Membership -vs- Discipleship

As a church, we need to lose the concept of “Church Membership.” Nowhere in scripture are we called to church membership. Instead, with acute clarity, scripture makes it clear that we are to be followers of Christ (see Matthew 4:19).

The word “membership” carries with it ideas that are contrary to the spirit of being a disciple. When one seeks membership to an organization, she is seeking the entitlements and benefits of that organization. With membership comes perks. However, with discipleship comes obligations and duty. Members seeks to have needs met. Disciples seek to serve.

In any given church, you have people who match the description of each type. Those who joined the “membership” expect a return on the dues (tithes) they pay into the system. Their contributions earn them the right to receive the benefits of membership. I recently spoke with a man who was an amateur artist.  At best, his works were tolerable. Some of them expressed nice sentiments. One such picture attempted to communicate the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ – very nice thoughts. As a picture it failed. The man told me that he was very upset that a staff member of his church would not place the painting in the sanctuary during worship, and he even expressed annoyance that his pastor did not use the painting as a prop in his sermons for Christmas. As he explained this, he dropped the clue that he was involved in “membership,” and therefore expected his rights to be met. He said, “I’m going to the deacons since the staff member won’t use my painting!” Whoa! He saw the deacons as the governing board that makes sure members rights are seen to.

In contrast, a servant does not seek to have his rights met. He does not seek to have his needs catered to. Instead, he understands that the church is not an institution one buys his way into. A servant looks around at the people who are gathered, spends time in prayer asking the Lord to show them how He wants them to become a blessing to others, then acts once the Lord had revealed their path of service. Indeed, instead of seeking his rights, the disciple understands that he has no rights.

In reality, the very word “church” obviates the concept of “membership.” The English word church translates the Greek word Ekklesia, which means the “called out.” The called out are the people who, having come to faith in Christ, are called out from the world. As such they are now “members” of the body of Christ. Note, this word is used in the very narrow sense of being a part of something much bigger. In this case, they are called out of the world, and are now to see themselves as belonging to Christ. As “members” of the body of Christ, they belong to Him. Therefore, they are to see themselves as subservient to His will. He has a right to move His body as he desires. Therefore, the called out ones, by the very definition of the word, are to see themselves as servants of Christ who wait on the word (command) of their master to guide their affaires. Instead of seeking to be served, they wait upon the Lord as a servant (see Luke 17:5-10).

Another word for servant in the Bible is disciple. A disciple is one who spends time learning. The word disciple actually means “a learner.” A true disciple seeks to become like his master.  As such, a Christian disciple is one who learns the ways of Jesus, and seeks to live out the will of Jesus, his master. When a disciple has learned the teachings of Jesus, others will begin to see a resemblance in character as it is lived out before others (see Acts 4:13).

Disciples never seek to be served. They may graciously accept the service of others, but they never demand it. Further, a disciple understands that the church is not an organization they belong to, it is a living entity animated by the Spirit of Christ – the Holy Spirit. Hence, the church is a living body that the disciple is organically connected to (see 1 Corinthians 12). One does not expect an arm to pay dues to be attached to the shoulders, or a leg to be attached to the hips. The reality is that they cannot be separated except with violence. As such, one “member” works alongside another member seamlessly. The service they render to each other comes naturally, and the outcome is a unity of movement. In fact, as each part does its share, it can only be done by seeking to make sure the other members are carried where they need to go. The leg thinks nothing of carrying the hips and torso. The shoulders do not complain that the arm weighs too much. Those parts know that they were designed for that very purpose; and they are not fulfilling the purpose for which they were designed until they are carrying the other. And so it is for each “member” of the body of Christ.

So, when someone becomes a “member” of the body of Christ, through faith in Christ, the church body needs to instruct the young believer to understand her role as a servant, and show her how she can joyfully fit into the larger body. When she understands her place, she will seek to make sure that the movement of the body is fluid and smooth. At first, her attempts at walking with the entire body will not be dissimilar to a toddler who is learning to walk. She will stumble, walk haltingly, and even fall occasionally. But as she grows, she will imbibe the character and truth of her Master, and in time will learn to walk with Him as a part of His body.

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