Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck make the comment in their new book Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion, “If our editors had been asleep at the wheel, we could have called it [the book] Recent Trends In Decorpulation.” They explain, “If decapitation, from the Latin word caput, means to cut off the head, then it stands to reason that decorpulation, from the Latin word corpus, should refer to the cutting off the body. It’s the perfect word to describe the content of this book.” Kluck and DeYoung write this because they see major trends of dissatisfaction and disconnectedness with the church in general today. We would expect this from non-Christians but this disconnectedness is found among Christians themselves. What is worse, sometimes this disconnectedness is assumed to be the norm, the way it is supposed to be.
We have recently had the great joy of bringing in some new members to our local church congregation. This prompts us to ask the question: What does the Bible say about church membership? My experience has been that many people assume that the Bible says nothing (or very little) about this. Actually, I believe the opposite is true. Let me take the opportunity in this post to mention a few things.
When a person is saved, they are saved as an individual, and are brought into union with their new spiritual Head, Jesus Christ. But to be connected to the Head, means that you are likewise connected to the body. Salvation brings a person into a relationship with Christ but it also brings them into a relationship with the church.
There are many ways the New Testament describes this. You are not just baptized into Christ, you are baptized into Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:12-13). You are not just reconciled to God, you are reconciled to others in the church (Eph. 2:12-20). We are individual stones but we are not just laying in a pile, or worse, scattered in a field. We are placed into a corporate building with Christ as the corner stone (1 Pet. 2:5; Eph. 221-22). When a person is saved, he is now in union with Christ. But at the very same time, he is also in union with the body of Christ made up of those other individuals who are also saved by grace and joined to the Head. You can’t have one without the other. It is in this sense that the church father Cyprian said, “You cannot have God as your Father unless you have the church as your mother” (On The Unity of the Catholic Church).
Something more needs to be said, however. Sometimes it is thought that these metaphors only apply generally and broadly to the universal church. But this is actually not the case. The primary application of these metaphors is to specific local churches with real people and real relationships. For instance, 1 Corinthians is not just addressed to “the church of God,” but specifically “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1:2; cf. 2 Cor. 1:1). This is very important. It is to this specific local church with all of its specific questions and specific problems that Paul says “you are the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27). He does not say “we all” (i.e. all Christians generally) are the body of Christ, though there is a sense in which that is true as well. Here, Paul is saying to this specific group of Christian in Corinth, who regularly meet together at one time and in one place (1 Cor. 11:17-18), “you are the body of Christ.” You are like an organism, he says, like the human body in fact (1 Cor. 12:12). It is true that Christ is the head of the church universal (Col. 1:18). But 1 Corinthians claims he is the Head of a specific local church body. You as a local church have Jesus Christ as your Head. You, as a local church, have been composed by God so that every member has been sovereignly selected and joined by God (12:18, 24).
So what does this say about members of the universal body who are disengaged from the local body? It means this is not God’s design. We cannot say that we do not need the members of our specific local church. Furthermore, we cannot say they do not need us. In God’s plan, there are no non-essential members.
Some think that because this is a metaphor (i.e. “the body of Christ”), formal church membership is not what Paul had in mind here. In response, I would first recognize that it is true that Paul is using a metaphor here. But at the same time, I would remind us that the metaphor has a point. This metaphor is meant to teach us something. It is teaching us that local churches are a lot like a human body. With that in mind, how could a finger be informally connected to the hand? What would that look like? One implication of this is, you are either a fully connected member or you are not connected at all. There is a certain black-and-whiteness to church membership.
A Christian non-member of a local church may say, what is the difference? I am with the church every week. I am among the people of God. I have regular contact with them. In response I would say, that would be like a hand holding a dismembered finger in it’s grasp. Even if that hand carries the finger everywhere it goes, that finger is still not a part of the hand. It doesn’t matter how much regular contact it has, it is not formally connected to the body. It is the same with non-members of the church who spend a lot of time with the church.
In sum, local churches are called the body of Christ in Scripture. The nature of the church, defines the nature of church membership. It is not enough to be a member of the universal church, while avoiding membership in a local church.
I think some more important things can be helpfully said about this topic. Lord willing, I will continue my campaign against decorpulation of the body of Christ with another post.