New City will celebrate its eleventh birthday next month! This means we’re still a fairly young church and we have growing pains as we lack some of the long-established structure of older churches. That’s also an advantage, by the way. One of the great things about starting a new church is whenever anyone says, “We’ve never done it that way before”, they’re right! So this never holds us back.
As we’ve experienced growth over the last few years it has become clear that we don’t have much of a structure for integrating new folk as members. When we first established formal membership we had an entire sermon series about what it means to be the church and then had a large membership push. Over the years we’ve added folk here and there as they pursued membership and as new Christians have been baptized. Last week we had our very first membership class and this coming Saturday we will have another. The question that comes up inevitably is this: why should a person become a formal member of the church? It’s a good question.
The truth is there is no instruction in the New Testament telling us to formally join a church. There was no need to issue such a command during the time the New Testament was being written. This is due to the back drop of New Testament churches. We naturally view this from a Western Christian cultural perspective but if we can see church membership as they did in those very first churches a different understanding emerges.
All of the original followers of Jesus were Jews. Years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Gentiles—non-Jews—began hearing the gospel of Jesus and became followers of Jesus. They were then incorporated into the already established life of the churches as they were spreading around the Roman empire. The structure of these churches already existed. Because the original followers of Jesus were Jews, they had the synagogue as their model for churches. They saw themselves as faithful Jews who worshiped the one true God. As Christians they understood they were worshiping the same God they had always worshiped, only now they knew he took on human flesh, lived among us, was crucified, died, and was buried, and rose again on the third day. They continued gathering with their local synagogues on the Sabbath to worship the God they had long worshiped, and then they assembled again the next morning with all those who acknowledged the Messiah had come and conquered sin and death. Because the synagogue already had a formal membership, there was no need to have a separate membership for those who confessed Jesus is Lord; they were simply a subset of the synagogue membership.
In the synagogue they would recite the Shema (“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one…” from Deuteronomy 6:4–5) and then spend time praying. Various selections from the Old Testament would be read and a sermon would be taught from one of them. The service would end with a benediction. It should be no surprise, then, that when Christians assembled on Sunday morning in remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus they followed this basic format, with the addition of singing worship songs and celebrating the Lord’s Supper together.
Because of the existing structure of synagogue life these largely Jewish churches did not need a separate membership roll. However, hostility between non-Christian Jews and Christian Jews began to grow, particularly as more and more Gentiles became Christians. When Jews became Christians they already had a strong sense of morality so in terms of lifestyle little needed to be changed. Gentiles, however, were a very different story. They came from a polytheistic background and likely saw Jesus as one God among many, even if they thought it were preferable to worship him instead of, say, Zeus. Old habits—and thoughts—die hard! Sexual promiscuity was rampant in ancient Rome. Going to the local temple to visit temple prostitutes was simply a Saturday morning routine for many, much like going out for a round of golf. There simply was no sense of guilt or shame or embarrassment about it. It was part of life. Imagine telling a new Christian he had to give up his weekly round of golf in order to follow Jesus! This is what it was like for many new Christians entering into the church. This is part of what began to cause the rift between Christian and non-Christian Jews in the synagogue. By the second century the Sunday worship by Christians was largely separated from synagogue life.
The structures remained, however. The worship service still followed the basic format of Scripture reading, prayers, a sermon, singing worship songs, and celebrating communion. Now that membership in the synagogue was no longer simply understood for the ever-increasing ratio of Gentile believers to Jewish believers, the church began keeping its own records.
We see hints of this in Paul’s instruction to Timothy in his first letter. The church must care for its widows and Paul’s instructions clearly required some sort of membership roll:
Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.1 Timothy 5:9–10 ESV
The expression “the wife of one husband” is literally “a one-man woman”. It’s a character quality, not an actual status, similar to the requirement that elders be one-woman men, whether married or not. An enrollable widow is an older woman who is faithful. The point is that in order to enroll a woman, there must be some sort of roll. The word Paul uses for “enroll” is only used once in the New Testament but in other literature of the time it clearly meant “selection for membership in a group”. In other words, within the broader list of members in that particular local church was a smaller group of widows. This wouldn’t be possible if the church did not have its own formal membership.
We see a similar implication in the metaphors used of the local church in Scripture. Paul told the Ephesians church they were “members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). In a very real sense they were brothers and sisters in Christ with ALL Christians, but the very idea of a household is that you belong to a specific household, not all households. If you disagree with that, try stopping at a random person’s house at supper time and announce that you’re home for supper. Peter describes the church as a flock of sheep (1 Peter 5:3). Sheep are all related in some way, yet each sheep knows its particular shepherd and its particular sheepfold. Yes, there is the broader world of sheep, yet each individual sheep belongs to a particular flock—a local church, if you will.
At our very first membership meeting last Saturday—and let me say, it was the greatest membership class we have ever had!—I was asked this question, as expected: why should we as Christians formally join a local church? I’ve heard it said that claiming to be a Christian while not belonging to a particular local church is like claiming to be married, but to no one in particular. What is really happening when a church receives a person as a formal member? It’s probably more profound than you might be thinking:
Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.Matthew 18:18 ESV
In this text Jesus is actually teaching about church discipline, including the final step of removing a member from the church. What he’s saying in this verse is that the church’s decision is reflective of heaven’s decision. He says that when a church binds someone on earth, referring to excommunication from the church, it is demonstrating what has already been declared to be true in heaven. In other words, the binding on earth does not cause the binding in heaven; rather, it reveals the binding already in heaven. The flip side is also true: whatever the church looses on earth is revealing what has already been loosed in heaven. To put this in simpler terms that are relevant to our discussion, when the church receives a person as a member of that church, that church is declaring that he or she belongs to the Lord and is a true Christian with genuine faith in Jesus.
This formal and public declaration unlocks all the responsibilities the church has for its members. This is why New City has a membership covenant that begins with the church’s responsibility toward the individual member and then lists the individual member’s responsibilities to the church, to a specific local assembly of Jesus, not a brand or a formal administrative structure. Membership in a local church declares that we belong to you and you belong to us. Membership in the church is not simply a status. We must not treat membership in the church like we do membership at, say, Planet Fitness. You know the sort of membership I mean. You’re a member—technically. You go sometimes, if only to assuage your guilt. Yes, you know you should go more often and you feel bad when you don’t. Here’s the thing: no one at Planet Fitness cares if you show up or not. They’re a business and they have what they really want: your monthly membership fees. Making use of the benefits of membership is entirely up to you, however. This is not how membership in the local church functions.
If you don’t show up the whole church suffers. Part of our body is missing. If you are not committed to the church, the church is missing out on something. It’s not like an unused treadmill at the gym. Who cares if it gathers dust? The church is a living organism that depends on all its parts functioning together. This is driven home by Paul in his letter to the Christians in Rome:
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.Romans 12:4–5 ESV
When the church declares that you are one of us, the church is thereby committing to loving you and caring for you as if you were a part of our own body—which you are. Membership matters because you matter. The real question here isn’t why you and I should join a local body of believers. The real question should be which body do I belong to and identity with as a fellow follower of Jesus? This ain’t Planet Fitness. This is the body of Christ. You should join us.