Summary: 5 strands in the New Testament for local church membership (Material adapted from John Piper at: http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/how-important-is-church-membership)
While Alexander Campbell was studying at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, the time had come for communion at his church. Communion was only observed a couple of times a year, so it was a pretty big deal. His church had a custom, like many churches of that day, to pass out “communion tokens.” People would line up, and present themselves to the minister. If the minister believed that this person was worthy that day to participate in communion, he would hand them a token, a little coin. This was one’s ticket to the table. When they arrived at the table, they would present their coin, and then and only then, they could receive communion. If the minister did not think one was worthy, he would not give a token, and thus, no communion for that person. It also implied there may be no heaven for that person either! With his communion token in hand, Alexander Campbell approached the communion table. When he was handed the plate where he was to place his token, it is said that Campbell, “threw” the coin onto the plate, publicly refused the Lord’s Supper, and then walked out as a “free man” in Christ.
If we were to examine Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell and others of the Restoration Movement, we would find some stern condemnations of the abuses of church membership. Taken to an extreme, any good thing can be abused until it is a bad thing. Some have interpreted their comments and concerns as being against any idea of church membership. There have been churches that I have served who have taken that stand. Have no church membership roles because against the whole idea of church membership. I am against this for 2 reasons:
1. On a practical level, how do we track things like attendance and offerings? If attendance is below normal, we need to find which members are missing and follow up. However, if there is no membership how do we follow up? Where are the people spiritually? Who has been baptized and who has not? Who comes from another church?
2. The concept of membership is implied in the NT. No, it is not laid out as some understand it today but the concept is there.
Thesis: 5 strands in the NT for local church membership
1. The church is to discipline the members
““If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Matthew 18:15-17, NIV.
If there is no church membership how can we define the group that will take up the matter of this unrepentant person and render a verdict about his sin and standing in the community? It is hard to believe that just anyone who showed up claiming to be a Christian could be a part of that gathering. Surely, “the church” must be a definable group to handle such weighty matters. Need to know who is talked about when we “take it to the church.”
2. Expelling (excommunication, shunning) exists
A. “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”” 1 Corinthians 5:12, 13, NIV. Two implications here:
One is that there is an “in the church” group and an “outside the church” group. Being in the church is definable.
A person can be removed from being “in the church.” Such a removal would not be possible if there were no such thing as membership- who is accountable and who is not?
B. Can this be abused? Oh yes. We even find in the NT this being abused. The apostle John was concerned about this: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” 3 John 1:9, 10, NIV. Church leaders need to make sure they are doing things in the NT way for the good of the church, and not operating out of jealousy, revenge or personality conflicts. Even so expelling is in NT.