Earlier this year, the Constituency Leaders Council of Mennonite Church USA began a discernment process regarding what ought to be done with the denomination’s membership guidelines. From the brief report given in early July at convention in Kansas City, this may become a critical topic over the next two years. However, I think that we should first ask if voluntary membership among Christians is even biblical. If membership has no scriptural grounds, then we ought to move on and discuss subjects much more enjoyable!
Most of us are aware that the gospels only record two accounts in which Jesus formally used the word “church.” The first is when Jesus said that his church would be built upon the confession that he is the Messiah and through Peter’s leadership (Matt. 16:18). Here, Jesus seems to be describing the global church and not a local congregation. But when Jesus mentioned the church again in Matthew 18, he did appear to have a local congregation in mind. “If [an erring brother] does not listen to one or two others, tell [his sin] to the church” (18:17a). Certainly, Jesus did not mean that one unrepentant Christian ought to be disciplined by the entire global church.
Throughout the book of Acts, we see examples of local congregations described with some sense of “boundedness.” When the church in Jerusalem grew after Pentecost, there appears to be a process to record and track the number of professing Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 2:37-47). Later, the apostles appointed seven men to properly care for the Greek-speaking widows who were among them (Acts 6:1-6). Then, when the leadership council in Jerusalem adopted a resolution about Gentiles, the “church” in Antioch gathered to read it (Acts 15:30).
In 1 Peter 5:2, the local congregation is described as the “flock of God that is among you.” Flock appears to be described as a defined set. Likewise, the author of Hebrews instructed the readers to “obey your leaders and submit to them for they are keeping a watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17a). The author did not appear to be asking Christians to submit to all Christian leaders everywhere, but rather to submit to “your” leaders. Both texts seem to imply that church leaders ought to know who they are overseeing and church members ought to know to whom they ought to submit.
In Paul’s letters, the instructions become even more specific. Paul expected the Corinthian Christians to know the difference between those who were “inside the church” and those who still belonged “to the world” (1 Cor. 5:12). He also expected “the church” to excommunicate a brother who was unrepentantly engaged in sexual immorality. Pastor Timothy, in Ephesus, was instructed to create a process to discern which widows in the church ought to receive financial assistance and which do not qualify (1 Tim. 4:3-16).
In the New Testament, it appears as though local congregations were instructed by God to 1) know who claimed to profess Jesus as Lord, 2) know which people to submit to, 3) collectively discipline unrepentant Christians and 4) keep record of their people. I believe this is sufficient evidence to suggest that voluntary commitments, like membership, within the local congregation is a Biblical practice.
Now, how does this apply to our MC USA denomination which is a collection of conferences and local congregations? I’m not exactly sure. From my perspective, the delegate body appears to function as the “local congregation.” If so, then it ought to define, maintain and even discipline (when necessary) voluntary “boundedness” in order to follow the commands laid out for us within the New Testament.
Aaron Yoder is lead pastor of First Mennonite Church in Morton, Ill.