Church Membership and Contextualization
Doing theology involves expressing universal biblical constants in ways that are meaningful in a particular context. Having spent the better part of two decades planting churches in foreign cultures, I could not have avoided this lesson even if I wanted to. Cross-cultural church planters are continually challenged with the need to teach Christian doctrine and at the same time urge contextually meaningful and appropriate applications of that doctrine.
How then do we formulate a contextually-sensitive doctrine of local church membership? That’s the question this article will attempt to answer. Our doctrine of church membership should take us close to a universal biblical constant, but formulating how that doctrine is lived out culturally and contextually introduces all kinds of particular expressions of the universal constant.
A UNIVERSAL BIBLICAL DOCTRINE OF CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
Church planters in foreign contexts will want to work together with local believers by examining Scripture and attempting to express a simple doctrine of the local church in appropriate language. This will involve looking not just at texts where the word “church” (ekklesia) is used but reading whole books of the New Testament. The goal here is to tease out what the New Testament says about the believing, identifiable local church. How does it draw a line between insiders and outsiders? Between joiners and unbelievers? It will be important to consider what the text assumes and implies about “membership” in books like Romans, Hebrews, 1 John, and 1 Peter, as well as the household codes at the end of Paul’s letters.
For instance, let me attempt to express for a pioneer context the doctrine (universal biblical constant) of church membership as it might be explained to a first-generation local church:
A local church has an identifiable membership of persons scripturally baptized upon their credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, a credible profession being one which is accompanied by continuing repentance and faith in the gospel. These members are intentional about being a (or the) local assembly in that place. Participation in the benefits of the gospel ordinarily entails joining and covenanting with a local church, where believers seek to live out all of their relationships with humility in light of the gospel as those who whose true home is elsewhere.
Certainly, much more could be said about church membership, such as the regular practice of taking the Lord’s Supper as one benefit of the gospel. But this is just one simple expression of the doctrine of local church membership for a context new to Christianity, a context where the gospel has been unknown for at least several generations.
MEMBERSHIP TERMINOLOGY: JOINERS? MEMBERS? INSIDERS?
The Bible presumes some kind of membership in the local church, but it doesn’t give us a specific word for “membership.” How then shall we speak or write of “membership” in a way that’s meaningfully understood in the culture? The answer depends in part on what words are available to us in the local language. A cross-cultural church planter needs to consider what kinds of memberships already exist in order to compare those with the biblical ideal—especially if we choose a more generic word for membership.
Biblical church membership is a different kind of thing than participation or membership in a local Hindu Ashram, a Buddhist Temple, an Islamic mosque, or a Sufi order. A church planter needs to be aware of these differences.
Household and family life may offer some helpful concepts of “belonging.” But the language of “belonging” does not necessarily capture the idea of “joining,” except maybe in the context of marriage. Yet even here, many cultures have lost track of what Genesis says about leaving one’s family and becoming one—a new family unit.
In short, the biblical doctrine does not change, but one needs to carefully consider how membership words translate into a particular context. In general, a planter will probably want to make use of “joining” language, “partnership” language, and “brotherhood” and “sisterhood” language in order to get at the idea of biblical church membership.
CONTEXTUAL APPLICATION: WRITTEN MEMBERSHIP LISTS AND LETTERS?
In the mobile and diffuse societies of the West, believers are free to gather without official interference or persecution. In such a setting, written membership lists present a fine application of the biblical constants. They might even be necessary in order to enable the congregation and its leaders to keep track of who is and is not a member of the church. The goal of such lists is to distinguish church members from unaccountable professors, and to keep track of who has been correctively disciplined.
But in a pioneer, restrictive, or hostile context, the few believers probably all know one another. There may be only one local church option, a not-so-public gathering in a local home or apartment. Or there might be a network of local apartment churches. Here, keeping lists of members would be unwise, since it creates an unnecessary risk for the local body when houses are searched and books and papers are confiscated. Further, there are no disconnected believers and the borders of the local church are very clear to all. Persecution clarifies the borders even more. When a person is baptized in such a context, it’s very clear (to insiders and some outsiders) that he now belongs to Christ and this local assembly. Desire for baptism in those contexts is an inherently credible profession of faith. When a believer is chased from his hometown and must identify with another local underground church, he is usually already known by the receiving church. News of persecution travels fast. There is usually no need for a written letter of recommendation. To insist upon one is simply unnecessary.
