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The Scriptural Language of Membership

Posted by on Feb 11, 2010 in community, fellowship, members | 17 comments

The language of “membership” (or more specifically “member”) is used in several places in the New Testament (primarily in Paul’s letters) to indicate our relationship to one another and to Christ:

For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Romans 12:4-5 ESV)

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14 ESV. See also 1 Corinthians 12:18-27)

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Ephesians 4:25 ESV)

For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. (Ephesians 5:29-30 ESV)

The misunderstanding in these passages, unfortunately, is that the English word “member” carries connotations that the Greek term translated “member” above does not carry. The Greek term translated “member” is closer to the English terms “limb” or “part”.

What’s the danger? Well, someone can become a “member” of a group by decision of either the individual or the group. However, a “limb” (i.e., arm or leg) does not decide to become part of a body, nor does a body decide that a “limb” is now part of it. The “limb” is part of the body by definition… identity.

In fact, this is exactly what Paul is teaching in the passages above. If you read the context, you’ll find that are “members” of one another – we do not have to choose to become “members” of one another. We find that God through his Spirit makes us “members” of one another, the group does not decide that someone may become a “member”. While this language of choosing and deciding is applicable for the English term “member”, it is not applicable in the Pauline usage of this concept.

Thus, we cannot translate the scriptural language of “members of one another” into an organizational concept of membership, in which either party can choose or decide to become a member of a group.

If God brings one of his children into my life, then we are automatically members of one another, we do not have to decide to become members of one another. Our relationship with one another is wrapped up in our identity as children of God and, therefore, we relate as brothers and sisters with one another, and are thus responsible for one another as family.

Unfortunately, too often, the scriptural language of “members of one another” is translated and interpreted as organizational membership. Thus, we choose who will be “members” with us, even though, according to Scripture, this is not our choice. We choose to be “members” with one person or group and choose NOT to be “members” with another person or group.

We need to understand that our organizational choices concerning “membership” bear no relationship to the scriptural idea of “members of one another”. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are members of one another in Christ, and are thus responsible to live as family with one another.

We can’t choose otherwise.


17 Comments

Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 2-11-2010

    It drives me bonkers when people use these passages to defend formal organizational membership. See it says member right there, that must imply new member classes!

  2. 2-11-2010

    I had a post in the making called “who am I responsible for”? You took the post right out of my mind :o). I hate to say this for the fear of it being misconstrued; however, our current model of “church membership” is actually a divisive tool, it now allows me to not take care of others in the name of the “local congregation”.

  3. 2-11-2010

    Alan, tell me again why you’re a Southern Baptist? ;)

  4. 2-11-2010

    Hey Steve,

    I have really pondered what you said on the post about scripture, you have really got me thinking, thanks a lot for throwing something else on my plate :(

  5. 2-11-2010

    Lionel, sorry to put more stuff on your plate. ;)

    Are you referring to the entire discussion, or my final question about fellowship? I was curious that you hadn’t responded to my question at all, so I’m relieved to know that you’ve been pondering it.

  6. 2-11-2010

    At first I thought “Steve is a raging heretic” but then I said “maybe this guy is on to something”. And I think you were right, it just sort of attacked my view on Sola Scriptura, Inerrancy….. But I have pondered it and it was more in reference to the bible as a manual instead of revelation to a specific community. Maybe you can email me some more of your perspective and maybe Alan has something. Either way, I have pondered it and now I think I at least can concur with the statement especially if I am to be fair with the whole arguement of cannonization and all.

  7. 2-11-2010

    Steve IS a raging heretic ;) …. great post, as always, Alan!!!

  8. 2-11-2010

    So, we can best read these by replacing “members” with “body parts” to get a sense of the sort of interconnection analogy Paul is giving us? That is very helpful. Old KJ English, I think, called our body parts “members.”

    How I wish that we could grasp this interconnectedness in tangible ways.

  9. 2-11-2010

    Alan,

    That’s so good! How simple, yet unable to be understood, or is it, unwilling?

    Of course, pastors are not parts of the Body. They’re over it! (I’m not normally sarcastic. Just couldn’t help myself! :)

  10. 2-11-2010

    Arthur,

    I can understand your frustration. People are sometimes extremely passionate about “membership” too.

