Why We Misunderstand Church Membership

Misunderstanding.

Although a fact of life that sometimes leads to humourous outcomes, misunderstanding usually leads to undesirable results.

Misunderstanding occurs when we fail to recognize the context and the intent with which something is communicated.

When we study the Bible, we refer to this as authorial intent.

When a person says something, we filter their words through our own presuppositions, assumptions, and experiences to decide what we think they meant. But what they intended to communicate may be different than our interpretations.

Open Bible by Window

Studying Scripture can be difficult because we don’t always understand what the authors intended to communicate.

As we think about the church and how it functions, we need to discern what the Bible does or does not say about it. Specifically, we need to distinguish between what is descriptive and what is prescriptive in Scripture.

Before coming to any conclusions on the biblicality of church membership, I want to examine these two concepts.

Church Membership Series:
1. It Is Time to Rethink Church Membership
2. The Evolution of Church Membership
3. Did the First-Century Church Have Members?
4. Does the Bible Actually Support Church Membership?
5. Biblical Arguments Against Church Membership
6. Why We Misunderstand Church Membership (this article)

Descriptive Passages

Descriptive passages recount events, customs, or practices as they occurred without necessarily prescribing specific actions or beliefs. They provide historical or cultural context, offering insights into the lives of people, societies, and events in the biblical narrative.

These passages may include narratives, historical accounts, genealogies, cultural practices, geographical descriptions, and personal anecdotes. These portions of Scripture are useful for providing context that we otherwise may not have, but they also teach us about who God is and how he works in and through his creation.

Rather than telling us how to live, descriptive passages often tell us how other people lived and give us helpful principles to consider as we live.

For example, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John contain descriptive passages that detail the life, teachings, and miracles of Jesus Christ.

We are not commanded to walk on water or heal people like Jesus did, but we see how those things point to Christ’s deity. We are not commanded to wake up early to pray like Jesus did, but we see that there is value in preparing for each day the way Jesus did.

Prescriptive Passages

Prescriptive passages provide explicit instructions, commands, or teachings that are intended to guide behavior, beliefs, or practices. These principles are meant to be followed by believers.

Like descriptive passages, prescriptive passages often convey God’s will, moral standards, ethical principles, and guidelines for righteous living they go a step further, however, by telling us what we need to do.

The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17 are prescriptive passages that provide specific commands from God regarding moral and ethical behavior. God describes who he is in that passage, but he also expects man to respond to that knowledge of him with a number of specific actions and behaviors.

Interpreting Descriptive Passages

  1. Historical and Cultural Context: Understand the historical and cultural context in which the passage was written, including the social, political, and religious environment of the time. Examine the cultural customs, practices, and norms of the people described in the passage, being mindful of differences between ancient and modern cultures.
  2. Literary Genre: Recognize the literary genre of the passage (e.g., historical narrative, poetry, prophecy) and interpret it accordingly, considering the use of literary devices and figurative language. This is especially important with Old Testament Scripture.

Interpreting Prescriptive Passages

  1. Clarity of Command: Pay attention to the clarity and specificity of the command or instruction given in the passage, understanding its intended application.
  2. Harmonizing Scripture: Interpret prescriptive passages in light of the broader biblical context, ensuring that interpretations align with the overall message and principles of Scripture.
  3. Universal vs. Contextual Application: Determine whether the command or instruction is intended to apply universally across all contexts or is specific to a particular historical or cultural setting. Then consider how the principles and teachings can be applied to contemporary life, discerning their relevance and implications for believers today.

Differentiating Descriptive and Prescriptive Passages

We need to avoid confusing descriptive passages for prescriptive passages and vice versa.

Not all behaviors or practices described in the Bible are meant to be emulated, so we should refrain from imposing prescriptive meanings or applications onto descriptive passages where none exist.

Nevertheless, we often take these descriptive passages and treat them like God’s commands for us. For example, it would be wrong to say that churches are supposed to meet in homes because of the descriptive account that we read in Acts 2:46.

