Note: I’ve had occasion to work on several essays recently for different things I’m doing. This is the first of them; I figured I’d post it here if anyone is interested.
The Church (both big and little ‘c’) is a big deal in God’s story. This shouldn’t surprise Christians, but often it is overlooked. Scripture resonates with concern for the community of Christians in the world. The Church, Paul writes to Timothy, is the “household of God”, a “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). He elsewhere pictures it as Christ’s “body”, as if our Lord who is physically absent from the earth is at the same time really and physically present through His Church (1 Corinthians 12). While it sometimes makes evangelicals comfortable, the oldest creedal confession of Christianity includes belief in the “holy catholic church”, and this profession is echoed by church fathers, theologians, mystics, monastics, reformers and missionaries throughout the ages.
It is for this reason that we talk about the importance of “church membership” as something undertaken by the individual Christian. It is true, in one sense, that one becomes a part of the Church simply by believing in Christ. Some theologians have called this the “invisible church” – the communion of all saints through the ages – and it is an important doctrine. However, Christianity is a religion where invisible and internal truths are always meant to be joined with external realities. Faith in one’s heart must be joined by outward profession, belonging by baptism, new life by obedience, and so on. Our concern is not with whether we are invisibly and internally a part of the Church but what implications this has for our visible, external lives.
Church membership, while its specific forms vary, is the way we act out our invisible membership in Christ’s body in the visible world. We join ourselves to a local expression of the body of Christ in a public and binding way precisely because we are to act out with our lives what Christ makes true of our hearts. If we are part of the Church, we should also join in membership with a local church.
In what follows, I’d like us to spend a little time looking at the biblical commands, the practical needs, and the missional blessings of church membership, then end with a few practical recommendations for those seeking to obey Scripture in this area.
The Biblical Command
We can see Scripture as commanding church membership on two different levels. On one hand, we have overarching pictures Scripture gives of the nature of the Church which compel us to join ourselves to its local expressions. This is the “top down” argument. On the other, we also have specific commands about ways we are called to be a part of the local church which require membership. This is the “bottom up” argument.
From the Top Down: City, Kingdom and Family
The picture Scripture paints of Christianity is unapologetically corporate. It is thick with images of our being God’s city, God’s family, God’s country (Ephesians 2:19-21, 1 Peter 2:9-10). These pictures have a variety of important implications, but two in particular as they pertain to church membership – being part of the Church is public and involuntary.
First, church membership is a public reality. Think about the pictures Scripture gives of the community of faith. They are all pictures of spheres which have to do with our public life. In the ancient world, the family you belonged to was of deep interest to those around you, since it implied your identity and place in society. The same is true of your national identity; just think of the shock waves sent out in Acts when Paul reveals he is a Roman citizen. Our membership in the corporate body of Christ is meant to be on public display – we are supposed to be a city on a hill, shining light to the world (Matthew 5:14-16). This calls us to make our commitment to the Church something equally public and visible, and this can only be done by publically committing ourselves to a particular corner of the universal Church.
In addition, church membership should be involuntary. You don’t get to choose who is in your family (however much we might wish we could); neither do you get to choose which people get included in the family of God. One of the great weaknesses of movements which try to do community and fellowship without the Church is that they almost always become voluntary organizations, picking and choosing specific demographics or people they like to manifest Christ’s body. The Church, however, is meant to embody the community of faith in all its diversity, just like your family and nation. The local church is the embodiment of this diversity – by seeking to include diversity of age, gifts, stories, backgrounds, etc., we are joined to the family of God.
From the Ground Up: Accountability and Community
At the same time, there are specific biblical commandments which compel us toward church membership. The first are those set of commands we as Christians have to be accountable to church leaders. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls” (Hebrews 13:17). God organizes the local church in such a way that there are to be elders who rule (1 Timothy 5:17) and steward (Titus 1:7) the community of faith for the good of the whole body. The point here is that it is impossible to submit to leaders when you don’t have any. The only way to live out biblical church membership is to have actual, specific people whose authority you are under, and the only way to do that is to be an actual member of a specific church.
