The Value of Church Membership
THE VALUE OF CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
On a recent Sunday our church family had the opportunity to receive two additional people – a husband and wife – into the official membership of the church. Afterward someone emailed me and asked me about it: Why do we vote to accept people as members of the church? This is a good question, and it relates to some of my deepest passions as a Christian and as a pastor. To be clear, what I am passionate about is not official church membership, but the foundational togetherness and mutuality and richness of the body of Christ. I get excited about the church as a family – God’s family! And it is the ‘theology of the church as God’s family’ that serves as the basis for practicing official membership in the local church. In the thoughts that follow, I simply want to sketch out what I see as the many good reasons to practice church membership. It is this wonderful big picture that sheds important light on the specific and seemingly mundane action of voting people into the official membership of the church.
Form and Function
Before going any further, though, I want to be careful to distinguish between form and function. Form refers to how a thing is done, whereas function refers to what purpose is being served. Sunday School is a form; teaching God’s Word to people of all ages is the function. Vacation Bible School is a form; loving the kids in our church family and wider community and proclaiming the Gospel to them, is the function. Short-term mission trips are a form; caring deeply about God’s work in the world and participating in that work, is the function. It should be clear that functions are more important than forms. Of course, functions will necessarily have some form, but the forms can vary from one place to another or from one time to another.
With this distinction in mind, I do not assume that the way (the form!) that South Paris Baptist Church practices membership is the only way to do it or necessarily the best way to do it. But instead of getting overly focused on this form or that form, what I would encourage everyone to appreciate is the important functions that membership puts into practice. The important questions are: What purpose does membership serve? What virtues does it hold up? What good things does it accomplish?
The Invisible Reality of Membership in Christ’s Church
Before we consider the functions of official membership in a local church, we must first gladly affirm that membership in Christ’s global church is not dependent on membership in a local church. When a man or woman is born again by the Spirit of God, he or she immediately becomes a member of God’s forever family, a member of Christ’s church, a living stone in the spiritual temple that is filled with the Holy Spirit. People who trust God’s promises and follow Jesus and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit are unified brothers and sisters in God’s forever family, quite apart from their membership status in a local church.
The Invisible Reality Must Be Made Visible
That said, the Bible teaches us that this invisible, spiritual reality must be made visible in actual communities of believers called local churches. In other words, the glorious reality that has taken place in the invisible realm is meant to be lived out in the visible realm. The consistent pattern in The Book of Acts is that the invisible reorientations of heart called ‘repentance’ and ‘faith’ are immediately followed by the visible practices of ‘baptism into water’ and ‘fellowship with other Christians’ (see Acts 2:37-47).
As the ministry of the Gospel goes forth in The Book of Acts, we see the intensely relational and practical nature of the Christian life. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) gives disciples the responsibility to proclaim the Gospel, baptize new converts, and teach these new converts to follow Jesus and obey His instructions. As we see the Great Commission unfold in The Book Acts, we learn that new converts from the same geographic area are formed into a local congregation, with its own leaders and teachers. All this shows us that every Christian has a responsibility to be baptized, to be taught, and to be in fellowship with other believers. In other words, every Christian has a responsibility to be part of the Christian community – entering it through baptism, learning from its leaders and other mature disciples, and participating in its life and mission. Thus accountability and responsibility, participation and mutual care, receiving and sharing, are built into the very fabric of what it means to be a local body of believers.
It is our privilege to walk together and support one another as fellow disciples. Jesus calls His disciples to love one another (John 13:34-35), honor one another (Romans 12:10), restore those who have fallen into sin (Galatians 6:1), minister to each other’s varied needs (1 Thessalonians 5:14), encourage and exhort each other (Hebrews 3:13, 10:24-25), practice hospitality to each other (1 Peter 4:9), and meet each other’s material needs (1 John 3:16-18).
In all this, we see that the Lord’s purpose is that the invisible realities of repentance and faith should be expressed visibly in loving fellowship with other believers. These visible realities involve us in mutual responsibility and accountability to one another as fellow disciples. At its best, local church membership functions as a vehicle for expressing and encouraging this mutual responsibility and accountability among fellow Christians.
The Responsibilities Entrusted to the Congregation Matter
In this beautiful visible relational community called church, it matters a great deal that God entrusts certain decision-making responsibilities to the entire congregation. To be sure, there is a measure of genuine authority entrusted to the elders, and God tells Christians to be diligent to cheerfully obey them (Hebrews 13:17). But the vision of the New Testament is that some decisions are rightly entrusted to the whole congregation. In Acts 6:1-6, the whole congregation was involved in the selection of seven deacon-like men to serve the church family. In Matthew 18:15-18 Jesus says that if a sinning brother refuses to repent, the matter should eventually be taken to the church. Then in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 Paul tells the Corinthian congregation to expel the sinning brother from their fellowship. Later, in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, Paul indicates that the congregation would accredit certain trustworthy persons to deliver a financial gift to the Jerusalem congregation. Notice that in all of these instances, the whole congregation is in some sense involved in making a decision. Which raises an obvious question: What persons are responsible for making these decisions and taking these actions? Answer: The persons who are recognized as being part of the congregation. Question: But which persons are recognized as being part of the congregation? One of the great benefits of local church membership is that it helps to facilitate our shared responsibility for corporate decision-making. When a local church practices church membership, it is clarifying who is recognized as being a part of the congregation and who, therefore, is responsible for the work entrusted to the congregation.
