Church: Church Membership

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The question of church membership may be approached from various points of view: the theological, the juridical, and the sociological. The theological approach, which will be emphasized here, grows out of the biblical foundations of the Christian faith.

Old Testament

The "people of God" are identified with Israel as an ethnic group and a nation in various books of the Old Testament (Dt. 7:78, Is. 41:8, 51:2, etc.). By birth the individual received the call to live up to the religious heritage of the people. Especially in the Judaism of the Diaspora, non-Israelites who believed in the God of Israel were admitted to the ranks of the proselytes and could, through circumcision and immersion, become Israelites in the full sense. A person who was once an Israelite could be put under the ban, or could apostatize, but could not cease to be a member of the people of God.

New Testament

There is no discussion of church membership as such in the New Testament, but certain conditions for membership seem to be implied in metaphors such as the net, the flock, the vine and branches, the olive tree, and the New Israel. In Romans 12:48 and 1 Corinthians 12:1231, Paul compares the members of the church to which he is writing to organs or limbs of a body. His letter to the Ephesians speaks of Christians as members of the body of Christ and of one another (Eph. 5:30, 4:25). In the New Testament, baptism is seen as the basic sacrament of incorporation, and it is regularly linked with the profession of Christian faith (Acts 2:38, 8:37, etc.). According to Paul, baptism makes one a son of God "through faith" (Gal. 3:2627). The Eucharist further unifies the community insofar as all partake of the one bread (1 Cor. 10:17). All members of the community are seen as having an active role in keeping with their personal spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:618, 1 Cor. 12:7, 1 Pt. 4:10).

In various ways the New Testament authors indicate that membership or some of its effects may cease. For certain grave offenses, believers are ostracized (2 Thes. 3:14), shunned (Ti. 3:10), avoided (1 Cor. 5:11), treated as heathen (Mt. 18:17), and excluded from the homes of the faithful (2 Jn. 10). It is even taught that those who quit the Christian fellowship can never have been true Christians (1 Jn. 2:19).

Christian Antiquity

As the ancient church wrestled with problems of orthodoxy and discipline, it made provision for the exclusion of heretics, schismatics, and other serious offenders. Once the Roman Empire became officially Christian, membership in the church increasingly became a condition for rights of citizenship.

The fathers of the Greek church connected membership with baptism and the Eucharistsacraments that they viewed as effecting union with Christ and participation in his divine life through faith and charity. These themes continue to be vital, especially in Eastern Christian churches, which emphasize chrismation as a necessary complement to baptism.

Augustine (d. 430) and the later Western fathers, notably Gregory I (d. 604), distinguished two aspects of the church. On the one hand, it is a communion of grace and spiritual gifts; on the other, a visibly organized society with doctrinal, sacramental, and ministerial structures. For the followers of Augustine the visible structures were a sign of, and a means of entry into, the invisible community, which had primary importance. Against the Donatists, Augustine insisted that sinners were still members of the church, though they belonged to it only in an external way. The church in its visible aspect, Augustine recognized, does not perfectly coincide with the communion of the just or of the predestined, who constitute the church in its deeper dimensions.

Middle Ages

Early medieval theologians such as Bede the Venerable (d. 735), following Augustine, spoke of the universal church as having existed from the time of Abel and as including the angels and the souls of the blessed. But they regarded the visible structures of the church as essential to its present historical phase. Before the reforms of Gregory VII (d. 1085), the church was closely identified with the Christian people, who were held to be under two sets of rulers, temporal and spiritual. After Gregory VII a clearer line was drawn between membership in the church and membership in the state.

In the high Middle Ages the great scholastic theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, saw the church primarily as a communion of grace, and consequently they looked on membership principally as a grace-relationship to Christ. Thomas held that all human beings except those already damned are in one way or another united to Christ as head (Summa theologiae 3.8.3c). Those gifted with faith and charity are most perfectly members of the church on earth; those who have faith but not charity are imperfectly members; and infidels are members only in potency. Some scholastic theologians, such as Albertus Magnus, held that although sinners are members of the church, they are not members of Christ's mystical body.

In the late Middle Ages some saw membership as a purely individual relationship to God and as being hidden from human eyes. John Wyclif (d. 1348) and Jan Hus (d. 1415) spoke of the church as the "multitude of the predestined" (numerus praedestinatorum ) known to God alone. For them, reprobates (i.e., those not predestined to glory) were only putative members.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation

The sixteenth-century Protestant reformers Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and John Calvin held that although the church is visible by reason of its functions of proclaiming the word of God and administering the sacraments, membership in the church is hidden. For practical purposes, they held, we must treat as members those who profess to believe in God and Christ, who partake of the sacraments, and who live as Christians. But God alone knows who belongs to him by sincere faith and election. Reformation theologians often stated that no one could be saved without belonging to the church, but by church in this context they meant "communion of saints" rather than a given socially organized institution. Repeating a well-known medieval axiom, they denied that God is bound to the means of grace he has instituted.