In addition, we are also called to community. We are to do life together as Christians. We should “not neglect to meet together… but encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25) The very first description of the church in Acts says the believers “devoted themselves to… fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Now obviously this community can be found in many places with other believers; I think of the beauty of praying with saints in central America, for instance, or of breaking bread with dear friends spread all over the world in service to the kingdom. However, the call of Acts is for us to “devote” ourselves to this fellowship. Devotion means community isn’t simply the result of happenstance but something we give commitment, something we are bound and promised to do. This sort of devoted fellowship calls for more than just haphazard community; it calls for something like formal church membership.
The Practical Need
These commands are not simply arbitrary rules either. We need them for our growth and flourishing as believers. This is true for several reasons.
First, you and I do not on our own have the full resources to live the Christian life. Paul talks about how different Christians have different gifts – wisdom, knowledge, teaching, helping, administrating – and that each of these is given “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). The emphasis of his teaching is that we are interdependent. He uses the image of the body of Christ in connection with gifts to make this point. Can a foot tell a hand that it doesn’t need it? Can an eye tell an ear that it should be another eye instead? We are designed by God to be Christians together, those strong in one area helping those who are weak in it and at the same time being helped by those weak brothers’ and sisters’ strengths in other areas. It is only by being part of the Church, the whole body, that we have all the gifts, all the resources and tools we need to grow as believers.
What’s more, we also need the Church to provide us with support in our lives. While evangelical piety can lead us to insist that “Jesus is all we need”, and this is in one sense true, Jesus has also provided us with resources in the face of struggle and temptation. One of these resources is meant to be the Church. We already saw Hebrews 10:25 above in its command to keep meeting together, but the second part is equally important: “encourage one another”. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Following Jesus in the midst of a broken world can be hard, and God has commissioned the Church to be a resource to help us bear up under this burden. What’s more, we need to realize that this call cuts both ways. While we might not at present be feelings the heaviness of life, there are certainly Christians who are, and our ease should not excuse us from providing encouragement and help to them. Indeed, this too helps us grow as believers.
Lastly, we need the Church because we need to be under authority. This might seem strange to us. ‘Authority’ often has a negative connotation in our world, but in Scripture it is a beautiful blessing, a tool to help us live as God’s children. Paul tells us that God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:11-12). Growing up into Jesus is designed to happen under the care of mature saints commissioned to lead us. Growing up as Christians requires the Church.
The Missional Power
It would also be a mistake to think that church membership is about us as members, about fulfilling each others’ needs and helping each others’ growth. While these are important, even more important is the place of the Church in Christ’s mission in the world.
The Church is the organism through which Christ is revealed to the world. This should already be hinted by some of what we’ve said; if it is Christ’s body, we should hardly be surprised that by seeing it people around us are seeing Christ. What’s more, if it is a body of various gifts, we should realize that it is only when these gifts are working together that it is working out God’s mission as intended. Yet we can push even further. Near the end of the gospel of John, Jesus prays ““for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one… so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21) Did you catch that? Jesus is saying that by being the Church, by living and worshipping and doing faith together, “the world may believe” in Him. Trying to communicate Christ without His Church is like communicating Him without His cross or resurrection – it is a woefully inadequate Good News.
Not only is the Church the key to our current mission; it is also central to God’s ultimate victory in the world. Scripture pictures God’s corporate people as the “bride of Christ” in several passages (Ephesians 5:25-32, Revelation 19:6-8). Most strikingly, however, is Revelation 21. Many of us are familiar of this picture of a new heavens and a new earth, the hopeful end of the bible’s story. What we fail to notice, however, is that the new Jerusalem coming out of heaven is in fact the Church being revealed. “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2) It is this description of new Jerusalem – of the Church – which enraptures John for much of the chapter. It is “the wife of the Lamb… having the glory of God… the glory of God gives it light… By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Revelation 21:9, 11, 23-4) God’s story is one of glorifying Himself by glorifying the Church before the nations, and its climax is when the glory of the Church is revealed.
