Church membership is probably one of the oddest innovations in Scripture. I just saw some blogger talking about how he spent a year at a church waiting to be moved from the regular list to the member list. In that time, he felt isolated, unprotected, vulnerable, like an outsider or an outcast – and that’s all the while he was attending church, small group meetings, conferences, prayer breakfasts, and who knows what else. I was thinking what a terrible church that must be – to create this rift where regulars just aren’t part of the family. Regulars just don’t get a say. Regulars just are excluded. Until they qualify for their sainted membership and the floodgates of perks, rewards, and acceptance are showered upon them like the grace of God itself.
It’s been years since I was member of a church. It was the church that I was baptized into and baptism is automatic membership for that denomination. I remember that towards the end, we had a theological disagreement and I realized that the church had disqualified itself from being my church family. So I consider my membership invalid and they considered me a heretic. It also didn’t hurt that we moved to another state. Getting away from it all helped me to heal and begin to get ready to find myself a new church family.
In all the time since, I’ve always been a regular but never a member. Sometimes it comes up: “Hey, when are you going to formally join the choice?” and I answer: “It’s scheduled for the 3rd of Never.” Usually I don’t feel like I need membership because most churches are decent enough to treat regulars with the same courtesy and respect as members; especially regulars who have attended so long that the church can’t remember whether or not they’re members in the first place.
Which is why it worries me that some churches are what the other guy described – they teach some strange idea that without their covering and protection, even regulars will find themselves getting wet when members stay nice and dry when the showers of spiritual adversity strike suddenly. They’ve got this whole vocabulary and theology to it that is probably as Biblical as anything out there, but not everything in the Bible ought to be taken literally as a prescription for what ails you. Just because Paul told Timothy to drink a little wine, it doesn’t mean it’s good medicine for what health concerns we have today.
It’s not as if the idea of membership is clearly laid down in 3rd Corinthians 4:1-28 – that describes what it is, what it ought to be like, how to qualify for it, how to be disqualified, how to discern whether a member is in good standing or not when it’s not obvious or easy to tell the difference, how to discipline him back into his senses, and finally restore him into the truth as they know it. If there ever was a church where such a text would have been needed, I bet it would have been for the Corinthians if God ever felt the need to zap it into existence, but He didn’t. No, like most teachings these days, it’s patch-work quilt sewn from various passages and proof-texted into some semi-comprehensible ideology.
I guess I can kind of see their point. Back in the day, roughly two thousand years ago – being the right kind of member opened up doors. Cults and temples were a dime a dozen. In some, it would have been somewhat easy to join, rise up the ranks, become a high priest or a high priestess. And if it no longer suited people to believe in a particular god or goddess, they could tear up their membership card and try their luck at some other cult or temple. Each one represented a new batch of friends, you could worship at the same place as the captain of the guard, or a state official, or some wealthy merchant – make the right friends, marry off your daughters to their sons and strengthen your family through religious membership as well as familial membership. Yep, if it works for ancient pagan societies, then it has to be the Biblical ideal for all of humanity in all the churches, cathedrals, chapels, temples, and worship centers until the end of time. If your membership no longer suits, why there are plenty of other churches out there to try your luck. Same deal, make new friends, marry off your daughters to their sons, and the cycle continues.
This idea of membership is just the church’s way of excluding perfectly good believers. It requires you to be a theological clone of the church in which you are a member in good standing. If your theology changes or your church changes it’s theology and you no longer match – then you have to be brought in line via discipline or disfellowshipped as the unrepentant theological rebel you are (may the force be with you!). Technically, discipline is supposed to be reserved for the really tough cases – unrepentant and blatant commandment-breaking sin, but that doesn’t stop elders from using it beyond the prescribed limits. After all, if they say that questioning a doctrinal statement is the equivalent of a rebellious attitude, then what they say goes and all those rebellious people who ask too many questions have to be disciplined so that they restore harmony and peace.
It’s a sad testament to misinterpretation and misapplication of Scripture. Making believers feel that they’re outsiders who are not supposed to be embraced by the insiders lest some spiritual contagion eats away at the purity of the insiders’ faith, to be cut off from the protection of spiritual blessings and open to the elements of curses, to be made to feel that any church that would take you as you are isn’t a real, true church, but some evil shadow of one, a deception designed to pull you away from true spirituality.
Reading about the relief that the guy felt after a year was just as saddening. It sounds so much to me like being put through an initiation rite – and once you’re in, you’re on the other side. You get to do to other people what those people did to you. After feeling the sting of exclusion for a year, you get to exclude your fellow outcasts who were there for you when you were one of them. But now you’re not so it’s okay to walk into the inner door while they’re not allowed in. I guess being an insider means you have no guilt about turning your back on those other people.
Let’s not forget this is a high-commitment country club, I mean, one true church. Not only must everything be done one way, you have responsibilities to see to it that everyone you bring in with you falls in line. When they say “show up” you have no excuse for not being there. When they say “pay up” all you have to do is ask “how much?” You now go where they send you and do what they tell you. You’re not really allowed to make mistakes. Yep, that’s the perks of membership.
Take it from this outsider, there’s plenty of great people out here who would be thrilled to get to know you – the thing is, your church would never accept us. Some of us have tried and failed to meet the laundry list of qualifications to join it, some of us know not to bother with the attempt. We even have this really amazing teacher – you might have heard of him – his name is Jesus. He works with us and through us all of the time. He’s there welcoming the unwelcomed, qualifying the unqualified, befriending the friendless, protecting the vulnerable, and so much more. When membership doesn’t satisfy you, you might want to give Him a try, I hear that there’s no membership required.