We’re Americans, which means we love our independence and our ability to self-rule. We love our rugged individualism. Well, perhaps we actually hate it but we don’t know anything different so we cling to what we know. The sort of individualism we experience in our culture is unique in world history as it’s largely devoid of any real obligation to others. We may recognize—intellectually—we have a responsibility to other folk, yet we cringe at any real implication of personal responsibility for the welfare of others.
Naturally we feel this when it comes to church membership. We live in a world filled with free and voluntary associations. We join the local fitness club on January 1 to get healthy in the new year, knowing we can cancel our membership at any time. Okay. Bad example. We understand that when we join the West Michigan Woodworkers Guild or join the Creston Neighborhood Association participation in these organizations is entirely voluntary and need not take up any of our time beyond that which we freely give. In other words, membership in an organization or club, while it may have an upfront cost in the form of a fee, has no real cost to us beyond that which we gladly give.
It’s natural, then, to view church membership in a similar way. There is a significant difference, however, and that difference is found in the foundational declaration of the local church: Jesus is Lord. Because Jesus is Lord being part of a local church connects who we are with his ultimate authority. It roots our identity in Christ as his people. Unlike Planet Fitness or the PTA, joining a church is a formal declaration of our responsibility to help care for other believers, for the local church is the means by which the Spirit of God works in us to make us more like Christ. This means the Spirit uses us to do his work in his world.
Membership in a club implies voluntary association that can be revoked at any time and extends only as far as one is willing to extend it. Church membership, however, is a confession: Jesus is Lord. When a person joins a local church he or she is saying that he or she belongs to the Lord Jesus and therefore belongs to his people. This makes membership in church radically different from any other voluntary association, for membership in a church is both voluntary and compulsory. We freely choose to join a church but as followers of Jesus we must join a church.
Many treat the local church as a provider of services. This is often in the form of programming, whether the Sunday morning worship service or Bible studies or small groups, etc. Rather than worshiping as a body, the Sunday service is treated as one’s private worship time while gathered in the same room as other believers engaged in their private worship times with the Lord. Some, especially many who are outside the church, treat the church as the provider of weddings and funerals and even baptisms. I’ve been asked more than once for baptism by those who aren’t part of this church. During the ensuing conversation it becomes clear that baptism, rather than signifying union with Christ and entrance into his church, is little more than a rite of passage for that person. This demonstrates further that religious faith is viewed as personal and private and highly individualistic.
This isn’t what the church is and so it isn’t what church membership is. The local church is an outpost of the kingdom of God on earth. God’s kingdom advances slowly and inexorably to its goal of covering the entire earth. The local church stands at the edge of that advance. It is where the citizens of his kingdom find their true identity rooted in union with Christ and where they are shaped into proper citizens who embrace the values and ethics of the kingdom of Christ. It is where Christians submit to the Lord by submitting to his church—his people. The reality is to choose to follow Christ is to choose to love his people, for his people are his body. One cannot accept the Head while rejecting the body.
What, then, does membership really mean? If we look in Scripture for details we won’t find many, for we’re never told many of the organizational and functional details of life in the early church. How much did the apostle Paul earn while planting churches? When the Jerusalem church supported widows, what sort of food did they give them? Was it just a day’s worth or a week’s worth? Who planned their meals when they shared them together? We don’t have such details but it’s clear these things still took place, just as it’s clear formal membership existed.
In Acts 2 we read some remarkable things about the beginning of the church of Jesus: 3,000 heard the gospel and believed, “and were added” to the church. Added? Was someone keeping track? Then we read this:
And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.Acts 2:46–47 ESV
Three-thousand men and women joined the apostles and those who had been in the Upper Room. How do they know the number? Was this simply an estimate, or did they have more details than this? A few verses later Luke tells us that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved”. Again, was this just a general observation or was someone keeping detailed records? This first church—a “megachurch”!—met in the temple for corporate worship but also met in their homes! Who kept track of this? Surely someone had to oversee such a large number of folk meeting together to share a meal so as to avoid a hundred people showing up at the Smiths’ on Thursday night! Later in chapter 4 we read of continued growth.
