Why is Church Membership Important?
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
I've heard it so many times. In fact, whenever I start to think about local church membership, this phrase plays like a movie clip that's stuck in my head. I literally see certain people's faces; their eye brows are furrowed, their tone is somewhere between hurt and condescending, and their lips are moving: "church membership is not in the Bible."
I get it. I totally get it. For some people, they've been hurt by a domineering church leader. For others, the idea of commitment to the "institution" brings back bad memories of tight-grasped church culture that left them feeling choked out. To be honest, I too have these experiences. I've been pastorally bullied, pushed out, made to feel different than the rest, and held by the squeeze of the "or else" culture of church membership. It's not cool. And it doesn't feel like an aspect of the "Good News" of Jesus at all.
We need to let some reason speak. It's easy to be emotional. Just because the words "church membership" don't appear in the Bible, that doesn't mean that it comes out of no where or that it's not Biblical. It's worth asking, "where does the idea come from?" I mean, "Trinity" doesn't appear in the Bible, and yet a misunderstanding of the nature of our Triune God will leave you without the true Gospel - it's a big deal. Even though your theology about church membership won't make or break you in regards to being a heretic, it's worth checking to see if it is a Biblical truth.
The Relationship Between the "Church" and the church
There are two ways to speak about church. The "Church" (we tend to distinguish it with a capital C) is the true church. It's the one that Jesus "loved... and gave himself up for" (Eph. 5.25). It's all true Christians above and below. However, the church (little c) is the local expression that you attend on Sunday. It has it's own ministry of Word and Sacrament and has it's own leadership and "followship." Theologically, we see the local church as a picture or expression of the true Church, even though it's not always a perfect expression. In fact, some people are a part of the local church but they are not truly part of the Church - they aren't actually Christians. The opposite is also true. Some people will not show up to church on Sunday for a whole host of reasons, but they do have saving faith in Jesus - yes, it's possible.
We see the relationship between the two churches all over the New Testament. The Apostle Paul is often writing his letters to a local church and yet he speaks as though he is writing to the whole Church. Then, we read his letters in our time and naturally read, interpret and apply his writings in our local church context. Often times, Paul is very specific in regards to particular local churches (see 1 Corinthians), but though he's writing to a little c church, he often refers to them as the big C Church:
 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,  in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph. 2.17-22, ESV)
Christ's promise to "build His church" expresses this relationship between the two churches. We know that even if our church is forced to permanently close its doors (for whatever reason), we believe that Christ will build His "Church." Yet, we also believe that one of the expressions of God's promise is clearly visible in the fact that our church plant is slowly getting off the ground: "see, Christ is building His church."
All of this reinforces the Biblical assumption that to be a part of one is to be a part of the other. Easy enough. But what does that mean about membership lists or rolls?
Rolls and lists are everywhere in Scripture. It's true. And if you don't remember reading about these lists it's likely because they are not the most compelling or devotional portions of Scripture. In fact, we tend to skip over them. We literally have an entire book in our Bible that is (kind of) named as a list or a roll of church members. One of the main ideas of Numbers is the particular list of people that God has made promises to.
The Biblical evidence of organized lists and rolls of members is vast. The Church/church - remember, they're connected - had rolls to track the addition of people to the church (Acts 2.42-27), for the subtraction of people (1 Cor. 5.12-13) and for particular church ministries (1 Tim. 5.9). Even Jesus has an actual list (Rev. 21.27).
All of this reinforces the biblical truth that keeping an organized list of who's who and what's what in the local church is a good and natural thing to do. It's actually good pastoral work. It seems to reflect healthy leadership and "followship."
If I'm being totally honest, I actually could build a strong case to prove that church membership is an assumed Biblical reality that needs to be worked into the life of the local church. But, I think that doing so would put us back at square one with those who have been hurt or bullied by this idea. Even I get twitchy about demanding church membership. It feels so "top-down" in it's approach.
The Membership Landscape
I do think that there is a better way of viewing this whole thing. Again, it's easy to view membership from the top down ("I'm your pastor and you need to prove your commitment to our church and sign the roll"). And, there certainly needs to be space in your heart and mind for true, Christ-like pastoral authority. However, what if we started to view church membership in a more lateral way? What if we even saw Jesus' incarnation as a model for true Christian partnership or togetherness? I think this is actually Paul's point in Philippians 1-2. Paul wants this local church to live their lives in a way that reflects the worth of the Gospel (1.27). He wants them to be unified in their faith in and focus on the Gospel (1.28). Ultimately, he wants them to be unified in their love for one another (2.1-11) for the sake of their mission in the world (2.15).
At this point, it's helpful to look at the word "member" or "membership." The root, mem, is all over our english vocabulary: memory, memoir, memorial... This root phrase literally means "mind." The idea behind being a member of something has to do with your mind or how you think. To be a member or to have a membership is actually more than having a card (think Costco) or signing a roll (like most ideas of church membership). It really goes deeper into what we all share in our thinking. In Philippians 2, Paul wants us to "be of the same mind" and to "have this mind among yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus." Paul is calling for true membership. And this membership is centered on Gospel-soaked humility. True members of the church will think like Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6–8). To this, Paul says, "be of the same mind." Be members of this together. Join in membership with Jesus on His humble, gospel mission.
Jesus' mission is being carried out by his cross-bearing church (Phil. 1.29-30). We share in this. And locally, every church has to uniquely describe the who, what, where, when, why and how of the plan to join in. We do this in our church values, our mission statement, and our church vision. For us at GSBC, we value Gospel, Community and Mission. And our mission is to proclaim the Gospel so that all people may believe, grow and hope in Jesus. This looks good on paper, but we need people to join us and to be of the same mind! Like Jesus, we need people to humbly give up their rights and privileges and to become one of us for the sake of the Kingdom. You see? This isn't about me as a pastor or you as a congregant. This isn't about "my" or "our" kingdom. It's about His kingdom. Our mission is only accomplished with people who are of the same mind. It looks like this:
Gospel. Community. Mission. Jesus humbly came to us and gave these to us. We are in membership with Him to take this to the world. Everything else in our church's life is negotiable. Jesus isn't asking us to agree on music, the color of the carpet, or on every aspect of our theology. He's not asking you join a church just so your church leaders can feel like they have a way to exercise authority. But He is asking us to be "...of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind (Phil. 2.2) in order to advance the Gospel. To me, this is something that I can sign my name to. So, hold me accountable to this becuase this actually matters. This is eternally worth it. I'd be happy to join you in this too... together.