In 1998 I spent fourteen weeks in my wife’s home country of Singapore.  The first seven of those weeks we were waiting for our son Jeremy to be born, and the last seven we were trying to get up the nerve to take the baby on the 30+ hour plane ride to America and, a month later, to Africa.  1998 was the year that two blockbuster movies hit the theaters in Singapore.  One, Titanic, you’ve probably seen.  The other, unless you are Singaporean, you probably haven’t.  It was called Money No Enough (that’s not a typo) and, if I remember correctly, actually grossed more in Singaporean cinemas than Titanic.  When we went to see the move, babe in arms, we arrived at the last minute and had to sit on the front row of the packed theater.

In the movie, which is mostly in the Chinese Hokkien dialect (with English subtitles), Singaporeans poke fun at how they get themselves into financial troubles (conspicuous consumption, borrowing from loan sharks) and out of such messes.  The solution that the guys in the movies find to their financial problems is to go into business for themselves providing car clean-up services.  To attract clients, instead of just offering their services for sale, they offer “memberships” in an “exclusive” auto-service club.  As they hope, the privileges of membership have just enough appeal to people’s vanity that they find plenty of clients and their financial problems are solved.

I grew up hearing people referred to as “a member” or “not a member,” and we all knew what that meant—they were “a member of the church” (MOTC for short) or not.  “Membership” had its privileges—in this case, salvation, or at least a shot at it.  Seldom was anything mentioned about the person’s relationship to Christ or the evidence of the Spirit in the person’s life.  What counted, primarily, was membership.

From what I’ve been learning, our whole understanding of membership is formed by a relatively modern concept of the church as a “voluntary association.”  This is in contrast to the medieval Roman Catholic and Protestant Reformation views where one became a “member” by birth or by belonging to a “Christian nation.”  The church became something one was free to “join” and participate in to whatever extent one desired.  It became one part of an increasingly segmented life—work, family, community, church—each dimension of life being allotted whatever attention the participant could give to it.  Just as one was a “member” of the church, they might be a member of any number of voluntary associations.  They were free to join, resign, transfer membership, and choose their level of participation.  The individual remained to a large degree autonomous and in control.

I find this a far cry from the biblical view of membership, which is based on the body analogy that Paul develops so powerfully.  In the body, no member is autonomous; every member is interdependent.  There is no life apart from the body, and the body is directionless unless it takes its orders from its Head (Jesus).  This analogy does not support the view of the church as the guarantor or dispenser of salvation, but rather views every member of the body as a participant in a common life that is derived from the Head.

I question whether the terminology of membership has been so robbed of its biblical meaning that it may no longer effectively communicate what we want to about the church.  In contemporary English, we seldom speak of the “members” of our body.  We talk, instead about its “parts.”  Might this not be a small step in recovering a biblical view of life in the body?  Instead of saying that you are a “member” of the church, just to say that you are a “part” of it.  Would this help us gain a greater sense of connectedness?

This is just a suggestion, and I know that re-visioning the church needs to go much deeper than just changing our language.  Maybe you have other suggestions.  I’d love to hear them.