In my wallet, I have a half dozen or so membership cards. These cards entitle me to certain perks, be at it the city library or the Starbuck’s down the street. By possessing and presenting these cards, I am an “insider” at these establishments. I am privy to whatever benefits they have to offer. The card equates to privilege when I use it, even if that privilege is nothing more than a few cents off my skinny white mocha. (I don’t drink skinny white mochas.)
In my experience, many view church membership a lot like membership in a perks program. If you pay your dues, then you get access to privileges that other people who aren’t members don’t get. In some circles, those privileges amount to preferential treatment, or the right to vote in congregational meetings, or a sense of ownership and belonging. If that were all church membership amounted to, then I’d be all for getting rid of the concept altogether. If church membership is about perks, then I’m not interested.
Fortunately, church membership really isn’t about perks at all. Church membership is about a committed relationship between a Christian and a local congregation for the good of the church and for the good of the church member. Every Christian should be a engaged in a local congregation – a Christian without one is really a contradiction. And for most, that engagement should include some kind of formal commitment to the church body like church membership. Why should most Christians commit to one local church body through something like church membership, even when the New Testament doesn’t explicitly lay out a doctrine of membership? I think there are (at least) three reasons:
- Christians should commit to membership in a local church because of the way the Bible calls believers to relate to one another. What I have in mind here are the many “one another” commands in the New Testament. Love one another, encourage one another, guard one another…the New Testament is full of these exhortations. For example, Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). Christians are to be known by their love for other Christians. But that command is impossible to follow unless you, a Christian, know the other Christians that you are called to love. And not only must you know them, you must be committed to them (and them to you) for your love to mean anything. As any married couple (or divorced couple) knows, love without commitment isn’t really love. Church membership gives us the defined commitment between believers that commands like these require.
- Christians should commit to membership in a local church because the gospel advances through committed ministry partnerships. When Paul writes to the Philippians, he expresses his thankfulness for them, saying, “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…” (Phil 1:4-5). Partnership. That’s a word (often translated fellowship in English Bibles) that comes from the realm of business and commerce. In a business partnership, the partners join together and sacrifice together to see their common goal realized. In a gospel partnership, like that shared by Paul and the Philippians, each partner sacrifices and gives and works to see the gospel advance. That’s what church membership is…a commitment between a Christian and a church to sacrifice and work together toward the goal of seeing the gospel advance.
- Christians should commit to membership in a local church because the New Testament’s vision of spiritual leadership requires that we define and know who the leaders and followers are. I make this point because of verses like Hebrews 13:17: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.“ Christians are called to submit to their church leaders, but without a formal commitment to a local church, no Christian can truly know who their leaders are. More significantly, church leaders are called to keep watch over their followers as those who must give an account. As a pastor, there will be a day when I am held accountable by the Lord for the faithfulness of my ministry to my flock. That’s a sobering idea, one that does (and should) drive me to the Lord in prayer. But without a formal commitment between church members and a church, no church leader can actually know who their flock is. As a leader, I need to know for whom I am accountable to the Lord. Church membership defines that group of people and allows me to lead as the Lord calls me to lead.
I’m sure there are more biblical reasons why membership in a local church matters, but those were on my mind. I hope they are on yours, as well. If you are a Christian and you haven’t committed yourself to membership in a local church, you should. And if you are a Christian and you have committed yourself to membership in a local church, I hope you understand the significance of that commitment a little bit better.