My family came to Michigan, and soon after my church, when I started fourth grade. In eighth grade I took the membership class and became a member. At that time, I did it because that’s just what one did. I’d become a Christ-follower when I was five, professed that in baptism at eleven, so the next step was to become an official part of “my local body.” I went away to college and found a church home there, but afterward God brought me back to Michigan and to my husband, whose family also called my local church “home” though he’d spent most of his life overseas. We were married at our church, and saw no need to go elsewhere. Our church taught the truth, and we had family and friends there. Nothing more was required by us.
According to Merriam-Webster.com, the basic definition of “member” is the following:
1: a body part or organ—as a) limb, b) a unit of structure in a plant body2: one of the individuals composing a group3: a person baptized or enrolled in a church4: a part of a whole: as a) a syntactic or rhythmic unit of a sentence: clause, b) one of the propositions of a syllogism, c) one of the elements of a set or class, d) either of the equated elements in a mathematical equation
Ostensibly, a member of a church goes with the third definition, and fits with my original reasons for joining. I was there. I believed what my local body taught. Therefore, I became a member. In eighth grade I could start to go to business meetings (if I really wanted to!) and could serve in more roles throughout the church. When I was of voting age, I could participate in making certain decisions in the church based on the structure of our organization. Cut, dry, to the point. It was pretty boring for the most part, except for when meetings got heated and certain members argued over issues large and small; then it just got uncomfortable.
But over the years, I have come to have a better understanding of what being a “member” means, and in the past year I’ve had to wrestle with it. When it comes to the church, the first definition of “member” is closer to the mark. I am, by nature of following Jesus Christ, a member of his “body” of which He is the Head, as in 1 Corinthians 12:12-14,
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.”
Again, clearly, this isn’t referencing one local church. This is speaking of all who follow Christ worldwide. It’s pretty mind-boggling when one thinks of it; I can be a foot over here, and have a fellow hand in Ukraine, or Kenya, or the Philippines—you name it. If you’ve ever had a chance to visit a church in another part of the world, you’ve probably experienced that wonder of joining together in song or communion, even with a language barrier, and have sensed the Holy Spirit there, flowing through, creating unity where there is so much difference. Nothing can compare with this.
And even at home in my church in Michigan there have been local body members who have come and gone over the years. By nature our area is transient. For many years, the car companies kept a regular in-flow and out-flow of families. More recently many have had to move due to economy. Pastors have come and gone, called to other ministries. In all these there was a farewell, and in each case a loss, but while painful in the sense of having to say good-bye, it was not a tearing of the body. That member was simply elsewhere, and God was now using him or her in another place, and He filled the empty place in our local body. At times some of these members have returned to visit or moved back and there is a joy in their return. Some members have died, and that too, while painful, has a sense of hope. It gives us another person to look forward to seeing again someday, and makes Heaven that much more real.
But then there are the other reasons why members leave. In a church of our size it’s inevitable there will be people with different perspectives as to how the body should work. As a result, conflict occurs, and many times the result is a rending of the body. Members tear themselves out, or are torn out. Some say the leaving is due to doctrinal issues, some stylistic or structural reasons. Some leave because they truly feel there is sin present that hasn’t been dealt with, and they aren’t willing to keep pushing for things to change. Some leave because they don’t feel welcomed. We have lost pastors because of disagreements. Each time these losses are a wound to the body. If the wound is dealt with in a godly manner, the result is a healed scar. If it is not dealt with…the result is a festering sore.
|Leonardo da Vinci sketch|
In our current culture, I’ve seen a growing trend of people attending a church, but not becoming members. There seem to be a number of reasons, a strong one being that desire to avoid the in-fighting and pettiness that many church “memberships” have come to symbolize. There is a desire that coming to church to worship and participate should relate directly to a relationship with God through Christ. It should not be a process of working out, and potentially battling out, church policy. I think many believers genuinely feel that, “If I am part of the body of Christ, then it doesn’t matter which local body I attend. We should all be unified no matter where we go and we are dividing ourselves if we take on membership in one place.”
The situation at our church over the past few years would seem to support these arguments pretty strongly. When our previous pastor resigned, our church went through a process of restructuring how we functioned. Both our pastor’s resignation and our church’s restructuring led to people leaving. In the midst of this, there were growing issues over worship style, and that led to a great loss of fingers, limbs and vital organs. These issues culminated this summer in a surprise upset when our worship pastor received an insufficient number of votes for an eldership role, leading to his resignation. Because of this, elbows, toes and vital organs on the other side of the issue have torn themselves from our local body. I’m sure there has also been a loss of some who were attending but weren’t official members. Why would anyone commit to an organization that is so faulty?
So, why am I still a member of such a faulty organization?
|Leonardo da Vinci sketch|
This is the question that my husband and I have wrestled with for the past few years, and here is our conclusion. Being a member of a local church is not the same as being a member of a club or business or institution. I am a part of a family, and more, a body. Christ is the Head, and as long as this local body teaches the truth of Christ, the truth of God, through the truth of the Bible, I have no justification to leave. In fact, if I leave because I am upset about something, whatever that something is, I am not functioning as part of the body is supposed to function. If there is sin within the body, but not in the undergirding truth taught and believed, I must stand for the truth and fight for it until we fall on our faces before our Head, so that the sin is dealt with and restoration occurs. Going to another local church because I prefer their worship style or governance structure will not help me function in the best way I can in the worldwide body of Christ. I may have more uniformity with that local body, but will there be true unity? If my church is made up of noses, where will be the hand to hold the tissue if we catch a cold?
“Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:15-26)
|Leonardo da Vinci sketch|
I don’t believe that this blunt and beautiful picture of true body-life can be seen if Christ-followers are not members of a local body. If I am not connected to and committed to a local Christ-following community, how will those around me who don’t know Christ see what relationships within the body can really be like? One may argue, “But all I see is the divisiveness!” Then obviously our body isn’t functioning as it should. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). How does this love look to those around us? Do I love my fellow members simply because I agree with their perspective all the time? Because they never fail? Or do I love them because they are fellow body parts, found, loved, forgiven and put together by our beloved Head…and I wouldn’t be whole without them? I think it would be an incredible witness to our community if they could see my local body and say, “Wow! What a crazy hodge-podge of people…and yet they all seem to love each other. How does that happen?”
My church is not there yet, but it still teaches what is true. There are still a lot of festering sores. I think we are only just beginning to see that the only way we can become whole is if we take these wounds and failings and lay them before our Head. But there are still many members here who know this is their family, their body, for all its warts and underarm hair. These are the members who remain committed through the ups and downs, who stand against trends of culture, and say, “For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health….” My husband and I are committed to being members like this, and we will continue with our local body, serving in whatever ways we can, until or unless God calls us to another local body in far-off regions.