Sunday, May 27, 2012

What is the purpose of church membership ?

Membership has been on my mind lately. At the business meeting on Sunday, Dennis and Debby Erickson were welcomed into membership and given the right hand of fellowship. Recently, as we work to revise the bylaws, the deacons and I spent a great deal of time thinking about membership, and the question comes up. Why join a church? Seriously? At most churches, you can do almost anything that a member can do, other than vote, and serve as the senior leaders. We even have a term in the bylaws for attending non-members – friends of First Baptist. Church membership for all practical purposes seems meaningless to many people. Why should a person become a member, when they can have all of the “benefits” without membership? Since I have not taught on this, and that means we have not talked about this in any significant way together for 4 years, let me give you one reason not to join, and five reasons to join.

Why you should not join. You should not join if you think of church membership as a club membership. The church is not the rotary, or the lions, or a country club, where you can pop in and out as it pleases you, and “if you pay, you get to stay and enjoy the benefits”. It’s not like that; when you become a part of his church, there is a level of commitment that is expected of members in the church. This may fly in the face of our individualistic self absorbed culture, where you are the consumer of everything, including church, but so be it. The church is something far greater than a club or a consumer item, the church is the body of Christ, His divinely created institution, which exists to present the gospel and bring him glory as it furthers His kingdom. To be part of that is to be committed to serve and take part of the life of the church in this place, and to accountable to your brothers and sisters in this place. This is part of the reason we have covenant vows that we recite. We are affirming together our commitments that we have made to God and each other. Is it grateful, joyful commitment flowing out as a response to the gospel? By all means! But it is a commitment, with all that the word commitment implies.

Now, five reasons to join a church.

First, because Jesus established and loves the church. Matthew tells us that Jesus established the church. He sends out his disciples, who establish the church, his new people, who make disciples and baptize his people into his church, but in the end, it is his church that he is building. An old church father once wrote, no man can have God as his father and not have the church as his mother. Why would he say that? Because Christ established the church, and loves the church. he loves her so much he died to establish her Ephesians 5 tells us that “he loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Second, because the language of body implies that no one is rootless. When you join a church, you putting down roots in this place, in this local expression of the church that Jesus established and loves. This is the expectation of the Bible. There is no expectation in scripture of Christians who are not members of a local church. The very word that we use, members, is rooted in the idea that you are part of one body, the church. When you look at 1Corinthians 12-14, Paul repeatedly uses the word member as he gives the analogy of the body to describe the church. What’s the implication of this, John Piper notes that “The implication of this is that local church then—not just the global church, but the local church—is a body. The reason we know it's local and not just global is because, while in Ephesians 1 and Colossians he talks about Christ as the head of the body, in 1 Corinthians 12 he's talking about a head with eyes and ears that are members of the body. So, the body analogy has a global meaning, and it has a local meaning. There's global membership in the body universal, and there's local membership in the body where you and I serve as the finger or eye or ear or foot. 

Third, to serve and worship and be devoted to the people in this kingdom outpost. When you pick a church and settle in, you are committing to worship and serve with a group of people, as a family. You are saying, “I will come and hear the word of God preached, and take the ordinances with these people”. But more than that, “I will take part in the work of God that is done through this place. I will pray faithfully, I will serve diligently.” That may mean on a ministry team like Christian Ed or Trustee’s (where you can serve as a non-member), or it may mean that God calls you to some of those leadership positions where you do need to be a member (for example, only members may serve as part of the deacons). But being a member is about more than service, being a member also means that you are deciding to devote yourself to these people (Romans 12:10, Acts 2:42). It means that you commit to walk alongside one another, as part of this body, bearing one another in love (Galatians 5:13, 6:2 Ephesians 4:2).

Fourth, for accountability to a church body and in submission to spiritual authority. This main advantage to being a member. By joining a church, you have an increased sense of accountability. You have brothers and sisters in Christ, and a pastor, calling you to accountability, reminding you of what God’s word teaches, and calling you to live in light of your calling as his people. Understand, Jesus established the church to be a public, earthly institution that would mark out, affirm, and oversee those who profess to believe in him (Matthew 16:18-19, 18:15-20). It is only here that you are able to be obedient to the command of scriptures to submit to a spiritual leader (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13),and it is only here that redemptive church discipline is done.

This is where the rubber meets the road. Membership seems to be at the very core of church discipline. In 1 Corinthians 5, we see the crazy story of a man who is sleeping with his stepmother, and Paul says that this man should be put out of the church because he is in proud, open, unrepentant sin, and is resistant to any kind of exhortation. Here’s the question, how do you put him out? If he’s just an attendee, he can say, who are you to say? You can’t tell me what I can and can’t do! You can’t put me out I'm not in anything! Membership is a way of submitting yourself to be accountable to a body of believers, who can lovingly call you to live for the glory of God, push you to greater service and faithfulness, and at times, exercise redemptive discipline (I say redemptive because the story in continues in 2 Corinthians, as the man put out in 1 Corinthians repents and in 2 Corinthians Paul says, let him come back).

Fifth, as a witness to the world around. The church was established to publicly declare those who belong to him in order to give the world a display of the good news about himself (John 17:21, 23; Ephesians 3:10). 9 Marks (probably Mark Dever but not credited to him) points out that "Jesus wants the world at large to know, they are with me, they belong to me. Through the church he is saying, this is what my people look like. And how will they know, who does and doesn’t belong to him? They are to see those who have publicly identify themselves with his people in the visible, public institution he established for this very purpose. They’re to look at the members of his church. And if some people claim to be part of the universal church even though they belong to no local church, they reject Jesus’ plan for them and his church. Jesus intends for his people to be marked out as a visible, public group, which means joining together in local churches".

Now, here’s my final thought. There is no direct command, “thou shalt join a church”. I used to say, it’s just practical, someone has to get a say. The more I read the Bible, the more I realize how wrong I was. Jesus established the church, and loved the church. The expectation is that if you are worshiping in a place, if God has led you here, that you should plug in and join as members, worship consistently, serve faithfully, and be devoted to the body that God has placed you in.

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