Church membership – who cares!?

“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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. “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.

  1. “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?

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Accountability in friendship

During a relationship seminar some time ago, my wife was asked why she felt safe to marry me.  She answered that my close friends gave her assurance for two reasons: I had the ability to maintain long-term relationships, and secondly she felt safe because if I lose my mind one day, she knows my friends will bring me back on track – she is not alone in our marriage.  I smiled that day realizing that my friendship with these men will not only preserve my marriage, but also my faith, character and reputation since they will call me to account to my promises, beliefs and values.

Accountability friendships acts as an anchor for a ship, preventing one from drifting slowly with the current of sensuality or heresy by keeping you on course, or like that voice in your car’s GPS that tells you have missed a turn and helps you to recalculate a route to your original destination.  Like that voice, accountability friends will not keep quite until you return to the original path.  But accountability relationships can do much more than that voice.

An accountability friendship acts as a GPS, keeping you on route.
An accountability friendship acts as a GPS, keeping you on route.

I cherish accountability.  Being in ministry for more than 12 years I learned of so many godly, anointed people who fall into sin or go astray in some strange path or get derailed because of some immorality or harness of heart, having no-one to call them to account. On the contrary, I have also seen marriages on the brink of divorce turned around because friends intervened – holding the couple not only accountable their vows but also to their hope, faith and values.  And this intervention is necessary every so often since both seduction and pain make one act hastily and irresponsible, steering one of course.   Adam and Eve, our perfect parents, show us that no-one is immune to seduction or deception  – we all need someone to speak into our lives.

Sadly, accountability is not popular or easy in our intensely individualistic society.  We value autonomy and cherish privacy and the freedom of choice above everything else. “It is none of your business!” and “I have the right to be happy!”  are the creeds of our time.  To make matters worse our society also values tolerance and therefore have a distaste for confrontation.  Thus we tend to keep quiet about matters that might ruin our friends’ lives.

What does it mean to be accountable?  It literally means “to give account” like an income and expense statement, or to be answerable for what was entrusted to you.  Phrases such as “bring into the light” or simply “to make known” are synonymous to accountability.

Accountability is not a strange concept in our society.
Accountability is not a strange concept in our society.

The concept of accountability is not foreign to our society.  For example, someone will willingly submit himself to an alcohol rehabilitation center makes himself answerable to the staff of the facility for the professed desire to be free from the substance and it’s destructive effects on his life.  How?  He gives permission for the staff of the facility to do random and scheduled urine tests and inspections, and invites accountability questions in the hope to be delivered from the addiction.  Or one who signs up for WeighLess receives a prescribed diet and is answerable for compliance to the diet, while progress is measured with scheduled weighing.  An athlete must give account to her coach for her adherence to a summer exercise program and performance is periodically measured in accordance to her goals for the season.  Students who enroll for a course get tested academically in exams.  The store manager, human resource manager and finance manager give account of what is entrusted to them both formally in audits, and informally in meetings.  In these spheres our society know the value of accountability; it is not a strange concept for us.

For the Christian, at conversion (and more specifically at baptism and public confession of our faith) we sign up for a life of allegiance to Christ our Lord.  This is called a life of discipleship: a commitment to be trained in and live a life based on the teachings of Jesus, as well as participation in his mission in this world.  On of this we must give account – today, as Paul demonstrated when he confronted Peter for “not acting in line with truth of the Gospel” (Galatians 2:12-14) and when Christ returns to judge the world.  And to that end accountability relationships must keep us on track.

Accountability in practice

Ultimately, each of us will give an account of himself before God (Romans 14:12).  This includes both our public actions and personal thoughts and desires (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).  The result will be rewards for the good and punishment for the wicked (Revelation 22:12).  We cannot escape this Day of Accountability (or Judgment) – our actions and inner thoughts and motives will be clear to all.  It is with this Day in mind that the apostles urge us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) and “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).

