Some denominations and churches make room for formal membership in the local body, and others do not. I’ve wrestled myself with whether church membership is a biblical practice or whether it’s merely a human invention which may be good, but not necessary.
In the church context in which I’m a pastor, we have our fair share of members, but we also have not a small amount of folks who, for a variety of reasons, regularly attend, are quite involved in the body-life of the church, and yet have not gone through the formal process of membership. For some, if not many, of those folks, their reasons are often pragmatic. They haven’t been able to engage in the classes or meetings that we’ve set up as a prerequisite for membership. (In those groups, we briefly overview theology, church history, our denomination’s history and distinctives, and our local church’s journey, authority-structure, vision, mission, and core values.) For others, there exists an objection to membership as unbiblical and unnecessary. “I don’t need to take a class and sign on the dotted line to be connected with this local assembly; it’s really about a heart commitment, not a piece of paper,” they might say in sundry variations.
So, again, is membership biblical? I believe it is. Unfortunately, people’s perceptions of what “membership” means are often more informed by culture than by the Bible. When we hear “membership” we immediately think of Costco or a country club. We think of signing contracts, paying dues, and getting special ID cards.
When I’ve done talks on “membership” at our church, the following is a summary of what I’ve presented, in both defining and defending what biblical member-ship is all about.
“Member” is a Biblical Word
- oikeios – a member of a household (Eph 2:19)
- summetochos – member, sharer, participant (Eph 3:6)
- melos – member, body-part (we retain this in English with words like “dismemberment”; Rom 12:4; 1 Cor 6:15; Eph 4:25; 5:30; Col 3:15)
These three words give us great insight into what “member” means from a biblical perspective. First, it connotes familial connectivity (oikeios). This is why Christians have called one another “brother” and “sister” since the earliest days of the Church. These labels aren’t Christian jargon. They make a theological statement about who we are as members of God’s covenant family.
Second, it connotes active participation, mutual giving and taking, and doing “life together” (summetochos). The summetochos/metacho word-group is a rich scriptural expression for intimate life-sharing and connectivity. To be a “member” is to be a life-sharer.
Third, it connotes our union with Christ and subsequent union with one another. “Body of Christ” is not just a symbolic metaphor for the Church. It is a statement about who the Church is in relation to the world. When Christ left the earth, He didn’t really leave. He actually chose to manifest Himself differently, through the Church–His Body–by the indwelling of His Holy Spirit. As odd as it sounds, if people want to physically see Jesus, they are to look at the Church. A member, in this understanding, is a body-part of Christ. Someone who is a member of a church recognizes their “body-part-ness” and strives to be the best body-part they can be, recognizing that they are just a small part of an integrated whole.
This is a very different understanding of membership than Costco or country clubs!
On Membership and Peace
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
F. F. Bruce:
“Let the peace of Christ be arbiter in your hearts,” he says. When hostile forces have to be kept at bay, the peace of God garrisons the believer’s heart, as in Phil. 4:7. But here the common life of fellow-members of the body of Christ is in view; when differences threaten to spring up among them, the peace of Christ must be accepted as arbitrator. If the members are subject to Christ, the peace which he imparts must regulate their relations with one another. It was not to strife but to peace that God called them in the unity of the body of Christ. Peace in this sense figures prominently in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). In a healthy body harmony prevails among the various parts. Christians, having been reconciled to God, enjoying peace with him through Christ, should naturally live at peace with one another. Strife inevitably results when men and women are out of touch with him who is the one source of true peace; but there is no reason why those who have received the peace which Christ established by his death on the cross should have any other than peaceful relations among themselves.1
The Meaning of Membership
1. It means that you realize that you’re not only called to Jesus but called into a community.
Cyprian of Carthage (3rd c.):
Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. “Outside the Church there is no salvation.”
This statement can be scary for Protestants. It sounds “Catholic.” It sounds like it violates the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Here’s how we understand this statement. We don’t believe it means that people are saved by God through becoming members. We don’t believe it means that if people believe in Jesus but aren’t part of a local church, assembly, or gathered body that they aren’t saved (there are even scriptural counter-examples, like the thief on the cross). We understand this to be powerful rhetorical shorthand for, “when God saves, he ordinarily, naturally, and necessarily draws us into community with other Christ-followers. We are saved into community–the Triune Community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the fellowship of all others who share in that divine life. Perhaps Cyprian meant something stronger than what we’d be comfortable with, but we think it’s a powerful way of saying, “Hey, God didn’t intend to create lone-ranger Christians.” To commune with God is to commune with others. Our communion is necessarily vertical and horizontal.
2. It means that you’re recognizing you’re weak, and you therefore need the deepest amount of commitment and accountability to support your weakness.
I can’t know their hearts, but I sometimes wonder about people who never commit to church membership. I wonder whether they fully understand how weak they are and how much they desperately need every tool God has given them for their sanctification and growth.
3. It means that you’re choosing not to treat the church like a consumer product.
Sometimes people choose to not become members so that they can hold the church at arm’s length. They want an “out” if something were to go wrong, if something offended them, or if someone displeased them. In essence, they want to treat the church like a product that they can return if they don’t find it useful or helpful. Membership in a church takes that “right” away. You’re forced to deal with issues from the inside rather than easily running away. You’ve made a commitment, and backing out becomes much harder. Conflict, disagreement, and hardship can now be tools used by God for the growth and maturation of you and the strengthening, edifying, and purification of the church.
4. It means that you help lead and guide the church.
From the documents of my denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC):
Confirmed Members: Those who have been baptized and who have made a public profession of their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and who have been admitted to active membership by the Church Session are entitled to participate in the governing of the Church by voting in meetings of the congregation. (Book of Order, “Book of Government,” 6-1.A)
This results in:
- Helping us move forward in the vision and mission God has for us.
- Electing officers (who become your “representatives”) as overseers and servants (elders and deacons).
5. It means that you’re taking your discipleship under Christ seriously.
The exercise of discipline is highly important and necessary. The purpose of discipline is to maintain the honor of God, to restore the sinner, and to remove offense from the church. Ministers must instruct the officers and congregation in discipline and jointly practice it in the context of the congregation and courts of the church. Scriptural law is the basis of all ecclesiastical discipline because it is the revelation of God’s holy will. Proper disciplinary principles are set forth in the Scriptures and must be followed. According to Matthew 18:15 and Galatians 6:1, these principles include instruction in the Word and the individuals’ responsibility to admonish one another. (Book of Order, “Book of Discipline,” 1-5)
- Choosing to submit to Christ and those whom Christ has put in spiritual authority over you (elders).
- Willingly placing yourself under accountability.
- Guarding yourself from sin and temptation in a greater way.
6. It means that you want to be a fully committed part of the vehicle God has created to change the world.
The local church is, in Christ, the hope of the world. Becoming a member is entering into the deepest possible commitment to the most important enterprise in the world. How amazing is that?!?
7. It means that you’re willing and committing to give sacrificially of yourself for the sake of others.
We choose to give out of both our external resources (e.g. our time, money) and our “internal” resources (how God has gifted us).
8. It means that you’re willing to make and keep promises.
The membership vows for people joining an EPC church:
1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God and without hope for your salvation except in His sovereign mercy?
2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of sinners, and do you receive and depend upon Him alone for your salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
3. Do you now promise and resolve, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
4. Do you promise to serve Christ in His Church by supporting and participating with this congregation in its service of God and its ministry to others to the best of your ability?
5. Do you submit yourself to the government and discipline of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and to the spiritual oversight of this Church Session, and do you promise to promote the unity, purity and peace of the Church?
1 F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984, NICNT), 156-157.