You are a professional football player, but you are not signed by a team. Waiting in free agency, no one picks you up.
You complete medical school, but do not take boards or receive a license from the state.
In both of these situations your professional status is murky. There is training and skill, but no actual connection to or acknowledgement by the governing body of your profession.
I put these two scenarios forward as I think about church membership. Every analogy breaks down in some respects but these two examples help push back against a highly individualized approach to Christian spirituality that comes so easily. This is a brief overview that I’m going to use as part of our membership process at Grace. I’d encourage you to read a wonderfully written and more thorough treatment “Re-membering the Body.”
What is church membership? Church membership then is a formalization of a relationship between a church and an individual (or family) with certain privileges and obligations explicitly laid out or at least implied.
The “church” is of incredible significance in the bible. Jesus deliberately gathered followers around himself, connected them to each other,1 imparted his authority to them,2 and set the expectation that they would establish defined communities of faith as his representatives in this world.3 When the first Christians begin following Jesus in his mission they establish churches4 and then establish leaders in these communities of faith, giving them a distinct shape.5
Underlying the significance of the church is the Bible’s understanding of salvation in which someone with faith in Christ is united to him spiritually and thereby united to all those who also have faith in Christ.6
Three ways to argue for formal membership:
1. Lists: In the bible there are various references7 to names written in God’s book of life. It is a way of describing those who belong to him and gives the concept of a membership roll. There is a distinct list, as it were, of those who are God’s people. I think it is an arguable corollary that churches should have some sense of who belongs to the people of God. While this will not perfectly reflect the “heavenly list” we should try. If the means of knowing who belongs is not some process of membership, what is it? I think of the progress of the gospel recorded in Acts where new believers are “added to the number”8 (i.e. the church) lines up with the biblical concept of a defined membership.
2. Leadership: There are clear instructions to leaders to watch over those whom God has entrusted to their care9 and for all in the church to honor and follow their leaders10. How is this possible without some defined sense of who the church is? Furthermore, if there is to be any practice of discipline, as Jesus expects11 and the early church carries out12, this necessitates some type of membership which can, as a last resort, be rescinded.
3. Love: While Christians have a broad and far reaching command to love there is meant to be a particular focus on fellow Christians.13 Membership in an actual church gives further clarity to this command as Christians consider their responsibility to adequately fulfill their responsibilities to God and not pass them off to others14.
There is a compelling biblical rationale for church membership. Practically though, there are many questions both practical and deeply personal…
-What if I don’t find a church that I “fit with” in my community?
-I’ve experienced church leaders misusing their authority, isn’t church membership a veiled attempt to control people?
-I have faith in Jesus. My name is written in his book of life and I belong to his universal church. How can some person corroborate this reality? Why do I need him or her to do so?
*These arguments draw on the article from the article by Henegar as well as writings from Rev. Preston Graham, Dr. TD Gordon and a pronouncement from our denomination the Presbyterian Church in America.
1. Matthew 10:1-5
2. Matthew 16:19
3. Matthew 28:18-20
4. Acts 5, 8, 9, 13ff
5. Acts 13: 1 Timothy 2:
6. 1 Cor 12:27, 1 Peter 2:4-10
7. Exodus 32:32-33; Daniel 12:1; Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Revelation 13:8; 20:12,15
8. Acts 2:41,47; 6:7;
9. 1 Peter 5:2
10. Heb 13: 7, 17
11. Mat 18:15-18
12. 1 Cor 5:2 and 2 Cor 2:6-7
13. John 13:35, Gal 6:10
14. Gal 6:2,5 1 Tim 5:9