    Lionel,

    Yes, the concept of “church membership” can be divisive.

    Steve,

    I’m a Southern Baptist because the church that I’m part of associates with the Southern Baptist Convention. :)

    Heather,

    I agree ;) … and thanks.

    Art,

    Yes, I think the idea of “body parts” does demonstrate our interconnectedness better than the idea of an organizational membership. What do you think?

    Aussie John,

    I like sarcasm. :)

    -Alan

  11. 2-12-2010

    Alan,
    “I’m a Southern Baptist because the church that I’m part of associates with the Southern Baptist Convention.”

    Your answer makes me smile. That sums up where I’m at. I’m a Christian and Missionary Alliance because the assembly I fellowship with associates with C&MA. I haven’t concluded yet that because I disagree with some of their denominational stuff I have to leave and find a group who agrees with everything I believe (as if that is ever likely).

    Appreciated this post too.

    I guess related to this post – even if I ‘left’ this ‘body’ I’d really still be connected anyways.

  12. 2-17-2010

    I really like what you said about church membership. I have been struggling with this issue for a long time. I believe it is by the Spirit that we are made members of one another. Perhaps we are trying to create oneness in a man-made fashion through the formality of “church membership”. I have been ostracized personally because of my strong convictions on this matter. The church I was in divided the people into 2 catagories: “members of the body” and “active attenders.” My heart was grieved that i could not be classified as a member of the body. I was also accused of “shacking up” because i wouldn’t sign the membership role. (I thought we were married to Christ, not to one another.) I also wonder why a pastor who believes that he is called to give an account for the souls of his flock would take on more sheep than he could possibly care for. I would take that calling very seriously.

  13. 10-11-2012

    Great post, Alan. Thank you!

    ‘Formal church membership’ may be okay as an organizational tool, but sometimes too much is made of it and in ways that tend to obscure the biblical doctrine and divide Christians. As you said, the two kinds of membership should not be confused.

    Some folk argue that formal church membership is necessary because a local church cannot practice church discipline without out. They tend to read formal membership into passages that talk about church discipline — such as 1 Cor. 5:12 which speaks of “insiders” and “outsiders.” “How can we know who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’ without a membership roll?”

    I think the answer is fairly simple. The people who regularly assemble as professing believers, and claim to belong to the body of Christ (as limbs/members, branches of the Vine, sheep in Christ’s flock, etc.), and bear spiritual fruit are the ones we receive and care for as brothers and sisters in the Lord. We are responsible to do so!

    If any one who claims to be a brother (1 Cor. 5:11; 2 Thess. 3:6) becomes a glaring contradiction and reproach to the name of Christ, via immorality, heresy (Rom. 16:17), etc., then we lovingly but firmly encourage/challenge/ask them to correct the situation (repent) or leave. No councils or excommunication meetings or edicts are required. This amounts to Christian peer pressure, using a legitimate form of moral suasion in the form of admonition and rebuke, resulting in either correction or rejection. Restoration to fellowship (sharing life in service to the Lord and one another) is always an option should the unrepentant person eventually “come to his senses” and return like the straying prodigal.

    There’s another angle to this too. People can be on a membership roll but rarely attend church. Or they can attend but never really participate in any significant way. Of what value is this kind of ‘membership?’ The membership of which the NT speaks carries with it significant privileges and responsibilities — facets of God’s calling of a believer into fellowship with His Son — that are of eternal significance and value.

  14. 10-12-2012

    Rick,

    Yes, exactly. That type of formal organizational membership is not beneficial in helping anyone know who is or who is not part of God’s family and therefore members of Christ with one another. But, formal organizational membership often gives the impression that it is the same as being members of Christ with one another.

    -Alan

  15. 6-14-2013

    Dear Alan,

    Few people in Hungary we are walking an some way. I translated your post “The Scriptural Language of Membership” into Hungarian and would like to post it on my blog: http://keskenyut.wordpress.com

    I am already keeping contact with David Bolton in USA too translated more from his articles too.

    God bless you in USA

    Sándor

  16. 6-14-2013

    We used the formal membership earlierly too but now I don’t belive that would be the Lord purpose.

    Sandor

  17. 6-15-2013

    Sandor,

    Yes, you can share anything that I write that you find beneficial.

    -Alan

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