CHURCH MEMBERSHIP

BY:  ROBERT FITTS

 

How not to Produce Loyalty

The Problems of “Paper Membership”

A Biblical View of Membership

 

(The following is chapter six in the book, The Church in the House - A Return to Simplicity, by Robert Fitts. To read the entire book, email Mr. Fitts at <robertjoni@gmail.com> for the complete text as an e-book. No charge)

 

Have you made the delightful discovery that you are a member of every church in town? If you belong to Jesus, you are a member of His body, whatever church you attend, whether your name is on the roll or not. This thought may be startling at first, but after comparing it with certain statements in the book of Acts, we see that it is a true statement.   

 

    (Acts 2:41) "Those who accepted his message were baptized and about 3000 were added to their number."   

    (Acts 2:47) ". . . and the Lord added to their number those who were being saved."   

    (Acts 4:4) ". . . and the number grew to about 5,000."   

    (Acts 5:12-14) "And all the believers in Jerusalem used to meet together in Solomon's Colonnade. No one else dared join them . . . nevertheless more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number."   

 

(Acts 5:42-6:1) "Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ. In those days . . . the number of disciples was increasing."   

 

(Acts 8:1-3) "On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem . . . Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house he dragged off men and women and put them in prison."   

 

As we meditate on the passages above, some facts become evident:  

 

The thousands of believers scattered throughout the city of Jerusalem were called THE CHURCH. They had a very clear understanding that, even though they met in a multitude of tiny congregations in houses all over the city which were also called "churches", there was, in fact, only one body of Christ in the city of Jerusalem called "the church."   

 

The Lord was the one who added people to the church. There is no indication that there was a membership roll or list of members for each individual gathering. Throughout the New Testament there is never the slightest hint of a local congregation making up a membership roll of those who were exclusively members of that particular group. On the contrary, the idea is always clearly presented that every believer in the entire city were members one of another, because they were members of the Body of Christ in that place. 

 

The only qualification for being added to the number was being born again, another term for "saved." "The Lord added to their number those who were being saved." To add anything else as a condition for becoming a member of a local fellowship is totally without scriptural grounds and is a direct challenge to the Holy Spirit who has already added every born-again believer to the number of disciples in that city. We immediately become members of Jesus' Body the moment we are born again. 

 

Moreover, we have no grounds whatever to call some believers who attend our meetings "members" and some "non-members." Every person who is saved is a member of Jesus' body and therefore a member of the congregation of believers he is presently attending. As a matter of fact, he is a member of every local congregation in the city, because all the local congregations together make up the Body of Christ in that place.

 

Although the church in Jerusalem had many local gatherings meeting in homes, they all came together in the temple courts for larger public gatherings. We read of the church scattered into small gatherings in houses for nurturing as well as larger gatherings in public places.

 

In all the references above, "the number" refers to all the believers throughout Jerusalem. The phrase "the number" and "the church" are used interchangeably. This makes it clear that when the Lord adds you to "the number" he is adding you to "the church" of which there is only one for the entire city. This does not contradict the fact that there were many house churches throughout the city which made up the city-wide church. The practice of making up a "membership" roll has no precedent in the New Testament. It is a device that has become a snare and has been used by the enemy to further divide the Body of Christ into isolated compartments throughout the city. It encourages division rather than unity among God's people.

 

We have been taught that if you are a member of a particular church, you cannot be a member of any other church because you owe your loyalty, your allegiance, your time, your talents, and your tithe to one church and to no other; as if attending or helping another congregation of God's people would in some way be disloyalty to the church, the Body of Christ.

 

We must separate the two issues of membership and commitment. They are not the same thing. I can be a member of every church in town and still honor all my commitments to teach, to lead, to labor, to give, to assist in various congregations throughout the city. I can fulfill all my commitments to any part of the Body of Christ without having to restrict myself to attending only one fellowship of believers.

 

Everything that belongs to Christ within the city belongs to every believer within the city. Any other view leads to a spirit of competition, jealousy, and sectarianism, which is heresy. For this reason it is wrong to call anyone a "church tramp", or a "church hopper", or a "grasshopper", or a "butterfly" or any other derogatory name just because he or she may attend and function in more than one congregation.

 

This brings us to another word that has been used to strike fear into anyone who would dare try to "steal sheep." The awesome, chilling word is . . . PROSELYTIZING! The word "proselyte" is found 4 times in the Bible. It means, "an arriver from a foreign region, i.e. a convert to Judaism." This word can never be used to describe Christians who flow freely from one congregation to another.

