Monday, May 25, 2009

Membership or fellowship: Which is the greater need today?

As I mentioned in a prior post, a small group of men are considering starting a "church" in this area (I will use church in the way it is normally defined as a local assembly of believers). I also mentioned that I am looking at several criteria people or ministries have posted that deal with which qualities reflect a healthy church or more importantly a Biblical church. I think one can have a growing, outwardly "healthy" church that is un-Biblical and there are plenty of examples that bear that out. Our standard for the local gathering must be the Scriptures before we even think about what tradition says or what the world says. One place we are going to look at and maybe base our prayer and discussions around are the 9 Marks of a healthy church, posted by Mark Dever's ministry 9 Marks Ministry. That is kind of a no-brainer, the 9 Marks model is widely respected especially among the Reformed and many conservative Christians. I find the 9 Marks to be an excellent guide and the material put out by the ministry to be solid and Biblical, a great defender of Reformed doctrines and Baptist practice. But...

In my review of the 9 Marks, something kind of jumped out at me. There was a mark for church discipline, there was a mark for membership but not a mark for prayer or fellowship. How can we evaluate a "healthy church" much less a "Biblical church" without looking at the fellowship or prayer life of that church? The earliest days of the church were marked by devotion to four things: fellowship, the breaking of bread, the Apostles' teaching and prayer (Acts 2:42). Three of the four things that the church devoted herself to are not on the 9 Marks list.

Then I found it, at the bottom in an addendum:

In identifying and promoting these nine marks, we are not intending to lay down an exhaustive or authoritative list. There are other significant marks of healthy churches, like prayer and fellowship. We want to pursue those ourselves as well, and we want you to pursue them with us. But these nine are the ones we think are most neglected in most local churches today, with the most damaging ramifications. Join us in cultivating churches that reflect the character of God.

I am pretty concerned that fellowship and prayer are relegated to footnotes. I am quite certain that Mark Dever and company have a high view of prayer and of fellowship. Why then are they merely mentioned in passing at the bottom of the list? I am far more concerned about fellowship than I am about membership. We see fellowship all throughout the New Testament, but we never see membership as we understand it today.

I fear that the reason fellowship and prayer get short shrift in the 9 Marks is that the assumption is that almost every church already HAS fellowship and prayer in the form of a church gathering in a sanctuary and corporate prayer led by the pastor. We have imprinted our traditions on these words and given them meaning that are unwarranted from the text. Fellowship means a couple of minutes of shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries. Prayer means listening to someone else who is paid to preach and pray on your behalf. Corporately praying and gathering for teaching is important but it cannot replace Biblical fellowship and intimate times of prayer.

Can we assume that church gatherings have fellowship and prayer? Does meeting in the same room and listening to someone else pray on your behalf count as Biblical fellowship and prayer? A once a month sparsely attended potluck dinner is a poor substitute to devoting ourselves to fellowship and the breaking of bread. More to the point, can we have a "healthy" church where fellowship and prayer is given only passing thought? My point is not a criticism of 9 Marks but just to point out how easy it is to make assumptions that are unwarranted by reality and focus on areas that are at best peripheral issues and at worst are merely human traditions.

We have got to get this right in the church. All the Reformation in the world will not change the church if we fail to get past the traditions and labels we have erected. May I suggest we focus on fixing the fundamentals before we start tinkering with traditions?


Bethany W. said...

Good thoughts, Arthur.

In answer to your original title question "membership or fellowship: which is the greater need", I say fellowship - of course. Sadly, you can be a member of a church and never have true fellowship.

Good post,

Alan Knox said...


John wrote: "[T]hat which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3 ESV).

Apparently, fellowship was extremely important to John. He said that our fellowship with one another was actually fellowship with the Father and with his Son. But, what if we don't have fellowship with one another? Does that mean we don't actually have fellowship with the Father and the Son?

So, in answer to your question, fellowship is much more important than "membership", at least the way the concept of "membership" is often used in the church today.


sarah said...

My husband read the book called, "The Church" by Alan Bunning, he says this book explains the way a "church" fellowship should really be, and he likes it allot. I have not read it yet,but intend to.
Have you heard of it?

We do have a home fellowship and those in our fellowship are true family in Jesus Christ our Lord. There were others, that I believe God removed from our group, to protect us. I cannot explain this but our fellowship is sweeter now and deeper.

Thank you for this post.

gloria said...

Food for thought , Arthur. I agree that prayer should not be relegated to exclusively prayer offered by the pastor in behalf of the congregration. Members of the body should be allowed to pray with the body of believers! This is the example given to us in Acts. I also agree with the fellowship -- frankly we need it!
Especially in today's world -- iron needs to sharpen iron -- we need to daily encourage one another in our walk with the Lord.

Good post!


gloria said...

P.S. I don't recall reading anything about the whole idea/concept of "membership" in the early Christian church. I have read about prayer, singing, breaking bread, but nothing about formal church membership. I truly think this is an invention of man. You can understand, after coming out of a church that places such high value on "membership". I abhor the mere mention of it now.

God bless,

Arthur Sido said...

Sarah, it sounds familiar but I haven't read it. I am working through Reimagining Church by Frank Viola now which is also good.

Arthur Sido said...


I don't like what your line of thinking would lead to. If we aren't in fellowship with each other, are we really in fellowship with Christ who is the head of the church. Perhaps that lack of fellowship with Christ explains what is wrong with our fellowship with each other.


Arthur Sido said...


You are right, membership as we understand it today is absent from the Bible. We both come from a background in mormonism where being a "member", being "worthy" is the measure of your walk with God so much of my visceral reaction to membership is caused by that experience.

Alan Knox said...


Yes, I think our lack of fellowship with one another is a result of a lack of fellowship with the Father and the Son. So, where is our fellowship? With our doctrines, our beliefs, our leaders, our denominations... you name it.


faithforlife said...

Agreed, fellowship and not membership is what is important. My church does not have formal membership but we have much fellowship. One church I was part of a number of years ago had baptism as a point of entry into the local church, ie to be a member you had to be baptised.

But in Scipture, baptism is into Christ, into His body, the one world wide church, the one that is in fellowship with Him.

Any list of 'marks of a healthy church' that relegated fellowship and prayer to footnotes leaves a lot to be desired.

blessings Trish