But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.Acts 4:4 ESV
In chapter 2 we read that about 3,000 people joined the church. Here we see that the number of Christians in Jerusalem had risen to about 5,000 men. If church history is any indication, this means there were even more women, as throughout history women have tended to outnumber men in churches. How do they know with such precision—the rounded “about five thousand” notwithstanding? It is clear there was some sort of formal tracking of Christians in the Jerusalem church. We see further evidence of this in chapter 6 of Acts when some widows were being overlooked in the food pantry. They weren’t being taken care of so the apostles, busy with their responsibilities of prayer and the ministry of the word, appointed deacons to care for them. How did the deacons ensure all the widows were being taken care of when the church numbered over ten thousand? Surely they had a list of the widows and could check them off as they received food. By the time we get to the end of Paul’s life and he writes his letters to Timothy, he instructs Timothy about enrolling certain widows for greater support in the local church. To do this without some notion of formal membership seems absurd. While the Scriptures do not specifically state something like a membership process, the life of the church would have required such formality.
This raises the question: why? Why is church membership important? Author Jonathan Leeman wrote about two of his friends, Mike and Coyle. He and Mike were members of the same church while their friend Coyle, also a believer in Jesus, was a member of another church across town. Coyle asked Jonathan how his responsibility to them differed. Is there any difference in the responsibility between two believers who are members of the same church and two believers who are not part of the same church? Yes. Absolutely, there is a difference!
Those who are members of the same church have a responsibility to disciple one another in the faith. Those who are members of different churches must love one another and must demonstrate their unity in Christ, yet it will look very different than the unity one has with a member of his or her own church. We can think of membership as a covenant. Let me illustrate this with marriage. I am responsible to love everyone who is part of New City Church, including the women. However, because I am married to Dawnae I love her quite differently than I love anyone else in the church. My commitment to her as her husband is far greater than my commitment to any other human being on the planet. I must show kindness and faithfulness to others, but the sort of kindness and faithfulness I show to her is far greater. So it is with church membership. As a member of New City I must love all believers in Jesus. We are, after all, the catholic church. I must love the people of New City in a far greater way, however, for I belong to this church.
Church membership is a formal commitment to and a submission to the church in a way that cannot be replicated outside a local church. The act of joining a church is like a wedding ceremony: it determines the nature of the relationship moving forward, and that relationship changes significantly. When you join a local church you are accepting responsibility for the church and you are enabling the church to accept responsibility for you. I love how the Confessional Statement of the Gospel Coalition explains the church.
God’s New People We believe that God’s new covenant people have already come to the heavenly Jerusalem; they are already seated with Christ in the heavenlies. This universal church is manifest in local churches of which Christ is the only Head; thus each “local church” is, in fact, the church, the household of God, the assembly of the living God, and the pillar and foundation of the truth. The church is the body of Christ, the apple of his eye, graven on his hands, and he has pledged himself to her forever. The church is distinguished by her gospel message, her sacred ordinances, her discipline, her great mission, and, above all, by her love for God, and by her members’ love for one another and for the world. Crucially, this gospel we cherish has both personal and corporate dimensions, neither of which may properly be overlooked. Christ Jesus is our peace: he has not only brought about peace with God, but also peace between alienated peoples. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both Jew and Gentile to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. The church serves as a sign of God’s future new world when its members live for the service of one another and their neighbors, rather than for self-focus. The church is the corporate dwelling place of God’s Spirit, and the continuing witness to God in the world.Confessional Statement of the Gospel Coalition, Section 11
When we join a local church we are acknowledging there are no free agents in God’s kingdom. There may be those in transition, but Christians are either joined to a local church or they are seeking to join a local church. To be uncommitted to a local church is to be homeless in God’s kingdom, and God insists that under his rule, all are to be be provided for, and this provision includes a formal church home.
The truth of church membership is that God has given us the incredible blessing of his church, and he has given his church the incredible blessing of us. When we commit to a local church through formal membership we are declaring our reception of that gift and our giving of ourselves as that gift. Let us not let our hyper-individualistic culture keep us from the gift of God in Christ through his Spirit. Let us commit to one another and to the Lord who gives us his church.