Does Church Membership Matter?
Different Types of Membership
I’m a member of the Abraham family. My dad’s from India, my mom’s from the Philippines, and my sisters and I all were born and raised in the United States of America. While there are lots of Abrahams in the world, there is only one of my family. While I love all the Abrahams of the world, there is a special love I have for my own family. This familial love is part of God’s design and purpose.
I’m also a member of the IKEA family. No, my father is not the founder of IKEA, that would be Ingvar Kamprad. But my IKEA family is over 110 million strong. We are made up of hundreds of nationalities. And there are benefits of being in this family, we all receive free tea or coffee Monday through Friday (in stores only). I guess there is a sense in which I love all 110 million IKEA family members. But to be honest, I don’t really know them in any meaningful way.
What about membership in the local church? It’s not quite the same as being a member of a family. I will always be an Abraham, but I may not always be a member of Covenant Hope Church. And yet, surely it’s more meaningful than being a member of IKEA, right?
What is Church Membership?
Church membership isn’t an idea we stole from IKEA, it’s an idea we’ve been given by God in the Scriptures. The gospel creates a gospel people. God saves Christians, and gathers them in local churches. Jonathan Leeman defines church membership as “a formal relationship between a local church and a Christian, characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to and living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.”
The word ‘membership’ is taken from the biblical metaphor of a body. “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function” (Rom. 12:4). The church is the body of Christ.
The apostles understood that there is an inside and an outside of the church. Church membership draws lines. When Paul rebukes the Corinthian church for approving of sexual immorality, he says, “is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” We do not expect non-Christians to act like Christians, but in the body of Christ we are expected to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Lines aren’t just drawn over non-Christians and Christians, but over particular bodies of Christians called local churches. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). The six elders of Covenant Hope Church will give an account for sheep, but particularly for the sheep of Covenant Hope Church. We don’t have authority over the sheep at Redeemer Dubai, nor the sheep of the United Christian Church of Dubai. Leaders need to know who they’re accountable for, and members need to know who they’re submitting to spiritually.
Does Church Membership Matter?
Church membership breaks all sorts of cultural norms. It runs against the grain of individualism in the West, and demands Christians to live in community and accountability with one another. It disturbs the hospitable nature of ethnic-based relationships of the East by requiring Christian fellowship based upon the gospel.
When we get church membership wrong, we miss out on all the beautiful ‘one another’ commands that become tangible through the local church. When we get it wrong, we become an organization that offers burial plots and marriage certificates but not true Christian fellowship. But when we get it right, the church displays the manifold wisdom of God. Not just to our neighbors. Not just to our colleagues at work. Not just to government officials. We display the wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph. 3:10).