So there are two things I considered when figuring out which way to steer the church plant on this issue. First, what does the Bible call these people (partner or member)? Second, what does the L.A. resident and member/partner of our L.A. church understand when he hears the term in relation to the local church? I’ll post on the first consideration here and the second later.
When I read the term partner in the New Testament, I see it repeatedly used of Christians who are not committed to the same local church. For example:
2 Cor. 8:23 – As for Titus, he is my partner and fellow worker for your benefit. And as for our brothers, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of Christ.
Philippians 1:3, 5 – I thank my God in all my remembrance of you… because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.
Philippians 4:15 – And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.
Philemon 17 – So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.
Revelation 1:9 – I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
When I see “member” used, there are times that it isn’t used for people in the same local church, and there are times where it is used in that way. First some instances of its use for the universal church, not the local church:
Ephesians 2:19 – So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,
Ephesians 3:6 – This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Ephesians 4:25 – Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.
Ephesians 5:29-30 – For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.
Here are uses of “member” that are used of the local church and not the universal church.
Romans 12:4-5 – For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (This may or may not be referring to the local church).
1 Corinthians 12:12-27 – For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body… 24 But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
So partnership in the New Testament (Paul and John) is used in apostolic ministry which by its nature is connected to more than one local church. This is good, and Christians should seek to serve all gospel churches as opportunities present themselves and as God himself ordains. But local church accountability and community does not seem to be identical with Christians partnering with multiple local gospel communities. There is some defined group that disciplines the unrepentant sinners (Matt. 18:17, 1 Cor. 5:2). That doesn’t seem to necessarily include “partners” in this sense of partnering with all Christians everywhere with the spread of the gospel. If it did, would we tell all gospel partners in the world the sin of someone when we obey Christ’s command to tell it to the church? Obviously not.
The term “member,” though used at times to refer to the universal church, is also used of the local church. It comes primarily in the image of the body. Body parts are called members throughout Scripture. So when applied to the church, members of the body are members of the local church. They are part of the body and they, as a body and as members of the body, are to be active and contributing to the mission and growth of the church.
In light of the New Testament, member is a better term than partner for local church purposes. But this does not settle the issue. We must consider the way this term is understood by those in the church and the community-context in which the church is planted. We don’t want do miscommunicate or disregard the people we love. I’ll consider that tomorrow.