Read Acts 2:42-47; Ephesians 4:11-16
Is church membership a slightly strange thing to talk about? Is church membership even biblical?
In recent years, many churches have de-emphasised membership. If they are declining and finding it harder and harder to get people to be part of the church, they might conclude they should lower the bar – lower the expectations – so that it is easier for people.
At the same time, many Christians have become somewhat sceptical about membership. They might say:
- Church membership isn’t in the Bible.
- It feels too institutional. The church is not an organisation; it is a living organism. It is not about structure and process and restrictions.
- Believing in Jesus makes me a member of the church. I don’t need to sign up to any local church.
- I attend and I play my part. Doesn’t that make me a member? Why do I have to formalise it?
- There’s lots about the church with which I disagree. Why should I commit to something with which I am uncomfortable?
People today (and younger people in particular) are almost allergic to institutions and authority. They are reluctant to align themselves with something that can seem self-serving or restrictive. Institutions just perpetuate their own survival. Authority is misused. Membership is about control and power.
There may be a grain of truth in all of those arguments. Membership can be used to impose rules and to restrict and to stifle life. But can membership also be life-giving? Can it be freeing and empowering? More importantly, is membership a God-thing? Or is it just a human thing?
Firstly, we have to understand that the word “church” on two different levels. There is the church world-wide, that is made up of all those who have faith in Jesus Christ. No human being knows exactly how big that church is or exactly who is in and who is out. Only God can see people’s hearts. We cannot see that church and therefore it is sometimes called the invisible church.
But the visible expression of the church is the local church. Nobody would dispute that Christians are members of the church. The question is: should they be expected to be members of a church?
There are various passages that talk about being members of the church. For example:
Ephesians 2:19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,
Ephesians 3:6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
However, they refer to the world-wide church – the body of Christ, God’s household. Membership is biblical but we have to look further to learn anything about membership of a local church.
What does the word “member” literally mean? It means an organ or a limb – a part of the body.
A few years ago, Chris and I were travelling to Dunedin. Between Waipahi and Clinton we witnessed a collision in which six people were killed. We had to give evidence at the coroner’s court. While we were there, we talked to the police and we asked questions. But they would not show us the photos because they were too gruesome. I remember one policeman saying the dead were “dismembered and scattered”.
You see, there’s that word – dismembered. These people had been lost their members – had lost parts of their bodies and those body parts were scattered.
As an aside, God did an amazing thing that day. We saw the crash happen. We immediately turned around and went back to the nearest farmhouse to ring 111 – no mobiles in those days. We then drove back through the crash site and we didn’t see the carnage. Six people dismembered and scattered and we didn’t see a thing. I think God simply protected us from that. As it was, I went into shock. Chris didn’t; she’s tough! But I did. We were told that the first fireman on the scene had to undergo counselling because of what he saw that day. Somehow, miraculously, God protected us from that.
All that to say that a member is an organ or a limb of a body. Who used the image of a body? Paul did. That is a biblical image. This idea of being members of a body is a Christian idea. Now, of course, it is used by all sorts of clubs and organisations but membership itself is a Christian concept.
That phrase – “dismembered and scattered” – sometimes that is an apt description of the church. A phenomenon in the modern church is people who don’t belong to any particular church but drift between churches. They just go wherever they feel like. It’s like having a body and then suddenly an arm floats away and joins another body or a kidney from that body floats off to join yet another one. There’s something slightly unhealthy about that picture.
Think of that image of the body. Then think of other biblical images of the church. The church is described as a temple made up of lots of stones or an army or a family. All of those images are corporate. They are all images of a single unit made up of multiple, diverse parts. They are all about Christians together – about community – many parts forming one whole.
Biblical Christianity is always communal. It is one of the weaknesses of the western church that we tend to think in terms of the individual. We think Christianity is about me and God, but it is not. It is about us as the family of God. The Bible doesn’t know anything about the independent, lone ranger Christian. It is always about joining the community. When we are saved, we are adopted into the family of God. We are baptised into the body of Christ. Jesus brought the disciples into community. It was highly communal.
The Bible takes that communal nature of the church very seriously. There are massive benefits but there are also big responsibilities. The Bible expects Christians to be highly committed to their community.
