Membership Matters

What will the local church look like in ten years?  Questions like this consume my thinking frequently.  These questions are intriguing, not because there is any threat to the church that can overcome God’s will (Matthew 16:18), but because His will is for His people to care deeply for His bride.  As believers within local churches focus more on individual wants and comforts, they will continue to misunderstand the church and the call to be faithful covenant members.  Don’t mishear. Many local churches and the leadership (fellow sinners) within those churches have caused hurt and divide in the lives of the members, but the wrong response to such hurt is to disown church membership altogether.  We need a biblical understanding of the local church because we are so prone to misunderstanding and as a result misusing.  

Misunderstanding Membership
There are two misunderstandings about local church membership that I hear most often.  First, “there is no need for membership, I can just attend.”  Accountability has become such a negative word, even in the church.  At the very heart of this misunderstanding is the individual.  It is, “I have no need for membership.  I can go wherever is best fitting my individual, or my individual family’s felt needs at that moment.  I don’t gain anything from membership.  I can get the encouragement I need from the sermon and have no other commitment to these people.”  This ideology of attendance without commitment would immediately be shunned if applied to dating and marriage.  We would never say we are okay to just date and enjoy all the benefits of marriage without any of the commitment.  But when it comes to the church, we are okay dating without accountability, without marriage.  

The second misunderstanding is summed up in the phrase, “there is no weight to membership, it’s just a club.”  In other words, you just join a church to get the perks of being a part of nothing more than a social club.  Church membership statistics have continued to drop throughout the generations, but it doesn’t seem like these statistics tell the whole story.  Many Millennials and Gen Z-er’s place no value in church membership because they have seen it used as nothing more than a gym or Costco membership.  In this misunderstanding, not only is there a consumer mindset that the church is just somewhere we go to shop for what we want, but it is also viewing the church as nothing more than a social club.  Again, the individual becomes the focus because they view joining a church as a mode of being served instead of a mode to serve.  If these are the misunderstandings, what is the best response to approaching church membership biblically?

Meaningful Membership
The reality of membership to a local church is throughout Scripture (Matthew 18:15-20; Acts 2:42-47; Acts 20:28;  Romans 12:3-5; Romans 16:17-18; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 1 Corinthians 11:23-34; 1 Corinthians 12; 2 Corinthians 6:14-15; Ephesians 4:11-12; Colossians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:11-13; 1 Timothy 5:19-20; 2 Timothy 4:2; Hebrews 10:24-25; Hebrews 13:17;  1 Peter 5:5).  The New Testament is full of letters written to local churches and pastors of local churches.  At the heart of church membership is identifying with our Head, Christ.  It is through the local church that ordinances from our Lord of baptism and the Lord’s Supper take place.  God continues to provide meaning where we misunderstand.

First, church membership is meaningful because it provides clarity.  Church membership gives clarity to who are the people of God.  Those who have been baptized as a visual representation of their new life in Christ and take the Lord’s Supper as a proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ are displaying to the nations through their church membership that they belong to Christ (Colossians 2:11-13).  With this in mind, church membership becomes less of an exclusive club to gain benefits and instead is an identifying marker of our new life in Christ.  

What happens in Acts 2 directly after the new believers have been baptized?  “they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  

This clarity that local church membership provides is not just the pattern of Scripture, it is clarity for today.  The elders of a local church are not accountable for the members of a church across town, across the state, across the country, or across the world.  Pair this truth with the idea of “church-hopping,” or “church-dating,” and it does not add up.  Church members have a responsibility to be accountable to one another and without the clarity of church membership, we flee such accountability.  

Second, church membership is meaningful because it provides accountability.  Church membership is  affirmed by the overall consistent pattern of the New Testament instruction for believers to commit to one another in local assembly, to be responsible for one another, to uphold correct doctrine, to hold each other accountable, and to restore through church discipline.  Philippians 1:27 says, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” This verse discusses that our manner of life should be worthy of the gospel as we are standing firm in one spirit, and striving side by side in one mind.  This side-by-side nature of church membership promotes not only accountability, but also unity and discipleship.  If you read back through the description of the Jerusalem church in Acts 2:42-47, every aspect is speaking to the accountability of local church membership.  

The call to church discipline from Matthew 18:15-20 has accountability at the center.  The passage speaks to how to handle a believer in the body of Christ coming alongside another believer in the body of Christ to graciously confront sin with the goal of restoration.  If the brother or sister refuses, you bring along increased accountability through other church members.  If there is still a refusal of repentance, you bring it to the church.  Who is the church you bring it to for accountability away from local church membership?  Again, accountability has been given a negative connotation in our increasingly individualistic culture.  But accountability is a beautiful gift from God that we have within His church.  Accountability calls sin, sin.  But accountability also upholds the purity of the church through the proclamation of the gospel.  Redemption from sin and death in the finished work of Jesus alone.  

Last, church membership is meaningful because it provides intimacy.  Church membership should always increase the fellowship and intimacy with brothers and sisters in Christ.  Again, look back at Acts 2.  If you reread verses 38-47 one of the first words that comes to mind is community.  Look at how this community is formed.  Starting back in verse 38, it is through repentance, baptism, devotion to teaching, sharing the Lord’s Supper, prayer, fellowship together, generosity, hospitality, and worship.  The sharing together of the saints in the first church is astounding when compared to what we see in the church today.  Community is  evidenced in our necessity to meet together (Hebrews 10:23-25).  The fellowship of the saints should proclaim the love we have with one another as members of this local body.  Jesus says, in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Saint, this is specifically about our love for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.  The unbelieving world should look at the church and see we are His disciples because of our love for one another.
The local church is the place where intimacy is seen through disciples making disciples.  Accountability in relationships within the local church points to this increased intimacy with one another.  Intimacy is never about being in the know or gaining information.  Intimacy is hard and uncomfortable and involves submitting to Scripture, to our Head Christ, and to one another.  All three of these truths about church membership squash the misunderstandings.  All of a sudden the individual fades to the background.  When looking at these truths of church membership, comfort is the last concern, but grace is not.  While often undervalued, church membership is such a grace to the believer and an invaluable gift from God. Church membership is such grace to the believer.  It is an undervalued and, at the same time, invaluable gift from God.  

Brothers and sisters, commit yourselves to the local church.