The Euphemist

Reflections on Jewish Studies and many other subjects big and little, by a perpetual student who sometimes searches a little too long for just the right word ...

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Location: Minnesota, United States

Christian, truth seeker, husband, son, brother & uncle, Lutheran pastor, musician (cello, etc.), Jewish Studies grad student, intellectual historian, aquarium enthusiast & pet owner, philologist, astronomer, Norwegian-American, Ford pickup driver, buffoon.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

What does "church membership" mean, anyway?

Perhaps all you theology mavens out there could help me with a puzzle I'm pondering. The basic question has two parts:

1. What, according to the Bible, constitutes "church membership?"
2. When in church history would be the first appearance of any operational definition of "church membership" other than being a baptized Christian who hasn't been excommunicated?

Let me try to explain where I'm coming from. In churches such as mine, "The Free Lutherans", or a similar church body, "The Lutheran Brethren", it's possible to be baptized and participate in the life of the church (taking communion, teaching Sunday School, etc.) and not be on the official membership list of our church, or any other church for that matter. For example, according the the constitution of one of my two churches, a child of a member becomes a member upon being baptized here, but a child of non-members does not. The Lutheran Brethren have a concept of "pure church membership" unique among Lutherans, so that, for example, baptized children are called exactly that, "baptized children of the congregation" and don't become members until a voluntary profession of faith later in life. In Lutheran Brethren jargon a "parishioner" is someone who has come of age and participates in the life of the church without taking the step of being a member; the basic difference made by membership is eligibility to vote and hold office.

Just lately I started to wonder what the early Christians would have made of modern church membership concepts like these. If someone believes, is baptized, serves God, communes, uses his/her spiritual gifts in the life of the church, etc., why wouldn't we call him/her a "member?" Part of the modern policy reflects the fact that most churches (at least in the USA & similar countries) are legal corporations, and I can see why as such they need to define their legal membership lists. But I refuse to believe that churches must be legally incorporated to be churches; otherwise the Church would not exist in countries where Christianity is illegal.

Anyway, Biblical and historical light on this issue is invited. The aforementioned "Free Lutherans" and "Lutheran Brethren" are virtually identical on most points, but differ on a few, most notably concepts/policies on church membership. Even small differences can become magnified in importance when they are among the only differences between otherwise identical groups; after all, if these differences aren't really important, there's cause to question whether our separate existence is justified. As for me, I'm starting to wonder if both our groups have missed the boat. Could our century-long disagreement on church membership really be two versions of the same error? (Don't get me wrong - I've belonged to both groups, love them both, and think that, by and large, they're two versions of the same excellent thing). To me the bottom line can't be better expressed than in I John 4:15, "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God."


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