What is a Church?

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Mark Roberts is doing a series called What is a Church? Biblical Basics for Christian Community. I especially like the four posts he's written so far under the title "When a Church is not a Church?" These look at the Greek word usually translated as "church" in the New Testament, 'ekklesia', which means "assembly" or "gathering" (and not "called out ones", as many erroneously claim because of some bad arguments from etymology).

The fourth post in that series within the series raises a point very much worth emphasizing. It makes no sense to say that you're part of a gathering that you don't show up for. In a sense any Christian is a member of the gathering around the throne of God in heaven, but we also speak of ourselves as members of local congregations. The average congregation has about 60-70% of its membership regularly attending. Does it make sense to call the others members of a gathering that they don't ever gather with? Treating a church like an organization with a membership list does have this particularly unfortunate consequence, even if there are legal reasons (and perhaps other reasons) to do so.

There's lots of other good stuff in Mark's series, but that struck me as a pointed observation about this attitude about what the church is among a large enough population in contemporary evangelicalism.


Treating a church like an organization with a membership list does have this particularly unfortunate consequence...

Well, it's not a necessary consequence. Indeed, one of the functions of church discipline - which (most of) the reformers took to be a mark of the true church - is to have the membership list more closely approximate the attendance.

But membership is certainly biblical - Acts talks about people being "added to the number" - indeed, it would have been obvious who was in and who was out.

I don't think the Acts reference is about a list the Christians were keeping. It has always sounded to me as simply a statement that their number was growing. If it's referring to a list, wouldn't it be the book of life? I'm not sure it even has a list in mind, though.

I didn't say that keeping a list of membership has this consequence. I said that treating a church as if it's an organization with a membership list has this consequence. That's not what a church is. If you don't treat it that way by treating it as a representation of the heavenly gathering around the throne of God, you avoid the consequence. Having the member list more closely approximate the attendance is one of the ways this more biblical view might accomplish that, but it's the mindset itself I'm talking about, not the list. The list without the mindset doesn't seem to me to be bad at all.

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