Putting It In To Practice
All these strands together help us see the need for church membership. It is a biblical, beneficial, and beautiful calling. However, we do need to acknowledge that everything said up to this point, while true, isn’t the whole story. Churches can often struggle to embody this calling. They can be insular, unwelcoming, and uncomfortable. Sometimes things can be even worse – false teachers, gossiping pew-sitters and abusive leaders can cause us deep pain. I don’t have a pat answer for these pains; my heart breaks when I see them. However, if you are at a place where you’re thinking about reinvesting in the Church, I want to offer a few practical thoughts on how to do it well. Hopefully these will aid you as you begin to learn again how to be a member of Christ’s body.
1. Seek the humble place.
When anyone first gets involved in a church, the first question tends to be “where can I serve”? This is a good question, and many churches seek to help new members through resources like classes and assessments of spiritual gifting. However, this often gets short-circuited because we as Christians compete for the most interesting, enjoyable, or glamorous places of service. People love to head committees, run programs, and have influence or visibility. As a consequence, when positions which include these elements aren’t present, they conclude that the church doesn’t have a place for them to “best use their gifts”, and so they drift away.
Instead, take Christ’s example in your service. Seek the low places. Change diapers in the nursery. Set up chairs before Sunday school. Ask what areas have the most need, and then seek one of those areas to serve. After all, as Paul reminds us, the humblest parts of Christ’s body are those treated with most honor (1 Corinthians 12:22-25). This doesn’t mean you will never serve in a more visible role, but it does mean that those roles are for people who have demonstrated their gifts and faithfulness in little things (Matthhew 25:21, 23) and have shown their humility by being willing to lower themselves to the humblest areas of service (Matthew 20:26). Seek to be like the guest in Jesus’ parable about the feast who takes the low position at the table and is promoted, rather than the one who takes the high position and is asked to move down (Luke 14:7-11).
2. Be community.
As we’ve said, one of the central callings of the Church is to embody the deep community of Christ. Indeed, a longing for community is often what draws people into membership at a local church. This is a wonderful desire, but it sometimes butts heads with the hard realities of life. People are busy. Some churches aren’t very good at doing life together. Even when there is strong community, it often takes time to become plugged into an existing web of relationships.
Now, there are certainly ways churches can be more welcoming to newer people, but this is out of your control. Moping about it is guaranteed to fail to help the case. What is in your control is your position in this community: will you be a cost the community has to bear, or will you be a tool God uses to build it up? Scripture is full of calls for us to meet together, encourage one another, and practice hospitality (Hebrews 10:25, 1 Timothy 4:9, etc.). These are commands each of us can take responsibility for. If you are struggling to feel connected at church, use your home and time to foster this connection. Invite people over for dinner – and as Christ reminds us, don’t just invite the pastor and elders, but the single moms and other people who look like they’re wishing they could connect too (Luke 14:12-14). Take the initiative in relationships, seeking to sacrifice of your time and energy to foster friendship and accountability. Be the community you’d like to have, and soon you’ll find that you have it as well.
3. Speak peace.
Scripture tells us that nothing is as maliciously sinful as the tongue. Sadly, churches often become hotbeds of this sort of sin dressed up in pious clothing – “prayer requests” as an excuse for gossip, or “brotherly concern” as an opportunity to speak ill of others. One of the most important and beneficial things you can do as a member of the church is to seek holiness in this area of life. Paul calls us to say “only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs” (Ephesians 4:29). Peter puts it this way: “[A believer] must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech… [H]e must seek peace and pursue it.” (1 Peter 3:11) As you start to move into the fellowship of the church, you will be given many opportunities to share your thoughts. Let Peter’s call be foremost in your mind: with this statement, am I seeking and pursuing peace or am I instead creating division or conflict?
4. Wait with grace.
Even if you do all of these things, your church probably won’t live up to your expectations of it. Indeed, it almost certainly won’t; the life of the church is a life of growth, and growth always means we are pressing on towards something more (Ephesians 4:15-16, Philippians 3:12). There are areas where we might long to see our churches mature and in which change seems so slow as to be invisible. We should never quit desiring the church’s growth, but in the meantime our calling is to “bear with the failings of the weak” (Romans 15:1). Jesus shows each of us unimaginable grace as He waits for us to become the creatures He calls us to be. How grateful we should feel that He doesn’t give up on us the first time we fail, or the third, or the hundredth. Our calling is the same. While we encourage growth and exhort each other onwards, we must also be quick to forgive and look past each others’ failings. We are to wait with grace.