Parishioner, Member, or Partner?

What are we supposed to call a person who belongs to a particular church? That’s an interesting question to consider since the term has changed over time. For a long time when churches were organized by perishes, the people were called “parishioners.” In a time when there was less denominational diversity and when the relationship between nation and church was stronger (think of Anglicanism in England, Lutheranism in Germany, and Reformed Churches in  Holland), everyone who lived in a certain region was thought to belong and be a part of the local parish church. As places like the United States became more denominationally diverse, people living in the same region might belong to a variety of local churches. So churches began to start using the term “membership” to refer to the particular body of people who belonged to a particular church and “member” to refer to one person in that body.

Recently it has become fashionable for local churches to designate those who belong to their local church “partners” rather than “members.” The thinking here is related to how the term “member” can be and has been distorted. In our culture, we can be members of country clubs, volunteer organizations, athletic clubs, consumer advantage programs, and pools, just to name a few. The term conveys a special status possessed by someone who has certain privileges as a consumer. Given how the term “member” is so frequently used, it is understandable that no church wants people to think that this is what is meant when a person joins a local congregation. Belonging to a church is not about possessing privilege or about being an insider with exalted status. Jesus didn’t save us to bring us into a community where we could just sit there and enjoy special perks not afforded to others. The church isn’t supposed to be a community of consumers.

So it is understandable that many churches have begun shying away from using “membership” and “member” language and replacing it with “partners.” To be a partner suggests that you have joined a team of people who share a mission together. Now this sounds perfect, right? This is what churches who want to be on mission are all about. By rejecting the term “member,” these churches are not just leaving behind a confusing and somewhat elitist sounding term but are actually fostering a shift from a consumer mentality to a mission mentality. Churches making this shift see this as a move toward greater biblical faithfulness. This is how the thinking seems to go.

There is also something else going on in this shift from “member” to “partner” though. Many who have been frustrated with the church for its failure to understand its mission have distanced ourselves from the forms of ministry that have dominated Evangelicalism for decades. And much of this shift from “traditional” parish and attractional forms of church to missional forms is good. But abandoning “membership” for “partnership” isn’t one of the shifts we need to make.

The problem with this shift is that it overlooks or ignores the fact that the Apostle Paul believed “member” to be a perfectly good term to use to denote a person who belongs to a particular local church. The body metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12 makes it clear that the church community is the body of Christ and that each person is a member of that body empowered by the Spirit to carry out Jesus’ mission in the world. Yes, it is true that the term “member” has many other connotations in other settings. But we don’t need to toss a perfectly good word because of this, especially when that word is part of a larger biblical metaphor for the church. Rather than chuck it, denigrate it with a smug attitude, and replace it with another term that isn’t used in Scripture to describe those belonging to a local congregation, we should keep it and continually teach what the Bible says about what it means. Now before you object, I am aware that Christians are called “partners” in the New Testament (Philippians 1:3-6). I like that word, and I think it is a good one we should keep and use. But the term is not used in the particular way some churches today are using it. Sure, when we work together with Christians, particularly through financial support or by traveling on mission trips together, we are partners in the gospel. But there is something richer about the term “member” because of the body metaphor.

To be a member of a body is to have an organic and functional unity with others. It communicates belonging, common mission, unity, and shared life. A body is a living thing, and we are all part of Christ’s body through the Spirit. Furthermore, there is another important biblical metaphor for the church—the family of God. And guess what? We are members of God’s family, not just Christ’s body. There is a richness to the term “member” that Paul unpacks in his metaphors for the church that is lacking with the term “partner.” And I don’t mean to denigrate the term “partner” at all. I think it is used in a different context, an important context. But let’s conform our use of these terms with Scripture so that we don’t miss the richness of what we have and what we are called to as Christians.

So what are we supposed to call a person who belongs to a particular church then? We cannot go back to “parishioners,” and frankly, I don’t see any reason why we went there in the first place (That is another discussion. No need to need to get into the issues with Christendom here). There are no good reasons why we should abandon “member.” Sure, some people might get the wrong idea, but honestly, that is true of “partner” as well. A partner can be a lawyer with a firm, a lover of the same sex, a co-owner of a business, and a work out buddy, just to name a few. It certainly suggests a co-laboring, but the body of Christ is much more than a group of co-laborers. In fact, it is because we are a body and a family that we co-labor. Having been united to Christ through faith in the power of the Holy Spirit, our very life is in Christ as his people. We belong to one another just as we belong to God. So let’s stick with the term Paul uses and work to clarify what that means so that we don’t reduce the local church to one thing and lose sight of the richness of her life in Christ.