Monday, I ran a guest post by Trevor King on the importance of covenant membership, and I highly recommend you read it here. In it, Trevor makes a compelling claim about the biblical nature of a covenant membership process for local churches, and he is right. Real membership that means something is an important aspect of the local church. Furthermore, it is best explained as a covenant in the manner which he describes. However, today I want us to talk about the difference between the principle of covenant membership and its contemporary application. While covenant membership is indeed a biblical process that all local churches should undertake, its application is nevertheless highly contextual.
Covenant membership should look different from one context to the next.
In fact, it serves as an excellent test case for applying biblical principles when planting churches among varied people group cultures in the United States. As your local church discovers and engages certain people groups, the goal is to plant churches that speak the language and exist in the culture of those groups. By doing this, you have planted a contextualized gospel witness inside the culture of that group in your area. This is a good goal for your church, but we must remember that the resulting churches will (and should) do many things different than us.
Covenant membership may be one of those processes. For instance, in most any Western Evangelical church, I would say healthy church membership involves an actual membership roll. In addition, I think there are covenant responsibilities that are placed on members and that, in our majority culture, we have to work hard to instruct members in those responsibilities to one another. In the United States, church membership has taken on a lot of baggage in the last couple of generations and now means very little in a good number of churches. Because of this, church discipline (a deeply biblical process) means very little. When it is so easy to join another church without ever being asked about your past history or standing in previous churches, why does it matter if you get kicked out of the one you are in for repeated, unrepentant sin? You can just go down the street to the next church that will vote you in on the spot at the end of the next service… no questions asked.
That is a bad application of church membership in our culture.
That said, it may look very different in that Afghan house church you plant in your community. In fact, there are no other Dari-speaking churches for those Afghans to join, and by simply aligning with this church they separate themselves from the rest of the Muslim community. Perhaps this Afghan church does not need a 5-week class for members to join, and maybe it is not so important for them to keep a list with the names of their 15 members on it. It is not very hard to remember who is a part, when the group is smaller than an average school classroom.
Notice though that having different contextualized processes does not mean the principle is not the same. Covenant membership is every bit as important for that small Afghan church as it is for your large English-speaking one. In fact, its importance is immediately more obvious. These Afghan believers often leave their social circles completely in order to become a Christian. They are often ostracized from friends and family, and have nowhere to turn except into this new community of believers. For them, life depends on the bonds of community established in this new family.
We must make sure that we take covenant membership seriously, both in our own church and those we plant. However, we also need to realize that it may look very different in other cultures.