As a young man, Joshua Harris's attitude toward the church reflected that of many people today. Harris writes:
"When I graduated from my church's high school youth group, I started visiting around. I loved God and had big dreams for how I wanted to serve Him, but I didn't see any reason to get too involved in one church. By then, I thought I knew all there was to know about church, and I wasn't impressed. Most churches struck me as out-of-date and out-of-touch. There had to be better, more efficient ways to accomplish great things for God."
He considered the church secondary, outmoded, inefficient, and a hindrance. It wasn't that he didn't love God or God's people. He just didn't think that belonging to a particular church was important, and might even be a hindrance.
Joshua is not alone. Many people think that church— especially church membership, that is, actually signing up and joining—is a spiritual relic destined to hinder spiritual freedom and fruitfulness.
The reasons for this view of church membership are many. Some Christians are just plain indifferent to church membership. They can take it or leave it; they're neither excited nor negative toward the church. It just doesn't matter to them.
Others are ignorant. They are uninformed. They've never considered the Bible's view of the local church.
Still others are indecisive. They can't make up their minds about joining. Perhaps they're the kind of people who never really make decisions; decisions tend to happen to them.
And there are the independent types. They are "Lone Ranger Christians" who don't want to be saddled with the burdens of church membership. They don't want people "in their business." They want to come into a church, consume what they need, and leave unattached.
Finally, there are those who are slow to commit to a local church because their affections are inverted. They have strong attachments to a "home church" in the town they grew up in, and yet their bodies are hundreds of miles away. They can't bring themselves to join a church where they live because they've never emotionally left a church from their past.
At root, all of these perspectives on the local church stem from the same problem: a failure to understand or take seriously God's intent that the local church be central to the life of his people. People don't become committed church members—and therefore healthy Christians—because they don't understand that such a commitment is precisely how God intends his people to live out the faith and experience Christian love.
Is "Church Membership" a Biblical Idea?
When people who encounter for the first time the idea that church membership is necessary and important, many want to know, "Is the idea of church membership important? Where can I find it in the Bible?"
As with so many things, you can't turn in the Bible to "the Book of Church Membership" or to a chapter conveniently labeled by Bible publishers, "On Becoming a Member." The biblical data isn't as obvious as that, yet the idea of membership is nearly everywhere in Scripture.
Have you ever considered how many practices and commands given to the New Testament church lose all their meaning if membership is not practiced, visibly identifiable, and important? Here are a few essential things commanded in Scripture for the local church that would lose their meaning without an operational concept of membership.
Two classic passages in Scripture outline for the church the qualifications its leaders must have (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). In addition to these qualifications, there are explicit commands for leaders to shepherd the flock and for Christians to submit to their leaders (Heb. 13:17). Yet if there is no identifiable membership, there is no one for leaders to lead. Submission to their authority as Hebrews 13:17 requires becomes nonsense if the leaders are not responsible for a group, and that group is not attached to them in some way.
In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul instructs the believers in Corinth to "put out of their fellowship" a man involved in sexual immorality. The Lord Jesus commanded a similar action in Matthew 18:15-17. Part of the reason the Bible commands the practice of church discipline is so that clear distinctions can be maintained between God's people, the church, and the surrounding world (1 Cor. 5:9-13). If there is no practical, visible way of determining who belongs to the church and who belongs to the world, this distinction is lost, and "putting out of fellowship" is an impossible feat since there is no real way of being in the fellowship.
KEEPING LISTS AND VOTING
There is slight evidence that the early church kept some lists associated with its membership. For example, lists of widows were kept (1 Tim. 5:9). Also, Christians in the local church voted for some actions. It was the "majority" who voted to remove the man from membership in the church at Corinth (2 Cor. 2:6).
Electing leaders, submitting to them, regulating membership, keeping lists, and voting only make sense if a known, identifiable, and distinct body is recognized. So while the Bible doesn't provide us with a biblical treatise on membership per se, there is enough evidence in the inspired record to suggest that some form of membership was practiced and was necessary to the church's operation. Church membership is no less important in our day.
The Essence of Membership: Committed Love
Our Lord Jesus specified one defining mark for his disciples. Of course, there are many marks of true discipleship, but one mark is singled out as signifying to the watching world that we belong to Christ:
A new commandment I give you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)
The mark of Christian discipleship is love—love of the kind that Jesus exercised toward his followers, love visible enough that men will recognize it as belonging to those people who follow Jesus.
