To be a Christian means to belong to a local church.
As you read that sentence, you likely had one of a handful of responses. You may have thundered a hearty “Amen!” in your head. You may have dismissed the notion with disagreement or indifference. Or, and maybe most commonly, you wanted to define some of the terms. What does “belong” really mean? How do we define “local” with a God who is everywhere? Are we talking big “C” Church or little “c” church? The notion of church membership brings about some questions. We want to take the time here to answer three questions that are common hurdles to seeing the value of church membership.
Is Church Membership Biblical?
Church membership is biblical. We have to start here because we hold the Bible to be our final authority in all matters. Now, full disclosure, you will not find the words “church membership” anywhere in Scripture. It’d be wonderful if Jesus had given us a nice “thou shalt join a local church,” but He didn’t. However, there is enough evidence of church membership littered throughout the New Testament that we can confidently say it is God’s prescription for His people.
For instance, in Hebrews 13:17, the writer tells his audience, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.” There are two big questions here. First, what leaders were they (and we) to obey? Second, who are these leaders accountable for? An interpretation that concludes all leaders are to be followed by everyone, and all people are their responsibility, would be outrageous. These verses are best applied through the lens of local church membership. Believers are meant to live in respect of the leaders in their local church, and pastors are accountable only for those belonging to the church where they lead. This is why Peter didn’t tell the elders to shepherd all the flocks, but to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you.”
The establishment of church leaders shepherding in a set context is just one of the shreds of evidence we see in Scripture for church membership. We also see the church gathered together (Acts 2:42-47, 1 Cor. 11:18, 14:26-40,) the church practicing discipline (1 Cor. 5, Mt. 18:15-19, 1 Tim. 5:19-20), and the installation and function of church leadership (Acts 6:1-6, Acts 15, 1 Pet. 5:1-5). Individual churches were also grouped for accountability purposes (Gal. 1:1-7, Rev. 2 & 3). Most of Paul’s letters addressed congregations in a local church setting to encourage and instruct the body. For these reasons and more, we can heartily hold that church membership is biblical.
Is Church Membership Burdensome?
A second common concern for those mulling church membership is the intimidation of both the requirements and the responsibilities entailed. Many believe church membership is reserved for the elite or “varsity” Christians, and they feel inadequate to meet the demands. Regarding requirements, the personal expectations for an individual to take membership at church are twofold--faith and baptism. A person must have a faith rooted in the Gospel, a personal relationship with Jesus in which they’ve repented of sin, and professed Jesus as Lord and Savior. A person must have also followed the command to be baptized. While these are the only two requirements for membership, at City of God we do our due diligence to flesh them out a bit and confirm them. There is a mandatory membership class that allows both parties, the church, and the applying member, to get acquainted. Then there is an elder interview to confirm membership and a signed covenant to lock it into place. The interview provides elders a chance to examine the faith and the gifts of a person, while the covenant completes a pact that both the City of God and members agree to uphold.
So, what are the expectations or responsibilities of a church member?
- It is expected that members will attend worship services regularly for corporate praise and prayer with our body.
- Members are expected to practice communion regularly. This is not just the physical partaking of the Lord’s supper on Sunday, but also the advised examination of one’s relationship with God and others before doing so.
- At City of God we expect members to regularly attend member’s meetings and take part in church matters and decisions.
- We ask members to be regular in prayer. We want members to be in prayer for our church, our leaders, our members, and our mission.
- We ask our members to regularly give to the church to meet the needs of others and fuel the mission of the church locally and beyond.
- We expect members to pursue harmony and peace among the church regarding doctrine. While there’s room for disagreement between members and the church’s statement of faith, it is expected that differences will not lead to division.
Are these high expectations for membership? Absolutely. Are the expectations suitable for all who call themselves a Christian? Absolutely. The parameters lined out here should be expected outcomes for all those who love Jesus and are pursuing a walk with Him.
Is Church Membership Beneficial?
As you may have noticed, we typically use the term “covenant” when talking about church membership. This intentionally conveys the idea of a relationship. When becoming a member, you are committing yourself to the local church and the local church to you. You are committing to pray for, encourage, care for, and minister to your fellow members and leaders. Similarly, the church and its leaders commit to taking watch over your discipleship and development in your faith. While the benefits of church membership are many, you can typically break them into three distinct categories.
Your church and its leaders commit to growing you in your faith, helping you find your gifts, and plugging you in to your role in the body. The church and its leaders are responsible for your growth and maturation and commit to helping you grow in your faith.
When you’re a member of a church, you now have the oversight of a team of elders who will pray for you, care for you, and work to protect you from error and false teaching. This often will come as laying down defense against outside influences, but it is also a commitment to call you to repentance if your walk goes out of step with the gospel. As a member, it should be an encouragement, not a deterrent, that the pastors care so much for you and the flock that they would remove you from fellowship before they tolerate your unrepentant sin.
The church isn’t just working to raise you in your faith to sit on it, but rather to send you out to serve in ministry and share the Gospel with others. The church is committed to helping you fulfill the Great Commission.
In a world that is increasingly pushing independence and autonomy, church membership calls us to come together, let each other in, and corporately seek God alongside one another. A call to such a commitment isn’t always comely. Most everyone wants a wedding, but few want a marriage. But the Christian life is meant to be done in the context of community. To experience this fully, and to do this, biblically, is to do so within the covenant of local church membership.