Monday, January 10, 2022

Anonymous Asks (179)

“Is church membership important?”

The words “member” and “members” occur many times in the New Testament. Conceptually, church membership is a product of metaphor. The various parts of a human body — feet, hands, eyes, ears, etc. — constitute its members. In the same way, all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are members of the church, which the Bible refers to as a spiritual body.

Is that important? Absolutely. But we should be clear what that means and does not mean, since Christians often use the word “membership” in ways the Bible does not.

Becoming and Being

We do not find any New Testament commands to become members of a church. Instead, what we find is the repetition of the idea that Christians are already members of the church:

“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.”

“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.”

God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”

“There are many members, but one body.”

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

“We are members of his body.”

You will notice that membership in the biblical sense is not an aspirational thing. Everywhere it appears, it is in past or present tense. It is something that has already been accomplished, and which God himself has done. It is said of the early church that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” These folks didn’t apply to be members of the church in Jerusalem. They were made members by God.

Church membership is something God does, and its basis is salvation. If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, you are already a member of the church. So then, when we talk about becoming a member of a specific local church, we are using language the Bible does not.

For the Sake of Convenience

There are plenty of logical reasons this happens. Having a list of members makes it easy for church leaders to identify those to whom they owe a primary duty of care. A list of members becomes a pool from which individuals can be chosen to take on the various responsibilities of service to a local gathering of believers. A list of members makes church discipline easier. Putting yourself on a list of members creates a sense of obligation to a local church which many consider desirable. All these appear to be reasonable goals, but it must be conceded that “membership” in this sense is not a biblical concept but simply a church tradition.

No formal listing of members of a local church accurately reflects the spiritual reality of membership. Invariably, unbelievers end up on such a list. Perhaps they are children, parents or spouses of genuine members of Christ. Perhaps they want to avail themselves of conveniences enjoyed by church members, such as a pastor willing to perform a marriage ceremony or infant baptism. Perhaps applying for formal membership in a local church makes them feel more comfortable than hovering indefinitely on the fringes of a Christian gathering.

Whatever the reason, Christians end up using “member” to describe people who are not members, and therefore cannot be expected to function as members of the body because there is no real life in them, and no God-initiated spiritual connection to the real members of the body. By watering down the concept of biblical membership like this, Christians muddle their sphere of fellowship, miss God-given opportunities for service, and subdivide the body of Christ in ways scripture does not.

Muddling Biblical Distinctions

Muddling the membership concept also creates questions for us that the early church would probably not have needed to consider. For example, do I have a lesser duty of care to my genuinely-saved Baptist next door neighbor than to an unsaved person who is one among hundreds of formally-received members of my own congregation? Can elders only discipline Christians who have applied for formal membership in their congregation, or is the scripture correct that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”, with all the spiritual authority and practical prayer power that implies? Or how about this: If I can apply to become a member of my local church, can I also withdraw from church membership at my convenience?

Christians have responsibilities to both saved and unsaved around us, but those responsibilities are not on the same level. Moreover, they are not precisely the same responsibilities. The unsaved “member” of your local church needs to be brought to recognize the difference between light and darkness, between Christ and Belial. His soul is in peril. On the other hand, real members of the body of Christ who are not formal “members” of a local church need to be encouraged to express true biblical membership in a biblical way, by regularly meeting with and caring for their fellow believers, and by using the gifts God gave them for the benefit of all.

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