In reply to the reformers, Roman Catholics accented the visibility of the church and the guarantees of apostolic succession. For Roberto Bellarmino (d. 1621), church membership required three conditions: external profession of the true faith, sacramental communion, and subjection to the legitimate pastors, especially the pope as vicar of Christ. Whoever is unbaptized or excommunicated or guilty of manifest heresy or schism is not a member of the church of Christ (De controversiis 4, De ecclesia, bk. 3, chap. 2). Bellarmino, however, recognized that non-Catholics and non-Christians, if they were living in the grace of God, could belong to what he called the "soul" of the church.

For Francisco Suárez (d. 1617), the church had existed in some form since Adam. From the time of Christ, however, it was the "political or moral body of those who profess true faith in Christ" (De fide, disp. 4, sec. 1, n. 3). Whereas Bellarmino held that occult infidels were members of the church, Suárez denied thisyet the difference was not sharp, because even for Bellarmino such secret unbelievers were not "true" members (De controv. 4.3.10).

Modern Period

Until recently Roman Catholic theologians continued to adhere in substance to the positions of Bellarmino and Suárez. Bellarmino's doctrine was a major influence on Pius XII, who in his encyclical Mystici corporis Christi (1943) equated "real" (reapse ) membership in the mystical body of Christ with being a Roman Catholic. Vatican Council II (19621965) modified this stance by avoiding the category of membership and by speaking instead of degrees of relatedness and incorporation. According to the Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium ), non-Christians who live by the grace of God are positively related (ordinantur ) to the people of God (no. 16). All baptized Christians are joined (conjunguntur ) with Christ and with Catholics (no. 15), as are also catechumens who explicitly intend to become incorporated into the church (no. 14). To be fully incorporated in the church, however, one must accept the visible structures of Roman Catholicism, be in sacramental communion with the pope, and be gifted with the grace of the Holy Spirit (no. 14). In effect, therefore, Vatican II reserved full membership to Roman Catholics who are living up to their professed faith. The council accepted the Augustinian theme that sinners are in the church in a bodily way but not in their hearts (no. 14). Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism stressed baptism as the fundamental sacrament of incorporation (nos. 3, 22). The 1983 Code of Canon Law returns to Bellarmino's three conditions for full communion in the Catholic Church: the bonds of professed faith, sacraments, and ecclesiastical governance (can. 205).

The concept of church membership in Protestantism has undergone notable changes since the Reformation. The "free churches" that arose in the succeeding centuries were often nonaggressive sects or "denominations"that is to say, voluntary, nonobligatory associations reflecting certain preferences with regard to doctrine, worship, or organization. Membership in a denomination is seen as implying a willingness to abide by the rules of the organization, even though one might wish to change some of those rules. Denominational membership is not equated with belonging to the community of salvation. In some denominations infant baptism is rejected in favor of a "believers' baptism" administered to adolescents. In such denominations small children are not considered church members.

The World Council of Churches in 1961 referred to the mutual recognition of members as an essential of Christian unity. Various ecumenical organizations have taken up this theme. In the United States, the Consultation on Church Union has been pressing since 1974 for a recognition that baptism in any one of the participating churches effects membership in the universal church. A few Christians have practiced or advocated dual or plural church membership as a means of manifesting that the church is one in spite of the multiplicity of the denominations.

Juridical Aspects

The juridical consequences of membership may be inferred by scrutiny of the constitutions of particular ecclesiastical bodies. Some recognize more than one kind of membership, distinguishing, for instance, between communicant and noncommunicant members. To be a communicant (i.e., to be entitled to receive the sacraments), one must have attained a certain minimum age (e.g., thirteen years) and live up to certain requirements, such as church attendance and financial support. Most churches have procedures for excommunication or exclusion from the rights and privileges of membership.

Spelled out to some degree in canon law, the juridical consequences of membership are theologically rooted in the status of being reborn in Christ. Among the duties of members the following are commonly mentioned: professing the true faith, participating in the worship of the church, rendering obedience to pastors, maintaining communion with the church, defending the freedom of the church, supporting its ministers, fostering Christian unity, and promoting peace and justice in the world. Among the rights of church members the following are frequently asserted: to hear the word of God, to receive the sacraments, to exercise the apostolate, to inquire freely into theological questions, to have freedom of expression, association, and assembly, to enjoy personal privacy and a good reputation, and to be protected against arbitrary deprivation of office. Some of these "Christian rights" coincide with human rights recognized in secular society.

