rom time to time various Church of Christ trade papers carry articles with titles like "Placing Membership, The Importance of Local embership," "Why Identify Yourself With a Local Congregation," etc. The practice under consideration is a long established custom familiar to all habitual churchgoers. The invitation song is sung. At the urging of the Preacher of the hour, Christians who have recently moved into town come down the aisle and give him a hand. He has them fill out a prepared card. After a brief survey of the information on the card he welcomes them as "new members" of the congregation. It is a done deal. Their name is now added to the Church directory, for they have officially "Placed Membership" with the Church.
Although the New Testament does not contain such terminology, the articles labor to show the great importance, indeed the necessity, of such a practice. The scriptural "evidence" offered in favor of the procedure follows a familiar pattern. Examples of those in the first century who moved from place to place are always cited. There was Apollos who went from Ephesus to Corinth with a letter "exhorting the disciples to receive him" (Acts 18:27). There was Phoebe who upon arriving in Rome was to be "received in the Lord" (Rom. 16:1-2). But without exception the strongest case is always that of Paul, who when he came to Jerusalem "assayed to join himself to the disciples" (Acts 9:27-28). This is interpreted as a precedent set by Paul of the importance of "Placing Membership" in a local Church.
Before looking into this custom perhaps it would be wise to say something strong about how needful it is for Christians to associate with one another. Believers in the Lord need to get together frequently for mutual fellowship and edification. Therefore it is perfectly natural for Christians who arrive in a community to seek out the company of the disciples already living there. Frankly I do not see how it could be otherwise. It is probably also fair to say that some of the difficulties involved in the contemporary doctrine of "local membership" are no doubt due to the old problem of semantics, or to common misunderstandings as to what is taking place. If by "Placing Membership" in the traditional manner we infer only that a Christian is identifying himself as a follower of Jesus Christ, thus making himself known to disciples who are strangers, then certainly it is a good thing to do. But unfortunately this is not all that is implied by the practice. As the tradition has evolved and become standardized, it has taken on meaning and significance far beyond what the New Testament warrants. Hopefully this can be pointed out here without doing detriment to the valid needs of identification and association.
As practiced today, "Placing Membership" is almost a legal necessity, a formal maneuver recognized as the procedural act that puts one "in" the local Church. Behind this view, and directly responsible for it, is the concept that "the Church" in a given locality is an institution THROUGH WHICH each Christian must perform his major duties to God, and consequently the institution TO WHICH he must gain official admittance if he wishes to be in God's good grace. Mind you, it is not a matter of his need for his Christian brothers and sisters, his ability to be of service to them, or his desire to serve God together with them; it is rather the notion that the local Church is THE ecclesiastical organization he is required to "join" in order to have a right standing with God. The theory has it that he must "belong" to one of these organized entities else he cannot please the Lord. In other words, he must have his name on the "Membership Roll" of some local Church or he is "out of duty" and doomed, in light of this theory it is not hard to see why the act of "Placing Membership" has become an official part of the proceedings. It is critical. In one way or another it MUST be done. For ONLY when a person decides to put his membership with a local Church is he thought to possess the privileges of a Church-member. ONLY when he puts his membership into a Church is he thought to have any special obligation to participate in and support the endeavors of the other Christians in town or to help them in any way. ONLY when he puts his membership in does he have any obligation to submit to the wisdom and guidance of the leaders of the Christian community, the elders. BUT, once he makes the big decision, since he "Places Membership" in a local Church in the prescribed way, THEN, immediately and instantly, he falls heir to all the duties and all the benefits of being a duly constituted "Church Member." Without "Placing Membership," you see, there are no "ties that bind" the two parties together. Therefore according to the established system, nearly everything of consequence depends on this practice of "Placing Membership."
The question is, does the New Testament teach this kind of organizational membership? Does it talk about formal membership in a club-like organization? Let's look at Paul's case again. Paul went up to Jerusalem not long after his conversion and there sought to join himself to the disciples. Considering his new found faith this was the natural thing for him to do. And considering his past reputation as an enemy of Christ, it was natural that the disciples in Jerusalem were reluctant to have any dealings with him. Barnabas soon put their fears to rest, and as a result Paul "was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem" (Acts 9:28). But really now, is there anything in this to suggest that Paul officially "moved his membership" from Damascus to Jerusalem? Be cause these are terms in which we are accustomed to think it may be easy to read this into it, perhaps even visualize Paul walking down the aisle. However, it is much more realistic, and much more in keeping with what is said, to conclude that all Paul was doing was seeking out the company of people whose faith he now shared but who would not have anything to do with him.
