A Verse to Consider
To answer that question let’s consider a passage of Scripture. Hebrews 13:17 commands: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”
Among other things, this passage describe the relationship between church leaders (pastors, elders, or deacons) and parishioners. It teaches those in leadership must give an account regarding the faithfulness and effectiveness of their oversight. This accountability indicates the existence of two factors found in the early church that are seldom found in contemporary evangelical churches. Today I will discuss the first.
A Precisely Identified Body
Let’s say that you just got a job as a teacher in a private school. You are told by the principal who hired you that your pay would be based on the safety and performance of your students. You are satisfied with that arrangement, signed the contract, and eagerly waited for the first day of school. When that day arrived, you asked for a list of the students for whom you would be responsible. You were told that the school really could not give you a firm list. The school had a published list of students, but not all of those on the list were actually enrolled, so it wasn’t clear whether they were actually students are not. Of those on the list, both among those that were enrolled and those that were not, not everyone came regularly, and some did not even attend anymore. But there were others that were attending regularly but were not on the list. Do you get the picture? Utter confusion. Would you be willing to take on a job that held you responsible for the safety and performance of students that were identified in this way? I didn’t think so.
This is precisely the arrangement used by most churches. They put out a directory that includes regular attenders, though some attend more regularly than others. Of that directory, some are members and some are not. Then there are others that don’t make it in the directory but who nonetheless come fairly regularly. Some in the directory have quit coming, with even some who are members having moved on.
A Serious Responsibility
The Lord states in the Book of Hebrews that church leadership is responsible for the spiritual well-being and nurturing of its constituency. Accepting the arrangement described above suggests two things. First, it is impossible for the church leadership to meet that responsibility with this arrangement. Second, church leadership can’t be taking that responsibility for their flock seriously if they allow this arrangement to persist. If they were taking this biblical instruction to heart, they would say, “If you can’t give me a firm list, I can’t accept this responsibility,” or better, as church leaders they would establish a basis for identifying the parameters of their constituency.
A Serious Approach
In addition, they would clarify to all attendees, “You are welcome to attend this church if you would like, but you must know that you are not part of this body and are not under the oversight of the church leadership unless you join.” Likewise, a church directory would only include the names of those officially belonging. In fact, ministries such as communion, child dedication, and so forth might be restricted to membership. Those visiting, including those seeking to become acquainted with the church, would be permitted to receive communion. But those who had settled in without joining, or at least initiating the process, would not be given access to the ministries of the church.
A Serious Concern for Sojourners
Please note that this is not intended to hurt but to help those uncommitted attenders. Scripture indicates that they need to place themselves under the authority of the church, and therefore the church is doing them a disservice if it allows them to receive the benefits without placing themselves within the church body. Or to put it differently, not making this requirement in essence is endorsing ecclesiastical cohabitation as opposed to ecclesiastical marriage.
This gets to the heart of the matter. We live in a culture which minimizes commitment. I have heard church elders proudly announce, “At our church we don’t emphasize membership.” In essence they were asserting, “At our church we are culturally correct even though we are not biblically correct—and proud of it.”
A Member by Any Other Name…
Some argue that the Bible nowhere advocates membership. My response would be that whatever you want to call it, to be biblical you need to have some means of specifically identifying who belongs to the body. And when you work that out, you will have a membership roll, even though you might call it by a different name.
I am planning to continue this discussion on the church for several days. As we go along we will see that this issue of identifying the flock is no mere call for living by the letter of the law. There are practical outcomes related to functioning based on Scripture. I plan in the next post to talk about a major outcome related to maintaining a precise identity of the church body.