Church membership is a concept that some people really struggle with. I’ve had more than a couple conversations where someone has slid a Bible across my desk and wanted me to show them where membership was mentioned in the Bible.
When I tell them that this magic-bullet verse doesn’t exist, they want to know how I can still support this unbiblical idea.
Does God expect you to join a church?
As you read through Acts and the epistles, you see a church in its infancy. As the church expands, a small number of disciples are overseeing its growth and trying to keep order—all while raising funds. It still lacks a lot of structure.
As people make decisions to follow Jesus in the first century, they’re expected to enter into the life of the church and leaders are directed to watch over them:
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.—Hebrews 13:17
The writer of Hebrews presupposes that new believers are entering into a special relationship. Submitting to leadership indicates a unique kind commitment between a parishioner and an overseer. Even the idea that someone would have to give account for how they’ve cared you is a sign that the relationship isn’t completely casual.
In the beginning, people ended up members of their local congregation. There wasn’t a bunch of churches to choose from. They were part of the local body where they lived: the church at Ephesus, the church at Galatia, etc. This makes the submission issue pretty simple. Either you follow the local leadership or you were put out of the church until you were willing to.
Membership is about commitment
Things are considerably different today. I can go to the church near my house, and at any time and for any reason, leave and go to a different church down the street. The only thing that keeps me in a church is my desire to attend.
But Christians aren’t intended to operate as a bunch of antonymous, consumeristic nomads. And it can be really difficult to care for and nurture people in a culture where commitment is completely ethereal.
Pastoring is all about permission. A pastor isn’t really pastoring everyone who attends. There are people there who have made the decision in their heart that the minister can lead them, and others who have not. But how is the shepherd to know who is their sheep and who isn’t?
For that matter, how does a church body know who is a devoted member of their congregation and who is just on an extra-long sabbatical?
Membership is a tool that can truly help.
Through membership I make a proclamation that:
1. This is my church
You would think that going to church regularly should be enough to communicate your commitment. But there’s something that happens in us when we actually stand up in front of God and everyone and say, “I am dedicated to this community.”
It’s the difference between living with someone and marrying them.
2. I agree with their beliefs
Most people that attend a church don’t really have any idea what their church believes about different doctrinal issues. The membership process is a great way to discover what beliefs are most important to these worshipers—and what you truly believe.
3. We’re committed to supporting each other
Membership isn’t about simply agreeing to some theological principles and pledging yourself to a church building. You’re telling this community that you’re there for them. Their concerns are your concerns. Their needs your needs.
In turn, they’re there to support and encourage you, too!
4. I trust the church leadership to help mature me
This is probably the biggest sticking point for most people considering membership. The idea that people can meddle in our lives isn’t a very popular in our culture. In our culture, we don’t want someone poking around in our business.
Christianity isn’t simply about regular quiet times and listening to sermons. It’s about opening up our lives and inviting spiritually mature people in to encourage, edify, and empower us to live more dynamically. This requires vulnerability and mutual submission.
Membership doesn’t save us
Joining a church isn’t a salvific act, but being committed to a community of faith is integral to our spiritual growth. Membership might not be prescribed biblically, but it’s a powerful step in a transformational direction.