So my last three posts – When it’s Not Okay to Leave Your Church, When it’s Okay to Leave Your Church, and What to do if You’re Unhappy at Your Church – all started with a basic presupposition: church membership is important.
But there is an ever-increasing number of Jesus-loving people who don’t share that view. And it makes perfect sense that if you don’t value church membership, you are less inclined to feel like loyalty to your church (or any church, for that matter), is a biblical hill to die on.
In fact, one of my readers was brave and honest enough to just say what a lot of you may be thinking:
“These last three blogs seem like a whole lot of agonizing over a non-issue to me. If a church is not for you, move on. End of story. And no, don’t feel sad or guilty about it. There aren’t thousands of separate churches. There is one true Church (as in body of Christ that we commit to), and all the separate institutions are just parts of the whole. If you don’t like your building, go to another. Loyalty to a bad/mediocre/not for you church is just silly.”
I so appreciate this comment because it clued me in to the fact that I shouldn’t assume we all value church membership. And we must value membership before we can talk about persevering in our commitments to our churches.
So, why is church membership important? After all, church membership isn’t even in the Bible…
Or is it?
It’s true, you can search for the word “membership” all day long and not find it in the Bible. But if we stop and look at Paul’s letters and other New Testament writings, we find commitment to a local church commanded ad nauseum.
Each letter Paul wrote was to a local church body – at Rome, at Corinth, at Galatia, at Ephesus, at Philippi, at Colossae, at Thessalonica. And in talking to these individual churches, Paul stresses things like unity (Ephesians 4:3, Philippians 2:1-4, Colossians 3:14) and each believer using his spiritual gifts to build up the body (1 Corinthians 12:7, Ephesians 4:12). He emphasizes serving one another (Galatians 5:13) and sacrificing personal freedoms in order to see to the best interests of others (1 Corinthians 9:12, 10:32). Paul commands Roman believers to “be devoted to one another in love,” and to, “Honor one another above yourselves,” (Romans 12:10).
New Testament books written by other people speak to the same topics as well as to believers in local church bodies submitting to church authority figures (Acts 16:4, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:5).
In other words, the majority of the New Testament is about how to do church in the lowercase c sense. And when all the lowercase churches do church the way Paul and others tell them to, the uppercase Church – as in the body of Christ all believers are committed to – is freed up to accomplish its God-given responsibilities to spread the good news about Jesus and to help believers grow in their understanding of Jesus.
Without committing to a local church body – and by that I mean doing more than filling a pew anonymously on some Sunday mornings – how do we live like the New Testament tells us to? When we church hop and/or fly under the radar of church authority by not committing to a local church (which our culture calls “becoming a church member”), it’s hard to be held accountable to live our lives according to the Bible. We have no community context in which to live out the New Testament commands.
If we leave our churches when our preferences aren’t met, how is that being devoted to one another or honoring others above ourselves or sacrificing personal freedoms for the benefit of others?
If we leave our churches every time the Elders make a decision we don’t particularly care for, how is that submitting to their God-given authority?
If we leave our churches every time we have a disagreement with other believers, how is that working toward unity?
If we aren’t committed to our church, who’s going to help us see when we are erring in our ways?
What’s more, it’s difficult (impossible?) for the Church to do its jobs when believers constantly flit from one part of the body to another – from one little c church to the next. It takes time and people to get programs that reach nonbelievers and programs that disciple believers rolling, and it takes commitment from said people to keep them rolling. If we all leave our churches every time we become dissatisfied with something, there is an “us” shaped hole in the ministries in which we were serving/participating, setting the ministries back.
Church membership is the answer to these kinds of problems. It isn’t a commitment to a building, like my friend stated, but, rather, it is an avenue through which we can be encouraged to live our lives according to the New Testament – to love one another, to work out our differences for the sake of unity, to serve others, to submit to elders – which requires a community of believers.
“Church membership” may be a modern term not used in the Bible, but the concept is one of its main themes. The idea that one can be committed to the capital C Church without being actively involved in a local lowercase c church is a myth at best and a lie at worst.
You may love Jesus, and, by His grace, you may be going to Heaven, but the Bible is clear that you can’t live a New Testament life without being committed to your lowercase c church. God desires us to live in accordance with His word because it’s in our best interest to do so and because He is glorified when we obey.
And that, I believe, is a biblical hill to die on.