Why Church Membership Matters

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.  

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There are 15 Comments

G. N. Barkman's picture

Thanks, Tyler, for an excellent treatment of this important subject.

G. N. Barkman

Ron Bean's picture

Is "mutuality" a word? It should be.

For most of my life joining a church and becoming a member was what you did after you were saved and baptized. It was almost automatic and relatively easy to get your name on the membership role. There might be a brief session where you shared your salvation story and were introduced to the church's doctrinal statement and subscribed to it. Congratulations! (I think I'm still on the membership list of the church of my youth over 50 years ago.)

It wasn't until the last ten years that I encountered the Biblical model this article presents. That of members getting involved in each others lives. I tell people that it took me 4 decades to learn that "community" was a verb.

I'm now living in the buckle of the Bible Belt and I encounter people on a regular basis who are members and regular attenders of good churches who might know each other only by face yet they go to church 3 times on Sunday and usually Wednesday. As someone said the church doesn't look and act like a body, it resembles a jar full of marbles.

 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Bruce Rettig's picture

Thanks Tyler. Keep teaching your people how important the church is for their spiritual health.

Bruce

O taste and see that the Lord is good:

Blessed is the man that trusteth in him. 

Psalm 34:8

GregH's picture

Ron Bean wrote:

Congratulations! (I think I'm still on the membership list of the church of my youth over 50 years ago.)

Am I the only one who makes sure I am removed from the roles of previous churches? I am worried about the legal liability. While churches are normally entities that attempt to shield their members from lawsuits (such as a child getting run over in the parking lot), there are occasions where members have gotten sued. I think if a church functions as a corporation but cuts corners, it could open up members to problems. So I always make sure I am removed.

TylerR's picture

I was once a member of a Baptist church where the church hadn't maintained membership lists for years. They voted people in, but never kept track of who or when. They also never removed anyone who'd died, moved away, or vanished into thin air. It made it tricky when we called a new pastor. Nobody knew who was a member.

The whole situation was so embarrassing that no one in leadership wanted to ask anyone if they were a member as the pastoral vote drew nigh. Nobody really remembered. There was a lot of this going on:

  • Deacon #1: "Didn't she get baptized in 2008 or so? Or, was that someone else ... ?"
  • Deacon #2: "No, she came for membership but never went through with the baptism."
  • Deacon #3: "No, she was baptized. You're getting her confused with that other lady.
  • Deacon #2: "Yeah, you're right ..."
  • Deacon #1: "No, she was baptized. It's the other lady who never came for baptism, and I never really trusted her testimony anyway."
  • Deacon #3: "I don't think that's what happened ..."

etc., etc.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

dcbii's picture

GregH wrote:

I think if a church functions as a corporation but cuts corners, it could open up members to problems. So I always make sure I am removed.

Seems like a sound policy to me.  My current church keeps an actual roll, and has policies for removal in a timely fashion.  However, since not all churches do this, it makes sense to have yourself removed when you leave a church.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

GregH wrote:

 

Ron Bean wrote:

 

Congratulations! (I think I'm still on the membership list of the church of my youth over 50 years ago.)

 

 

Am I the only one who makes sure I am removed from the roles of previous churches? I am worried about the legal liability. While churches are normally entities that attempt to shield their members from lawsuits (such as a child getting run over in the parking lot), there are occasions where members have gotten sued. I think if a church functions as a corporation but cuts corners, it could open up members to problems. So I always make sure I am removed.

I would be concerned, perhaps, if I had been a trustee, but otherwise, not that worried.  The legal term for what you're describing is "penetrating the veil", I believe, and it generally takes a lot before even the most aggressive plaintiff's lawyers do that.  Even if they did, they would have an interesting time trying to assign blame to you for things that happened after you left.  

Probably still a non-zero chance that it could at least cost you some legal fees if (a) a former church really messed up and (b) someone forgot the principle of causality, but not something I'd lose sleep over.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Bruce Rettig's picture

Without membership that is actually measurable, there is no way to practice church discipline...greatly hindering the health of the church.

Bruce

O taste and see that the Lord is good:

Blessed is the man that trusteth in him. 

Psalm 34:8

GregH's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

 

GregH wrote:

 

 

Ron Bean wrote:

 

Congratulations! (I think I'm still on the membership list of the church of my youth over 50 years ago.)

 

 

Am I the only one who makes sure I am removed from the roles of previous churches? I am worried about the legal liability. While churches are normally entities that attempt to shield their members from lawsuits (such as a child getting run over in the parking lot), there are occasions where members have gotten sued. I think if a church functions as a corporation but cuts corners, it could open up members to problems. So I always make sure I am removed.

 

 

I would be concerned, perhaps, if I had been a trustee, but otherwise, not that worried.  The legal term for what you're describing is "penetrating the veil", I believe, and it generally takes a lot before even the most aggressive plaintiff's lawyers do that.  Even if they did, they would have an interesting time trying to assign blame to you for things that happened after you left.  

Probably still a non-zero chance that it could at least cost you some legal fees if (a) a former church really messed up and (b) someone forgot the principle of causality, but not something I'd lose sleep over.  

Well yes, it is a low risk, and yes, I am referring to piercing the corporate veil. In business, it is common in any lawsuit to trying pierce the veil and go after the shareholders personally. In a church liability issue, I would expect that lawyers would try to do the same thing, especially if the church was broke and maybe was not paying for enough insurance and there were well off members in the church. 

So yes, a low risk but with the potential downside, a letter to ensure you are off the rolls is in my opinion a common sense thing to do to protect yourself. Even if there is almost no risk of a judgment, it could keep you from having to pay an attorney.

Bert Perry's picture

This is perhaps a touch off topic, but per Greg's comment about specifically disenrolling to prevent legal issues, it also strikes me that doing so would be a good way, in the sad case it were necessary, of saying "you are not qualified church leadership in my opinion."  I've yet to do so, and am probably on the rolls of a church in Waseca to this day because I did not back in 2010, but when I leave a church, that is in a nutshell what I am saying about the leadership.  

At least I like to believe that I'm not leaving a church for frivolous reasons, and no, I'm not doing so at this point. But if it is important to declare that allegiance, at times we might suggest it's important to withdraw it. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

G. N. Barkman's picture

At our church, we ask everyone applying for membership for the name and address of their former church.  We send a letter to the former church informing them of our intention to receive so and so into membership, and ask for a letter of recommendation or transfer.  Likewise, whenever anyone leaves our church, we ask their new church for a letter communicating that they have been received into membership (if they do not offer one).  We respond with a letter commending them to the new congregation and then we remove them from our membership roll.  These communications are read to the congregation, and transfers are approved by congregational vote.  I thought this was standard procedure in Baptist churches.  (I believe it is supposed to be.)  Returning to sound practices of churchmanship would go a long ways to restoring spiritual health to churches.

G. N. Barkman

JNoël's picture

I love this article! And I bet everyone who agrees with it loved it, too.

I'd love to see an article like this written in such a way as to be better suited to give to someone who does not believe in church membership, in a more exhortative manner. I feel like this has more of a preaching to the choir tone, if you know what I mean.

 

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

TylerR's picture

It was a happy sermon I preached to my congregation after we'd just accepted a new member. My real goal was to persuade perpetual "attenders" to consider church membership. It lays the groundwork for my subsequent contacts I'll be making with the folks in the coming weeks.

For a defense of church membership, I think you'll find good material in Bauder's book, and in Hiscox.  

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Bert Perry's picture

When I came to Christ, my pastor came up to me, shook my hand, and said "welcome to the family."  Maybe worth contemplating.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

What dost thou mean?

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

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