Not surprisingly, then, a healthy Christian is one who is committed to expressing this kind of love toward other Christians. And the best place for Christians to love this way is in the assembly of God's people called the local church. Is it no wonder then that the author of Hebrews instructs us to "consider how to stir up one another to love and good works," and then right away says "not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Heb. 10:24-25)? Faithful church attendance is associated tightly with stirring each other to love and good deeds. The local church is the place where love is most visibly and compellingly displayed among God's people. It's where the "body of Christ" is most plainly represented in the world.
What Does a Committed Church Member Look Like?
In one sense the question "What does a committed church member look like?" is what this entire book is about. But here we want to explore this question in relation to the essential command and mark of love. Below are ways committed membership expresses itself.
This is the first and most important ministry of every Christian in the local church. Being present, being known, and being active are the only ways to make Christian love possible (Heb. 10:24-25).
A committed church member is committed to the maintenance of peace in the congregation. "Let uspursue whatmakes for peace and mutual upbuilding" (Rom. 14:19). "And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace" (James 3:18).
The one consistent purpose or goal of the public meeting of the church is mutual edification, building each other up in the faith (1 Cor. 12, 14; Eph. 4:11-16). A healthy and committed member comes to serve, not to be served, like Jesus (Mark 10:45); to provide, not to be a consumer only.
WARNS AND ADMONISHES OTHERS
This is discussed at greater length in chapter 6, "Seeks Discipline." A committed member is committed to speaking the truth in love to his brothers and sisters, to helping them avoid pitfalls, and to encouraging them in holiness and Christian joy. A committed member will not be wrongly intrusive in the lives of others—a busybody—but he also will not be "hands off" when it comes to caring for and counseling others.
Christians are people who are reconciled to God through Christ. As a consequence, we have been given "the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18-21). So, a committed member strives to repair breaches as quickly as possible, even before continuing in public worship (Matt. 5:23-24).
BEARS WITH OTHERS
Ministers of reconciliation must be patient and longsuffering. They must be characterized by meekness such that they do not think more highly of themselves than they ought (Matt. 5:5). They must hold up under the weight of disappointments, frustrations, loss, attack, slander, and offense (Matt. 18:21-22; Rom. 15:1). By carrying each others' burdens we fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).
PREPARES FOR THE ORDINANCES
One privilege of church membership is participating in Christ's ordinances—baptism and communion. Moreover, these privileges give us visible proclamations of the good news that Christ died for sinners and rose again to eternal life. So it's a great tragedy that many Christians neglect the ordinances that Jesus himself established 2,000 years ago. A committed member rejoices at the baptism of new believers, and he examines his heart in preparation for joining the family of God at the Lord's Table. He receives these spiritual exercises as means of grace, means that give visible testimony to the effect of the gospel in his life and the life of the gathered church.
SUPPORTS THE WORK OF THE MINISTRY
A committed member gives resources, time, and talent to the furtherance of the gospel in the local church. He lives out the Bible's call to the body of Christ. "We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully" (Rom. 12:6-8). A healthy, committed church member receives and applies the grace of God by working to support the ministry of the local church and excels in giving what he has already received from God to gospel work. He should follow the example of the Macedonians, who committed to a financial giving strategy that was sacrificial, generous, increasing over time, and fueled by faith in God despite present circumstances (2 Cor. 8-9). What do we have that we did not first receive from God? What do we have that we should not be willing to give back to him in worship?
To fail to associate ourselves in a lasting and committed way with the Head of the church by joining his body is surely a sign of ingratitude, whether from an uninformed or a dull heart. We who have the privilege of living in countries where we may freely join a local church should keep this admonition from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in mind:
"It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God's Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing. They remember, as the Psalmist did, how they went ‘with the multitude . . . to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday (Ps. 42:4) … Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living in common Christian life with other Christians praise God's grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.
For Further Reflection
1. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your commitment to membership in your local church? If your rating is not a 10, why?
2. In general, does your local church give appropriate attention to church membership? Can you cite particular passages of Scripture to support your answer?
3. How would a church with members deeply committed to each other change the perception of the church in the community?
For Further Reading
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. New York: Harper and Row, 1954.
Harris, Joshua. Stop Dating the Church. Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2004.
Thabiti Anyabwile is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Cayman Islands. Pastor Thabiti is the author of What is a Healthy Church Member?, The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity, and The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Preachers. He also blogs regularly at Pure Church.
Copyright © 2008 by Thabiti Anyabwile
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