In a more complex and diverse society where Christianity has been favored and local churches enjoy legal status, written membership lists and letters of transfer are wise applications of identifiable membership.
The universal constant is that the local church must know who is a joiner and who is still an outsider. Cultural concerns guide how that constant is applied locally.
CONTEXTUAL APPLICATION: WRITTEN COVENANTS AND THEIR CONTENT?
To join a local church is to agree to live together with other believers in a way that’s worthy of God’s call to live as a chosen people, royal priesthood, and holy nation. It’s to agree to display God’s glory through gospel-centered living and gospel-centered relationships. In other words, the local church is a community of faith in a hostile world where our relationships with God, one another, and outsiders are uniquely gospel-centered and God-honoring.
In order to clarify those relational responsibilities with particular content, many churches in the history of Christianity have benefitted from using a written church covenant.
The whole tenor of New Testament teaching about the church points to how important it is to be clear about our purposes for gathering and clear about the line between insiders (members) and outsiders (non-members). In one sense, we could say that the entire Bible and particularly the New Testament supplies a church with a complete set of “covenant rules” (purposes and expectations for the church). At the same time, a written covenant serves as a kind of recitable summary of relational expectations for the local church.
The more intentionally biblical the language of a church covenant, the better. House churches, for instance, could collect a series of sentences from the New Testament which describe the duties and privileges of church members with only minor (or perhaps no) adjustments to the language for their church covenant.
A church covenant may be long or short, but it should highlight the relational expectations for church members. It may be written and regularly recited, or memorized, or even sung or chanted, depending upon the culture and literacy level. It may be sung, recited, or read whenever the ordinances of baptism or the Lord’s Supper are observed. Families might use the covenant as a means of teaching children what it means to be a church joiner and how the gospel changes lives and empowers followers of Jesus to live differently in the world.
A church covenant should include both statements or verses that would be included in covenants everywhere, as well as statements that depend on cultural considerations. So all good covenants will describe relational duties in family life, church life, and life in the world. But a church set in a culture that’s openly hostile to Christianity might need a covenant that’s more explicit about love for our enemies, or the call to endure persecution. Covenants in every cultural setting might call for a diligent commitment to bold evangelism and disciple-making, but only some settings might require being explicit about asking members to renounce ancestor worship and superstitious practices. In societies characterized by warring and a fighter mentality, a commitment to peace-making and reconciliation should probably be included. If a covenant were written for Cretans who called themselves liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons, it ought to include a commitment to truth telling, kindness, good works, sobriety, and self control. Covenants in cultures where relationships are routinely sexualized might want to emphasize chaste living, modesty, and avoiding pornography.
Whatever the content, a covenant should emphasize the universal relational ethics of the gospel, and it should be appropriately particularized. It should make good sense to a local church, taking aim at its particularly prevalent relational sins. This balance of universality and particularity helps church members “discipline” one another where they most need it.
CONTEXTUAL APPLICATION: JOINING THE LOCAL CHURCH
In the above statement about the universal biblical constants of local church membership, I did not describe how people should join a local church. That was intentional.
I did mention scriptural baptism, a credible profession of faith, and a life exhibiting continued repentance and faith in Christ. But exactly how local churches in various contexts should examine prospective joiners will probably vary.
Membership interviews by elders make a lot of sense in complex, anonymous societies. But where churches are very small, perhaps the entire church should interview the candidates. Having the whole church hear an individual’s conversion testimony and explanation of the gospel is a good vetting procedure and is very encouraging to the local church.
In conclusion, cross-cultural church planters, like every faithful church leader, must work hard at expressing the universal biblical constants in meaningful doctrinal expressions, even as we work hard to distinguish doctrine from particular and cultural applications of that doctrine. Always, we return prayerfully to the Word for instruction and correction.