Now if there WAS something official about what happened in Acts 9:26-28, and Paul was actually transferring his membership from the organization in Damacus to the organization in Jerusalem, then we are in for a hassle trying to keep up with Paul's "membership" during all his travels through the book of Acts. Did Paul "Place Membership" in every city where he stayed? We know that Paul and Barnabas were both at Antioch for a whole year and were considered to be "in the church" there (Acts 13:1). Does this mean they had moved their membership there from Jerusalem? They made a trip together (Acts 13-14) that lasted two or three years, then came back to Antioch where "they abode long time with the disciples" (Acts 14:28). Had their "membership" been at Antioch all this time, or had it moved along with them on their journey?
Paul was at Corinth a year and a half (Acts 18:11 ). Was he considered a "member" of that local Church during this period of time? Later he was at Ephesus for over three years (Acts 19:10, 20:31 ). Was it necessary for him to transfer his membership there in order to qualify as a "member?" After many years Paul came back to Jerusalem once again, and Luke tells us, "When we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren RECEIVED US gladly" (Acts 21:17). Does this language imply that Paul had to "RE-place" his membership with the Jerusalem church at this time? Or had his membership been there all the while, ever since Acts 9:26?
It seems extremely doubtful to me that such a thing as official "church membership" IN THE SENSE THAT IT IS UN DERSTOOD TODAY was involved in any of the above events. Actually Paul assayed to join HIMSELF to the disciples at Jerusalem. It was not his membership card that he wanted to have accredited. HE, as a Christian, wanted to associate with them because THEY were Christians. It was as simple as that. It appears this is how it was everywhere he went.
As far as I can see (some may "see" further), there was nothing in the moving about of the early Christians, or in their being accepted by brethren in other localities, that required a legal transfer of membership. When they moved it would appear that they were sometimes accepted, sometimes rejected, but always in the REAL sense of the word, as PEOPLE, for what they were. In the end this is what counts.
Many times Christians move to a new community, duly "Place Membership" in the local church and have their "membership" officially accepted by the Preacher who holds their hand, but in the real sense they are never accepted by the "natives" of the congregation. They are forever outsiders. So what does the "placing of membership" accomplish after all?
To further complicate matters we must reckon with this fact. Although much stock is put in the matter of official church membership, there is still no uniform understanding among brethren as to HOW a person gets to be a legitimate "member" of a Local Church. The New Testament certainly gives no procedure to follow. According to traditional teaching one is "added" to the universal Church at baptism but "joins" the Local Church by placing membership in the manner described in the beginning. But is that the ONLY way a person can become an accepted "member" of a local Church today? I submit to you that it is not. There are in fact several methods by which Christians without an ecclesiastical home can come to be counted "members in good standing" with some local Church. For example:
(1) Some members may be "set in" at the very start. These are the "charter members" who were there back when "the Church was formed." They got a headstart, so did not have to do anything with their membership to get it in. It was considered "in" already. Why, I have even heard of Elders being set in from the beginning. Usually this happens when one Church organization gives birth to another one, and sets it up full grown (organizationally speaking), complete with Church Officers as well as Church Members.
(2) Some members are baptized into the local Church. Baptist doctrine you say? Not at all. I refer to the fact that practically every baptized believer is considered a "member" of some local Church from the day he is baptized into Christ, and SOLELY on that basis. On Saturday night of a gospel meeting a man is baptized. On Sunday morning he is automatically, without further action on his part, considered a member of that local Church. Isn't he? How did he get to be a member of that Organization? Evidently by baptism, the only thing he did. Now if it takes ANOTHER official act to constitute one a part of a local community of Christians (other than the fact that he is a disciple who will be living among them), then every new convert would need to "place membership" just like every newcomer. This never happens of course. Why? Because under these circumstances brethren are not trained to think about their doctrine of the "Local Church." So they think and act naturally, and accept their new brother for what he is without anything ecclesiastical getting in the way.