It is also wrong to say that churches are supposed to meet in a church building since the early church worshiped God in the temple in Acts 2:46. This is a description of what happened, not a command for us.

Colossians 3:16, on the other hand, is an example of a prescriptive passage for the church: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

The church is supposed to function with everyone contributing to the growth of one another. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, and some churches focus more on doing things that aren’t in Scripture rather than practicing clear commands like this one!

Summary

By distinguishing between descriptive and prescriptive passages and applying appropriate principles of interpretation, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the biblical text and its significance for faith and practice…and the church.

None of us should claim that anything is biblical or not until we have applied proper study methods to the topic.

Much of the discussion about church membership requires a proper delineation between descriptive and prescriptive passages in the New Testament. I hope to treat these passages fairly when providing my own perspective on church membership.

Do you think the Bible describes or prescribes church membership?

Biblical Arguments Against Church Membership

The Bible gives us many reasons to consider church membership, and I explored some of those in my last article. But it also gives us reasons to question church membership as we know it today.

A lot of it comes down to interpretive methods and the presuppositions that people have when they read the Bible. Many Christians embrace the idea of formalized church membership, while others raise valid biblical reasons against it.

So let us now consider alternative perspectives that challenge the conventional understanding of church membership. Let’s delve into these perspectives and examine the biblical principles that underpin them.

Church Membership Series:
1. It Is Time to Rethink Church Membership
2. The Evolution of Church Membership
3. Did the First-Century Church Have Members?
4. Does the Bible Actually Support Church Membership?
5. Biblical Arguments Against Church Membership (this article)

Emphasis on the Universal Body of Christ

1 Corinthians 12:13: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.”

Full Church Building

Some people argue that the New Testament prioritizes the universal body of Christ, composed of all believers worldwide, rather than individual local congregations. They believe, therefore, that formal church membership may create unnecessary divisions within the body and detract from the unity that all believers share in Christ.

Likewise, the Bible never actually mentions a membership list of any specific church. The emphasis on the body of Christ and the relationship that believers have with one another immediately upon salvation is a legitimate reason to say that all believers are part of the church whether or not they have their name on an official list.

Although not necessarily an argument from Scripture, some people also point out that structured church membership allows non-Christians to become “members” of local churches even though they are not truly part of the body of Christ.

Flexibility in Ecclesiastical Structure

Acts 2:46-47: “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

Some proponents of informal church fellowship argue for a more flexible ecclesiastical structure that allows believers to gather and worship in diverse settings, including homes, community centers, or outdoor venues. They point to the early church’s model of meeting in various locations and emphasize the importance of adaptability in fulfilling the Great Commission.

They may also argue that membership imposes unnecessary restrictions on a person’s freedom. They believe that individuals should have the freedom to fellowship with believers in various settings without being bound by formal membership requirements to one specific organization.

Primacy of Personal Relationship with Christ

Philippians 3:8: “Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ.”

Opponents of formal church membership may prioritize the personal relationship with Christ above institutional affiliation. They argue that salvation and spiritual growth are primarily based on individual faith in Christ and reliance on the Holy Spirit, rather than membership in a particular church organization.

Summary

While formal church membership has its benefits, we must acknowledge the valid biblical perspectives against it. The New Testament provides principles that emphasize the unity of all believers in Christ, flexibility in ecclesiastical structure, and the primacy of a person’s personal relationship with Christ.

As we navigate these diverse viewpoints, we need to recognize the opposing perspectives so that we can come to objective conclusions and extend grace to one another in areas of disagreement.

We all have our different biases, experiences, and traditions. Unfortunately, we don’t all always have an open mind or a willingness to listen, consider, and change.

In an upcoming post, I will do my best to consider practical implications and potential alternatives for fostering authentic Christian community in light of the biblical perspective both in for and against church membership. I hope that you will continue along with me with an open Bible, an open mind, and open hands.

Do you think the arguments above are good reasons not to practice formal church membership?