“I’m attending this church (for now) – who cares about a name on a list?”
Formal church membership seem foreign and even impersonal to our current generation of passionate Christ-followers. “To sign on the dotted line” seem so far removed from the deep spiritual relationships that our generation yearn for. When conversation move away from passionate participation towards paper partnerships attendees become skeptical and scatter. There is a general suspicion of anything formal or contractual. And not without reason!
Off course we must note that the contemporary wariness of church membership is not only due to the fallible history of the Church; our generation holds a general resentment towards institutions and a skepticism in leadership at large. It seems as though the bigger the institution, the more structured a partnership or the longer a commitment is, the greater our generation will stay clear of involvement. This growing resentment towards institutions is also the reason for couples – even increasingly Christians – who do not see a need to get married formally.
So we dislike big, structured, impersonal and organized – we like small, intimate, personal, and organic. We associate authentic spiritual life with small and intimate. But a quick read of the New Testament reveals that the early church was big, very structured, and organized – yet very personal. And it seems clear that membership in the early church was normative – in fact, the New Testament seem to associate Christianity with formal church membership. Consider the following points.
- Accountability assumes membership
In the intimate setting where Paul greeted the elders of the Ephesian churches for good, he exhorted them to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Paul’s instruction to “care for the church of God” implied a very specific group of blood-bought believers whom the elders knew and had to protect against “savage wolves…with destructive heresies” (see verse 29).
Peter’s letter to a group of scattered congregations gave a similar instruction to elders who ought to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you… those in your charge” (1 Peter 5:2-3). These elders had to oversee and lead by example “those in their charge” – a very specific group of people allotted to them by God. Each elder had to watch over the members in his flock. This was a clearly defined group of believers, i.e. members in a congregation.
The most sobering and challenging verse on this for me personally is Hebrews 13:17 where the apostle writes that leaders have to “keep watch over [their follower’s] souls, as those who will have to give an account.” The elders of a local church must watch over and account for the members in that congregation before God, implying a relationship of accountability and entrustment – i.e. willing membership.
- Leadership assumes membership
Hebrews 13:17 also assumes that the congregation knows who their leaders are whom they ought to “obey” and “submit to” – the relationships were clearly defined. So too Paul’s instruction to in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 shows that New Testament congregations had formal membership and leadership: there was something like a “those who labour among you and are over you in the Lord” who deserves respect.
- Church discipline and assumes membership
Jesus’ instruction to his disciples on how to regulate sensitive matters in church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17) assumes membership: if an offensive act from a fellow believer is not settled in loving confrontation with witnesses present, that person can be brought “to the church” – a clearly defined group of believers who knows this trespassing brother. As in Jesus’ instruction, Paul instructs that the last resort of church discipline is for a congregation to excommunicate the sinning brother who now is “inside the church” to henceforth be with “those outside” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13) – from that moment he is regarded as “an unbeliever” (Matthew 8:17). This act of disassociation, writes John Piper, is not only a clear indication that membership was normative in the early church, but moreover it proves that church membership really means something. It is a blood-bough, desirable and beneficial privilege for all believers.
- “One body” assumes membership
The term “member” for someone being part of a congregation was coined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 in his metaphorical description of the church as the living, interdepend body of Christ, where all the persons in this congregation are “members of the body” (v12). He argues that a believer cannot say “I do not belong to the body” (v15) – it is abnormal for the members to relate tangentially to the rest of the body; it is wrong and unhealthy for a person to not be built on or planted in a local congregation where life is received and given through the sharing of Christ Himself. Membership was normative in the New Testament; every believer in the Early Church belonged to a local congregation. Just like the Church globally is the Body of Christ, so too the local church is an expression of the Universal Church.
- “Known by your love” assumes membership
Ultimately, Jesus desires for the church to be “known by your love for one another” (John 13:35) is only possible within the confines of a clearly defined congregation. As this love is visibly discerned by outsiders, it reasons that relationships of church members must over time consistently witness acts of generosity, forgiveness, affection, affirmation and shared life – not mere acts of kindness to passer-by’s. The visible love among church members is the ultimate witness of our allegiance to Christ (John 13:34-35) and the reality of Christ among us (John 17:21).
Bringing it home
If you hear someone say “church membership – who cares?!” tell that person it is the most fitting question you can ask; membership is all about “who cares for you!” Church membership is about entrusting someone appointed by God to watch over your soul and care for your needs – someone who must give an account to God for the health of your soul. Church membership is about committing yourself to a community of believers for mutual accountability and edification – to discipline and be disciplined, to support and be supported, to encourage and be encouraged as you continue to grow in the character of Christ. Church membership is the environment where we can securely live in vulnerability and mutual care, where love flows freely in generosity and forgiveness, affirmation and affection, radical acceptance and kind correction. It is in church membership where the life and love of Christ flows and is displayed to the world.
So where do you belong? Who should give an account for your soul?