(3) Some members are hired into the local Church. I refer to the Preacher and his family. Perhaps some of you have witnessed it (in some Church circles it seems to be a coming thing), but personally I have never known of a new preacher "placing membership" with the Church upon his arrival in town. When he preaches his first sermon and gets his first check he is thereby automatically accepted as a "member" without any further formalities. Other members of the Church staff come into the local Church the same way. They are more or less hired in. They can attend the business meeting the first Sunday.
(4) Some members "slide" into the local Church. This is especially true in small, less organized congregations. While it is ALMOST a requisite that a person officially put his membership into a local Church, in some cases if he stays around long enough, continues to meet with the saints, joins with them in all their efforts, takes a part in the various meetings, etc., it may be that in time he will become a defacto member, accepted as such though he never "Placed Membership." This is more and more a rare happening, but occasionally someone will sort of ooze into local Church membership.
What I have said is this. Even under the rather legal concept of Church Membership existing today, Christians can become full "members" of a local Church in a great many ways other than by the prescribed "Placing Membership" technique. Which simply means that the custom is merely a formality of ours, not really so necessary after all.
Now the highly developed institutional system of the denominational world makes legal Church Membership along with prescribed procedures for moving one's membership from one ecclesiastical jurisdiction to another, an absolute necessity. The Church of Christ institutional system is not quite this sophisticated yet. But our institutional concept of the Church (including the idea of legalized local membership) is already far enough along to make for confusion and a lot of puzzles to work out.
Take me for instance. For over fifteen years I was a "member" of TWO local Churches at once. Or was I? Anyway, during that time I regularly met with Christians in two locations; each Sunday morning, each Sunday night, and each Wednesday night. I met with one group as often as the other, and was in the real sense just as much a part of one group as the other. In truth I felt equally comfortable, as if I truly "belonged" in both assemblies. But like most preachers, I never officially "Placed Membership" with either congregation. Which means I must not have been a "member" of either church, or I must have been a member of them both. In light of current concepts of institutional membership, I don't rightly know how either situation would be possible.
Many Christians have a similar situation. Some teachers (even elders) preach every weekend for a small, struggling congregation, then meet on Wednesday night with the home folks. Some preachers in "full time meeting work" are with a different congregation almost every Sunday. For technicality's sake they usually keep their "local membership" safe with a home congregation somewhere, even though they are seldom able to meet there or to participate in any of the activities. Any other Church "member" who showed up so infrequently would surely have his name dropped from the membership roll. But that's different of course. I mention situations like these, not because I think they are wrong, but merely to point out what a strain they put on our pat theory of the local institutional Church with its official, rigid membership roll.
To further show the problems generated by this theory, consider this interesting question: How does one get his membership OUT OF a local Church once he has put it in? Does he shake the preacher's other hand and back up the aisle in reverse order?
Seriously, if it requires a special act of some kind to put your membership into a local Church, would it not take a special act to remove it? Why not? The "Authorities" of the local Organization evidently have the power not to receive your membership when you are trying to put it in. Do they have the power not to relinquish it when you wish to take it out?
Herein is a strange thing. We seem to understand that when a Christian ups and moves to Mongolia (inner or outer), his membership goes with him whether he says or does anything about it. But when the same Christian moves into our midst we do not understand that his membership in the body of Christ comes with him. Although he is a Christian, we do not really consider him a "member" until he in some way deposits his membership with the Church Fathers. But how can he deposit his membership without first withdrawing it from its previous receptacle? (Maybe we need to talk to the Baptist folks. They seem to have this problem all worked out.) Anyway, see how involved all this gets to be? Should it be this way, or is it just possible that this sort of "Church Membership" is not contemplated in the New Testament in the first place?
The type of institutional "membership" being discussed here official membership in an organized religious club is altogether different from what existed in apostolic times. Back then Christians were "members" all right, MEMBERS of the body of Christ! Paul said to the Corinthians, "Ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular" (1 Cor. 12:27). They were said to be "members of Christ," or better, "members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones" (1 Cor. 6:15, Eph. 5:30). At the same time, because all who are members of Christ are part of the same spiritual body, the early Christians were said to be "MEMBERS ONE OF ANOTHER" (Rom. 12:5, Eph. 4:25). Is this not the picture painted in the Scriptures? Aren't all Christians members of one and the same body? Aren't all Christians members one of another.
