Membership or “joining” is totally anti-Seattle, I realize, given our rugged REI individualism. But I want you to consider some things in light of being a part of a community.
I know this word probably invokes fear or skepticism given our life experience with imperfect parents and abusive churches. Moreover, most of us may think it’s kind of condescending to think that we may need disciplining. But we do – especially when it comes to our sanctification. Think of the church like a gym where we workout the gospel in our lives. The question is: from who do we allow discipline?
According to the Bible, the church is supposed to discipline its members. Consider the implication of Matthew 18:15–17 where “the church” (ekklesia) appears to be the final court of appeal in matters of church authority as it relates to membership.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
If there is no church membership, how can you define the group that will take up this sensitive and weighty matter? It’s hard to believe that just anyone who showed up claiming to be a Christian could be a part of that gathering. Surely, “the church” must be a definable group to handle such a weighty matter. You know who you mean when you “take it to the church.” In extreme cases “the church” would kick out a person. The Bible calls it excommunication. It’s not as medieval as it sounds. Think of a child or parent who was a drug addict. In extreme cases love would require the family to “excommunicate” that member if they continued their harmful behavior in hopes that they would repent (1 Corinthians 5:12–13). Such a formal removal would not be possible if there were no such thing as a clear membership—who is an accountable part of this body, and who is not?
2. Permission to be led
Church membership is implied in the biblical requirement of Christians to be submitted to a group of church leaders, elders, or pastors. The point here is that without membership, who is it that the New Testament is referring to who must submit to a specific group of leaders? Some kind of expressed willingness has to precede a person’s submission to a group of leaders.
Consider the way the New Testament talks about the relationship of the church to her leaders
- Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. (Hebrews 13:17)
- We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you (proistamenous humon) in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13)
- Let the elders who rule well (hoi kalos proestotes presbuteroi) be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. (1 Timothy 5:17)
This can’t work if there is no membership defining who has expressed the willingness to be led.
3. Pastoral boundaries
Church membership is also implied in the way the New Testament requires elders to care for the flock in their charge. Of course elders can extend their love to anyone and everyone, and should, within the limits of their ability. But the question is whether the Bible tells elders that they are to have a special responsibility and care for a certain group—a group of members.
Consider Acts 20:28 where Paul tells the elders how to care for their flock: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” This verse does not say elders cannot visit unbelievers or those who are not yet members. But it does make clear that their first responsibility is to a particular flock. How are they to know who their flock is? Who are we as elders and pastors responsible for? For whom will we give an account to God?
The way Peter speaks to the elders in 1 Peter 5 is even more clear on this point. Verses 2–3: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge (tov kleron), but being examples to the flock.”
“Those in your charge” (your portion, your lot) implies that the elders knew whom they were responsible for. This is just another way of talking about membership.
4. Metaphor: the Body
Church membership is implied in the metaphor of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:12–31. The original meaning of the word member is member of a body, like hand and foot and eye and ear. That’s the imagery behind the word member in the text. Verse 12: “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.”
So the question this imagery raises for the local church that Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians 12 is: Who intends to be treated as a hand or foot or eye or ear of this body? There is a unity and organic relationship implied in the imagery of the body. There is something unnatural about a Christian attaching himself to a body of believers and not being a member of the body. It’s like being a contractor for a company versus being an employee. The church is not a group of independent contractors. You may start off as one to see if the church is the right fit but don’t stay as one forever. (By “right fit” I mean essential stuff like doctrinal agreement, as opposed to things like personality.)
So there you go. I believe that membership is a New Testament expectation for all believers. Each of us should be a member of a local body of believers.
- We should take responsibility to discipline those of the body who do not repent from public sin that brings reproach on the name of Christ.
- We should declare ourselves part of the body so that if we are wayward, we ourselves would be liable to such exclusion.
- We should take our position under the leadership and authority of a particular group of elders.
- We should declare ourselves part of a group who expect to be watched over and cared for by a particular group of elders.
- And we should find our place in the organic whole as a body part—a member—of a local body of Christ.
So. Decision time.
Please take some time to pray. I take membership very seriously. It helps me in determining boundaries as a pastor. It helps the church establish healthy boundaries. There are also some nonbiblical considerations. Since the church is a registered org in WA, we need to know who the members are (those who are eligible to vote for officers).
Membership is not something to enter into lightly. But at the same time, it’s not something to put off lightly. If you are putting it off, make sure you have good reasons and accountability in your decision. I hope that makes sense.
Please send an email to: email@example.com stating your desire to become a member for the first time, or to renew membership. This email will come to the leadership.