apropos of nothing as far as I could tell, he blogged this quote last Thursday:
'[C]entral to the Baptist vision of the church is the insistence that the church
must be composed of believers only. That is the distinctive mark of the church
for Baptists and others who fall within the stream of those who advocate what is
sometimes called the gathered church, or more often today, the believers'
church. This mark may also be called the principle of regenerate church
membership.' (Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 81-82)
This has always been the distinction between the gathered church and the parish model. The latter argues the church in a neighbourhood if for everyone who lives there, the former that the church is really for believers who covenant to worship together and live lives that are accountable to one another.
In some senses, the gathered model is more New Testament than the parish one. Church was for believers - indeed by the second century when following Jesus was illegal and punishable by death, the key role of deacons was to keep outsiders out.
But in our day, this model is less easy to follow and less attractive. People are more mobile, they choose church from a wide menu of options on the basis of preference (worship style, quality of Sunday School, emphasis in teaching, etc). On top of that, as churches we want to be open so that people who drop in are not only welcomed but drawn in by what we do.
This in turn feeds into any conversation we have about membership. If we make everyone who comes feel welcome, go out of our way to include them as fully as possible in the life of the church (inviting them to home groups, asking them to share in the financial upkeep of the fellowship, enabling them to volunteer in exercising ministry in some way through the church), how can we restrict 'membership' to a close inner circle of people who've jumped through a set of hoops we've erected for the purpose?
I want to run as open a fellowship as possible. I hold firmly to the view that people need to belong before they believe (and believe before they behave) and I hold firmly to the view that our fellowship is enriched by Christians with a variety of backgrounds.
So how do I make membership work in the light of this? Answers on a postcard, please...