the weblog of Alan Knox

Members revisited…

Posted by on Dec 6, 2006 in members | 19 comments

Recently, I was talking with someone from the western part of North Carolina. He is part of a church there that does not have “membership”. They certainly have members, as anyone who is in Christ is part of the body of Christ, and all are members of Christ and of one another.

Looking through Scripture, I cannot find where believers met together, yet considered themselves members of separate groups (different churches).

Thinking about this led to a question: If you met with a believer from a different area (perhaps another state), would you consider yourselves members together? Or, would you be members of separate churches?


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  1. 12-6-2006

    This reminds me of when I spent four weeks in Ukraine back in 1992. We travelled to a bunch of different churches in a particular region, and everywhere we went, we saw some of the same people! And some of them that had particular gifts or talents (speaking, singing, etc.) were actively involved in each of those services. It was like they were all part of the larger church and were recognized in each of those gatherings as part of it. That really intrigued me, and made me think about the “city-wide” church concept that is often batted around.

    I like that idea of regional churches, which I think is kind of what you’re getting at, I think, isn’t it?

    steve :)

  2. 12-6-2006

    That certainly falls within this category. For example, I believe that Paul saw himself and those who travelled with him as “members” of every church they visited.

    Initially, I was thinking about something a little different. For example, you (Steve) and I have never met. However, we plan to meet this Spring. When we meet, will we meet as co-members of the church (body of Christ), or as members of separate churches?

    I believe the answer to this question is important in our understanding of our responsibilities toward one another – that is, toward any believer that we meet.

    - Alan

  3. 12-7-2006

    That’s a great question, Alan. I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms, although now that you’ve asked it, I think that my thinking really was in the direction of members of the body of Christ, not a particular church.

    Connections like this (blogging/internet and Skype that you mentioned in another post) are helping (I think) to knock some of those boundaries down. I’ve personally thought in recent times that the vast availability of information (for better or worse!) on the internet, in bookstores, on radio, etc., have contributed to some of the shaking up that’s taking place in our past understanding of church. It’s helping people realize that there are other sources of information than just one man at the front of their church. In some cases, that may cause problems. In others, I think it’s helpful. In the long run, I think it’s the best thing that has happened to the church in a long time! ;)

    Thanks for helping me think about this in different terms. I really enjoy your blog and the foundational questions you are asking. I do look forward to our intended meeting!

    steve :)

  4. 12-9-2006

    I think the idea of local church membership is implicit in the instructions in Hebrews to submit to “your” leaders, and that they “keep watch over ‘your’ souls.” If there is no local church membership, it is hard to know who is to submit to who, and for what particular souls a church leader is to “keep watch over.” Also, church discipline would be very hard to maintain, if there were no local church membership.

  5. 12-9-2006

    You bring up some good points, but I don’t necessarily think that “church membership” is the only answer to those problems. Since we don’t see that language – “membership” – in Scripture, especially as a way to designate a group of believers or to distinguish between groups of believers, then I don’t think we should use it that way either.
    - Alan

  6. 12-9-2006


    I would interested to hear your other possible answers to those problems. I have thought about this same question a bit as well.

  7. 12-9-2006


    We get our “membership” language from the “members” terms in the Bible. However, the two are not the same. Being “members” refers to our participation in the body of Christ and with one another – just as my arm is part of my body and co-part with my leg. That seems to be different that the way “membership” is used.

    For example, it is possible that someone can be a “member” of the body of Christ, without having “membership” with a group of believers. In this case, “membership” tends to separate the body.

    The other way that “membership” language tends to separate the body in the cases of church discipline (which you mentioned) and beleivers’ responsibities to one another. For example, I have seen practiced and heard taught that I – as a believer – am not responsible for the “one anothers” of Scripture toward someone who does not share “membership” with me. I do not think this is what Scripture teaches.

    As far as church discipline… that is a tricky one, isn’t it? Of course, its tricky for “membership” as well, since it is just as easy to change “membership” than deal with discipline. I wrote a blog a while back about discipline and fellowship. I believe that true fellowship (not membership) is necessary for discipline to work as intended.

    This is not a quick and easy system, true. But, I’m not sure that Scripture teaches a quick and easy system. I’m sure that I did not answer your question as you wished… but that’s the best I have for now. I’m still studying and learning.

    - Alan

  8. 12-9-2006


    The term “membership” is a non-issue with me. Also, I completely agree about the “one anothers” not being limited to local fellowship, but rather a “universal” church thing as well. Also, I believe local churches should, for general purposes, respect the discipline imposed by other local churches, provided they recognize them as authentic churches. And, no I am not anywhere close to being Landmarkist. But, I will grant there are such things as “false churches” out there.

