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Why Become a Church Member?

March 10, 2014 by Larry Lazarus 0 comments

Posted in: Christian Living

Yesterday I had the privilege of leading a time during our Sunday gathering in which we publicly recognized nine new members as part of Joy Community Fellowship.  As I stated during the gathering, this is a great joy for me personally, and something that I am appreciating more and more, the longer I am a part of the local church, and the more I read the New Testament and explore the vision for church life described there.

But why do we encourage this practice of church membership?  Over the years I have talked to many individuals who, for one reason or another, do not believe that church membership is a necessary or important part of the Christian life.  Often, they do not see it to be a “biblical” requirement, meaning that there is no specific place in which the Bible commands Christians to become members of a local church.

Baptism into a Body

Perhaps one reason why the Bible does not explicitly command membership is because it seems to assume that faith in Christ involves attachment to the local church as a member.  In 1 Corinthians 12, the famous passage where the Apostle Paul uses the metaphor of the physical body and it’s various body parts to describe the church, Paul writes:

"12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.14For the body does not consist of one member but of many."

Verse 13 is particularly important: Paul says that when we are baptized in the Spirit (a reference, almost certainly, to our initial conversion, through faith in Christ[1]), this experience involves attachment with a Body of believers, a local church.  A part of the experience of becoming a Christian (represented here by partaking of the Spirit; see Romans 8:9) is our incorporation into the church as a member of the body.

The chapter as a whole makes clear that  this reference to the church as a body does not refer to the universal church, but to a specific local church, a particular group of believers who relate to one another the way eyes, ears, hands, legs, etc. relate to one another in the physical body; a group of people who complement one another, serve one another, rejoice together when one is honored, and suffer together when one suffers. 

This is what church membership is: an identification of yourself as one of Jesus’ people by identifying yourself with a particular, local expression of His people, the church.  Being a Christian involves attachment to a local church as a member.  That is what verse 13 teaches, and that is why church membership is something we value. 

Membership vs. Regular Attendance

The language of membership in a body says this much more effectively (in my humble opinion) than the language of another common way I hear people speak of their involvement in the local church: “regular attender”.  “Regular attender” communicates that the church is an event, which a person attends (regularly).  It does not come close to articulating the type of intimacy, interconnectedness and mutual dependence that is conveyed by the word, “membership”. 

Language matters; God chose to reveal Himself through words, in a book.  And the word He uses to describe our attachment to the local church is, “membership”. 

Membership: Clear, Visible, Identifiable

If membership in the Body of Christ is an implication of our becoming a Christian (as 1 Corinthians 12:13 suggests), then anyone who is a Christian, and who commits to this local church as their church, should be welcomed into membership.  For us, that means that a prospective church member is someone who embraces our church’s statement of faith, gives evidence of having the Spirit dwelling in them (i.e., love for God, an assurance of His love, a desire for holiness and hatred of sin, increasing conformity to Jesus Christ, desire to make Christ known in word and deed), and commits to our church’s covenant, which gives a basic articulation of how Christians live together.

Church membership is a clear, public, visible and identifiable way of saying, “I am here; I belong to Jesus, and I am accountable and committed to this local congregation of believers as we strive to glorify God together in all things.”  This clarity and visibility are important in defining who is, and who is not, to be regarded as part of the church.  Passages like Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, Matthew 18:17 indicate that the church is a clearly-defined, recognizable group of people.

If not through a formal recognition as a church member, how are we to identify who is part of the church, and who is not?  Is anyone who enters the doors of the church, even once, a member of Joy?  Those who visit on Christmas and Easter?  “Regular” attenders?  How regular?  Three times a month?  For how long?  Six months?  Do they need to be involved in any ways outside of Sunday morning?  Do they need to contribute something financially to show they're committed?  How much?  When, and how, do you magically cross that line from "regularly attending" to "member"? 

In this framework, determining the membership of the church becomes all about works, and that is antithetical to the precious gospel of God's grace.  We do not receive the Spirit through our works, but through hearing the word of God’s grace with faith (see Galatians 3:1-5). 

Church membership, then, is a blood-bought gift of God's grace.  In one Spirit being baptized into one body is a life-sustaining, faith-strengthening, joy-preserving means of God’s mercy to us, bought with Jesus’ blood, and sealed with the Spirit’s indwelling. 

Don't cut yourself off from this blessing.  If you’d like more information on why we value church membership, or are interested in being identified as one, please speak with an elder.  Surely both our process and our practice of church membership are far from perfect.  But we are striving, with God's grace and help, to represent this precious imagery of the church as one Body with many diverse members as clearly as we possibly can.

[1] See Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 605

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