Let us think this though carefully. Brother Christian moves to Averagetown, USA. He is a stranger there. He inquires and discovers that there are already a hundred other Christians living in Averagetown, meeting regularly at a certain location, trying to encourage one another to follow the Lord daily. They are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. So is he. They are soldiers in the army of the Lord. So is he. They are children in the family of God. So is he. They are members of the body of Christ. So is he. They are members of Christ. So is he. Now the question is, are they not "members one of another?" Why not? Does anything have to be DONE by either of them to create a special spiritual relationship between them? It seems to me that the basic "in-Christ" relationship is already there.
While everyone thus far concedes a general brotherhood relationship in the above case, the institutional concept of the Church requires that an ADDITIONAL relationship be created; not an additional relationship in the sense of association, contact and closeness, but an organic relation that provides Brother Christian with a lawful "standing" in an organization. This concept allows that, even long after contact has been established and association effected, because Brother Christian has not "placed his membership" he has not yet "become one of them." Why? Because the legalities of becoming a bona fide "member" have not been met. Accordingly, as long as Brother Christian does not make an official entry of his membership he has no binding obligations to the Church in Averagetown, and the Church in Averagetown has no binding obligations toward him. See how legal all this is? To me, such thinking misses the mark at least by a city mile.
The fact is, whether or not Brother Christian makes any formal "move" with his "membership," once he and his fellow disciples are known to one another, he has all the responsibilities toward his brethren in Averagetown and they have all the responsibilities toward him that a common relationship in Christ will EVER produce. What was lacking earlier was not relationship, but knowledge of one another. Simply identifying himself as a fellow-Christian and expressing a desire to associate with them will take care of this. (In all probability this was the original idea behind the practice of "placing membership" before all the officialism set in). But his representation of himself as a brother and their acceptance of him in no way creates a NEW relationship, certainly not one resembling a legal connection. The spiritual relationship, based on mutual faith in Christ, was already there. What changes with time and place is knowledge, acquaintance, association, opportunity and, consequently, responsibility. Which brings up the last little thought.
How does all this bear on the individual Christian's responsibility to what is commonly called his "home congregation?" Right here, believe, is where the REAL motive for making "church membership" so binding emerges. The reason for making so much over local membership is to insure local loyalty, to make sure that each Christian will feel legally bound to support all the programs of the local organization. IF worthwhile deeds are to be accomplished in any community this is absolutely necessary; absolutely necessary, that is, in all cases where true faith and love are not strong enough to cause fellow "members" of the body of Christ to live responsibly.
Should "local loyalty" be a problem? Personally I do not see how it could be doubted that a Christian has an extra special responsibility to the "church" where he lives; that is, he has a special obligation toward the brothers and sisters in Christ he knows the best, those with whom he is associated. Proximity, physical or spiritual, always creates responsibility. Normally a Christian lives among other Christians. By reason of his closeness to them, his understanding of their weaknesses and strengths, his love for them, his very presence in their midst, and his knowledge of their efforts and needs, NATURALLY he has a special regard for them and for all that they are striving to accomplish for the Lord. As a Christian he will certainly carry his part of any spiritual load they are having to bear. There is not anything particularly legalistic about why he should do this however. It is RIGHT that he should do it and he will do it because it is right. If he fails to contribute his share of time, talent and energy to take care of those needs that are immediately before him, he will answer to God for his failure WHETHER HE GOES THROUGH THE MOTIONS OF PLACING MEMBERSHIP OR NOT! A Christian does not escape his spiritual responsibilities in Christ by choosing not to join (in the technical sense) the church where he lives, nor does he create his spiritual responsibilities that way. The responsibilities that go with the Christian faith are built into the fraternal relationships that already exist and are unavoidably brought forth by reason of contact, association and opportunity,. Rather than diminishing a Christian's "local loyalty," this view of "membership" in the body of Christ greatly enhances it.
As Christians we must do all we can for Christ, and for our brethren. The love of Christ, NOT institutional loyalty, constrains us to do this. As fellow-Christians we must with one mind strive together for the faith of the gospel. We must do what we can, with what we have, where we are, WITH THOSE who share with us the one faith. It seems to me that this is what true "membership" in the body of Jesus Christ is all about.