The discipline that I chose for my studies is known by several names, each with a slightly different emphasis. Perhaps the most famous practitioner is Martin Marty, whose University of Chicago Divinity School teaches "History of Christianity." That's a nice, detached, secular sort of title for an academic discipline, indicating that Christianity is a thing of which this program studies its history. Boston University prominently employs the phrase "Christian History," a term that could describe either history produced by Christians or history describing individual Christians.
At Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I studied, we used the name "Church History." It is a fitting title, I think, for a seminary situated in a theological tradition that has rightly emphasized the local church. Church History is the history of the churches, including the ways in which prominent individuals or social movements have impacted the churches.
What I would like to propose in this essay is something that fits within Church History but is rather more focused. This is an essay on the subject of Church Membership History.
A Gift from the Church?
By the third century AD, church membership had come to be regarded as a gift that the church gave to the individual member. Cyprian of Carthage, in the middle of the Novatianist Controversy, authored a treatise "On the Unity of the Church" (De Unitate Ecclesiae). In that text, Cyprian famously declared "He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother. If anyone could escape outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church."
In Cyprian's mind, it was foolish to speak of "the churches." Cyprian knew only one Catholic Church, institutionally united by the undivided episcopate. This episcopate—these bishops—exclusively controlled the gateway into church membership. Obtaining church membership from the bishops was of unparalleled importance, since, according to Cyprian, "outside the church there is no salvation."
Cyprian's position became the default position of the Roman Catholic Church. Although people sometimes cite Augustine's statement, "How many sheep are outside; how many wolves within?" as support for a medieval view within Roman Catholicism that supported the idea of salvation outside the church, this is a misreading of Augustine. The ongoing context of the quote clearly requires that one read Augustine's statement on predestination as though it said "How many sheep are outside; how many wolves within [as of yet]?" Augustine had no doubt that even the presently wayward sheep would all eventually (as he had done) wind up within the Roman Catholic Church
The zenith of the concept of church membership as a gift from the church to the member came in AD 1077 at an alpine village called Canossa. The Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV marched through the snow to Canossa that year, shoeless and wearing only a hair shirt. For three days he stood outside in the snow, begging to be admitted into Canossa Castle and into the presence of Pope Gregory VII. The Pope had kicked Henry out of the church, and the Emperor was there to beg to receive back the gift of his church membership.
A Gift from the Member?
If your church were to require that people stand shoeless in the snow for three days in order to gain membership, how many members do you think you would have? Obviously, things have changed somewhere along the way!
Pinpointing a time when the change took place is difficult. At least the beginning of the change probably occurred in 1517, when Martin Luther launched the Reformation by which the German people (for whom the experience of the German Henry at Canossa had come to represent the subjugation of Germans to Italians) broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and formed their own Lutheran Church. However important the Lutheran Reformation may be in understanding this change in the nature of church membership, it is possible to overstate its importance. The result of the Lutheran Reformation in 1555 was the assignment of state churches according to the religious beliefs of each state's respective monarch. For the individual Christian, it makes very little difference whether one's religious convictions are dictated by a King or a Pope.
Instead of 1517, I think the turning point of the Christian concept of church membership is the First Great Awakening in America and the accompanying Evangelical Awakening in England (1740 - 1776). As a result of this period, a vast multitude of people who had been born into one denomination of Christianity died as members of a different denomination of Christianity by means of nothing more than their individual convictions about which denomination most appealed to them (hopefully by being the most true to the teachings of the Bible). So widespread and uncontrollable was this spiritual migration that evangelist George Whitefield famously lamented, "my chicks have become ducks!"
What ensued was a period of competition among churches to win the membership of individual believers. At first, the medium of this competition for membership was inter-denominational debate. Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, and Presbyterians went at it with a fury. Within a few decades, Campbellites and Stoneites gleefully entered the fray. Eventually the effectiveness of theological debate waned and churches turned to the new advertising techniques pioneered by corporations and made possible by technological developments like radio and television.
Canossa was a dim memory. Church membership became a gift that the individual member gave to the local church. Standing barefoot in snow now are the pastors, shuffling from house to house in the cul de sac, penitently begging for individual Christians to grant to the pastors' respective churches above all others the great bestowal of their membership.
Indeed, the gift of a commitment to church membership (like the gift of a commitment to marriage in this culture) is on the way to becoming the gift so precious and hard to obtain that pastors no longer dare even to ask for it. Calvary Chapel venues explicitly do not have church membership. A wide variety of other start-up congregations are eschewing church membership entirely. What ensues is what I call "casual worship," defined not in parallel with "casual dress" or with "casual style" but with "casual sex." Without commitment or expectation, people attend a weekly entertainment event to which they may or may not return, entirely dependent upon their momentary whims.
Like casual sex, casual worship does occasionally give rise to a long-term relationship. But like casual sex, casual worship is both the symptom and the cause of a lethal erosion of healthy relationships signaling a headlong plunge into widespread disfunction.
A Gift of the Spirit
Both of these models of church membership are defective. The appropriate way to understand church membership is to see it as a gift from Christ both to the individual Christian and through the individual Christian to the brotherhood of Christians that is a local church.
