Membership is an interesting term these days. What does it really mean?
There is a Lutheran theological idea that goes by the name Two Kingdoms. If you read about the Two Kingdoms, you will hear the terms Kingdom of the Left and Kingdom of the Right. Those terms depend upon an old understanding of left-handedness and right-handedness. Right, being the majority, is the direct and straight and powerful. The Kingdom of the Right is the Kingdom where God rules directly. The left, being the sinister (the latin word for left), is the sneaky and winding and weaker. The Kingdom of the Left is still ruled by God, but it is ruled by means. It is ruled through other, sometimes fallen and sinful, things.
Most things we come across in this life are part of the Kingdom of the Left. The church is said to be part of the Kingdom of the Right, but even then I’m quick to say we have to be careful of what do we mean by church. Jesus would remind us that the wheat and tares are sown together. The Augsburg Confession picks up on this in Article 8. “Strictly speaking, the church is the congregation on saints and true believers. However, because many hypocrites and evil person are mingled in this life, it is lawful to use the sacraments administered by evil men…Both the Sacraments and Word are effective because of Christ’s institution and command, even if they are administered by evil men.” The Kingdom of the Right is found there in the Word and Sacraments. These are the things that Christ rules directly. The Word goes out and does not return empty. Christ is present in the bread and wine whether you believe it or not. Which is why we are warned to discern it. These are how God works in this world. Yet, the church is not purely of the Kingdom of the Right. It must exist in this world. And existing in this world means all kinds of troubles: politics, arguments, decisions, financial worries, human traditions, the list could go on. And most of these things are not necessarily troubles, they are simply the tasks delegated to the Kingdom of the Left. They are the things still under God’s providence, but that he has left to us. The Augsburg Confession also teaches that “the church is the congregation of the saints in which the gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are administered correctly.” When Jesus says go and make disciples of all nations he follows it with the means: baptizing them and teaching – word and sacrament. This is the mission of the church in this world.
So what is membership? In the Kingdom of the Left, which is a necessary thing, it is things like keeping a roster, tracking attendance, seeking people to serve. Soon we are going to need a Treasurer – notoriously one of the tougher roles in the Lefthand Kingdom to fill. The negative side of all of this is when people come to think that because my name is in somebody’s spreadsheet in the church office, I am saved. Just because the Kingdom of the Left recognizes your membership, doesn’t mean The King does. “Many will say Lord, Lord, we ate at your table…Go away, I do not know you.” The real meaning of membership is found in that Righthand Kingdom. The questions that are asked in the Reception of members are many of the same questions asked in the Baptismal liturgy – “Do you believe in God: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit?”. They are the same questions asked of confirmands – “Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully?” They are sometimes hard questions – “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away?” Membership in the Kingdom of the Right is about faith. It is about being part of the saints and true believers.
The church operates in both Kingdoms. But at all times we need to remember that the Kingdom of the Left exists and operates at the command and purpose of the Kingdom of the Right. Having all the T’s crossed and I’s dotted, but lacking faith is not the church. But likewise we can’t go bury our talent expecting God to prosper it. We must at least give it to the bankers to receive it back with interest. The talents, God’s providence, is given to us to use.
What is membership? It is the saints putting the talents given to work.