Why Membership?

Recently, I have been having some conversations with some people about the issue of church membership. Specifically, the questions have been revolving around what membership really is and why it’s important.
For a full assessment of our church’s position on membership, you should check out our Starting Point Class, but here are a few thoughts for today.

New Testament Membership

Let’s start with what the New Testament means by membership:

  • In the New Testament, membership referred to anyone who was living in willful submission to a local body of believers. It was assumed that such people would be also living as “disciples” according to the teaching of Jesus which means it was also assumed that these people had made a personal affirmation of their faith in Jesus, had repented of sins, and had been baptized in response to both. It’s clear from Paul’s letters that he assumes these things are true about all the people in any group called a church.
  • In the New Testament, there is only one kind of church. Each city only had one group of Jesus-following believers and one group of Jesus-following leaders. It was partially the job of the leaders to make sure false teachers and other dissenters were publicly identified as being “false” so that the integrity of the one church would be maintained.
  • Finally, because of persecution, it was very easy to figure out who was “in” and who was “out.” If you were brave enough to meet with other Christians, you must be a Jesus follower and therefore “in” (or nearly so), but if you weren’t actively meeting with other Christians, you were “out.” In other words, because of the reality of persecution, church attendance was proof that you were a follower of Jesus.

Therefore, in the New Testament, all people could be classified into three groups: not yet members (the unrepentant / unbaptized / unbelievers who may or may not show up at a church meeting), the members (the repentant, baptized believers who were committed to regular fellowship and sharing of their gifts), and the former members (those who left or who were asked to leave the fellowship).

Modern Day

Now, if we look at our world today, we see a number of ways we are different from the New Testament:

  • The New Testament knows nothing about a believer who is not a repentant, baptized, disciple of Jesus. These were considered baseline prerequisites.
  • The New Testament knows nothing about a believer who is not in submission to a local church.
  • The New Testament knows nothing about a regular church-goer who is not a believer.
  • In today’s world, we have all of the above. We have people who claim to be believers but have never actually repented of sin or been baptized, and we have many, many people who claim to be believers but do not actually live the life of a disciple.
  • In today’s world, we have people who claim to be believers but who bounce from church to church or who quit church completely, never actually living in submission to any spiritual authority. If they don’t like what one leader says, they will simply move to a different leader, or reject all spiritual authority completely.
  • Also, in today’s world, we do church so well, and Christianity is so accepted that we have people who fully participate in a church without actually being disciples of Jesus the way he taught. Some people find a sense of spiritual fulfillment by going through the motions of church. Some people find significance or influence by being part of a church. Some people are simply entertained by what happens on Sundays. But because there is no persecution for church attendance, we have many who attend church even though they don’t believe it enough to have it change their lives.

So “Membership”

It’s because our spiritual/cultural context is different from the days of the New Testament that we have an official relationship we call “membership” in our church.

  • Modern day membership makes it clear that church attendance is not what Jesus wants. Jesus wants disciples. Membership allows us to specify what we believe Jesus means when he says “follow me” or what he means when he uses the word “disciple.”
  • Modern day membership makes clear and explicit the relationships that Christians are to have with each other. There is the relationship of community and love we have toward each other, there is the relationship of mutual commitments to serve each other and to serve WITH each other, and there is also the relationship of submission that we all should have toward our leaders. Our church is a “member” of Converge for this same reason. Christians are all called to be in submission to spiritual authority, including pastors and churches!
  • Therefore, membership is the modern day church’s way of keeping the values of the New Testament alive in our current culture.

Final Thoughts

Many churches these days are honorably trying to buck the modern day trends. One approach taken is to actually kick people out of their worship gatherings if they don’t think the person is Christian enough. However, our approach is different. We kind of accept the fact that there will always be people who participate in our church who might not be willing to make the full commitment of discipleship, and we allow that. Specifically, we believe that by allowing them to see what we are really all about, they will be able to build relationships and eventually be led to make a discipleship commitment themselves.
Nevertheless, the time is coming for us to raise the bar on what it really means to follow Jesus, and we are doing that through our stronger emphasis on membership and our stronger emphasis on coaching.
I would love it if everyone who went to church was actually a disciple and I would love it if everyone who claimed to be a disciple was actually part of a church, but since that isn’t the reality, we choose to use words like “membership” to identify simply what the Jesus and his disciples meant by their word “disciple.”

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