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Church membership lists are clearly not the emphasis of the New Testament. In fact, they are not even mentioned as a consideration - they are most emphatically not what New Testament writers looked for as proof of being a part of the church. In fact, nothing could have been farther from their minds, given their concept of what the word "church" meant.
Having such a list is not necessarily sinful "in and of itself" (a theoretical scenario which does not actually exist in reality). But is it not necessarily righteous, either. It exists within a context - and that context determines its significance.
Whether or not a group should have a church membership list is not the primary issue. It is a secondary issue - a symptom, rather than a cause. It is a reflection of attitudes, rather than their source. It reflects one's attitudes about various primary issues - attitudes which have already been presupposed (often unconsciously, sometimes even inconsistently) prior to the question of membership lists.
Here are some of the primary issues, for which views are presupposed (to varying degrees) prior to the question of membership lists:
Here is an example: Suppose the leadership says: "Only those who are willing to be on our membership list will be permitted to exercise their gifts - and we will refuse to allow those not on this list to do so." (They may select only some specific gifts that they refuse to allow the follower of Jesus to use, or they may refuse to allow him to use any gift.) This almost blatantly defies what God says about gifts and their usage.
Even in the early church, various groups came up with their own sets of restrictions for "full acceptance" into the body of Christ. The "Judaizers" had their restrictions. (God's response: Acts 15:24 and Galatians 1:8-9, 5:12, 6:12-16, etc.) The "Proto-gnostics" had theirs... (God's response: Colossians 2:16-23, etc.) In contrast, the apostles didn't have any such set of restrictions. Instead, they opposed those who did!
On the other hand, there are countless numbers of genuine followers of Jesus who are discriminated against, or sometimes even treated like non-Christians, simply because they don't have their name on such a list! People who are not followers of Jesus, but have their name on a list are treated like Christians, while people who are followers of Jesus are treated as non-Christians! (Something to think about: Who is going to be held accountable for treating them this way? And who is going to be held accountable for perpetuating the view of "church" that encouraged such treatment?)
Again, we must emphasize the fact that the membership list itself does not lead to all these other issues. The ultimate issue revolves around the person's attitude toward the Word - which will determine his perspective on both the list and these other issues. The list is just a symptom of other issues.
Personally, I have never seen anyone base such a list on "the Word of God plus nothing." (This is because it can't be done.) Nor have I ever been given reasons that could stand up to the test of, "Does the Bible really say that?" THIS IS A SERIOUS MATTER. IF A PERSON CLAIMS THAT THE BIBLE IS THE "FINAL AUTHORITY IN ALL MATTERS OF FAITH AND PRACTICE," THEN SHOULDN'T HE LET THE BIBLE BE THE FINAL AUTHORITY?
The "best" that I have ever heard was a string of arguments based on an equivocation - changing the definitions of the terms (such as the word "church"). For example, people who try to promote this view often re-define the words "church" and "local" in the phrase "local church." Some even go as far as to change the definition of the word "Israel" (in the Old Testament) and re-define it to mean "church" - and then they develop a series of extrapolations from Old Testament passages, using those "new" definitions! But if we keep changing definitions of words found in the Bible (and I have never seen a person limit his re-defining to only the issue of church membership), why should we keep calling ourselves "Christianity"? Why shouldn't we be willing to acknowledge the distinction between ourselves (and our "re-defined Bible") and the original Christianity which used the definitions of the words as they exist in the original writings?
Others will invent what they claim to be "logical deductions" to "prove" their concepts of "church" and "membership lists." Some, for instance, take the fact that the apostles knew there were about 3000 people saved (Acts 2:41) as "proof" that they kept a list! This is as foolish as claiming that the reference to Jesus feeding 5000 men (plus woman and children added above that number) "proves" that they all had to put their name on a "food roster" before Jesus let them eat! (Did he also put them on a mailing list, so they could receive "junk mail" from him? Just think... if he got their e-mail addresses, he could "feed" them with "spam" the rest of their lives!)
I do not say that there is never a reason to have some type of membership list. Sometimes it may be even mandatory, such as when the government forces a group to do it - assuming the people choose to obey the government regulation. (This issue often comes up in countries that are hostile to the good news about Jesus.) But such a list - if it existed - would be merely to appease the government. It would in no way place restrictions on the true followers of Christ - who might even leave (and meet on their own) if it did. Nor would it have any impact on the functioning of the church - the true church - or the rights and responsibilities of the individuals.
Placing an emphasis on a membership list is a different matter. I have never known an instance in which people who stressed "church membership" haven't sooner or later raised it above at least some of the primary commands of the Bible. And I have never known a time a time when a secondary issue was elevated to the level of a primary issue, that sin wasn't the eventual outcome. It is impossible to do this - to place greater emphasis on secondary issues - without sinning, for God gives greater priority to the primary issues.
In such a situation, the primary and the secondary will always come into conflict at one point or another. This is because the teachings of Scripture are interrelated, so when a person "redefines" an issue, so as to exalt a secondary issue (such as "church membership) above primary issues, it influences one's perspective on other issues. Having "redefined" some parts of their thinking, to accommodate such teachings, it often results in a spontaneous re-definition of other areas. In the end, the person may be guilty of sin and distorting God's Word without even knowing it.
There was a time - in the New Testament church - that people received the full rights and privileges of being members of the Body of Christ after they had simply 1) repented, been 2) baptized (which normally represented the first act of obedience to Christ, and was done in public... rather than months or years later, behind the closed doors of a building), and after they had 3) begun to show the truthfulness of their claims by their lifestyle (Acts 26:20, etc.). Today, however, people have decided that these things are not enough (and in some cases, they claim some of these things are not even necessary). And they have added additional rules and regulations. They have exalted unimportant matters over the primary issues and obligations that are most important to God. They have even declared people "church members" when the fruit of salvation was absent from their lives! In other words, they are acting the same as the religious leaders of Jesus' day - leaders who were held in high regard by the people, and who were considered the supreme example of spirituality. According to Jesus, however, they were spiritually "bankrupt."
The Christianity of the Bible claims that salvation includes a radical change in one's thoughts and actions - and this impacts every aspect of his life. It means a change in perspective in all that one does, a change in view regarding the very nature of issues that people stress, a change in what one emphasizes. Even the very basic issue of how to think is influenced, and must be influenced by the Word of God... in all ways.
The idea of "church membership lists," so strongly emphasized in many of today's "churches," is such a secondary issue (at best), as far as the Bible's "Christianity" is concerned, that it almost represents a waste of time... time that could be better used attempting to recover some of the primary issues that have been so long neglected - even lost - by the modern "church."
It may be too late. It may be the time that Jesus has to spit (vomit) the modern "church" out of his mouth (as in Revelation 3:16). But perhaps we shouldn't give up hope, yet. Perhaps - just perhaps - if only perspectives on things such as these were radically changed; if "arguments and pretensions" were demolished and everything were brought back into conformity to the Word of God, as written; and if we would only learn to "not go beyond what is written"... then perhaps a new reformation would take place, and God would return to us and bless us - not superficially, as happens in many "churches" today, but with a depth that has not occurred for many years.
Dennis Hinks © 1992, 2004