    What you still never touched on is the point about accountability and submission to leadership. For whom are leaders responsible to lead? What particular sheep are shepherds to shepherd? And, to what leaders in particular are the sheep to submit to? Maybe the term “membership” is never used the way in the NT. But, at least, it seems to me the concept is there, in the need to define who is in covenant fellowship with one another in a particular locality, recognizing leaders at a local level, and deciding on and enforcing discipline issues.

  9. 12-9-2006


    Who are leaders responsible to lead? Whoever God brings into their life. Similarly, those same “leaders” are responsible for following others who are leading them in Christ. I know there are people who are following me as I follow Christ. Some of those share “membership” with me in a particular group of believers. Others do not share “membership.” However, I am still responsible for how I lead them.

    Similarly, others are responsible to God for how the lead me – whether or not we share “membership.” Again, I think the “membership” term tends to make distinctions that Scripture does not make.

    Note, I am speaking about things here that I am still studying and learning. I appreciate your questions, and I appreciate hearing your view of these things. Most of all, I thank God for grace. I know that I am wrong on many issues. I trust that God will show that to me through Scripture, and through other believers, such as yourself.

    - Alan

  10. 12-10-2006

    Thanks for making me reflect a little deeper on all of this.

    It seems to me that the development of the Roman Catholic Church (and Eastern Orthodox-Byzantine as well), and subsequent events such as the Protestant Reformation, and the introduction of denominationalism pretty much makes it impossible to return a purely New Testament ecclesiology. I think the point we are talking about now is a point in case.

    As I envision the NT church, all the believers in a given locality (city or rural area) functioned together as “one church” many times made up of many different house groups, which are also referred to as individual “churches.” It also seems that the elders in the locality worked together as a team. It seems hard to demonstrate, from what I can tell, the presence of elders in each house group, though equally hard to demonstrate the opposite.

    Whenever a believer would arrive in a particular locality, he/she automatically was regarded as a “member” of the only “church” in that locality, unless there was some doubt regarding the authenticity of his/her profession of faith. It was thus pretty clear who were the “leaders” in a particular area. I believe they were officially recognized. And the ones who were “subject” to them were all of the believers in the locality.

    At the same time, the individual “churches” of each locality were in close fellowship one with another, as were the various teams of elders.

    However, it would appear that the reality of the historical situation in which we now live has rendered all this practically impossible. Of course, none of this has caught God by surprise. And I don’t believe that, as a result, He has abandoned the local church as His way (or at least, one of His main ways) of working to build His Kingdom in the world.

    What to do? I believe we must take a “hermeneutical” approach to principles extant in the NT church context, and translate them into workable practices in the current context. Some of these principles, at least as I understand it, include spiritual leadership, with defined accountability, and discipline. Also, the basic unity of all believers. I believe a lack of a defined “membership” in the local church structure that history has bequeathed us today would make it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out these NT principles.

    I will definitely agree, though, it is not nearly so clear and “neatly packaged” as some people would want us to think.

  11. 12-10-2006


    I agree with you completely up to the point where you said, “The reality of the historical situation in which we now live has rendered all this practically impossible.” I do not believe it is every impossible to live as God would have us live. Does God recognize the church in our current organizations and institutions? Absolutely! However, that does not mean that we are always obediently following him in the way we live as the church. We can – and must – continually change – individually and corporately – in order to live as the Spirit directs us. I believe that the Reformation demonstrates that it is possible to change the direction of the church – God willing and God empowered.

    - Alan

  12. 12-10-2006


    This conversation is getting good. Thanks for the opportunity to discuss these things.

    Are you familiar with Wolfgang Simson? His teachings on the house church movement have become quite influential within the IMB, at least, in certain sectors, in the past couple of years.

    In any case, he really develops the idea of the city church and its relationship with individual house churches. He also talks a lot about the “5-fold leadership” of Eph. 4.11, and holds that it is carried out biblically in the context of the city church, with no specific hierarchical administrative structures.

    This is all very intriguing, and even appealing, for someone (as I perceive both you and me to be) who is sincerely seeking after biblical truth, even when it clashes with human tradition.

    Where I am having “trouble” making the “pieces all fit” is when it comes to putting into practice the unity of the Body. It seems like there is an inevitable shunning, or at best, spiritual contempt, for those in denominations and other ecclesistical groupings that do not recognize the basic principles, and leadership team in the proposed “city church.” How do you make the two “fit together” in one unified Body? At least, in the current system, flawed as it may be, there is often a mutual recognition of other groups as co-equals before God.