 

In the first place, none of these sheep belong to any pastor. They belong to Jesus. Every apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor is only to watch over, protect, and feed Jesus' sheep. They are not to possess them as their own. They do not belong to them. One may say: "But as a pastor, I am commissioned to protect them from danger." That is true when it comes to protecting them from heresy or from Satan's snares, but it certainly does not mean that they are to be protected from each other! We need to encourage fellowship among the saints within the city who make up the Body of Christ. And what ever gave us the idea that it was only the pastors who had responsibility over the sheep? God gave all four offices to bring the sheep into maturity, not just the office of pastor/teacher. The apostle, the prophet, and the evangelist have the same responsibility as the pastor/teacher in bringing God's people up to maturity.

 

In the second place, the word "proselytize" can only mean bringing a person out of one religion into another, not from one Christian congregation into another. The word is never used in the Bible in that sense. You cannot proselytize a Christian unless you take him out of Christianity into another religion. This word cannot apply to the free flow of the sheep from one Christian shepherd to another. It is the privilege of the sheep to seek spiritual nurture and guidance from any of God's anointed leaders, at any time or place, and it is the duty of every pastor, evangelist, prophet, and apostle to nurture and guide any and all of Jesus' sheep who come to them for help. Let us never be guilty of trying to rope Jesus' sheep into our fold and brand them with our particular brand. They belong to Jesus and can find pasture through any of his under-shepherds, anywhere, anytime. For those who may resent being called "sheep", just remember that we are all called sheep, including the shepherds. "We are the sheep of His pasture." (Ps. 100)

 

HOW NOT TO PRODUCE LOYALTY

 

"But if I don't have a membership roll with some basic requirements, such as tithing, faithful attendance, godly living, and witnessing, how will I ever have faithful people?" Such a question exposes the error of a system that produces pure legalism. Do we think that we can produce spiritual maturity in our people by binding them to some kind of legal code of ethics, using "membership" as leverage? This gets close to the practice of selling "indulgences" practiced by the Roman Catholic Church a few hundred years ago.  Are we selling church membership by making up a set of requirements which includes regular giving of the tithe?

 

Let's just receive everyone who attends our meetings and work with him to develop spiritual maturity to whatever extent he is willing to follow our leadership. That will take all the pressure off you and him and does away with first class and second class citizens. They will all be on the same level. And if, while they are attending your gatherings, they are also attending other meetings, just praise the Lord that they are hungry enough spiritually to want more than you can give them and pray for the other pastor or leader who is helping you feed Jesus' sheep.

 

The charge of "proselytizing" should never be heard among true, God-called pastors. Any shepherd who seeks to lure sheep unto himself for selfish or greedy purposes will answer to the Lord for his sin. Throughout the New Testament the shepherds were directed to relate to the whole flock and the people were directed to relate to the "elders" of the city-wide church; not just one elder. Consider the following:

 

"Remember your leaders, (plural) who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith...Obey your leaders (plural) and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men (plural) who must give an account..." (Hebrews 13:7, 17)

 

"Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: '. . . Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you (plural) overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.'" (Acts 20:17, 28)

 

In Hebrews 13 above, the saints were admonished to relate to all spiritual authority, not just to a certain elder. And in Acts 20 Paul reminds all the elders that they, collectively, are to watch over the "flock" (singular) in the city of Ephesus. In those days they understood that all the elders within a city have some measure of responsibility to all the saints within that city.

 

In all of the New Testament there is not one example of a single pastor overseeing a single congregation. The Holy Spirit gave pastors, teachers, evangelists, prophets, and apostles to oversee the whole church, not just one little compartment of the church. If the apostle, prophet, evangelist and teacher can function in this mode, and they do, why can't the pastor? It is no more difficult for the pastor to relate to more than one congregation than it is for the prophet, apostle, evangelist and teacher to relate to more than one church. It is the healthiest way for the church to function.

 

This does not mean that every local congregation should have many elders, but that there will be a number of elders watching over the flock in each city-wide church, and this eldership should include all the five-fold   ministries (or fourfold according to your understanding of Ephesians 4). Can we just relax and release the church to flow freely while all the pastors, teachers, apostles, prophets, evangelists, and people function as God ordained them to function?

 

Paul went on to say to the shepherds in Ephesus: "I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after themselves." (Acts 20:29-30)

 

The Amplified version of verse 30 above reads as follows: "Even from your own selves men will come to the front, who by saying perverse (distorted and corrupt) things will endeavor to draw away the disciples after them [to their own party]." (Which means, "to their own particular denomination or church")

 

There were many elders but only one flock and Paul told all the elders to watch over the entire flock. The practice of segregating off little pieces of the flock and laying claim to it was also dealt with in this passage.

