ. If we approach the wedding vows like a membership, what would that say about our marriage to Christ? But if we approach the wedding vows that Christ and I have made in respect to a covenant... How much deeper and rich is my understanding of His love for me. How much more will I faithfully serve him in my vow, promise, covenant.
If I am in a covenant relationship with Christ, then how are you and I in a binding agreement? Let me throw some things at you. If the church, all believers, everywhere and "everywhen", are bound in a covenant marriage to Christ, then by association we are bound to each other. Next the verbiage of the New Testament is one of binding community. Ever read the "one another's" of the NT. Over 38 times this Greek phrase is used. Literally translated "of (belonging to) each other" or "of one another". Our literal understanding is that I am of you and you are of me. We are part of the same spiritual entity. Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 would say we are all parts of the same body. We are bound together to make up one body. We are, covenant style, bound to each other. We are of one another. This is why we must love, confront, confess our sins to, honor, who?... One another!
This is much deeper than membership to a group, this is covenantal love and is why we live in covenantal relationship as a church.