[To access all of the posts in this series, visit the "Church in Arequipa" tag.]
How do you suppose the early church thought about “membership”? Or did they? Of course, the New Testament doesn’t mention anything about it. There are a number of references to specific house churches, which were identified by the owners of the houses (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philem 2). This doesn’t tell us much except that the owners were fixed members of particular congregations. In a situation like Rome, where there were multiple churches (16:4), Christians might have moved freely between them. Scholars believe that the organization of the synagogue influenced the early church, so we might look there fore a clue about membership, at least in those congregations with significant Jewish leadership. There is evidence of administrative diversity among the synagogues, though, and scant evidence of formal membership practices. In Rome, where the Jews and Gentiles had divided enough for Paul to refer to the “churches of the Gentiles” distinctively, the synagogue might have been less influential at any rate. For these, we could look to the organization of Gentile social life, particularly the types of associations that participated in symposium-style religious meals such as those reflected in 1 Cor 11. Ancient Greek associations had formal membership, usually including fees, which would have provided another model for the church to adapt.
At any rate, the American church practice of placing membership, in the sense of signing up to be a member, probably has little in common with first century church practices. Church leaders often have the troubling task of reviewing the roll and assigning criteria by which to judge whether those who have previously placed membership are still members. This usually comes down to attendance. Those who have been absent for a given period of time may be deemed no longer a member. Membership, then, is often practically about attendance. This is because attendance is, for many Christians, the only sign that they are “with us.” Where more active church life is expected, leaders (and hopefully all other church members) are rightly concerned to know who they are spiritually responsible for—who expects the support and accountability of the family.
In Arequipa, we have the same need. Yet, our fluid congregational existence, which is in the best case scenario constantly growing and multiplying into new groups, rules out the practical value of writing down names. We are simply too often in flux to assign people to particular places. And when a Christian comes along and joins one of our meetings, we don’t want him or her to place membership to a house church whose present form will not exist in a matter of months. More importantly, we don’t want any Christian’s commitment to be “membership.” Because that can too easily mean commitment to be a member—to be on the roll. Instead, we want every Christian’s commitment to be to one another. In that sense, membership is for us a matter of practice rather than a matter of record keeping. But the commitment is important, and what placing membership in the American setting provides is a simple ritual of identification. It is an act of commitment. So, we’ve tried to create a new practice in Arequipa that can serve that function.
At our last all-church gathering, we talked about the need to practice Jesus‘ “new command” (John 13:34) concretely. It is difficult for disciples to love one another if they aren’t sure who one another is. It is difficult to know whom I have a responsibility to serve, support, challenge, correct, and confess to if it is unclear who expects to be involved in the deeply “one another” sense of love that characterizes the church. In an ideal world, this would sort itself out, but in reality, some people just want to be hangers-on for a while, and some people need ritual to mark their identification with the group.
It struck us as most appropriate to make our little commitment ceremony part of the Lord’s supper. Everyone was invited to break bread for someone else in the room and to express their commitment to fulfill the new command concretely among our group of Christians. Those who weren’t ready to make that commitment to us said something more general. One woman, for example, simply affirmed her commitment to Christ, which was still edifying for everyone present. A man who has been visiting one of the house churches for a while has a history of chronically exploring different churches. This left us with a little uncertainty about his intentions despite his frequent presence. He took the opportunity to cast his lot with us. The message was clear in each case. We managed to emphasize the positive commitment of our immediate spiritual family’s members without drawing a hard line between members and outsiders. Despite our need for clarity, leaving this fuzziness is important, especially in connection to the Lord’s table, where all are welcome. The experience was deeply affirming and participatory for everyone. We plan to continue the practice on a regular basis.