God appoints leaders to whom we must give account (Romans 13:1-2; Hebrews 4:13) – this includes parents of children (Psalm 127:3-5).  These leaders must also give account of your soul to God (Hebrews 13:17) as Jesus did at the night of his arrest saying: while I was with them, I kept them in your name… I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except [Judas]” (John 17:11-12).

But this concerned accountability of one another is not only the responsibility of leaders.  Each of us should willingly give an account to one another – to “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7).   We do so because we we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2, 5:16-20).  Therefore accountability requires honesty confession (1 John 1:6-9; James 5:15-20; see also Colossians 3:9; Ephesians 4:25) – an honest revealing of our thoughts, desires, habits and behavior, including confession of sins and failure (James 5:15).  The response of the hearer must be loving correction and support in restoration of the ones who are caught in sin (Galatians 6:1-2).

Similarly, each of us are tasked to be your “brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9) – meaning to hold one another accountable for our behavior seeing as we ought to “be doers of the word” (James 1:22) and “walk worthy of the Lord” (Colossians 1:10; compare Ephesians 4:1), meaning to representing Him well.  We do this to help one another walk in integrity – to ensure our confession and actions line up.

Accountability requires encouragement and exhortation (1 Thessalonians 5:11, Hebrews 3:13) to stay faithful to Christ in allegiance to him and not drift away (Hebrews 2:1-4), to continue to grow spiritually (Hebrews 6:1-2) and to faithfully continue doing what the Lord had commanded (2 Timothy 4:2,5).  We are instructed to “consider how to spur one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24).  From this text it is clear that we focus not on sins, but on growth in Christ-like love and goodness.  And this takes creative thoughts.

Accountability also requires admonishing and correcting one another (Colossians 3:16) where there is a sin or character weakness to “shape the face [read character] of a friend” (Proverbs 27:17).  This must be done in wisdom (Jude 1:23), “in gentleness” (Galatians 6:1-2) and “in love so we all can grow up in every way into …Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).  But is must be done!  Do not avoid speaking of the sins.

Elements of accountability friendship

An accountability road map (or framework).
An accountability road map (or framework).

A lifestyle of accountability requires a loving, trusting relationship. This does not need to be a “fuzzy warm friendship” – simply a relationship where two (or more) friends agree to pursue Christ-likeness and agree to walk together (Amos 3:3). This leads to a discipline of confession and a culture where we ask each other what the Lord is doing in one another’s life or what is the state of our finances, calendar, heart, mind, and relationships.   A commitment to transparent and truthful conversations.  These conversations will result in applauding, admonishing and affirmation, or said in another way complimenting, comforting and correcting.  The most difficult of these three is the humility for correction.  Being open to receive correction means we must maintain a humble, teachable mind (1 Peter 3:8), not despising corrective counsel (Proverbs 25:12).  But this must always be coupled with encouragement.  The aim is always to help one another grow in the likeness, knowledge and obedience of Christ our Lord.

Suggested accountability questions

In closing I suggest some questions to use in your accountability friendships.  Use them, tweak them, add or replace according to the needs in the relationship.

  • Devotions: “Did you pray daily and read your Bible daily this week? What is God saying?”
  • Thoughts: “What habitual thoughts are worrisome to you? Tell me about your day-dreams.”
  • Conduct: “In the last week, was your behavior in any way not worthy of the Lord?”
  • Obedience: “What has the Lord commanded you to do? When will you obey Him in this command?”
  • Temptations: “In which areas are you being tempted most these days? Let’s pray for you.”
  • Witness: “To whom have you shared your testimony this week? Tell me about it! Who did you invite to church or small group?”
  • Relationships: “Tell me about your key relationships – in which ways are your growing?”
  • Fellowship: “What did you experience during your Church and cell attendance this week?”

Find a friend (of the same gender preferably) and invite him or her to ask you these questions, and see how the relationship grows in purpose and godly intimacy.

One last thought: who would the Lord ask you about like when he asked Cain “Where is you brother/ sister…?” (Genesis 4:9).  Who will call you “brothers-keeper?”