 

Paul said that when he left, he knew some of the pastors would "draw away disciples after themselves." In some measure, this happens every time a pastor makes up his membership roll and tries to lock people into himself and away from the rest of the body of Christ and away from any spiritual input from any other pastor in town.

 

"But if I tell my people that they are members of every church in town, they will not be faithful to this fellowship in their attendance and in their giving!" moans the nervous pastor.

 

This is a great concern to many leaders. The cry is, "Come and help us fulfill our vision." The cry should be, "Come and let us help you fulfill your vision and your calling." Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers were given to the church "to prepare God's people for works of service." God imparts gifts, callings, anointing, and vision to every member of His body. It is a vision to serve him in some specific way and it is the job of these leaders to help prepare them to fulfill these works of service. The vision of many pastors is to use all the sheep he can gather together to help him build the local congregation larger and larger with little thought of building the Kingdom of God and helping fulfill the Great Commission.

                       

THE PROBLEMS OF "PAPER MEMBERSHIP"

 

Some of the problems of "paper membership" are:

 

First, we are presuming that we know who is truly born again and therefore qualified to be "added to the number." Only the Lord knows who is saved and can be added to the church.

 

Second, a membership list is usually a device used to receive people into a formal on-going relationship. This seems innocent enough at first glance, but it also tends to lock them away from the rest of the Body of Christ within the city. This creates isolated factions within the city-wide church. Why do we do this and then whine because the Body of Christ is so fragmented? We need to wake up and see that WE are the reason why!!! This is what Paul warned would happen when he said, "Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after themselves."

 

Third, paper membership challenges the true basis of what the church is and how we become a part of it. The requirement for becoming a member of the local congregation is the same as the requirement for becoming a member of the Body of Christ, namely, receiving Christ as Savior and being born again. We become a member of that worldwide Body of Christ the instant we are born of the Spirit of God by faith in Jesus Christ. There are no other requirements! 

 

To teach that people can be a member of the entire Body of Christ and still not be a member of your local church is to be divisive. There is only ONE BODY, not many. There are many local churches, but they are each a part of the universal Body of Christ. Therefore, if I am a member of the whole, I am automatically a member of each part. The scripture never even touches the idea of being members of an organization. It simply says, "We are members one of another." That includes all believers in all places in throughout the entire world.

 

Fourth, a membership list is wrong because it projects the idea that, "These sheep are mine! Stay away from my sheep!" There is not one verse of scripture that ever gives me, as a pastor, the right to say that any of God's people are "my sheep." It is true that a pastor is a shepherd, but Jesus said, "You feed MY sheep." There is one Chief Shepherd, many under-shepherds, and many sheep, but only one flock. The sheep are not told to relate only to one of the under-shepherds. The sheep can receive nurture and guidance from any and all God-called shepherds, teachers, evangelists, apostles or prophets.

 

"But where will my salary come from?" cries the unbelieving under-shepherd. It will come from the hands of the Chief Shepherd for whom you labor, who promises to meet all your needs as you do the work he has called you to do. He is your paymaster. Get your eyes off the people as your source of supply and put them on Jesus whose name is Jehovah-Jireh, your Lord and Provider. The prophet, the apostle, the evangelist and the teacher could ask that same question. Most of them have to look to the Lord and maintain a secular job while they continue in their ministry. The day is coming when many, perhaps most, pastors will have to do the same thing. The apostle Paul worked with his hands almost everywhere he ministered. We can do that, too.

 

A BIBLICAL VIEW OF MEMBERSHIP

 

Every born-again believer is added to the church by the Lord Jesus the moment he is saved. He instantly becomes a part of the Body of Christ universal which, at the same moment, makes him a member of every local congregation in every place, wherever he may go. Every local church within the city must see itself as a vital part of the city-wide church and of the church worldwide. There must be no special requirements for becoming a member of a local church beyond that of receiving Jesus as Lord and Savior. A church is not an organization; it is an organism; a gathering of God's people where everyone is welcome . . . especially those who do not yet know Jesus!

 

Pastors and leaders must never lay claim to any of God's sheep as belonging to them. They are to nurture, protect, guide, and counsel, but never to be possessive over God's inheritance. We are co-laborers together with God, but we must learn to let go of the reins and trust the Spirit of Jesus to accomplish the work of church building, using us in whatever way he chooses.

 

The elders (also called shepherds, pastors, teachers, and bishops) of each locality should develop working relationships so that they can more effectively watch over the flock of God over which the Lord has made them overseers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHURCH MEMBERSHIP [Robert Fitts]          5

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