Imagine with me that you’re looking for a local church and that after a few weeks of visiting a particular one, you begin to grow fond of it. Then IT happens, after the first month of fellowship the pastor takes you out for coffee and asks the probing question: “So, have you thought about becoming a member of this church?”
I find it interesting how people respond to such a question differently. There are those, often new believers, who honestly have no idea what that question means. Others are instantly interested in finding out how they can take this “next step.” Some, however, feel insulted and resist the idea of membership entirely, claiming that it is an unbiblical concept, simply a man-made system that leads to abuse and manipulation. Whatever reactions come into your mind when you hear this question greatly indicates your understanding of what church is all about. The following reasons are just a few of many others that I hope will help guide you to recognize the high priority that the Church must have on membership.
Membership is as much “man-made” as the institution of church is.
First things first, is church membership simply a byproduct of power hungry church leaders seeking to lord over unsuspecting congregants? History will show, perhaps along with many of your own personal experiences, that when proud men seek to lead a church, the results can be detrimental to a believer’s faith as well as to his affection for local churches. However, letting those terrible examples distort your understanding of true church community would be even more detrimental.
When Christ mentions the word church in Matthew 16:18 and 18:17, the people listening to him didn’t scratch their heads and wonder what He was talking about. The institution of “church” was a longstanding component of human society. Different cultural communities or political bodies were known as churches and used the same word spoken by Christ recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. An individual in Jesus’ day couldn’t identify with a particular one of these “assemblies/gatherings/congregations” simply because they wanted to. There was a basis for their membership that distinguished them from other groups. And that is why we see Paul writing to specific local churches in the New Testament, these were gatherings of people who identified as a part of a specific geographic community that were united in Jesus Christ.
People knew what Jesus was talking about when He said the word “church,” and if they were true followers of His, you can bet that the first thing that would have come to their mind when they heard Him say it was how they could identify as a member of Jesus’ Church. You can not separate the facet of membership from the concept of church. You can not have one without the other. To deny membership, you must first deny the legitimacy of the local church.
Membership is key to identity.
There are a multitude of things that people today are placing their identity in: cultures, nationalities, genders, religions, politics, sports teams, etc. For the believer, all these pale in comparison to the identity that is theirs in Christ Jesus, and nothing epitomizes this sacred blessing more than being a part of the community of His Church (Ephsians 3:10). No other network in the world rivals the fellowship of believers that crosses international boundaries, age gaps, languages barriers, and cultural preferences. The local church is the key component of this worldwide organization, and it is the local church that is the access point to this fellowship for the individual believer. Nothing says “I’m all in!” like signing your name to the membership roll of a local body; your attachment to that particular gathering becomes undeniable, your adherence to their doctrine becomes clearly defined, your involvement in their activities becomes assumed, your participation in their worship becomes a thing of unison, and your support and care for the church’s needs and resources becomes a thing of certainty. How can we who are in Christ not want this to be known of us?
Membership enables the leadership.
The New Testament shows that there are two facets of membership within the church. There is the leadership, the pastors and deacons, and then there is the “followship,” the membership at large. As a pastor, knowing that the people that I’m discipling are members of our church body gives me a great level of assurance in what I’m doing. This shows itself in many practical ways. I don’t know about you, but my time slots get taken up very quickly during any regular week, and when it comes down to giving my attention to a specific group for any specific amount of time, you can bet that I will especially devote myself to those who identify with our church membership (Galatians 6:10). I spend many hours meeting and talking with college students on campus about the Bible, but do you know what really supports and enables me to do that? Practically, it’s the fact that a member of our church is a student there. Through that student’s membership and their heart for their campus friends, my ministry has been multiplied, and I thank God for that.
This enablement also shows itself in other ways. The preacher and teacher are more free to speak the Word of truth into the lives of the membership. Even when he is afraid that the Word might offend, membership stands as a surety that the listener isn’t going to jump ship under the conviction of truth. Proverbs 27 reminds us that the “wounds” of a friend are faithful and that his “earnest counsel” testifies of a sweet compassion. This also reveals itself in the discipleship focused process of church discipline outlined in Matthew 18. If the believer hasn’t humbled himself to membership then the leadership are powerless in many ways to see him disciplined.
Membership enables the “followship.”
This term was introduced to me by my pastor, and I think it represents well what we see all throughout the New Testament teachings on the church. When the membership at large submit themselves to the benefits of membership they find it to be a divine enablement to serve one another and to support the leadership. Practically, there is nothing else that sees true church governance carried out than that the people involved are clearly distinguished as members. What else would keep a well-intentioned, but unsuspecting, visiting believer from overturning a tight vote during a congregational meeting? How many times would you have to “attend” in order to be able to help with the children’s ministry? These situations could definitely tend towards self-righteousness and legalism, and at worst case these points, along with many others, bring up problematic, and even dangerous, issues when not addressed with the protection and the accountability that comes only with a formal membership. Churches that do not prioritize membership put themselves at a serious disadvantage in the care of their congregants.
So, perhaps you are looking for a new church fellowship. Perhaps you’ve been hurt by power-hungry church leadership in the past. Maybe you’re just questioning if membership is important at all. Wherever you might find yourself along the way growing in your understanding and involvement with church, I hope you find these four points helpful in seeing the biblical basis for the identity, enablement, security, and accountability that is found in what Jesus meant when He said “I will build my church.”
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