by Robert Brow  (www.brow.on.ca)

Chapter 6 -  Church Membership

A common objection to church going is that you have to put up with people who are temperamentally different from those one would choose as friends. Unfortunately that is an unavoidable fact of congregational life. If we continue the analogy of a garden we can imagine the flowers having to put up with the weeds till the gardener roots them out. And within each plant the petals could despise the leaves for having no color, and the seeds might consider the root system hopelessly stuck in the mud.

Ordered tidy minds find it hard to believe that Jesus the Messiah intended an improbable mix of legalistic Jews and free-spirited Greeks (1 Corinthians 12:13). How could people who liked kosher food form a community with people who ate squid and snails? And then the cultures of all sorts of other nations were to be included one by one. Slave owners and slaves were going to take communion at one table (Epistle to Philemon). And, horror of horrors for male chauvinist rabbis like Paul, there would be a loving mutuality of love in Christian marriage (1 Corinthians 7:1-16). But this is only the beginning of confusion.

What is a church member? Until very recently each congregation was pictured as a tidy one man ministry. There was the ordained minister who conducted services and there were the members of his congregation who sat in the pews and paid the bills. Partly through the teaching of J.N.Darby (1800-82) the Plymouth Brethren (1830) rejected the idea of a paid ministry, and recovered the idea of a variety of functions among the members. During the nineteen sixties the charismatic movement helped us see that membership in the church is not by getting one's name on the church list, but by exercising a gift in their local congregation. Those who exercise a gift are part of the church as a body. In any city the members of the church are those who exercise their spiritual gifts in the community.

This model is as old as Paul's teaching in the first Christian congregations. "Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself in love" (Ephesians 4:14-16).

Here is an early account from the nineteen sixties of the implications of this model shift. "Cells build up the body under the influence of something that may be called the life force. When death occurs, or cells are separated from the life force, disintegration begins". In Paul's illustration of the church as the body of Christ, the Holy Spirit corresponds to this life force. He creates, energizes, unites, and directs each cell, and apart from him we are dead. Every cell has some things in common, and something that makes it different. We should be recognizable by the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).

Our task here is to concentrate on diversity. Every cell has that inner compulsion that should make it different from all others, a "gift" that enables it to do its work in the right place at the right time in the body.  Just as cells can be grouped by function into bone cells, liver cells, muscle cells, epidermis cells, and so on, so Christians vary according to their function in the body of Christ"  (The Church: An Organic picture of its Life and Mission, Eerdmans, 1968, chapter 6)

On the one hand this has resulted in a profusion of new vitality. But it has also added to the complication of relating to others in a Christian gathering. Previously you either liked or disliked the priest or minister. And, apart from turning up on Sunday, you did not have to relate to him at any depth. Now you have to love all sorts of different men and women in your congregation. As Paul explained, it would be unthinkable for the eye to say of the hand "I have no need of you"or for the head to look down on the feet. And in fact "those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect" (1 Corinthians 12:20-23). And each of these various kinds of Christian has a different pattern of gifts and agendas. We can understand why some find this kind of confusion intolerable, and prefer to stay away.

Another reason to quit is when a person's particular contribution is ignored or even spoken against. This has resulted in a huge hemorrhage of some of the most gifted and enthusiastic people from our church. Eventually the sense of not a meaningful function in the congregation is so frustrating that they leave to find peace on their own. We saw an example of this in the second story of our Preface. A happier outcome is when our contribution is welcomed warmly in another congregation of the same or another denomination. Which is why congregations grow when the leader manages to provide "new wine skins for new wine" (Luke 5:37- 39) to free as many members to exercise their gifts as possible. There will always be those who say "the old wine is good," but without those who tread out the grapes for the new vintage a congregation is already dying inexorably.

In the nineteenth century Christians took it for granted that they must dutifully attend a congregation of their own denomination throughout life.  These days Christians feel free to come and go wherever they can learn, worship, serve, or make a contribution in their city. In Kingston people take part in the Bible study groups of other denominations, and there are innumerable para church organizations like InterVarsity, Cursillo, the Alpha movement, Women Alive, Women Aglow, Martha's Vineyard and prayer groups connected with various mission groups. Using our definition all these all are organic parts of the church in our city.

In addition to a huge variety of gifted Christians in every city there is also a rich moving bloodstream of the universal church. "The bloodstream is distinct, although it is related to the local church at every point. Its distinction is that it moves to give to the whole. The purpose of blood is to bring oxygen, vitamins, food energy, repair materials, hormones, and much else that is needed for health. In the Christian church this corresponds partly to what has been called mission, though the term mission has been too restricted. "Missions' are often assumed to be overseas, exotic, patronizing, and colonial, with an emphasis on savage tribes, the underprivileged, and certain back-door concerns such as slums, alcoholics, etc. In the New Testament there is no distinction between home and foreign, privileged and underprivileged. The bloodstream goes wherever the body is" (The Church: An Organic Picture of its Life and Mission, 1968, chapter 13).

That means that some Christians are exercising their gifts locally in their own city, and others move in the bloodstream in and around the cities, towns, and villages of the world. But we cannot avoid the fact that exercising a gift in the local church or in mission in other parts of the world is normally done with others. A boy can throw a football around alone, but playing for a team involves putting up with the tiresome others who may not always agree with how he would like the game to be played.
As in football or hockey, we are free to quit our church team, but by doing so we exclude ourselves from many Christian functions. But we also recognize that escaping from Christian functions is also a prime reason for quitting. Many have thrown themselves into teaching Sunday School, running a young people's group, providing musical leadership, attending committees, raising funds, attending conferences and denominational functions. Now they are burned out. And we can hear them say that, having jumped ship after too many unbearable storms, they are now savoring the countryside and finding all sorts of new things to enjoy.

Anyone engaged in demanding work needs a sabbatical. And when people take time off, we should be glad. The problem is that we have not found a way to make it possible for people to come back in with the freedom to do the one or two things that they enjoy. Our churches are full of people who want to organize everyone into a life of perpetual business. People who fail to cooperate are made to feel guilty for not pulling with others. The situation is made worse by the spate of Christian books that tell us all the things we should be doing to be good Christians. The result is that instead of being a church that frees people from guilt to live freely, we end up adding far more guilt than we manage to remove (see the book on this site Living Totally : Without Guilt).

The Lord has promised to be with and bless even two or three who gather in his name. And those who prefer to function alone can still pray, have high moral principles, and engage in "random acts of kindness." We can hear them say that outside the organized church they have more time to enjoy their families and neighbors, and serve the community in creative ways. What they cannot do is engage in the church's function of a family working together as the Messiah's royal priesthood to serve their community and world.

Sadly, as pointed out in the Preface, it is mostly our own stupidity that has driven out those who could have made the contribution needed to bring us into the twenty-first century. Blaming and guilt-tripping is not a Christian solution. Perhaps it is still time to receive our own vision from the Holy Spirit and his power to change us in creative directions.

Chapter 7  .....