Me! A Member?
‘Membership’ can be a funny concept. You can be a member of a golf club, or a swimming club; you can be a member of a political party, or a professional body; you can belong to an Old Boys’ Association – the possibilities are endless. Membership can mean anything from indulging our leisure interests to expressing our political convictions to displaying the measure of our success in work. But what does membership mean when it comes to the church and does it really matter all that much?
To answer that question we might be tempted to think in the first place about either our own church, or other churches that we’ve had links with in the past; but to do that would be to skew our answers and elevate one particular idea of membership above the rest. What we need to do is to go back to the Bible and see what it has to say about this concept and let that shape our understanding of what membership means.
You are the body of Christ
Speaking to the Christians in Corinth Paul says, ‘Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it’ (1 Cor. 12:27). He is drawing a direct parallel with what he has just been saying about our physical bodies and the way they are made up of many ‘members’ (12:12 – the NIV uses the word ‘parts’ but ‘members’ is a more accurate translation). His point is obvious: the human body only makes sense and can function properly when it is comprised of all the bits God gives it. So the church of Christ only makes sense and can only function properly when all those who profess to be Christians live together and function together as God meant them to.
He says much the same thing in an even more striking way in Romans. Spelling out what the gospel means for those who believe it Paul says, ‘Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others’ (Rom. 12:4-5). If we are joined to Christ by faith and through His Holy Spirit, then we are by definition vitally joined to all His blood-bought children. That has huge implications for how we understand ourselves in relation to Christ and to our fellow Christians.
It isn’t enough to say ‘Well, of course that’s true in theory – we have a spiritual oneness in Christ!’ Jesus makes it clear that what is true in theory must be seen in practice. So we are called not only to believe in our heart that Christ is our God-given Saviour, but also to ‘confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord”’ (Rom. 10:9). That means being prepared to stand up and be counted for Christ in a way that shows we are accountable both to God and to our fellow-Christians. Church membership is the natural way to do that.
You belong to one another
We’ve already quoted Paul as saying that if we are Christians we belong to one another (Rom. 12:5). But that thought jars with many people today. Ours is the generation that suffers most from what someone has called, ‘the curse of post-Enlightenment individualism’ – it’s me that matters most! We’ve seen the damage that has done to families, communities and even nations; but the place where it is causing most damage is in the church.
Christians today are reinterpreting salvation to be something purely private and personal, and church as being simply there for my convenience. It’s there for me to get out of it whatever I choose. It’s little wonder that Christians have no scruples about wandering from church to church, or about having a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to what happens in their local congregation. The whole idea of commitment has gone out of the window for many – at least when it goes beyond being committed to themselves.
If we claim to be committed to Christ, Paul is saying, then by definition we must be committed to His people and to playing our part among them. No Christians have the right to hold themselves at arm’s length from their local church fellowship and say they are not needed (1 Cor. 12:14-20), nor has any local church fellowship the right not to accept any true believer (1 Cor. 12:21-26). Christians need each other!
You are entrusted to the care of Christ’s under-shepherds
When he writes to the Ephesians – a letter that is all about the church as God’s new community – Paul speaks about Christ’s gifts to the church (Eph. 4:11). Among the people-gifts he lists ‘pastor-teachers’ – given so that the people of God may be built up in fellowship and equipped for service (Eph. 4:11-13). These men are His under-shepherds: elders who teach and pastor the flock of Christ.
To be a member of the church is to be under the loving care and oversight of elders. They are given for the spiritual welfare of the church: to encourage, comfort, teach and, when necessary, to have the courage to rebuke and correct. To think we don’t need to be in membership is to say in effect, ‘I can go it alone’.
Ian Hamilton has said, ‘The New Testament knows nothing of an unbaptised Christian who is not a member of a local church’ and he is right. If we really are believers, then we ought to profess our faith publicly through membership, not merely for our own personal spiritual well being, but for the good of God’s family as a whole.
Mark Johnston is senior pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.