In saying this, I don’t want to diminish the reality that every Christian who fellowships with us on a regular basis is part of our church family in a practical sense. Even the young children among us who attend with their parents are part of our church family in a practical sense, even though many of them are not yet converted. In God’s good design, there is no need to see “in a practical sense” and “in an organizational sense” as opposed to each other. In God’s good design, organization and organism, official and relational, structure and movement, formal relationships and family warmth, are not meant to oppose each other. They complement and support each other. I love my wife and children, and our lives are woven together in profoundly relational and practical ways. Even so, the formal reality of my marriage to Charlotta and the formally recognized blood relationship and parental responsibility that we have toward our children, really matter too. It is good and right for all Christians who call South Paris Baptist Church their church home to be part of the congregation in a practical sense and in an organizational sense. There is no need to pick and choose one over the other when both complement each other as friends. Good organization is itself an act of love that provides a framework in which relationships can flourish and out of which mission can go forth.
Voting: Church Membership and Congregational Decision-Making is Not a Democracy
But voting in church meetings – argh! Yes, voting might strike you as antithetical to the kind of beautiful and unified community that the church is called to be. Loving each other – beautiful. Using our gifts to edify the body – wonderful. Pouring out our hearts together in worship and prayer – yes and men! But voting? To be honest, I don’t consider myself a huge fan of voting in church meetings. But I remind you of the earlier distinction between form and function. When it comes to life in God’s kingdom, voting is definitely an optional form. The question is: what is the function that voting serves?
First, let’s be clear: the local church is not an exercise in democracy. Democracy = rule by the people or, more pointedly, rule by a majority of the people. That is not how a healthy church works. A healthy church understands that it is an outpost – an embassy – of God’s kingdom. Jesus is the King! Jesus rules His Church through His Word. The Holy Spirit unites believers to live together in joyful unity and holy purpose under the kingship of Jesus (see for example Philippians 1:27–2:11). The role of pastors and elders is to live under the kingship of Jesus and to instruct, encourage, and counsel others to do likewise (1 Timothy 3:1-7). The responsibility of all Christians is to walk together in unity under the authority of King Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:10, Ephesians 4:1-6, Philippians 2:1-2).
This mindset must shape the way that we approach everything, including decision-making in business meetings. Our job together is to discern together and embrace together whatever decision or course of action is pleasing to the Lord. The only kind of ‘church business meeting’ worth having is one that is and looks and feels like a group of people who have gathered together under the Lordship of Christ for the express purpose of discerning and doing His will. If it ain’t that, it ain’t worth much.
Which brings me to the issue of voting. Ideally, voting functions as a way to indicate to one another that we are in agreement with each other in discerning and embracing a specific course of action. In other words, voting functions as a way to reveal that consensus has been found, that unity is present. Of course, if agreement, consensus, and unity have not been achieved, then a divided vote will reveal that also. Speaking for myself, it is my view that – as a general rule – a local church ought to expect and pray toward and work toward overwhelming (if not unanimous) consensus on most (if not all) of its decisions.
I once heard a Christian teacher whom I respect say something like this: Our church doesn’t operate on the principle that every member has a vote. Instead we operate on the principle that every member has a voice. I really appreciate what he is saying here. As a church member, you are not ‘a voting unit’. You are a human being, redeemed by Christ, taught by His Word, indwelt and gifted by the Spirit – and as such you have a voice, you have insight, you have perspective, you have influence, you have encouragement to share with your brothers and sisters. This doesn’t mean that every member needs to speak about every issue at every meeting. But what it does mean is that we should approach congregational decisions as an opportunity for walking in wisdom together and, in pursuit of that, we should be open to hearing from one another and sharing with each other as we seek God’s wisdom and God’s will for a particular decision.
Several Benefits of a Local Church Practicing Membership
With all of these foundational issues in mind, let me share several benefits to practicing church membership. Again, don’t focus on whether the particular form is absolutely necessary, but whether membership is serving a function that is helpful and edifying to God’s people.
1) Membership involves a process by which a church family formally recognizes that a prospective member is a true Christian. Of course, in a healthy church there will be deep, informal relationships that are happening all of the time, and we get to know each other profoundly in these relationships, friendships, home groups, etc. But there still should be some kind of process where a congregation and its leadership come to the point of recognizing someone as a fellow believer and incorporating them into the official membership of the church. Remember, there are people who attend churches who are not Christians – some know they are not Christians, but some mistakenly assume that they are Christians. There are also all kinds of false teaching out there that has affected people within the Christian community. A healthy church membership process helps to sort this stuff out – to make clear what it means to be a Christian, to make clear what is sound doctrine, to make clear how the church is supposed to function, to make clear what it means to be part of the church family.
