In a much of church culture, there is an emphasis on membership, as a way to get believers to commit to the local church. Yet membership and commitment are not synonymous, and looking at the distinction can help us understand the importance behind these ideas.
Almost all local churches have a membership process, often entailing a class one takes, and then signing a covenant about member responsibilities. Usually (one hopes!) there is an interview with church leaders to ensure the prospective member understands the gospel and is trusting Jesus for salvation. There’s certainly nothing wrong with pastoral care, and with asking people about their relationship to Jesus—would that there were more of it.
But much of what we do in this area is as an accommodation to and acknowledgement of the low state of ecclesiology among believers. That is, the New Testament presents no process of membership in a local church. It gives us no guidance on what such a procedure would look like, what it should include. Being joined to Christ is another matter. The preaching of the gospel, and the apostolic urging to trust in Jesus are very definitely presented. Having trusted him, being baptized as a first step of discipleship is also front and center in the New Testament.
The New Testament everywhere assumes that one who trusts in Jesus will join himself or herself to a local church. A Christian who is disconnected from a local church is a New Testament anomaly, never considered. The reasons for this are several. The church is the body of Christ, and it is one of the means God uses for maturing us as believers. This is a major theme of Ephesians 4; building up the body of Christ, holding fast to the head, and embracing maturity. We do so in community.
The church shopping (or hopping) some do points out our impoverished ecclesiology. We think too little of the church as a primary means of maturing believers. We think too little of how the ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are acts of the gathered church. We think of the polity of the church as malleable and negotiable. Are we too wedded to what “works” to grow? These practices sometimes originate in the corporate world and we may have imported them into the church. A robust ecclesiology understands the church as the body of Christ, the temple of God, God’s building, and that Christians are the living stones that make up this building. Those are but a few of the metaphors the New Testament uses to express this truth. They all convey that God is building something durable and eternal, not a franchise.
Many churches hope that a solid and structured membership arrangement will overcome the deficiency in our ecclesiology, by raising the bar, as it were, on participation in the life of the church. But one must admit that the NT gives us no membership procedure, apart from being joined to Christ. I’ve heard several reasons why a membership process is needed, such as one person suggested:
“Membership covenants clarify the ethical commitments of joining a church similar to the way doctrinal statements summarize the church’s beliefs. Both must only include that which Scripture teaches. A church may not require of members ethical commitments that go beyond Scripture. But it is absolutely necessary to have a membership covenant for members because it clarifies what a commitment to a local church means. Membership with a ‘The Bible is our only guide’ approach is super dangerous.”
But this says contradictory things. That is, that a church may not require what goes beyond Scripture, but also “‘The Bible is our only guide’ is super dangerous.” If we can’t require anything Scripture doesn’t, wouldn’t that mean that we look to the Scriptures alone for what we can require? There are no ethical commitments that come with membership in the local church that are not already part of the ethical commitments of being joined to Christ Himself. On the opposite side, consider a church that requires members commit to abstinence from alcohol. I have known of a church that did this, but one can demonstrate it goes beyond what Scripture includes.
I have been a member of a church that had no formal membership structure. One wasn’t required to sign any covenant, but if you missed a Sunday morning, you would get a call from an elder saying “Hey, we missed you this morning.” In other words, formal membership such as some insist on wasn’t necessary for the functioning of the life of the church, nor for the elders to meaningfully shepherd. For example, perhaps “Jim” has attended every service for a year, gives his money regularly, teaches Sunday school. Suppose he does this for 3 years. Can one credibly say he is not committed? Moreover, it seems difficult to believe that elders are somehow ignorant of him and what he’s doing because he has not gone through formal membership.
In many churches where a formal membership process exists, it represents an enigma. That is, people who are not members are doing “member-like” things, and are commended for it. (“We really need Sunday school teachers this semester!”) I submit that in allowing this, elders are treating such people as de-facto members. If church leaders really insist that membership is that important, then to be consistent, they should tell such believers they aren’t able to serve in various ministries unless they join, and they should refuse their financial support unless they join. I haven’t encountered any churches that do this.
But to say that commitment must take the shape it traditionally has in various churches is to go beyond the New Testament instruction on this topic, and to limit the ministry the New Testament does entrust to elders. Can one have commitment to a local church without the sort of formal membership some practice? Yes. Can one have formal membership without the commitment most elders would desire? Also yes.
My point here is not to denigrate the importance of committing to a local church; quite the opposite. (And I have been a member of a church that had a formal process.) Rather, I would encourage elders to teach what a commitment to a local church means by teaching more on what the church is, and what her purpose and polity are. They can teach on the qualifications of elders, and on what participation in the life of a local body entails. Churches should do this apart from any membership arrangement. They should do it as part of teaching the congregation what ecclesiology is all about. If they did, then I suspect membership would not be much of an issue at all, because people would understand what this commitment looks like, and gladly submit themselves to being a faithful participant in church life. More understanding of ecclesiology means more commitment, and less having to insist it’s a good thing to be joined to a local body.