Why does Membership matter?
The short answer: because the church matters. The longer answer is the rest of this article.
All those who know Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour are already members of the body of Christ. Becoming a member of a church therefore is not a salvation issue, but it is a biblical issue. As you read through this paper, please read from the Bible where it is referenced and ask any questions you have. When church membership comes up for discussion, many wonder why it’s necessary and see it as a human idea, as something not found in the Bible. But what if the opposite were true?
Part 1 of our two-part series in Membership of Reforming takes a close look at why local church membership matters to us as a church. The second paper, Part 2, will take a close look at Members on Mission. For now, we turn our attention to something that is often neglected and that is a biblical and theological view of why membership matters.
THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH – To church is to be truly human.
Big claim. Yet if you think with a biblically informed worldview then we see that this is God’s plan for the world. God gives us His plan in full in Jesus Christ, who is the truly perfect human, the righteous one, the one whom we are all to be joined to and bearing fruit in [John 15:1-17]. In Ephesians 1, we see His plan for the universe outlined in broad brushstrokes and yet that includes the tiniest of detail, namely you. God has put all things under Jesus feet, and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body [Ephesians 1:22 – 23].
God’s intention for his creation and His creatures was for them to be gathered to Him, yet our sin broke the whole thing. Ever since then, God has been fulfilling his rescue plan, which has ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. It happens throughout history again and again: sin scatters, God gathers. So that when Jesus looks at the church, and shows it to the world in His Word, he says: “That’s my handiwork” [Ephesians 2:10]. God’s intention is for people to find their true identity in Jesus, and therefore find themselves saved and gathered in Christ’s body, the church. “To church” (gather in God’s name), is to be truly human.
THE LOCAL CHURCH – Local church is family.
We worship one God, three persons, He is in His very nature relational. Being triune, He has designed us for relationship with himself. This relationship is expressed in a community of people whom God has fashioned us for fellowship, and therefore formed us for family. Jesus loved and laid his life down for His church, and as it matters to Him so it matters to us – especially the local church. Church matters because people matter.
The Bible shows us again and again the picture of the local church as a family, the household of God [1 Timothy 3:14 – 15]. As God’s children [1 John 3:1] we are members of one another [Romans 12:5], and we relate to each other as family [1 Timothy 5:1 – 2], and this relationship means we need to know who we are committed to being part of the family. As Christians, God has called us to be included in his new community, His family. We have been called to believe, and also to belong.
THE BIBLICAL CHURCH – Local church from the Bible
Is local church membership in the Bible? It’s a common question and often a misconception that it doesn’t belong, until we see that the Bible is consistent in showing us a picture of local church membership. Although we have seen from the Bible where we start in our thinking about what is the church and what is the local church, we will now particularly look to see what the Bible says about the concept of local church membership.
In Matthew 18:15 – 20, Jesus says to take issues of unrepentant sin to “the church.” We see a series of relationships that are to be involved in dealing with such issues, and all relationships would need to be spatially local, moreover we would need to know who is the church locally to be able to take any sin issue to them. Here in Jesus words we see how church needs some idea of locality in space and time to us, and how there needs therefore to be a concept of who is ‘in’ the local church and who is ‘outside’. Without this concept of membership these words of instruction have no function then and now.
In Acts 2:42 we see the local church in Jerusalem devoted to the fellowship of one another, and in Acts 2:47 the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. It’s very hard to understand these things without locality in mind and membership of that local group in mind.
In Acts 6:1 – 6, we see where the appointing of leaders happens within a congregation.
In Acts 20:29 – 30, we see that caring for the flock against wolves of false teachers, and this requires a form of membership of that flock to know who is in it.
Then we see local church membership is so necessary when it comes to cases of unrepentant sin or false teaching and living. This is particularly seen in the case of 1 Corinthians 5, where we see there is an assumption of public knowledge who is in the church and who is not. Paul says in 1Corinthians 5:12 – 13, ‘For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” Purging or expelling makes only sense in the context of there being a local and visible belonging. And then later, get this, when Paul tells the Corinthian church to admit that same man back into fellowship, he says to them in 2 Corinthians 2:6, ‘For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough’. ‘Majority’ can only make sense if we see that there has to be a recognized whole.
In 1 Corinthians 12 – 13, the whole description of the church as a body and it’s members of whom all participate in fellowship for the building of the church, only makes sense when we understand locality. This building of the church body of course can only occur as members love one another.
In Ephesians 2:19, Paul uses the language that we are members of the household of God.
In Hebrews 13:7 and 13:17, it’s very hard to remember your leaders and submit to them, unless you know who they are and therefore what body of people you officially belong to and who your leaders formally are. And how do you let the elders who rule well be worthy of double honour [1 Timothy 5:17], unless we know who they are locally? Then we see in 1 Peter 5:1 – 5 that elders are to shepherd the flock of God among them, caring for those in their charge and being examples to that flock. And this role in the local church is not to domineer over members, but for their good, out of love [1 Thessalonians 5:12 – 13].
In 1 Timothy 5:9, we see the ‘widow lists’ were kept in the New Testament church. It would be necessary to understand who belongs to the church in this case, and statements like Galatians 6:10 would only make sense in this way if we know who the local household of faith are to be able to care for them.
Local church is a place to call home for a while.
We live in a culture where people are reluctant to commit to one-another, it’s pretty sad to see many relationships like this. When our culture’s preferences are not being met, people move onto the next product, or person (even spouse, sadly), and we too easily treat church in the same way. Whereas, to be a member is to show your public commitment to Christ and His people, and that you commit to believing in Jesus and being like Him with this specific group of His disciples. Being committed to others is a very powerful way to love others, and radically counter-cultural way to live in a culture suffering from consumerism.
Here’s the beauty then of becoming a member of a local church, it’s counter-cultural and says something so different as this: “I am committed to this group of people and they are committed to me. I am not a consumer but gathered by the saviour as a gift and servant to give for others sake”.