On the Vocabulary of Church ‘Membership’
People who are part of a particular congregation are often called church “members.” This language is profoundly biblical, and is a visible, covenantal manifestation of the believer’s union with Christ.
μέλος (melos) is the Greek word used to describe the individual parts of a body (literally “body member”). For example, the tongue is an individual member of the body (James 3:5-6). μέλος is used metaphorically to describe the relationship between believers and Christ. Individual believers are all μέλη (members) of Christ (Romans 12:4-5), because we are in Christ. This union with Christ is total: even our bodies, as part of ourselves, are μέλη of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:15, Ephesians 5:29-30). We have been united to Christ as his members through the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). The abiding of John 14 is best described in terms of our union with Christ, our membership in and with him.
This is developed most clearly in Ephesians. The gospel is revealed in the Gentiles, along with Jews, being brought by the Holy Spirit into the church (Ephesians 2:18-22), as οἰκεῖοι (oikeoi), household members of God’s family. Because of the gospel, Jews and Gentiles alike are σύσσωμα (sus-soma), of the same body (Ephesians 3:6). By the Holy Spirit, Christians are made members of the household of God, because we share in the same body, that is, we are all united to Christ. The church is the body of Christ, of which he is the head (Ephesians 1:22-23), and is the household cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). This μέλη, union in Christ is central to the mystery of the gospel relationship of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:29-32).
The μέλη of the church then also describes the way in which individual Christians relate to each other as a whole. Being united to Christ as his individual members is the basis of the communion of saints: by our union with Christ, Christians are members of Jesus and each other (Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12:14-30, Ephesians 4:25). In all three of these passages and their greater context the church as gathered, worshipping community is being described. The roles of pastors and teachers, along with other institutional features are present, as part of this gathered, worshipping community. Being members of each other, as a result our union with Christ, requires us to belong to visible expressions of the body of Christ, including the institutional ministry of the gospel.
To be a Christian is to be a member of Christ. To be a member of Christ is to be a member of the church. To be a member of the church is to be a participant in the institutional life of the church. Or to reverse the order: church membership reflects our union with Christ. That’s what makes the term profoundly biblical.
The term and understanding of “church membership” has fallen on hard times lately. Anabaptist criticisms of it have existed for centuries, but in recent years there has been an uptick in the term’s rejection. For instance, ECO uses the phrase “covenant partner” to describe local church participation instead. Membership sounded too much like joining a club. That is a decent missional concern, but I doubt the meaning of “covenant partner” is more accessible to non-Christians, and it does not reflect specific biblical vocabulary. Covenant participation is certainly a dominant biblical idea, but covenant “partnership” is not, or at least not without additional definition. The idea of partnership implies an equality or peerage, something that is true of the congregants in a church, but not of the church’s relationship to Jesus.
On the other end of the spectrum is the annual renewal of church membership. This is a growing trend in which a church clears its membership records every year and requires everyone to rejoin. Typically there are service requirements attached to church membership: in order to renew or rejoin the church you’ve got to hit a certain amount of service in the life of the church or community that goes beyond worshiping. This is the “club” mentality of church membership, designed to foster deeper buy in. Membership is about associations of service, not about abiding in Christ. Spiritual membership in the body of Christ or as a member in the household of God does not expire or require certain expressions of service in order to be maintained. Insofar as church membership is an expression of membership in Christ, annual renewal demands that people must be united to Christ and do things in order to maintain church membership. It requires actions in addition to faith in order to be part of a church. Membership in Christ certainly has an ethical dimension to it, but annual renewal severs the visible expression of that membership whether or not sin has occurred. Annual renewal membership then has detached local membership from being an expression of membership in Christ.