A few decades ago American Express unveiled the tagline: “Membership has its privileges.” Their ads implied that great benefits awaited those who qualified to carry one of their exclusive cards. To start, there was a high annual fee and, as I understand, minimal annual levels of usage for their various membership tiers. The card became a status symbol, separating the fortunate few who carried it from the masses who didn’t. It generated pride and caused envy.
Church does the same thing when it touts membership. To become a church member, there are hoops to jump through: attend classes, agree to certain teachings, follow specific rules, and commit to donate money, possibly even at a certain annual level. Once we do so, the church accepts us as one of its own; we are fully embraced and become one of the flock. We are elite, and, even if we won’t admit it, we swell with pride over our special status. Now the church and her paid staff will care for us. To everyone else, they offer tolerance but withhold full acceptance. After all, church membership has its privileges.
There’s one problem. Church membership is not biblical; we made it up.
Membership separates church attendees between those on the inside and everyone else; it pushes away seekers. Membership splits the church of Jesus, separating people into two groups, offering privileges to one and instilling resentment in the other. It is a most modern concept, consumerism at its finest.
To my shame, I have been a church member. Never again.
Although perhaps well intended, membership divides the church that Jesus wanted to function as one. Jesus accepted and loved everyone, not just those who followed him or offered money. Paul never gave instructions about church membership, Peter never commanded we join a church, and John never held a new membership class.
I confess my sin of being sucked into this unholy institutional practice of church membership, at both the local and denominational level. I stand in horror over my role in promoting division among the followers of Jesus. Father, forgive me.
Though I will never again join a church as an official member, I am open to attend one, to immerse myself in community, to engage in corporate worship, and to serve others. This is what church should be. This is what the early church did. This is what Jesus wanted when he prayed for unity. And this is what I will do.