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.
- When it’s not Okay to Leave a Church (kellylevatino.com)
- When it’s Okay to Leave a Church (kellylevatino.com)
- What to do if You’re Unhappy at Your Church (kellylevatino.com)
This needs to be taught early on, so Believers know to be extremely prayerful about selecting your church…just like your spouse! Thank you for your posts!
“liked” because I saw your heart in this post – but I agree with the person you were quoting — I was thinking about membership the other day and now after reading this I can honestly say that this is the reason I do not like membership – the manipulation, guilt driven on man made principals, the holding over your head a spirituality about membership that does not exist anywhere in the Bible and definitely not in the verses you used. However, you should also know that I am a member in spirit to the church I attend. All the passion you have stated in why you love membership is what I do, while never having signed a membership document. My heart does not need the paper to make something special happen. I am also an elder in every church I attend. I do not need the title of elder to be one and have the characteristics of one. I am also a pastor in every church I attend. Whatever small patch of friendships that God gives me, I give myself to them in teaching, preaching, worship, fellowship, discipleship and mentoring. God calls us to serve, not sign a membership document where fees are then given to a denominational head office based on the number of members that sign up. Still will need to sign up for membership in a couple of weeks because I cannot be sent out by the church as a missionary unless I am a signed up member – here goes.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by membership. I mean an active involvement in and commitment to a local church body. I do not mean, necessarily, paying dues to a large denominational branch,
So, from the sound of things, whether you’ve “signed a contract” or not, you already act as a church member. For the purposes of this post, I consider you one 😉
This kind of church membership affords us the opportunity to live NT lives as described in the post.
I would agree membership ought not be used manipulatively, as it seems it sometimes is. (I don’t have any personal experience with this, as the church I am committed to is non-denominational). As you stated, there is nothing magic about signing up for a church; it’s the heart commitment behind it that’s what matters.
That said, we humans tend to take our commitments to anything more seriously if there is some sort of formal process involved.
Let me encourage you in your situation to look at “becoming a member” of your church as just an outward expression of your already existent inward commitment. Much like baptism, but that’s another subject entirely 😉 It may feel silly to you, since you are already a committed, active participant in the body, but this is a chance for you to serve, honor, and consider your leadership’s interests above your own by doing what they request – signing a document.
Blessings on the field,
Thanks Kelly – great response!
This is more of an observation than anything else, but I recently heard someone put forth a very similar argument as to why he did not marry the person he lived with. For people who struggle with the idea of church in this current age, I usually point them to Retro Christianity by M. Svigel (http://www.amazon.com/RetroChristianity-Reclaiming-Forgotten-Michael-Svigel/dp/1433528487), written by someone I personally know and trust.
those are some nice comments from someone who never had to struggle and wonder how to pay rent and utility bills and still have money left over for car repairs, let alone some long needed underwear or other personal items, some things you just do’nt want to get at the thrift store. all the while reading the letter from church urging you to give more. the part about everyone sharing and taking care of widows and orphans in the book of acts and other places I like a church who takes that to heart, does yours? so put away your Gucci bag and Ferragamos and consider the ‘few’ remaining church family members that have to pinch every penny till it screams and still do without.
Thank you for reading. Not once did I mention money having anything to do with church membership.
And the fact that I have no idea what a Ferragamos is should tell you I don’t own a Gucci bag.
Thanks for the post. The bible says people look at the outward appearance, that’s what frustrate us. As a Christian I must ask God where He want to plant me. You might be an Evangelist who go around preaching you still need people to intercede for you while going around doing God’s work. Others might differ on this next statement but I believe like a post sent to a specific address, there is a servant of God where your message has been sent to. That is why the same message can be preached by different people but one will get to you because it came with authority from above for you. A church is like when one is under an umbrella, you are only covered when you are under it(There is Intercession). You move away you are exposed to attack. This does not mean your supplication does not cover you but the bible also say iron sharpens iron.
I realize you wrote this over a year ago, but I just now found it (unintentionally – I was reading your article on 2 Cor. 12:9 and clicked over).
This article goes EXACTLY with something I am studying in a Bible study. We are using the book “I Am a Church Member” by Thom Rainer, but I love your thoughts on this subject as well. I will be sharing with others in our study. Excellent.
(clicked before I finished typing)
Thank you for your thoughts in “real life” readability. 🙂
Thanks for reading, Rachel. Rainer’s book is a good little read and should probably be required reading for anyone who wants to become a member of a church 🙂 Glad you found my article helpful. Thanks for letting me know!