Our church plant will be receiving new members soon and then will officially “organize” as a congregation in April. Over the last several days I’ve had more questions from individuals in our midst about why we do this formal process called “church membership” where people make vows before elders and the congregation, have their names put on our membership roll, and to distinguish such members from those who might be committed to Hill City but have yet to become members.
I’ve been asked, “Is church membership biblical?” “Aren’t I a member through my participation and service?” “What practical benefits are there to church membership?”
The issue of biblical warrant isn’t terribly difficult to establish. Scripture speaks of both the church universal and the local church (and by extension, our need to be a part of both). We are to submit to leaders with authority in the local church. (Heb 13:17; Which leaders of which church should I submit to?) Elders are to shepherd Christians “under their care”. (1 Peter 5:1-5; Which Christians are under their particular care?) Church discipline presupposes church membership. (1 Cor 5:1-12; How is someone cast “out” if they weren’t “in” to begin with?) God has numbered his church (Acts 2:37-47), and he has his own Book of Life with names in it. (Phil 4:3; Rev 3:5; 13:8) Even widows were put on special lists. (1 Tim 5:9-12)
However, I want to give three reasons which point to the beauty of church membership.
1. Making Vows
Most formal processes of church membership include the making of vows before church leadership and/or the congregation. Our own denomination has seven questions that members must assent to in making vows (their belief in Jesus, that the Bible is God’s Word, to submit to the elders, to promote the peace and unity of the church, etc.).
Vowmaking is something we see done on special occasions such as weddings or the swearing in of a politician. Regarding weddings, many in our culture see the practice of vows and stating formal promises (and, in the end, signing a piece of paper) to be meaningless and not a true picture of love between two parties.
Yet, as Tim and Kathy Keller point out in The Meaning of Marriage, the cultural critique of “that piece of paper” to validate love between two people demonstrates a shallow view of love that is based purely on feeling. The Bible’s primary meaning of love is not how many romantic thrills one has but rather how much is one willing to sacrifice for the other. Cohabitation is safe in the sense that if the other person doesn’t suit your needs (sexual, personal) then you can cut your losses. But that “piece of paper” and the act of promising is a deeper sense of love where one promises to love in the future, not just the present. The wedding vows themselves shape us and keep us committed even on our worse days. Marriage commits us to a covenantal love that is permanent over a consumer love that is temporary.
Church membership versus mere committed attendance seems analogous to marriage versus cohabitation. To remain “committed” but never wanting to “go all the way” seems to betray a shallow love for the church where hurt feelings means one is a step away from going to the church across town. What is one’s posture towards the local church on our worse days? Do we owe a local church our future love? Do we miss out on making vows and having such covenanting shape us in how we love Jesus and his Bride?
Just as wedding vows are made before God and before one’s partner, church membership vows are both vertical and horizontal, and they are beautiful.
2. Going After the Lost Sheep
Elders are known as undershepherds in most churches. This means that just as God, being Israel’s Shepherd-King in the Old Testament, exercises both rule and protection/nourishment for his people, elders are to rule and protect the flock as servant-leaders.
The Great Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, is the one that elders should imitate in their calling. In John 10, we see that Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, and in Luke 15:3-7, the faithful shepherd goes after even the one lost sheep. This means that elders have the blessed responsibility to sacrificially lead those under their care and to even go after lost sheep who might be headed towards a cliff.
I recently spoke with a Pastor who told me a scenario where a family that had been going through a particular sin problem had moved away. Their membership remained with their original church until they would transfer to a new church. This family continued to struggle and never found a church home in their new city.
Eventually, the sin problem in the family got worse. The Pastor and his elders at this family’s home church found out about the situation. They spent the other day in prayer and fasting for this family even though they were several hours and several hundred miles away.
It is difficult to imagine elders staying that committed to a troubled family who had never committed themselves to the church or made vows expressing their desire to submit to the shepherding ministry of the church. These elders had received vows from this family, and that is why even on tough days they feel the obligation to shepherd this family.
Think also about this. While frequent attendance at a church might be a sign of good will, the individual may cease worshipping for a long season and then worship at another church without much shepherding or accountability. However, if the individual is a church member, they can’t just get up and walk away from the church. If they begin worshipping at another church, the elders there will contact the elders at the individual’s previous church to see what their spiritual state is and how to best shepherd them. It’s like when you make vows to one local church, other local churches will hold you accountable to such vows as well.
3. Preserving Integrity
Just as a signed piece of paper and a wedding band gives one a sense of integrity when dealing with members of the opposite sex, church membership helps preserve our integrity. Whenever there is an issue of sin or some other serious discipleship issue, the church member has an extra motivation to submit to godly leadership. This is especially true in cases of divorce. With only a handful of biblical scenarios where it is permissible for someone to divorce their spouse, the oversight of elders preserves the integrity of those involved in these messy situations.
Let’s say a woman is married to an abusive man. Perhaps such abuse is physical, verbal, or even financial. The wife goes through the process of Matthew 18, eventually bringing her husband before the church itself so that he might repent. There is no repentance, so the church (through the authority of elders) declares the husband to be regarded as a gentile/tax collector (Matt 18:17), and they also grant the woman to divorce her unbelieving husband who, for all intents and purposes, has deserted her (1 Cor 7:15).
This woman might move to a different city and wish to transfer her membership to another church. The elders at this church know this woman has been divorced, and they need to be faithful and know what happened. Instead of these elders digging into this woman’s past and uncovering many painful details, the woman’s previous church would have their elders write a letter on behalf of this woman stating that she was the innocent party in a biblical divorce and that she is free to remarry and be in good standing in the local church. Such a simple process is a beautiful ministry to this woman as it testifies to the connectional nature of Christ’s church.
Church membership is biblical, but it is also beautiful. It is so beautiful that even if one is unsure about its biblical necessity, there are more reasons to engage in church membership than to stay on the sidelines in cohabitating with a church.