Sociological Aspects

Sociologists commonly recognize various kinds and degrees of membership depending on the extent to which the individual is identified with, committed to, and active in the church. Joseph H. Fichter, for example, distinguishes four categories: the nuclear member, who is exceptionally active and committed; the modal, who is ordinary; the marginal, who is somewhat alienated or disaffected; and the dormant, who does not believe or practice but has not positively defected. Dormancy, as explained by Fichter, is more a matter of religious ignorance or apathy than of active rejection.

These sociological observations could be applied to non-Christian or nonreligious organizations, such as political parties, and they do not focus on what is specific to the church as a mystery or sacrament of the divine. But sociological analysis raises certain questions of a theological characterfor example, whether dormant members should be considered members from a theological point of view.

Present Perspectives

Looking over the history of the theology of membership, one is struck by the correspondence between changes of theory and shifts in the actual situation of the churches. Organic models of membership, developed from such vitalistic metaphors as body of Christ, had their strongest appeal when society in general was highly organic and when the individual had little autonomy against the group. Juridical models, which came into vogue in the early modern period, corresponded to the fragmentation of Europe into highly organized competitive groups, such as nation-states and confessional churches, in which the sovereign rulers exercised strong coercive power. Voluntarist theories of membership came to prevail when freedom and individuality were cultivated, especially in the nineteenth century. In a period such as our own, when the social determinants of human existence are keenly felt, such religious individualism may seem inadequate.

Current thinking about membership will presumably be influenced by the contemporary situation of religious pluralism and rapid social change, as well as by the fact that membership in a church and membership in civil society no longer imply each other in most countries. Many Christians, subjected to a variety of influences, seem to be only partially identified with their religious community, yet they are unwilling to leave that community, which they cherish for its positive values. Some suspect that as secularization continues, the church will increasingly consist of a minority who have made an explicit choice, often against the tenor of society.

By forcing new reflection on the idea of membership, the present complex situation makes it evident that the term membership does not correspond to any single objective reality. Membership, subjected to analysis, includes various componentsfor instance, communion with God through grace, faith, hope, and charity; relationship to one's fellow believers; sharing the ideals and doctrines officially professed by the community; eligibility for sacramental life; and active participation. Members who are marginal by some of these criteria may be modal or nuclear by other criteria.

See Also

Community; Denominationalism; Excom-munication.


Carrier, Hervé. The Sociology of Religious Belonging. Translated by Arthur J. Arrieri. New York, 1965. A valuable, highly objective study of attitudes toward religious groups, conversion, integration, and disaffiliation, from the standpoint of social psychology. Requires some updating.

Congar, Yves. L'église: De Saint Augustin à l'époque moderne. Paris, 1970. A history of ecclesiology from a Roman Catholic perspective, with informative comments on changing concepts of church membership.

Les droits fondamentaux du Chrétien dans l'église et dans la société. Acts of the Fourth International Congress on Canon Law. Edited by Eugenio Corecco, Nikolaus Herzog, and Angelo Schola. Fribourg, 1981. A massive collection (1,328 pages) of papers on the rights of Christians, chiefly in connection with the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church.

Dulles, Avery. Church Membership as a Catholic and Ecumenical Problem. Milwaukee, 1974. A short study that attempts to correlate theological and sociological aspects, taking account of Vatican Council II and the ecumenical movement.

Gassman, Benno. Ecclesia Reformata: Die Kirche in den Reformierten Bekenntnisschriften. Freiburg, Basel, and Vienna, 1968. A Tübingen dissertation on the ecclesiology of the Reformed confessional writings, with comparisons between them and Vatican II. The question of church membership is adequately handled.

Internationale katholische Zeitschrift "Communio " 5 (May/June 1976). A theme issue on church membership with articles by Karl Lehmann, Matthäus Kaiser, Yves Congar, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Kilcourse, George. Double Belonging: Interchurch Families and Christian Unity. New York, 1992.

Moberg, David O. The Church as a Social Institution. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1962. A standard textbook on the sociology of religion in the American context with several chapters touching on church membership.

Die Zugehörigkeit zur Kirche. Report of the Seventh International Conference on the Sociology of Religion, Königstein im Taunus, June 30 to July 2, 1962. Edited by Walter Menges and Norbert Greinacher. Mainz, 1964. Papers by European scholars on various aspects of membershiphistorical, sociological, theological, and pastoral.

Avery Dulles (1987 and 2005)

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