At my church, just through the front doors and to the left stands a prominent piece of furniture – the church mailboxes. With row upon row of Eberly’s, Hershberger’s, Miller’s, Yoder’s, and Wenger’s, each wooden compartment hanging with newsletters and children’s story papers, it’s a visual reminder of who belongs at my church and who doesn’t. Can you come if you don’t have a compartment? Of course, and you’ll be welcomed, but the mailbox crowd belongs here.
I’ve noticed two types of people, though, when I scan the familiar rows of names. On one hand are the names of those who have gone to this church for years, faithfully attending, serving, and caring. But there are other names scattered throughout, who have also melded into the church scenery, yet maintain a cautious distance, uncommitted and unattached. What is the difference? All attend on Sunday mornings, all hear the same sermons, but only some choose to be a part of us.
Members in Mailbox Only
We as Anabaptists traditionally place a lot of importance on church membership. Because Anabaptism sprouted from the soil of persecution, the strong membership emphasis makes sense: believers wanted to know who was with them and who was against them. One either belonged to the church or to the world – no middle ground nominalism. When following Christ means suffering and death, nominalism holds little attraction.
But today, when being asked if we are Amish is about the closest we come to persecution, church membership has less appeal. This generation is backing away from church membership toward new movements with less defined structure, touted as more organic and less legalistic. And if we’re honest, we must recognize our Anabaptist weaknesses. We deserve rebuke for every time we are guilty of “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men,”1 for every moment we put our trust in Anabaptism instead of Jesus, for every day we turn inward to our tight-knit communities and ignore the needs of a hurting, sin-sick world.
However, 2 Peter 2 warns against false teachers who “promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves to corruption.”2 And this movement away from accountability and commitment reeks of fake freedom.
We do not need less structure or lower standards as much as we need more love and more commitment to the body of Christ. We need fewer mailbox members, more body members.
We Need Corinthian Commitment
Consider the church in Corinth – from Paul’s first letter to them, we get the idea that the Corinthians had their share of church problems. The list is familiar: factions divided over which leader to follow, a church member involved in adultery, lawsuits between believers, and disagreements over church standards. (This was the early church, the ones who should have had it all together.) But just like us, they had imperfect people and church conflicts. Yet Paul repeatedly calls them to more commitment to each other – not lesser standards, but greater accountability, greater love, and greater respect.
Each of the following five reminders belongs to us as well as to them:
Committed to unity as followers of Jesus, not as factions who follow Apollos or Apostle Paul or Menno Simons.
Committed to accountability – holding one another accountable for unconfessed sin, not to tear each other down, but to protect and restore and sharpen one another.
Committed to conflict resolution, dealing with conflict as Christians through selfless love, and not dragging a fellow believer to court to make him pay. Commitment forces us to deal with conflict and not just pass over it.
Committed to respect for the weaker brother, willingly giving up our rights when another member views our liberty as sin.
Committed to building up – each member committed to using his or her gifts to build up the body (if God made me to be a foot, not seeking more honor as a hand or an eye, but seeking to be the best foot possible).
The Blessing of Belonging
I admit, sometimes I’m tempted to view church membership as a burden. Sometimes all I see are the committee meetings and church cleanings and slow singings. But the truth is, church membership is about people, it’s about opportunities, and it’s about belonging to something bigger than any one of us. While the Bible never mentions the words “church membership,” the idea of belonging to the body fills the New Testament. “For just as the body is one and has many members . . . so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”3
As Anabaptists, we need to think bigger when it comes to church membership. What is the point of having our names on the roster if we do not break down our cubicles of individualism? We are still mailbox Christians at heart. We must open ourselves; we must rend our hearts to each other. We must become vulnerable, desperate people in this fight against sin.
We ought to view membership as a blessing, because the body is for our sanctification. The gift of accountability – of confessing our sins to each other out loud and specifically – allows us to experience the blessing and freedom of living in the light. Receiving forgiveness from our brother when we wrong him teaches us something of God’s love and forgiveness that we would not know otherwise. Resolving conflict within an imperfect local church affords opportunities to exercise patience and forbearance. God has chosen our flawed fellow church members to sanctify us and to show us himself in daily reality.
Wholehearted, genuine commitment to a local church isn’t the easiest option. Nor is it glamorous or popular or intuitive. Yet it is God’s desire and his plan for each of us. In serving the church, we reap his blessings. I leave you with Paul’s final words to the Corinthians, “Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”4
|Bryce Wenger lives and works on a small farm near Dalton, Ohio. He has a love for music, literature, and learning. His free time is usually spent backpacking, canoeing, or otherwise enjoying nature. He is passionate about knowing God’s Word and living life to the fullest.|
1. Isaiah 29:13, ESV
2. 2 Peter 2:19, ESV
3. I Corinthians 12:12-13, ESV
4. 2 Corinthians 13:11, ESV