    As we look back on church history, it seems those who get overly idealistic about ecclesiology and unity end up being more divisive than anyone (e.g. the Munster community, Campbellism, Witness Lee, etc.). The other alternatives are Roman Catholic hegemony (or another equivalent) or WCC-style ecumenism, both of which I think would be worse even yet.

    Got any good thoughts in regards to balance in all of this?

  13. 12-10-2006


    I agree, this conversation is good. I always enjoy conversations concerning the church.

    I am familiar with Wolfgang Simson and Houses that Changed the World. He has many good things to say, but I’m not sure I agree with his understanding of the “5-fold ministry.” I’m not sure that Paul is describing different “positions” in Eph 4:11.

    I do not understand this statement that you made: “It seems like there is an inevitable shunning, or at best, spiritual contempt, for those in denominations and other ecclesistical groupings that do not recognize the basic principles, and leadership team in the proposed ‘city church.'”

    Are you saying that those within the “city church” are shunning those within denominations and other ecclesiastical groupings, or the other way around?


    - Alan

  14. 12-11-2006


    I don’t remember that Simson necessarily describes “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, & teachers” as people with a title or official position, but rather as gifted leaders that generally operate in one of those primary areas of gifting. In a way, the idea makes a lot of sense, at least in my opinion, in the context of a house church network.

    As far as your question, I am saying that the “shunning” and “contempt” tends to be 2-way, both from house church/city church people towards denominational/traditional types, and vice-versa.

    In the region of Spain where I worked for 10 years, Extremadura, there was a very active Evangelical Council, with a really good spirit of unity between local churches, workers, and denominations. It concerns me, if someone were to come into Extremadura and try to set up the “true, biblical, regional church of Extremadura” that did not take into account the already existing structures, and the communion existing among those that already formed part of the Body, but were perhaps not ready to embrace house church/city church ecclesiology, what would happen.

  15. 12-11-2006


    I may be confusing Simson with Frost & Hirsch. I recently read their book The Shaping of Things to Come. They also promote the 5-fold ministry (APEPT) from Eph 4:11.

    I have also seen the “shunning” and “contempt” that goes both ways. I honestly do not understand it. I have noticed that institutional churches tend to look down their noses as house churches, or they see house churches as “immature” churches that may one day grow up to be a “real” church. I have also seen “house church” promoters who seem to be more “against” institutional church than for anything at all.

    I realize that it is not a very popular opinion, but I believe that the church should live and work together, in all of its “flavors”. Anything that separates the body of Christ cannot be from God. Now, I realize that is a strong statement, and I should probably soften it…. but I don’t think I’m going to.

    Unfortunately, though, everyone does not hold to the same convictions. You have seen this on your blog as many people do not hold the unity of the church as highly as you do. I cannot make someone cooperate with me as the church. However, I can live as God has called me to live… and that is what I desire to do more than anything else. Perhaps through my living as the church with “other” Christians, some of “my” brothers and sisters will recognize God’s plan for unity.

    - Alan

  16. 12-13-2006


    Completely in agreement with your last comment!

    In any case, I hope I was able to explain why I still think the concept of “membership,” even though not directly stipulated in Scripture, is the best application in the current context of principles that indeed are present in Scripture.



  17. 12-13-2006


    I do understand your position, even though I don’t agree with it. I guess some would think we should break fellowship with one another since we can’t agree… (sarcastic smile)

    Again, I appreciate the discussion on this topic and many others. Keep asking the difficult questions of me and others. God is using you to build up his body.

    - Alan

  18. 12-14-2006

    Alan –
    I think that last comment hit it on the head. I believe that the beginning of the restoration of a unity concept starts with people living it out humbly, lovingly, and with a desire to see God work in their lives and the lives of the people around them. Recently Cindy has also suggested writing about these ideas in a simple and readable form so that people might start to think about these issues and ultimately seek God’s wisdom in Scripture. We need to be sharp thinkers of Scriptures and theology who then turn around and explain it simply and clearly so that people can learn and grow.


  19. 12-14-2006


    Cindy is very wise. Most of the good things that I have read about the church seem to be academics arguing with other academics. Yet, the ideas never reach people outside of academia. Meanwhile, others publish “popular” works of questionable value, and everyone eats it up. Perhaps this is showing two things: 1) Academics needs to publish “popular” works and 2) Academics are not making disciples? Just a couple of thoughts.