2) When the elders are confident that a prospective member is a faithful Christian who wants to be part of the church family, and then they recommend to the congregation that it receive this person into membership, this promotes unity among God’s people. Think of it this way: if someone attends church for a long time, but only a third of the congregation knows this individual, then this individual remains unknown to two-thirds of the congregation. But if another person attends for a short time and pursues membership by meeting with the elders and then the elders present that person for membership and the whole congregation is united in receiving him, now the whole congregation has confidence that this person is a believer. Of course, this is no substitute for the informal fellowship and relationship-building that must take place. But it is helpful – and the larger the size of the church, the more helpful it is.
3) Local church membership helps to establish a healthy relationship between members and elders. To become a member should mean, among other things, that one is willing to be shepherded, instructed, and equipped by the pastor-elders of that congregation. Further, membership expresses the responsibility of shepherd-elders to particular sheep (that is, the members), and the responsibility of sheep to particular shepherd-elders (Hebrews 13:17).
4) Local church membership expresses one’s commitment to share in the mutual responsibility and accountability of the church family. In joining a congregation, a brother or sister is saying, ‘I intend to be part of this fellowship, to walk with these brothers and sisters, to contribute my gifts to them and to receive theirs, to work alongside them as we carry out the Lord’s mission.’ In an age of individualism, shallow commitments, and broken promises, committing one’s self to the common life of the church is a big deal!
5) Local church membership expresses the reality that a rightly ordered local church has some organizational structure. In accordance with biblical instruction, a local congregation consists of ‘elders/overseers’ and ‘deacons’ (1 Timothy 3:1-13), and also collects and disburses money (1 Timothy 5:3-18). As soon as we begin talking about leadership and stewardship, we realize that some level of organization is necessary. Having a defined membership – and having a defined way of entering into it – helps a congregation to carry out organizational dynamics that include leadership, decision-making, and management of resources. As I mentioned earlier, local church membership facilitates our shared responsibility for corporate decision-making.
6) Local church membership facilitates our shared responsibility for practicing church discipline against sinning brothers or sisters who refuse to repent. The Matthew 18:15-18 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 passages indicate that the whole church has a responsibility to remove such persons from the fellowship. A recognized membership, in conjunction with a recognized leadership, is poised to carry out this disciplinary process in an orderly way. Furthermore, the very concept of removing someone from the congregation shows that the congregation is a defined group of people. ‘Undefined’ and ‘loosey-goosey’ is not the path of wisdom. It really does mean something to be included in the fellowship – and one can enter into it. And it really means something to be excluded from the fellowship – one can be expelled from it. And it is the responsibility of those who are part of it to expel an unrepentant member from it.
7) Finally, local church membership expresses our shared responsibility for stewarding our common life, including property and money. The reality is that congregational life often involves buildings and budgets, possessions and equipment, purchases and contracts, insurance and bank accounts, money received and money disbursed, staff and staff salaries. Although many of these things are not necessary, they are commonplace in the developed world – and they are not wrong. The presence of these things raises an obvious question: who is responsible for all this? In theory it could all be carried out by simple agreement among private individuals, without any corporate organizational identity. But having a defined organization with recognized members, recognized leaders, recognized apportionment of responsibilities, and recognized decision-making processes, is a prudent way to manage the responsibilities of stewardship. Food for thought: If a 21st Christian benefits from a heated sanctuary in a church building that is outfitted with lights and microphones while attending an edifying worship service that is overseen by a team of elders on a midwinter day, that Christian should carefully consider the organizational substructure that is underneath all of that. It is the fruit that comes from a group of people taking responsibility for their common life and seeking to make wise decisions in pursuit of their God-given mission.
A Final Word
Finally, let me say that joining a local church is an act of humility in which you voluntarily submit to their form of church membership for the sake of full participation in their congregational life, even if you think their form is flawed in some way. In so doing, you proclaim unity with these believers and accept all the mutual and shared responsibilities that accompany membership. As a Christian, you should want to honor the Lord in all that he calls you to be and do – and one small but important part of His calling on your life is to participate in congregational decision-making – not in the narrow sense of ‘I get a vote’ but in the biblical sense of being ‘all in’ to the shared life of the congregation and using your voice to promote its health and growth, its mission and ministry, its peace and flourishing.
For all of the reasons that have been set forth, I invite those who know and love Jesus and who are currently non-member participants at South Paris Baptist Church to pursue membership! At the same time, I encourage the already members to be faithfully involved and to shoulder with their brothers and sisters all the varied responsibilities of congregational life.
NOTE: Header Image/Featured Image Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash