To the modern ear, the notion of church membership can sound odd, intimidating, or even abusive. Should we care about church membership and, if so, why?
Why do I need to be a member of a church? Can’t I just attend and be involved?
There’s a couple of great benefits to church membership. The first is the commitment of yourself to a group of people. I want to be clear, when you’re becoming a member of a church, you’re not becoming a member of some abstract entity. What you’re doing is becoming a member of a body, you’re becoming part of a body. The body is people. So, you’re adjoining yourself to people. So in church membership, you’re saying, you are the people whom I am particularly choosing to love, to use my gifts to serve. On the other hand, you’re joining into this church and inviting those people to particularly serve you. And so as Christians, yes we owe love to all man and we owe special love to all Christians, but each one of us has to have a focus, we can’t love everyone equally. And so church membership is really our way of saying, I’m setting my focus on you, you’re setting your focus on me.
Another great benefit is the benefit of discipline. Now, that sounds like a bad thing but, because church membership has an in, it also has an out. You can be put out of church membership. And I think when we’re at our best in life spiritually, we join a church and really see the value of it. But when we’re at our worst, that’s where the church discipline can be a huge means of grace in our life where a church is coming to us and saying, are you following the Lord? We don’t think you’re following the Lord. If you don’t turn from this sin and repent we’ll have to put you out of the membership. I think that can be a means, and we’ve seen this in our church, a means God uses to turn us away from our sin and draw us back to ourselves. So, many many benefits of being a member of a church.
What does the Bible say about church membership?
If you go reading through the New Testament, you won’t find chapter and verse that says you must be a member of a church, you won’t find the word, church membership anywhere in the New Testament. But that’s not to say it isn’t described, not to say we don’t see it in there. I think one of the clearest ways we see it, is in Matthew 18, where Jesus is talking about conflict resolution and ultimately about a kind of church discipline. And what we see there, is that the end of the path of discipline is putting people out. So they’re treated as gentiles and tax collectors. Which is to say, treated as unbelievers. But in order to be put out of that body, they must first have been in. Not everybody’s in, just those who have chosen to be in. So I think we see there some idea of membership. Some people have chosen to associate themselves with a church, put themselves under the authority of certain leaders, now they’re being put out.
We see in Paul’s letter to Timothy, talking about widows, and some are enrolled. Which would seem to say, there’s some, there’s many widows in the community, there might be some attending the church, but there’s a few particular ones who are enrolled because presumably, they’re members of the church. And we see this throughout the New Testament, this idea that there’s some who are in, some who are out. Those who are in, are the ones who have really committed themselves to that local church.
Is it a sin for a Christian to not be a church member?
It may be a sin to not be a church member. And I would think it starts to get into the realm of sin the longer we refuse to be church members. So, one of the things we need in order to be a member of a church is a church that has a meaningful sense of church membership and many churches don’t. So, there’s many churches out there where they’re perfectly content to have you in the church without being a member. I think that’s a flaw within the structure of that church. There’s many other churches where you can be a member of the church, but that doesn’t really mean anything, there’s no real significance to it.
So, not only do we need to be members of a church, we need churches that take membership seriously, that are very intentional and purposeful in their understanding of membership. So, my counsel to you is to understand, from the Bible and go to the Bible and search it out, read some good books and say, yes I believe in church membership. I believe this is something God calls me to. And then seek out a church that takes membership seriously, that has a meaningful sense of what it means to be a member of the church. If you have high expectations of membership and that church has high expectations, that’s where I think, okay, now you’re honoring the Lord as you join that church and join into the full membership with all its responsibilities and all its privileges.
Sometimes young people have a lot of push back to the idea of church membership. Why do you think that is?
I think there’s a lot in play when it comes to young people and church membership. There is a kind of real autonomy or a radical autonomy, at least in western culture right now, where each one of us is alone in life, each one of us ought to be making our own way through life and joining with other people kind of reduces my autonomy and, you know, sort of slows me down as I get hung up with other people and other people’s problems.
So, and I think there’s also been a number of cases in the news and the media about what would be almost abusive authority within churches. Almost cult-like mentalities within churches where the spiritual authorities are abusing their authority, they’re going too far and taking advantage of people. So, I think young people then, are quite suspicious of church membership.
Not only that, I think most have not seen it modeled well. Most haven’t been called to a meaningful church membership. So it’s very much the experience in our church, that if we make membership meaningful, so we as a church agree, this is what it means to be a member, and there’s a high bar there. We really have expectations of one another, and we’re really going to give to one another, and we call younger people, and older people to raise the bar in that sense, to come to that level. I think people will rise to that. When we make membership almost meaningless, well, of course, people can’t get enthusiastic about it, of course, they don’t take it seriously. But when we really encourage them to something meaningful, something that will really help them in the Christian life, something that has privileges, but also something that has responsibilities. I think young people take it seriously, especially when we back it all up with scripture. This isn’t just us, we’re showing you from the Bible where it calls you to this. And then calling you not just to obey us. We’re calling you ultimately to obey God.