We are in the middle of our current membership class, and we are thankful that so many have taken the step to investigate and, Lord willing, pursue membership. It’s therefore a great time to consider church membership – is it a biblical thing? Why have it?
1. Because it pictures the blessed rule of Christ over his people, in an alternate society of peace – an outpost of heaven. That’s a mouthful, but it’s crucial that we start with the fact that membership is not about you or me, nor is it about the church. It’s about God, for God. The reason why we need the gospel in the first place is because in the Garden mankind fell into sin, because our first father and mother stepped out from underneath the rule of Christ, and wanted to be self-ruled. Thus the gospel redeems us back to the rule of Christ. The church therefore serves as a living parable to the world of the blessedness of King Jesus’ rule. And membership is how we say to the world, “I’m living intentionally, joyfully, under His rule, with these other people.” (Matt. 5:13; John 13:34-35; Eph. 3:10; 1 Peter 2:9-12)
2. Membership marks out for the elders – those God has called to shepherd His people – who they will give an account for, in the end. It does not seem reasonable that the elders will be required to give an account in the same way for every kind of person that darkens our church doors. So then, there needs to be some marking out of the sheep that God has entrusted to the elders. The elders are commanded to shepherd the flock of God “among you” – 1 Peter 5:2. Membership marks out those people.
3. Membership marks out for people which elders they should bring themselves under, for shepherding. Look at Hebrews 13:7 & 17. Christians are to place themselves under local elders for their own benefit. Too many Christians in our coun- try are malnourished and ineffective in their faith because they are not churchmen – they’re flitters. They’re church butterflies, flitting in and out, from church to church, but never placing their roots into nourishing soil, never receiving nourishment from God- appointed brothers, and never enjoying nourishment from a web of Spirit-filled rela- tionships of other committed members. Membership places us into that trellis, so that the vine of our soul can grow.
4. Church membership marks out who is the “us” of our church. This is dead obvious, but so important. Because the church is its people. Better put – the church is A Person, Christ, and all who are united to Him, by the Spirit. And membership marks out who are those people here. And it marks out to ourselves that we are Christ’s priests, to serve with care and authority and generosity in His temple, the church. There are other ways that one might “mark” this, I suppose. But membership, as we practice it, is in my estimation, the most useful and appropriate. Because of the above reasons, and because . . .
5. It’s biblical. Church membership is implied in Acts 6, when the church elders asked those in the congregation to choose from “among yourselves” seven men to solve a problem. How would they have known who could vote? They had some way of determining membership. It is also implied earlier in Acts, when it says that many were “added to their number” (Acts 2:47) – not just a turn of phrase, but evidence that there was a specific “number” – the people being added were marked out. In those days, largely by baptism, but even then, there was an ongoing system of membership.
6. Membership establishes in advance a structure for church discipline. Church discipline is one of the means by which God keeps His people until the end. Those who stray are not lost. God brings discipline through the elders and the con- gregation, so that the errant sibling returns. Church discipline is primarily therefore for redemption, not punishment. Painful? It can be. But worth it, considering what’s at stake. So membership places folks within that structure in advance, and sets the terms of it in advance. This is out of simple loving courtesy, but it also establishes in advance what everyone should expect to receive or engage in, when one of us wanders unrepentantly.
7. Membership gives simple structure to the church’s efforts. I mentioned above a “trellis”, and that metaphor is the best I can think of for membership. Like plants, we humans thrive best when there is a structure and an order that is predeter- mined to result in our thriving and flourishing. Top to bottom, that’s what membership is for. Lastly, note the balance of the structure: on the one hand, it takes seriously the role of elders “ruling” in the center, while at the same time pushes power and respon- sibility out from the center, to the people of the congregation. And it keeps all of us pointed always at the Head, Christ.