Church Membership: Beginning a Conversation

Church membership. To some Christians in the United States, this is a topic that is not well understood, and is of little importance.  To these, church membership may mean filling out an application, committing to attend a Sunday service, and vowing to put their tithes or offerings in the offering plate.  Add to this that some churches have no formal membership process, and we begin to discover why there is much ignorance on the subject in the evangelical world.

So then, what is church membership? I mean, does the Bible even cover such a subject? If it does not, then joining a church is optional.  It is something the church has continued because it loves tradition. If the Bible does affirm such a subject, however, then it most certainly cannot be ignored but rather explored, studied, and even enjoyed as a blessing from God.  It is my contention that church membership is completely biblical. You may not find a single definitive verse on the subject, but it is clearly visible throughout the New Testament.

Church Membership Defined

Let’s begin this conversation by trying to define church membership.  For this definition, I will turn to Jonathan Leeman’s book, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, a short volume that is a part of series of books from 9Marks on building healthy churches. Leeman draws his definition from the ten “indisputable themes” of church membership visible throughout the first days of the early church. (For more, read chapter 2 in his book.  He does an excellent job of conveying the biblical picture of church membership). Here is his definition:

“Church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.” (p 64)

Though it is a long definition, it is an excellent one.  Leeman’s definition points out three necessary aspects of church membership:

Affirmation – “A Church body formally affirms an individual’s profession of faith and baptism as credible” (p 65).

In other words, in order to enter into a “formal relationship” with the body of Christ, a person should actually be a member of the body of Christ.  This is affirmed through the church’s recognition of an individual’s affirmation of faith and the visible act of Christian baptism.

Oversight – “It promises to give oversight to that individual’s discipleship” (p 65).

The local body has the primary responsibility to ensure that every member is given the proper tools necessary to grow in their relationship with Christ.

Submission – “The individual formerly submits his or her discipleship to the service and authority of this body and its leaders” (p 65).

Specifically, a church member acknowledges the local church as the body responsible for the oversight of his or her soul. This means that, in joining up with a local church, each individual member is placing their spiritual care into the hands of that church’s leaders and members. Likewise, he or she will do the same for the other members – work to care for them spiritually and physically.

So, this is a brief description of what it means to be the part of a local church. Doesn’t quite seem so simple as signing a card and agreeing to a statement of faith, does it? There is more – far more to entering into a formal relationship with a local church than merely agreeing to pay your tithes to it.  In fact, to join with a local body in some ways is similar to the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. On the one hand, unlike the marriage covenant, it can be a breakable union. There are appropriate times and reasons to break the formal relationship with a local body.  On the other hand, however, to join with a local church does not mean that its members can simply stop investing their time and resources with the church when they don’t like something (or someone).

The “Church Hopper” Epidemic

You’ve likely heard of the term “church hopper.” Unfortunately, this is the epidemic of our day.  A church hopper is a person who moves from church to church, sometimes indefinitely, due to a number of possible reasons.  For example, Church A has too early of a worship service, so they visit Church B.  Church B, however, has boring music, so they go to Church C.  In Church C, though, the preacher is too “long-winded,” so, they visit Church D.

Now, I will be the first to say that it is important to belong to a church that is teaching solid doctrine. After all, the local church is responsible to “give oversight” to a member’s discipleship.  Misleading or false teaching might be a reason to seek out fellowship with another local body.  (I say “might” because God may want you to remain where you are to help address the problem and nurture the church back to health.  This is a difficult and sometimes fruitless process, but biblical conflict done in love can save a local body from destruction.)

There is, though, a very visible theme running through the mind of a church hopper. Did you catch it? Self-centeredness. The church hopper reasons within himself, “I am not satisfied with what I see, so I will search until I am satisfied.”  In fact, the hopper is indentified by his excuses: “Church A sure has great music, but 9 AM is just too early for me on a weekend.” “Church C doesn’t start till 11, but the preacher cuts into my lunchtime.”

I see a big problem with this reasoning. No church can satisfy every desire we have.   The deeper issue with each of these excuses is that the church hopper is focused on his or herself and not the greater good of the body of Christ.  If the local church seems like it will meet the hopper’s needs, he or she may decide to join.  They may stay for a time and even get involved.  But over time, something will annoy them.  If the annoyance is heightened enough, they will leave. Church membership for the hopper is mainly about “what others can do for me,” and not about the commitment to serve others. As one pastor poignantly said, “People love to tell me how the church has let them down, but I’ve rarely heard from those who have realized how they’ve let the church down.”

The Antidote to “Church Hopping”

For the epidemic of church hopping, the Bible offers us a cure.  Hebrews 10:24-25 says:

“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.”

Here, perhaps more bluntly than any other passage, the inspired Word of God shows us that the cure for church hopping is to stop looking at ourselves.  In fact, the mandate for biblical church membership teaches us to be ever mindful that Christ’s return is near: “…Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13)!  Sin is deceptive, and the local body of Christ wields a power that is able to unmask and overcome sin’s trickery in one another and encourage each other toward holiness.

Ultimately, biblical church membership is centered on one member’s care for the other. It is about the progress of the whole body: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).   This interpersonal encouragement and care will involve long-term commitment, as well as both personal sacrifice and Christlike humility. But as we enter into this commitment, we will soon find that is in the context of the local church that the glory of Christ is most vividly displayed to the world. At the same time, its members will discover the soul-care and maturity that is needed to endure until Christ returns.  And – dare I say, people will want what we have! Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

So, as we explore this topic together, let us ask our Lord to open our eyes to the beauty of the Body of Christ.  Let us pray that God show us our need for one another. I think we’ll see that the Bible says a whole lot more about church membership than we previously thought! We’ll continue the conversation next week.

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