The Importance of Church Membership
It seems that there is an almost endless supply of controversial topics available for discussion in Christian circles today. Not among the least of these topics is the subject of church membership, and to this topic we now turn. I know this discussion can go in many directions, but I want to focus less on the “finer arguments” of details, and more on the principles: the meaning, purpose, and benefits of being a member of a local gathering of Christians.
The theme of this blog is “Calling young Anabaptists back to the Root,” that Root being Jesus Christ. As we look at “church membership” as we know it today, it is far too easy to become inundated with all the “trappings” that accompany it. It is far too easy to lose focus on Jesus – the Root and the Head of the Church – and what He wants for His Body. And if we lose our focus on Him, our efforts in life, ministry, and the church lose value as we do them in our own strength or because it’s just “how we’ve always done it.”
Jesus spoke about drawing people to Himself (John 12:32), not to man-made systems. He is the key, the centerpiece of the story, and when we make the church a human project, we err and get off track. In this discussion, let’s not lose our focus.
Church Membership: What it’s Not
Let’s take a look at what “church membership” means. Just as there are many opinions on the matter, there are also many definitions of what it means.
First, a few things that “church membership,” as we’re discussing it, is not: Firstly, it is not the same as membership in the universal Body of Christ. In passages such as Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, we see the word “member” used, but in the context of the Body as a whole. All true believers in Jesus Christ are members of His Body, but not all are members of your or my local congregation.
Secondly, formal “church membership” is not another step in the “salvation process” or a “second act of grace.” When elevated, whether intentionally or subconsciously, to the same level of importance as faith in Jesus Christ, church membership becomes a dangerous thing, drawing people away from the true meaning of the gathering of believers in a local congregation.
“Church membership” also is not like a membership at a supermarket where one signs up to get special benefits, or like a membership in some club with an “I’m in and you’re out” mentality. The purpose is not to pad one’s ego or solely for one’s own benefit, and the point should not be exclusion.
Fourthly, official “church membership” is not the end goal of the local church. We’ll look at this later, but I believe it is important to recognize that church membership is not the “end,” but rather a means to the end.
We should also recognize that formal church membership is essentially an extra-biblical, human institution. We can see support for it in Scripture, and the core idea(s) are drawn from Scripture, but strictly speaking it is an extra-biblical practice. This does not necessarily mean it is wrong or right; many practices in the church today fall into a similar category. Wedding ceremonies, structure of church services, and installation or ordination of pastors and church leaders all are things which find their root in Scripture but are carried out differently than they were in the First Century Church.
A Working Definition
While we don’t see a formal church membership process modeled in Scripture, one thing that we do see modeled and taught is commitment, and I’d like to propose this as a basic biblical definition of “church membership.”
In Hebrews 10:24-25 we read, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” New Testament passages such as this one, as well as instructions to obey and submit to church leaders (e.g. Hebrews 13:17) give evidence to the biblical importance of commitment to a local congregation. We also see examples of the commitment that was practiced in the Early Church through passages such as greetings in the epistles. These address specific local churches and believers who were members of those congregations (I & II Corinthians; Philemon 1-3; etc.).
So, boiled down to the basic level, church membership should be a strong commitment to a local church body/congregation of believers. It is a commitment that says, “This is the local congregation of believers with which I will identify and worship.” It is a commitment to the beliefs and practices that are established as the standards for this congregation, a commitment to the leaders of the congregation, and to the other members – specifically to those who have made the same commitment.
That commitment could be a simple verbal commitment, but I believe it is also appropriate for it to be preserved in the form of a list of names or signatures of those who have made that commitment. This official list can be seen as the list of people who espouse the stated beliefs and practices of the congregation, creating a defined group of people who will be the leaders and teachers in that congregation.
Now let’s take a look at some of the reasons this kind of commitment is important, starting with the individual Christian (you or me), who benefits from the commitment and the mutual accountability. Part of making the commitment of membership to a church is saying to others, “I’m here to be accountable to you and to hold you accountable as well.”
The believer experiences growth in and through such commitment and accountability – more growth than they normally would on their own, and very likely more than they would experience as just an “attendee” at the same church.
Part of the growth probably comes through yet another benefit for the individual: more opportunities for service. Certain positions may be (appropriately) restricted to members in order to keep more consistency and stability in the teaching and leadership of the church. Thus, although church membership is not all about you or me, one strong strand of evidence for its importance is the benefit and growth we can receive through that commitment.
In all of this we know God does not intend for His followers to be “lone wolves.” We as Christians need each other, whether we like to admit it or not. When we make a commitment to a group of believers, the benefits are mutual. Thus, not only the first individual – you or I – but also all the other members benefit from this relationship. So a second reason it is important is for the sake of the other members involved.
Last (but not least), I’ll mention another area of importance: the church congregation itself. When Christians commit to a local gathering of believers, that congregation as a whole benefits. While it seems unfortunate that a church of believers in Jesus Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, would need a human framework such as formal church membership, a church can maintain a greater level of integrity and consistency through the common agreement and commitment of membership.
The church also holds more potential for impact in ministries and in missions – more potential for doing God’s Kingdom work – when God’s people are committed and working together with set goals and common vision. The local congregation benefits with increased stability, effectiveness, and endurance.
Could all of these be attained and maintained without an official “church membership” as we often think of it – a signature on a page and joining the “in” group? In theory, at least, the answer is yes. But could they all be attained and maintained without individual Christians committing to each other and to a gathering of believers – to following Christ together? My answer would be a clear no.
The Body needs its members to be joined and working together, and the important thing here is to be intentionally committed to a local congregation of believers.
I’m not suggesting that we abandon formal church membership, and I don’t have all the answers, but I am suggesting that we should be careful with it. It’s not inherently good or bad, but the way we view and use it does affect the outcome. We should recognize that at its core, it should be about commitment. We should make sure we see it as a means, not an end, and as a framework to help the local church and individuals grow in their relationship with the Lord, and in ministry, integrity, and faithfulness. It can be helpful in keeping our eyes on Jesus as we live out the Christian life together. Committing oneself to a local congregation is an important, biblical step for the follower of Christ.
I personally have benefited greatly along the journey of this study. My understanding of the importance of “church membership” has been enriched as I’ve looked at it in the light of biblical commitment. I encourage you to look into it more yourself and to carry on the discussion. How can we live out our purpose as the Body of Christ in more faithful and biblical ways?
|Timothy Reitz lives in Virginia, though he feels he also has a second home in northern Mexico, where he has recently spent about 2 1/2 years. He enjoys reading and writing, interacting with his family and others, speaking Spanish, and eating Mexican food, among other things. He has a passion to pursue a deeper walk with Jesus Christ, and to encourage others to the same.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 2001. Print and online (Biblegateway.com).