Church membership is often a sticky subject. So naturally, when we encourage people to take our Identity class and a requirement for membership - the question gets asked, why membership?
I think there are two concerns behind the question.
The first is that membership is not a biblical concept. The thought is that if a subject does not appear in the Bible than it is either not a biblical concept or that the Bible has nothing to say about it. Therefore, one does not need to be a member of a church in order to honor God. Membership then is a foreign idea to faithful Christianity and thus not required but just traditional "religion."
There are a lot of subjects the Bible does not appear to talk about - dating for example. But to conclude the Bible has nothing profitable to say about it is to read it very narrowly. This usually is a statement from ignorance, not from careful study. Additionally, what we believe and do as Christians is also the result of 2000 years of believers' experience of salvation in Christ. There is 2000 years of material of believers who have wrestled with the implications of the gospel. Good theology draws the implications of the gospel not just from the Bible but from the history of the church.
Careful examination of the New Testament reveals the first Christians clearly knew who was a part of the church and who was not (Acts 20, Eph 2, 1 Cor 12, 1 Tim 3). When Paul refers to the "whole church" the leaders must have had a way of knowing if everyone was there or not and whether they were a real member (1 Cor. 14:23). Numerous passages that give commands to how all people should be treated also include language that says, "especially among those of the household of faith," (Gal. 6:10). Passages that talk about expelling someone due to egregious sin must have been formal members who were expected to live otherwise (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5). The reality is, in the New Testament, there is no such thing as a Christian who is not a member of a local church. In the early church after the New Testament was written, they probably became more strict about membership not less, especially in times of persecution since some members sold others out to protect themselves. The question was whether someone who denied Christ and betrayed fellow believers to death could be received back into the church. Suffice to say, it required some serious repentance and reconciliation. The bottom line is to not participate in the life of a body of believers is to not participate in the life of the head of the church, Jesus Christ. God has ordained that Christ operates by his Spirit through the local church. Being a member of a local church is part of what it means to be faithful to God.
The second objection is a fear - a fear that membership is a means of controlling people or of being legalistic and imposing a certain way of living the Christian life on others. Some people I have known object to membership because they have simply been burned by other churches or believers. They do not want to be hurt and they do not want someone to lack grace in helping them with their own temptations and struggles. This is where I think the obligation of pastors, elders, leaders within the church to care for the flock well, to serve people with love, grace, truth, and mercy is imperative (1 Pet. 5). It is not to "lord it over them." It is not to control church members but to be a vehicle for helping people experience freedom and love in Christ. I think some fear that if they are not a member they will experience more grace in their battles with sin than if they were a member and accountable to other people. They won't be vulnerable to being judged and criticized. Sometimes sheep bite and they bite hard. Some of these concerns are legitimate but to abandon community for fear of being wounded comes with the price of abandoning love which requires community.
Biblically, the lone ranger Christian is not better off but worse off. To commit oneself to a body of believers is actually to have greater access to God's grace through his Spirit among his people. In the Old Testament the greatest form of judgment was to be "cut off" from the covenant people of God (Gen. 17:14; Lev. 7:27; and many others). In the New Testament Paul speaks of believers leaving the body has being "handed over to Satan" (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 5:20). The reality is, if you want help to grow in your faith and experience more help and grace in your battle with sin, the best thing to do is to commit to being a member of a local church. We all need community and we can't just have any community. We need a community that embodies the faith, hope, and love of Jesus.
Membership then is simply to admit you need others to help be a better disciple of Jesus. It is to formally commit and covenant with God and others to love him and people better. It is to admit you cannot do it on your own and you need a place to find mercy, grace, freedom, and love in Christ. Membership is important then for us to be unified body of believers, to be a faithful people, to submit ourselves to others as we submit ourselves to Christ. Membership is therefore not something foreign to the Bible, but something that couldn't be more biblical.
For more helpful articles on this subject check out the following links:
- Pastor Chris