Chapter 1 Church Membership, Church Discipline, and the Nature of the Church

John S. Hammett

The twin topics of this book, church membership and church discipline, have fallen on hard times in the past hundred years, especially in the North American context. Part of the Western inheritance from the Enlightenment is a strong "individualist impulse," which "promotes such values as personal freedom, self-improvement, privacy, achievement, independence, detachment, and self-interest." Enlightenment individualism was also autonomous individualism, and from that has grown a strong antipathy to authority, which has continued or even intensified in postmodern culture. Jonathan Leeman suggests, "Perhaps more than any other cultural theme … the question of authority is relevant to the discussion of local church membership and discipline, because membership and discipline involve a life of submission." The values associated with individualism are antithetical to the type of strong commitment to a group inherent in meaningful church membership and genuine, redemptive church discipline and are contrary to the much more communal or collectivist mind-set of the culture in which the church was born.

In addition to individualism, the church in North America faces the challenge of consumerism, in which individuals "view religion as a commodity that we consume, rather than one in which we invest ourselves." In a consumer society consumers are more committed to getting their needs met than they are to a community of people. "If their needs go unmet, they are quick to switch to another church, just as they would doctors, grocery stores or airlines to find better service." To consumers, church membership involves little loyalty, and church discipline would have little impact, as those who exercise discipline mean little to those receiving discipline.

Individualism and consumerism are widely recognized as problems for the church in North America and form part of the protest of the wide diversity of groups which fit under the umbrella of "the emerging church." One consistent cry among them has been the importance of community. It is difficult to find any emerging church that does not refer to itself as a community and list community as one of their key values. Yet even among some in the emerging church, traditional ideas of church membership are questioned, if not abandoned. Many draw upon the language of bounded sets versus centered sets. Traditional churches are seen as bounded sets, in which churches clearly mark off who's in and who's out. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch say:

Churches thus mark themselves in a variety of ways. Having a church membership roll is an obvious one… The missional-incarnational church, though, is a centered set. This means that rather than drawing a border to determine who belongs and who doesn't, a centered set is defined by its core values, and people are not seen as in or out, but as closer or further from the center. In that sense, everyone is in and no one is out.

While it must be noted that this understanding of centered-set thinking is not found in all who use the terminology and is certainly not true of all elements of the emerging church, the strong desire to be inclusive can weaken the type of "robust boundaries" necessary for integrity in membership and courage in church discipline.

Jonathan Leeman sees the hesitancy to draw boundaries as symptomatic of a deeper problem. He says:

[T]he argument for church membership and church discipline is an argument for a clear line between church and world… Yet what stands in the way of our ability—as Christians and churches in the post-modern West—to embrace the biblical call for such a line are our distorted and holy-less, truth-less, wisdom-less conceptions of God and his love.

Far from being harsh and unloving, the refusal to draw such lines is a failure to love and destructive of the community it seeks to create.

In addition to centered-set thinking, another issue among some in the emerging church raises similar questions for church membership and church discipline. It is the idea that belonging precedes believing. Tim Conder is representative of those who call on the church to recognize that in postmodern culture, "persons will join a community before affirming the beliefs of that community. In other words, emerging culture places belonging before believing." But this practice ignores biblical teaching that church membership was predicated on accepting the teaching of the apostles and that church discipline was for doctrinal as well as ethical error (see Acts 2:41; 1 John 2:22-23). Conder, however, may be accurately describing a cultural reality. Missiologists and church planters Ed Stetzer and David Putnam recognize this reality. They write, "It is important to note that more and more in today's context conversion will be part of the journey and will often require years of participation in a local congregation before a person goes public with his or her faith." Churches can address this reality without surrendering membership and discipline by distinguishing between a larger, more open community, in which some may be moving toward conversion, and the covenanted community of members, limited to those who are actual followers of Christ. This example, however, shows the need for the type of careful consideration given to the topics discussed in this book.

Thus, church membership and church discipline are problematic for many churches, both existing and emerging. Other chapters in this book will examine our twin topics from biblical, historical, and practical perspectives. They will seek to give the biblical basis for these practices, examine historical precedents, and suggest practical ways to help churches recover healthy practices in these vital areas. This chapter will open the book with a theological consideration of the nature of the church. The goal is to show the mutual relationship between church membership and church discipline, on the one hand, and the nature of the church, on the other. More specifically, it will argue that church membership and church discipline are inherent in the nature of the church and that the nature of the church in turn must shape our understanding of church membership and church discipline. It will do so by looking first at the implications for the nature of the church in the biblical word for church (ekklēsia), especially the pattern of usage of that word in the New Testament. Then it will examine four major images or metaphors for the church. In each case illumination of the nature of the church will shed light on both the necessity and the nature of church membership and church discipline.