Why Middle Eastern Churches Need Membership
There’s something about the design of an object that helps you understand its purpose or function. No one vacuums a carpet with a toaster because a toaster is not designed for that purpose. A toaster is designed for the purpose of toasting bread.
Likewise, the local congregation is designed to serve Christ’s purposes for the church. What is a church’s purpose? God intends to display his glory through local congregations comprised of believers who would be committed to love one another by the power of the Spirit of Christ (Eph. 3:9–11). What design serves this purpose? The New Testament establishes identifiable gatherings of people, drawing a line between them and the world (e.g. Acts 5:13) as well as between one church and another (e.g. Col. 4:15-16). Christians belong to particular churches. They are members.
I’m afraid, however, that many well-meaning Christians in the Middle East are unsure about formal church membership because they’re unsure about the purpose of the church. This is true of both ethnically homogenous and multiethnic churches.
CULTURE DOES NOT DETERMINE IMPLEMENTATION
One of the most common metaphors used to describe the church in the New Testament is the assembly as the body of Christ. While this is a profound spiritual reality, it takes on visible expression in each local church. Just as saving faith ought to manifest itself in godliness (James 2:17, Titus 3:8), and genuine love for God must produce love for other Christians (1 John 4:7–8, 4:20–21), so also our membership into the body of Christ and the church universal ought to be revealed in meaningful membership in a local church.
Ambiguity about the nature of the church causes church leaders to relegate the idea of church membership entirely to contextual or pragmatic categories. Being unclear about the nature of the church, they treat membership as wholly situational and culturally relative.
But it’s not. Even in the Middle East, local church membership makes an invisible, spiritual reality visible for all to see. People in the Arab world will know that saints in Arabic-speaking or English-speaking churches are disciples of Jesus when they see them committed to loving one another.
I live in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates where we gather for corporate worship in a city that is home to native Emiratis as well as people from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, China, Nigeria, Korea, Kenya, Columbia, Zambia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other countries. In our congregation, there are saints from 25 different nationalities. The only thing we all have in common is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The bedrock of our Spirit-wrought unity is the glue of the gospel of Jesus, but that glue becomes visible in our gatherings and through our covenantal affirmation of one another through the ordinances.
Context is important but it doesn’t determine whether or not one should practice church membership, which is an implication of the gospel. Living out the implications of the gospel very often goes against the grain of every fallen culture. Yet we should be more concerned about pleasing God and learning how to behave in the household of God (1 Tim 3:15).
To be sure, local churches certainly have freedom in what their membership processes look like. Maybe the elders and congregation memorize eveyone’s name. Maybe they keep a membership directory. No matter what, two things ought to be made clear.
First, Christians must be committed to love one another in such a way that this cruciform, Spirit-empowered love may be seen for the sake of the unbelieving world (John 13:35).
Second, a distinction needs to be made between the church and the world (Acts 5:13) for the sake of the church’s holiness and for the meaningful practice of church discipline (Matt. 18:17, 1 Cor. 5:2,12).
In the Middle East and Asia, caste-based or ethnic-based relationships tend to take precedence over abstract dogmatic declarations. Formal membership can be seen as inhospitable to some, especially in a region where Christians are the minority.
But biblical membership is not opposed to hospitality. It’s the epitome of hospitality whereby God has taken his enemies and made them members of his family (Eph. 2:19). In a region where new converts can face rejection and persecution for their faith, the local church must offer what the God of the gospel offers. We’re members of the body of Christ and individually members of one another (Rom. 12:5). We’re called to care for one another and suffer with fellow members of our family (1 Cor. 12:26).
Pastors need to teach their people that membership in a local church is much more than a social group for minorities to huddle together; it enables citizens of heaven to keep one another unstained from the world as they cultivate a heavenly culture. This is true in both Arabic-speaking churches and multiethnic, English-speaking congregations. Faith working through love is the cultural flavor of every healthy local church.
In my experience, multiethnic English-speaking churches run the risk of glorying in their multiethnicity rather than the unity of the Spirit produced by the gospel. Meaningful church membership defined by a sound statement of faith helps guard against that.
At the same time, I remember talking to a pastor of an Arabic-speaking church, and he mentioned that his people loved to spend time together. Yet they had to be exhorted to regularly attend the corporate worship gathering. These Christians were doing what was culturally familiar, but they hadn’t yet learned that true Christian fellowship is grounded in the Word and is strengthened by regular exposure to the preaching of the Word and the weekly communion of the saints. Simply put, even a culture like ours that places a high premium on community needs to be taught that fellowship that doesn’t proceed from faith is simply not Christian fellowship. Pastors need to teach that the nature of the church and our relationship to Christ demands commiting to one another—a commitment that can only be supernaturally sustained by the Spirit.
Sometimes, people dislike the idea of membership because it smells of legalism and nominalism. And this does happen. In some mainline Protestant denominations, church membership is merely an annual fee that’s paid to keep your name on a church’s registry, whether you actually attend or not. This down payment secures a wedding venue and entitles you to a burial plot on the church grounds when you die.
But biblical church membership must be taught and reclaimed as a glorious spiritual truth. Believers commit to one another, confront sin, forgive one another, encourage one another, and build up one another in love.
Jesus Christ is committed to his church and publicly identifies with her. So should Christians in the Middle East—and every other part of the world.