Acts 2 paint a superb picture of community. The first Christians were taught by the apostles. They were devoted to fellowship which suggests they enjoyed each other’s company and they were committed to it. They broke bread together. Further down it says they broke bread in each other’s homes and ate with glad and sincere hearts. Signs and wonders were being performed by the apostles. They shared their possessions. They sold possessions so that they could give to those in need. In Acts 4 we are told that, because of their generosity, there were no needy people among them. Acts 4 also says that they were “one in heart and mind”. They praised God. They enjoyed the favour of all the people and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. The whole thing must have been a massive buzz.
In the fellowship of the church God puts people around us who will love us. It is when we are in fellowship that we are encouraged and we are built up. Ephesians 4 talks about the body of Christ being built up until we all reach unity in the faith and knowledge of the Son of God, becoming mature, becoming like Jesus. In fellowship, through speaking the truth to each other in love, we grow.
Eph 4:16 From Him (Jesus) the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
We see there the biblical ideal of tight community, “joined and held together by every supporting ligament”. We see the potential – “grows and builds itself up in love”.
But we also see the responsibilities. This happens “as each part does its work”. All of the benefits of a church depend on people fulfilling their responsibilities to that church – as each part does its work. We won’t be loved unless other people are loving. We are encouraged when other people are encouraging. Conversely, other people won’t experience the benefits that God intends unless we are doing our bit.
Throughout the New Testament there are lots of “one another” commands. Love one another. Encourage one another. Forgive one another. Bear with one another. And many more. We are responsible for making the church community what God wants it to be.
And, together, we are to engage in the mission of the church. The body image in the Bible refers to a diversity of gifts that are to be used in mission. Ephesians 4 talks about apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors and teacher, using their gifts to prepare God’s people for works of service.
Paul urged the Philippian church to “stand firm in one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel” – a church united and on mission.
Now, here’s the question: How can we receive any of those benefits or do any of those things that are required of us, without being committed to a local church?
A lady once told a pastor that she didn’t need to belong to a church; she belonged to the invisible church. He then asked who was going to visit her when she was sick in hospital – the invisible pastor? Church life is just theory if we think in terms of the world-wide church. Actually, you never have to relate to anyone. The Christian life becomes real in the context of a local church. The world-wide church finds its expression in local churches. That is where the benefits are and that is where God wants us to be committed to one another – even when things go wrong. All of the “one another” commands assume that things are not ideal. When God says, “Forgive one another” He is assuming that something has gone wrong; you have been hurt. He is assuming that church life is less than ideal but He says, “But I want you to plug in there and make a difference. I want you to be so committed to these people that you will not run away from problems; you will deal with them, and together you will model, for the world to see, what the Kingdom of God is like.”
Remember, all of the NT letters were written to local churches – not to some nebulous world-wide church but to real people, in real churches, in real places, facing real issues. That is what church membership is about. It is saying, “I am committed to Jesus Christ and therefore I am committed to my brothers and sisters in this place. We will care for each other and we will engage in God’s mission together.”
Why would any Christian not be willing to make that commitment? It is so clear in the Bible. May be because of a misunderstanding. Sometimes because of arrogance; the church isn’t good enough for me. I know better than the church. I’ve got things sorted out better than the church.
You know, the church is not just a human institution. The church is God’s creation and God’s strategy for mission. Yes, the church has its faults and is often weak but the church is the bride of Christ. When people insult Jesus’ bride – look down their noses at Jesus’ bride – I suspect Jesus rises to defend her.
Sometimes people object to becoming members because they want the benefits but they don’t want the responsibilities. It is easier to “hang loose” and be free to move on if you want to, but Jesus says, “No, that’s not good enough. I want you to plug in and be committed to these people and play your part.”
The churches that lower the bar and expect less of people so as to make it easier don’t benefit in the long run. They just make it easier for people to not be committed. Jesus turned away uncommitted people. They were of no use to Him. It is counter-intuitive but by and large it is the churches that set a high standard that are growing. People today do not have a lot of spare time. They guard their time jealously but they will give time to something they feel is important and worthwhile. They will give their time to a church that is committed to the mission of God and that asks them to make sacrifices.
Biblical membership of a local church is not about bolstering an institution or about controlling people and we should avoid any forms of membership that are not God’s understanding of membership. But healthy, biblical membership is about loving people and building them up and together, engaging in God’s mission. It is simply about saying, “I am committed to Jesus and I am committed to Jesus’ people.”
For an alternative view
- http://www.wickedshepherds.com/churchmembership.html – note that this person/site seems to be somewhat embittered against the church. That should tell us something about his perspective.