This article is based on a sermon I preached on 23 September 2018, on the occasion of a new Christian joining our congregation.
Church membership is important. You’ve probably heard it before. But, why is it important? To frame the issue before I answer, I’d like to use an analogy.
The war in the European theater began when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The Germans quickly overran the hapless Poles, some of whose army units even launched suicidal, mounted cavalry charges against tanks. Nearly nine months of uneasy calm followed, then, the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries in May 1940. In short order, they found themselves masters of Western Europe. Only Britain stood alone, but its army was forced to abandon most of its equipment on the beaches as it frantically evacuated the continent.
The US entered the war in December 1941 and began pouring men and material into Britain. The ground effort against Nazi Germany began with Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942, and then in Sicily in July 1943. However, while the ground forces attacked this “soft underbelly” of Europe, British and American flyers began a campaign to destroy German industry by means of round the clock bombings. The British flew at night, and the Americans by day.
In the earlier years, the US lacked escort fighters with enough range to accompany these bombers all the way to their targets in Occupied Europe, and back. This meant these formations were often ravaged by the German Luftwaffe, which was delighted to find heavy bombers without fighter escort. The Army Air Corps had to increase the armament on the B-17s to (eventually) 13 0.50 cal. machine guns, but clearly something else had to happen.
Strategists developed a countermeasure to provide bombers with mutual fire-support – the combat box formation. Because of the shape of the formation, in theory, if a German fighter attacked any individual aircraft, all the gunners in the “combat box” who had line of sight could concentrate their fire on that one fighter. The German Luftwaffe likened it to trying to touch a porcupine!
The point is that an individual bomber couldn’t hope to make it to Occupied Europe and back again on its own; it needed mutual support from the group. This is what the Christian life is like – it isn’t meant to be lived in isolation from a local community of believers. We need each other to live a faithful and fulfilling Christian life.
Assumptions and church membership
We live and operate in a world based on a whole lot of assumptions; things that are so obvious and so common-sensical that nobody even mentions them. Our justice system, at the criminal and regulatory level, operates on the assumption that a person is assumed to be innocent until proven guilty – unless guilt is proven, innocence is assumed.
But, for example, you won’t find this principle written down anywhere in my unit’s standard operating procedures, or in our reports of investigation – does this mean we don’t believe an insurance agent is innocent until proven guilty!? No! It’s such a basic assumption that it doesn’t need to be written down; like the law of gravity, it’s there and everybody knows it’s there. If we didn’t believe someone was innocent until proven guilty, then why would we bother to do an investigation and have an entire system set up for due process!?
Church membership is like that; it’s an assumed fact of life in the New Testament that the writers take for granted. You see it on the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after Passover and Jesus’ execution:
- People were added to God’s family and the local fellowship (Acts 2:41).
- This group of people devoted themselves to learning doctrine and to fellowship with each other. In other words, there was a clear understanding about who was who (Acts 2:42).
- They shared goods and funds among each other; again, they know who they are (Acts 2:4446).
- The Lord added people to their number (Acts 2:47), which is both a universal and local reference.
You see it in how the NT letters are addressed:
- “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints,” (Rom 1:7).
- “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours,” (1 Cor 1:2).
- “To the churches of Galatia,” (Gal 1:2).
- “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus,” (Eph 1:1).
- “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons,” (Phil 1:1).
- “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae,” (Col 1:2).
- “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Thess 1:1).
- “To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,” (1 Pet 1:1).
Each of writers here, Peter and Paul, assume their letters will go to a particular, known and identifiable group of Christians in a particular place – and they’re addressed that way. The very word “church” means “congregation;” a marked and called out group of people. This assumes these people know who each other are. This, in turn, means there has to be a membership roster of some sort! As soon as you start marking people as Christian and non-Christian, you’re making a distinction you need to track. Even if you’re not comfortable with the term “membership list,” that’s exactly what’s happening.
And, when you add to it that the only people who are members of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood are people who’ve repented and believed in who He is and what He’s done, then you’re left with the fact that a congregation has to have a mechanism for marking out who is a Christian and who isn’t one. That mechanism is church membership, which is what the first church in Jerusalem did – people were saved, baptized, and added to the church (Acts 2:40).
The New Testament writers assume a Christian will formally join herself to and identify with a local group of believers. It’s such a basic assumption that they don’t spend time spelling it out for us; the way they write their letters and issue commands proves it.
What is church membership?
So, what on earth is church membership? It’s when a Christian makes a formal promise and commitment to serve God and spiritually grow in a local church, in a particular place, among a particular group of Christian brothers and sisters.
It’s when a Christian says, “I’m a believer, and I pledge to love God, learn His Word and serve Him with my life RIGHT HERE, with these brothers and sisters in Christ.”
It’s a covenant of commitment where you say:
- “I want to serve God with this congregation!”
- “I want to learn about God with this congregation!”
- “I want to learn how to better imitate Christ from the brothers and sisters in this congregation!”
- “I want to be held accountable by bothers and sisters in Christ in this congregation!”
- “I want to pray with and for the brothers and sisters in Christ in this congregation!”
- “I want to use my Godgiven talents and abilities to carry out the Great Commission with my brothers and sisters in Christ in this congregation!”
- “Lord, I want to serve you here, in and among these brothers and sisters in this particular place!”
Consider what the Apostle Peter said:
The end of all things is at hand; therefore be selfcontrolled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers (1 Pet 4:7).
Peter is addressing the individual congregations as corporate groups; this is plural, not singular! These congregations, as identifiable and numbered groups of New Covenant believers, need to be self-controlled and sober-minded
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8).
Who are they supposed to love? The command is plural; these Christians are supposed to love each other in their congregations!
Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Pet 4:9-11).
Who are they supposed to direct all this towards? Each other, in their individual congregations!
Church membership is about:
- Mutual support
- Mutual accountability
- Service to the Lord in community
- A pledge of faithfulness to live your life to the Lord, in all its messy glory, in community with other brothers and sisters in Christ in a particular church, in a particular place
It’s where the abstract concepts of service to God, brotherly love, intercessory prayer and Gospel proclamation come out of the clouds and meet the real world. It’s why Paul and the others wrote their commands in their letters in plural; because they weren’t writing to isolated individuals – they were writing to specific congregations, to specific communities of believers all over the region.
Each church is a small embassy for Christ’s kingdom, and all its members are consular officers; Gospel-confessing representatives for God who go out into the world and gather here weekly to worship our Lord and King. Church membership is a covenant of commitment to serve the Lord in a local church among a particular group of people. It’s a commitment every Christian needs to make.