Four items in the New Testament require local church membership:
- The relationship that local pastors/elders/overseers and deacons are required to have with the membership of local churches. Individual Christians are commanded to follow the individual leaders that they know are theirs (Hebrews 13:17). Individual pastors are commanded to shepherd specific sheep that are located among them and are allotted to their charge (1 Peter 5:1-5) and are warned that they will give an account for those particular sheep (Hebrews 13:17). Each Christian is required to know precisely who is his or her pastor, and each pastor is required to know precisely who are the Christians for whom he has responsibility.
- The process of biblical local church discipline as indicated in the New Testament. In the apostolic implementation of Matthew 18, Paul sternly commanded the Corinthian church to cease in the judgment of "outsiders" but to reinvigorate their exercise of church discipline toward those who were "inside the church." This commandment is nonsensical if a church does not bother to know who is inside and who is outside.
- The evidences of structure within the local churches mentioned in the New Testament. It is difficult to imagine that the church that kept a strictly qualified list of widows (1 Timothy 5:3-16) did not bother to keep a careful list of members.
- The stated purpose and operation of spiritual gifts. In 1 Corinthians 12, we learn that God's rationale for the appointment of the various spiritual gifts and offices within the Body of Christ and the placement of those gifted believers within the body is for the common benefit of the churches according to the will of God. It is from this passage and others like it that we have come to call the individuals in the church by the name "members."
All of these are good reasons, and in conglomeration, they constitute an invincible case. For the purposes of this essay, let us consider solely the last of them.
The word "member," where it refers to a whole individual Christian, always appears with reference to the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is not synonymous with a local church. Rather, the Body of Christ is composed of all human beings who ever have and ever will be born again. These are not infinite beings; they are finite humans restricted to life at a particular time in particular places with particular roles and particular attributes. These particularities of their existence are assigned by God.
For example, I am alive from 1969 forward to some end-point known at present only to God. I live in the United States of America. I have been brought to Farmersville, TX. I am a pastor/elder/overseer. I write and speak a lot. I teach. These are the particulars of my life. Some of them are entirely out of my control. All of them are under the control of God. Some of them (teaching, for example) the New Testament has specifically enumerated as spiritual gifts.
Why do I live now? Why do I live here? Why am I all of these things? Why do I have the spiritual gifts that I have?
My placement within the Body of Christ with regard to time, location, aptitude, and giftedness has been determined by the hand of God. "But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired." (1 Corinthians 12:18, NASB). For what reason has God done this? God's overall plan for common good of the churches and for His own glory and eternal victory involves my placement in precisely this way. I must remember that "…the same God…works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." (1 Corinthians 12:6b-7, NASB)
My membership in the Body of Christ came by Christ's gracious regeneration of me when I believed. My membership in a local church comes by God's will and by His assignment. This is no less true for any member than it is for me as a pastor. God not only makes the members of the body, but he also places the members within the body.
Are there "unplaced" members of the Body of Christ? Roving shortstops without commitment to a local church? "Body-only" Christians who are not intended by God to be a member of a church? Certainly location does not preclude relocation. Aquila and Priscilla moved from one church to another, apparently. One might argue that the apostles and missionary church planters moved among the various individual churches without membership in any particular one (although Paul seems to have retained a special relationship with the Antioch church). One might point to the Ethiopian eunuch (although we know not what he founded upon reaching Ethiopia). And yet to find in the New Testament an individual Christian believer who could have participated as a member of a local congregation but who (with divine approval) chose to remain aloof, one must be resigned to a lengthy search with little hope of ever reaching a eureka-moment.
And so, membership in a local church is an assignment from God that accompanies gifting from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives me particular spiritual gifts for the purpose of their particular application within my particular context. The purpose of those spiritual gifts is the increased common good of the overall Body of Christ, accomplished first by the increased common good of this particular local church.
The local church is the setting for every mention of spiritual gifts in the New Testament. The most common context in which spiritual gifts receive mention in the New Testament is the context of their disfunction. Both in Rome and in Corinth, something had gone awry with regard to spiritual gifts. In both cases, what was suffering from the abuse of spiritual gifts was the local congregation. Individualistic egotism with regard to spiritual gifts had eroded local congregational unity. Specific instructions for the use of spiritual gifts are, every one of them, instructions for how to use them among a local congregation.
I ought not to ask whether my local church is worthy of my membership. As a pastor, I ought never to ask whether any member of my local church is worthy of my pastoral care. Rather, I ought to remember that I am unworthy to be a member of my church. I ought to remember that membership in my church is a job. It is a job to which God has entrusted His amazing, universe-defining plan. No job is more important than my job as a member of my church. I ought to remember that it is a job for which I am entirely unqualified. I qualify for this position only by means of the gifts of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This position—this placement within the Body of Christ—is itself a gift from God made according to His desire, not mine nor my pastors'. I am unworthy of this. That's what makes it a gift. It is a gift worth cherishing.
The giver of the gift is the one with the power. The first act of this story (church membership as a gift from the church to the member) gave incredible power to bishops and other church leaders. The second act of this story (church membership as a gift from the member to the church) gives incredible power to the members of the church. The Bible, in contradistinction to both of these approaches, declares that all power belongs to Christ, the only Head of the church. Jesus is Lord, and biblical church membership can only take place when we are surrendered to His lordship over our individual lives and our local churches.