July 5, 2013

Church Membership (Part 1)

Preamble:

Working fulltime and chipping away at some graduate studies have pushed my blogging time pretty far down the list of things to spend time doing. As a part of my studies I have had to research, think through, and write on a variety of different theological subjects. To launch my summer blogging I will be posting some adapted excerpts from two of my papers. Most of what I write is within the context of the Mennonite Brethren church. I think it can expanded beyond that context as well to a more broad evangelical and/or anabaptist audience. I hope it's helpful for someone.

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Some Christians in Abbotsford will eagerly approach the baptismal waters with the desire to live for the glory of Jesus Christ, and yet see little or no value in committing themselves to His Bride. There is a noticeable discomfort regarding church membership. One underlying reason behind such discomfort is “an attitude that reflects the increasing tendency towards individualism in our culture”,[1] another legitimate cause is a poor understanding of what church membership means. This post will articulate why covenant community provides the best understanding of church membership.

In 2003 the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Church facilitated a Study Conference to explore and articulate the connection between baptism and membership. Papers were submitted by reputable and skilled Mennonite Brethren thinkers, and responded to by peers of equal skill and repute. The Mennonite Brethren hold clear views about the meaning and the necessity of believers’ baptism, and its connection to church membership. However, they do not have any clear or standardized teaching on the meaning of church membership, other than it being indispensable for those who wish to grow in their commitment to the Lord Jesus. Dr. Bruce Guenther provided the most elaborate analysis of the meanings of membership in his response to Dr. Walter Unger’s paper “The Church ‘Without Spot or Wrinkle’”, which was presented at the 2003 CCMB Study Conference.[2]

Dr. Guenther explored the five strands of meaning associated with church membership throughout history in the Mennonite Brethren context. The five strands of meaning for church membership Guenther presented are: Political, Social, Organizational/Legal, Sacramental, and Theological. These five strands are a helpful starting place for a more detailed articulation of the meaning(s) of membership in the Mennonite Brethren context. When each strand is evaluated by its connection to (and description in) the New Testament a refining process of identifying the essentials of church membership and the important implications of church membership slowly emerges. The essentials of church membership can fit under the umbrella term covenant community. The elements that are connected to membership, but are not essential, function as important implications of church membership as a covenant community.

An examination of the essentials of membership is necessary for a definition of covenant community. The following list outlines what I believe to be the essential components of a covenant community: Initial and ongoing evidence of a life transformed by the gospel and submitted to Christ’s Lordship; a commitment to a community of believers as a local expression of the universal church; a commitment to mutual accountability in faith and life within the local church; a commitment to participate in the disciple-making mission of the church with time, ability, and finances; a commitment to use gifts and abilities to edify the local church; prayerful submission to the leaders of the local church; and a desire to glorify God in all things. Thus, a covenant community can be defined as: A God initiated community, purchased and won by Jesus Christ, that is empowered by the Holy Spirit to work out their salvation by loving, edifying, and equipping one another, and making disciples of all nations for the glory of God.[3]

Some important implications of church membership as a covenant community include: Participation in decision-making within the local church; availability and openness for serving in appointed positions of leadership within the local church and denomination; allowing your name to be included on an active membership list for Revenue Canada requirements and local church records; and receiving scholarships for fees involved with enrolment in denominational secondary and post-secondary institutions. The above list is not exhaustive but rather demonstrates the kind of elements included as important implications of, though not essential to, church membership.

For the Mennonite Brethren, baptism and membership are seen as a package deal. Believer's baptism is all about someone committing to live for, and follow, Jesus Christ. Church membership, when understood as a covenant community, is a vital foundation for an individual to grow in their faith and live for Jesus. Connecting personal baptism (i.e. commitment to living for Christ) and entering covenant community makes the most theological sense from a biblical and historical perspective.[4] Church membership can, and does mean, lots of things in our contemporary society. Some of these things are biblical, while others are pragmatic and just a part of being in a recognized non-profit in North America. Church membership, though, is essentially about being in a covenant community with other believers for the glory of God.

Footnotes

[1] MB Confession of Faith: Commentary and Pastoral Application. - p.94

[2] Bruce L. Guenther, "The Meaning of Membership" - http://www.mbconf.ca/resource/File/2003May22-24-TheMeaningofMembership-AresponsetoTheChurchWithoutSpotorWrinkle-BruceL.Guenther.PDF.

[3] Adapted from Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine - p.1239


[4] The next post will explore Church Membership as Covenant Community from a biblical and historical perspective.

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