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Atlanta, 23 March 2016

Happy Spring (northern hemisphere)! I've just returned from a quick trip to Los Angeles, after winding up another session of AIM (N.T. Interpretation) in Atlanta, where 25 local students joined 10 more from Seattle (we stream the classes). Some students serve as church staff; most are in a leadership position; and all are motivated to learn.

The first night we enjoyed dinner at our house (Vicki's an extraordinarily competent cook for larger groups). The next two days we met on the North River campus. For me it was a privilege teaching with Joey Harris (Augusta) and Jeff Hickman (North River). Photo: Jeff explains how careful interpretation pays off -- and how this skill changed his personal study and preaching. Anyone interested in becoming an AIM student -- whether on one of our campuses, online, or by DVD -- either as an audit or credit student, please shoot me an email.

Today we continue (and conclude) our mini-series on the church. If you're new to the weekly bulletin, the two previous articles are Church I: Ekklesia and Church II: Universal & Local. Thanks so much for feedback flowing in from all over the world, as you share your support or your concerns about what I've written.

Members, membership, & dismemberment (?)

We're all baptized into the body of Christ, the church universal (1 Cor 12:13). Yet our membership has a local expression (Acts 2:41) -- recall that the basic meaning of church is assembly. Church is organic, not merely organizational. In 1 Cor 12:12-31 Paul explains that the body is a unit, though made of many members. Each member is different and serves a different function, whether an eye, ear, hand, or foot. The foot does not easily serve as a hand, nor can a lost eye be recovered. Members are hardly interchangeable, nor are they replaceable. Here we find diversity, not similarity.

Of course in one sense all members are alike. We have much in common: Christ, determination to remain in his word, and commitment to the body of Christ. However, for the purposes of Paul's metaphor, it is our differences that matter. In most human organizations, all members are alike. (Think soldiers marching on the parade ground, or the mailman in uniform.) I recently re-joined a health club, L.A. Fitness. I have a membership number. If I drop out, someone else will take my number. That's because I'm no more significant to the organization than the monthly dues I pay. Not so with the church! If you quit, no one can truly replace you.

Membership comes with requirements. It's not enough to pay monthly dues (as in the health club). Membership requires a degree of effort. We may chafe at humanly imposed requirements (e.g., elders expecting members to attend midweek services), yet some requirements are necessary for practical purposes. There are God-imposed requirements as well. For example. one cannot remain in the fellowship while persisting in slander, adultery, or other behaviors destructive to the body. When a member refuses to change, there is legitimate church discipline.

Some years ago a brother in Asia was telling me about a member who persisted in willful sin. "What happened?" I asked. "We dismembered him," the brother replied. (I couldn't help but smile.) He was only emphasizing an important truth: membership comes with certain expectations. Fellowship (Acts 2:42) and disfellowship (1 Cor 5:12-13) are serious matters. Although church is a haven, a place of grace. However, if we've stopped following Christ there would be something false about being accepted straight back into the congregation, no questions asked. Sometimes local leaders may mistakes, demanding too much commitment. More often (I think) they demand too little. A biblical church holds to biblical standards.

Book of Life?
When we planted a church in London (1982), I kept the books. Not just the financial ones, but also what we called (tongue-in-cheek) "the book of life" (Rev 3:5; Exod 32:32; Ps 69:28). My little red and black book was where I entered hundreds of names -- everyone we baptized. Of course we knew there were saved persons in London not in our book, just as there were probably some in our book who weren't right with the Lord. Ours wasn't the book of life, a only working list, a tool to help us know who was available, how many people to expect, how to budget, etc. To return to the distinction made last week, God's book of life pertains to the church universal, our book only to the local church. They're not the same.

In short
Whereas among most human organizations membership implies sameness, or uniformity, church membership implies difference (of both gifts and function). True unity isn't a matter of everyone thinking and acting alike. Staying connected especially when we disagree is true Christian unity. And since membership is organic, each of us should strive to function in our niche, serving the body, not ourselves. (More on serving in a few weeks, when we begin a series on Ministry.)

Series wrap-up:
  1. Ekklesia:  Church is an assembly, not an association. Therefore Christianity is not an individual sport. All hands on deck!
  2. Universal & Local:  The church of Christ exists in two forms. One is cosmic (and perfect), the body of Christ comprising all his followers, the other its local (and imperfect) expression.
  3. Membership:  Since church is organic (a body), we strive not for uniformity, but for unity. Members are neither interchangeable nor replaceable. While functionally speaking we are members of a local church, this is not necessarily the same as having our names written in God's Book of Life (Phil 4:3). Wise leaders know the difference.


Next week we'll begin a series exploring the Kingdom. Is the Kingdom synonymous with the church? (Hardly!) Is the Kingdom still future? (Yes.) But hasn't it already come? (Of course.) Is the millennial kingdom for real? (Yes -- but what's a millennium?) And so on... Come back!

Spring trips include Knoxville (preaching), Los Angeles (our daughter Lily's graduation), Kahului (preaching), Ephesus (theological education / archaeology), and Paris (teaching). We hope your spring (or autumn, if you dwell in the antipodes) will be a fruitful one.

In His grip,
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