At Oldham Bethel Church, we regularly have the joy of speaking to folk about baptism and membership. At the present time, we are talking to 7 Iranians about joining the church, five of whom will be baptised on entry to church membership. For those seeking baptism, we only baptise those who are willing to come into church membership; the two are part and parcel of the same thing. Naturally, however, this leads to discussions about what membership entails and how, if at all, it changes the relationship.
There is much that can be said about the rights and responsibilities of membership. In fact, we have membership classes that discuss this very thing. But, in terms of the relationship, there is a simple analogy we tend to use.
Those in church membership are part of a family. The church meeting itself is essentially the family home. Those who are not in membership, but regularly attend the church, are basically guests in the family home. Just as there are lots of good reasons to invite guests into my family home, there is clearly a distinction between my family and the guests who have come in.
Those who are in membership essentially have a familial relationship. The elders have a paternal responsibility toward the members and each member has a fraternal/sororal relationship to one another. Those who attend, but aren’t in membership, have a different relationship. Theirs is not familial but amicable; they are friends invited into the familial home.
When my son is out of my family home, he doesn’t cease to be my son. My relationship with him continues as much when we are in different places as when we are together in the house. The relationship is long-lasting and stable. When my guests leave my family home, they are no longer my guests. They are people whom we are glad to welcome into the house but there is a limit to the depth of the relationship. Just as in my family home, there are lots of good reasons we might invite guests into our church, and we want to befriend them, but the relationship is necessarily different.
When people enter into membership, they are adopted into the family. The relationship becomes deeper. When the members go home, the relationship doesn’t stop because they are no longer in the house. There is a deeper, fuller relationship. The members are choosing to submit to the authority of the eldership, to accept that filial relationship, whilst also committing to the good of the other members. At the same time, the rest of the family are committing to the well-being of the new members. It is a familial relationship in the truest sense.
Those in membership are fully members of the family. Those who are guests in the family home are entirely welcome, we love to get to know them, but just as guests in my home are not part of my family so it is with those not yet in membership.