What’s the Big Deal About Church Membership

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Why would you join a church? That’s a question for Christians, by the way. If you aren’t a true believer, don’t waste your time trying to answer it. It’s not that we don’t like you, but the Church is the Body of Christ and only Christians are members of it. Mark Dever, pastor of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church once remarked:

If you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, I worry that you might be going to hell.

Naturally he said that with his tongue in his cheek. Pastor Dever was pointing out the importance being a part of a local church; a church where you may fellowship, learn, grow as a believer, and serve the rest of the Body of Christ with the spiritual gifts God has given you.

In spite of Biblical admonitions like this one, a great many Christians do not, in fact, join a local church and many do not even attend one.

Let us not neglect our church meetings, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming back again is drawing near. (Hebrews 10:25 | TLB)

In America, a nation full of churches, on any given Sunday only 20% of its population can be found in church. There is a 40% figure floating around, but recent studies have shown what statisticians refer to as “the halo effect” skews the numbers. In other words, those asked lied when they answered, wanting to appear as church going Christians when in fact they were not. What this tells us is interesting: Christians know they should be in church on Sunday, but they are choosing not to be there.

But while traditional church attendance and membership seem to be going down in America, that isn’t the whole story. Christians may not be in church, but “religious behavior” is rapidly growing within the community of faith. For example, as George Barna found out, Bible reading increased dramatically from 40% to 47% from 2000 to 2006, and the number of Christians reading the Bible continues to grow.

Something else that is interesting is that non-Christians are seeking spiritual realities like never before!  They are looking for God, they just aren’t looking for Him in a church. And Christians are in the same boat: Many are fellowshipping outside of the traditional church in places like people’s homes, or school gymnasiums, or other locations where small groups of believers gather to worship together and learn from the Scriptures, all without being tied to any denomination or no clearly defined leadership structure.

How can this be? How did this happen? It’s easy to blame the church itself, saying the church is full of hypocrites or it’s boring or the pastor’s sermons are irrelevant, or whatever. But there is a problem with Christians and with our culture in general. We just don’t do things together anymore. If you’re like me, and I’m 52, you’ve likely never gone to a weekly bridge game at a neighbor’s house. You probably don’t know what a block party is or what the Welcome Wagon is. We watch TV shows, like The Dick Van Dyke Show, in which Rob and Laura have a close circle of friends who play cards together, take vacations together, eat out together, and raise their kids together. But that was half a century ago; we don’t do a lot of that together anymore. And Christians have come to reflect their culture in this. Here in the West, we’ve rightly come to view Christianity as a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” but we go a little too far with that. Having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” does NOT exclude having a relationship with other believers within the context of a local church. Many Christians don’t understand the number of relationships God has ordained for them through Jesus Christ. We are in a relationship with Him, we should be in a relationship with our pastor, with other members of our local church, with other members in a discipleship-type of thing, we should be in a prayer relationship with our fellow members, as well as an encouragement-kind of relationship our fellows. It’s not up to us to pick-and-choose which relationship to engage in. God wants us in all those relationships and the local church needs you in each relationship.

What it membership means

Maybe it’s because church leaders have done a lousy job of explaining what church membership is, but the fact is, church membership is badly defined and misunderstood. Most Christians understand that they should be members of a church, even if they aren’t, but they really can’t tell you why. Even the Bible doesn’t explain it in a way modern Christians can understand. Beyond that single verse in Hebrews, can you think of a verse that tells you go and join a church? You can’t because there isn’t one.

But in the New Testament, people who belonged to a local church were recognized by the society around them as being Christians, and part of some sort of community within-a-community.

In our time, being a member of this group or that is seen as being part of a club, or a group. So if you are a member, you get certain privileges. But that’s not at all how the Bible talks about church membership. This how Paul viewed being part of a local church:

Our bodies have many parts, but the many parts make up only one body when they are all put together. So it is with the “body” of Christ. Each of us is a part of the one body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But the Holy Spirit has fitted us all together into one body. We have been baptized into Christ’s body by the one Spirit, and have all been given that same Holy Spirit. Yes, the body has many parts, not just one part. If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And what would you think if you heard an ear say, “I am not part of the body because I am only an ear and not an eye”? Would that make it any less a part of the body? Suppose the whole body were an eye-then how would you hear? Or if your whole body were just one big ear, how could you smell anything? But that isn’t the way God has made us. He has made many parts for our bodies and has put each part just where he wants it. What a strange thing a body would be if it had only one part! So he has made many parts, but still there is only one body. (1 Corinthians 12:12 – 20 | TLB)

Some Christians torture 1 Corinthians 12 claiming Paul is referring to the “spiritual body of Christ,” not to any particular, local congregation. But the context in which he wrote these verses clearly refers to local churches (especially the one in Corinth) and how we behave within the local church.  Nowhere does Paul suggest the church is like a body, he says the church IS the Body of Christ. He says that Christians are “members of the body.” He used the word “member” in the medical sense, just like your finger is a “member” of your own body. If you’ve ever lost a finger – sawed it off, for example – we would say you have been “dismembered.” And being dismembered is a terrible and tragic thing. Nobody thinks losing a finger is an unimportant thing. Yet in our culture, Christians who don’t belong to a local church are not seen as dismembered, tragic figures, although they should be.

Church membership, as seen in the Bible, entails three things:

It reflects what the Church is

Membership in a local congregation is a reflection of what the invisible Body of Christ is all about.  Remember that Paul says we are a body. Joining a local church demonstrates a spiritual reality.

The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” (1 Corinthians 12:21 | TLB)

Being a member of the church shows how connected Christians are, not only to Jesus Christ, but also to each other.

The “Lone Ranger Christian” is a myth. And he is an offense to God. Imagine the hubris it takes to think that you, a Christian, can make it without a church to support you? To reject the indispensable nature of church membership is to reject what God has already established as a fact. Christians absolutely need each other, for all kinds of reasons.
A person who claims to be a Christian; who runs around all over town proclaiming his faith, but who is not an active part of a local congregation is a tragic figure who should be viewed with a measure of suspicion. After all, if he can’t be obedient to the Lord in something as simple as being committed to a local church, how real can his commitment to God be?

The Bible teaches Christians are part of a Covenant Community

If you read Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, you’d know that a member of that local church was giving the church some problems. Paul’s solution was a simple one: Kick the guy out.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? [H]and this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 5:1, 2, 5 | NIV)

That’s a covenant relationship, and is only possible between members of a church. Scripture clearly teaches that we become part of the Body of Christ, but also that we may become estranged from it because of our sinful and rebellious behavior. Things like this – church discipline – are part of a covenant that exists between members. It’s how we grow personally and corporately. There’s an accountability factor in church membership that’s essential; so essential it’s one of the reasons for the church’s existence in the first place. We build each other up in our faith; we encourage each other when times are tough; we accept discipline when it’s needed; we gain strength from each other; and together we exemplify the kind of relationship Christ has with us through the covenant relationship we have with each other.

Christians need church membership

Finally, Christians need to belong to the visible Christian community of faith. Not one believer can make it alone. We literally need each other to survive and thrive in our faith. You need to know that I have your back and vice versa. The community of faith needs YOU and YOU need the community of faith as surely as you need the air around you to breath.

When we become born again, we are placed into the Body of Christ. Colossians puts it this way:

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13, 14 | NIV)

This Jesus did for us. Now it’s up to us to show an unbelieving world what happened to us spiritually. By joining a local church, we’re doing just that.

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