A Place Where You Belong (Church Membership, Part 6)2
The story so far:
Seeing how church membership is a very biblical idea requires us to read scripture more faithfully, because we won't see it commanded or described in so many words. And yet the idea, the assumption of local church membership is implied by some key passages. The way Scripture speaks of elders – those in church leadership – as being both “among” and “over” the congregation requires a covenant commitment, an agreement of service and submission such as that to which we call our members. The process of church discipline, especially as described in Matthew 18, assumes a specific congregation where an unrepentant sinner will either seek repentance or else be considered an “outsider.”
There is one more perspective from which we should consider this topic – the practical reality of service and community life. I would suggest that the life of mutual service and love to which Scripture calls us as followers of Jesus can only be realized in the context of committed relationships.
One edifying study of Scripture that I would commend to anyone is to read the letters of the New Testament (from Romans to 3 John) and make note of all the times you see the phrase “one another” or “each other.” You'll note that we are to love one another, forgive one another, bear one another's burdens, confess our sins to one another, etc. One of my favorite books of all time is a short little book called “We Really Do Need Each Other,” by Reuben Welch. The point of the book (which is mainly a study of 1 John) is that our love for God is designed to find a very specific kind of expression – our love for other believers. A few lines from the book that summarize it well:
“When you come right down to it, how do I love God? What do I have to give him that he needs?... How can I love him? Maybe the only way that I can love God is by loving you... God is not so much concerned that I emote towards him as that I act in love toward you and believe that he loves me. I think that God is more concerned that I believe he loves me than that I love him. And that I express that trust in his love by deliberately and consciously loving my brothers and my sisters.”
That all sounds nice and easy to agree with, but let's be honest – loving people is hard. When we disagree, when we sin, when we are inconsiderate and hurtful, when we are rude, it's a whole lot easier to simply back away and find a different group of people, a new group of friends, a place where things are easier. And if that is our response to conflict or awkwardness or stress in relationships, then we are not living and relating biblically.
I love how Paul describes the church like a human body in 1 Corinthians 12. And in 1 Corinthians 12:7 he says that the Spirit has given us gifts – abilities, skills, resources, talents – for the common good. God has made you to dwell in connection with others because you, the elbow, need the body to survive. And the body needs you as well. There are needs you are equipped and designed to meet “for the common good.” And there are needs you have that the church is designed to meet. But to see that happen, you have to be connected to the body.
Not only does this rule out the “Lone Ranger Christian” mentality that shuns community, but it also speaks against the church-hopping phenomenon that bounces from one congregation to the next, or that settles in on the surface of several congregations at once. Imagine an eyeball going from one body to another, not really belonging to any one body, not drawing its life and giving its service fully to one body. It is worth noting that these are newer problems in history. The New Testament is not familiar with Christians having the option of wandering from church to church in their area, seeking a more personally satisfying experience. If you lived in Ephesus in the first century and were a Christian, you had one option – the Church at Ephesus.
But even in such situations as the early church faced, there was a record of sorts to keep track of people in the church. First Timothy 5:9-12 shows us that there was a roll, a list of widows under the care of the church. The church was not to be indiscriminate in its care but was to show wisdom and fairness. If the early church saw it as important to keep track of the members they served, how much more so should we strive to know clearly who is under our care and authority? When people have the option of coming and going as they please, not being limited to one church in their area, it is necessary for the sake of good stewardship that a local church know which people are counting on this congregation as their source of ministry and service.
None of these thoughts are intended as solid arguments that prove a view of church membership. I think the previous lessons on church leadership and church discipline are the strongest case for the biblical basis of local church membership. However, the reasons listed here are some practical considerations that are hard to see as separate from the idea of committed membership in a local church. What are your thoughts? Are there any objections or questions you'd like to see addressed?