Church Membership: Is it Biblical?

Membership-BiblicalRationale Church membership has become curiously controversial. I am going to address key issues in four posts:

  1. The Biblical Rationale
  2. Ministers of the Gospel
  3. Gifted for the Body
  4. Submitted and Responsible

Biblical Rationale

I have often heard it argued that the New Testament nowhere tells us to have formalized, signed membership agreements or covenants. That's the tactful way to put it. Usually it sounds a lot more like, "I'm not signing your piece of paper." While it's true that there's no mention of signed documents, there is certainly the expectation of committed life together in community, connected to a local body of believers. So, are our current approaches to church membership biblical?

Admittedly, this takes a little explanation and teaching. In our cultural context membership is much more transactional. In fact, all of life seems transactional. Typically membership means that an individual pays dues or fees in order to secure rights of access and use. We become members of a Costco so we can buy stuff in their warehouses. We join country clubs so that we have rights to the golf courses. We join unions and trade associations so that our rights are protected and our voices can be unified. None of these are the portrait of biblical church membership. Biblical membership is not about paying dues to gain access and rights, it is about giving ourselves up to serve others as we are connected to Jesus' work in and through His Body, the church.

Membership - In a Body, Not a Club

Membership is not just a made up term for churches, and it's not borrowed from our culture. It is a biblical concept and biblical language. There is a massive difference, though. Biblical church membership is about being part of a Body, not gaining access to rights in a club. Churches use all kinds of different language for membership as they try to get past these connotations. While there is nothing wrong with using language like partners, investors, etc., at Redemption Hill Church we have chosen to stick with "membership" because it is the most direct language of the NT.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

(1 Corinthians 12:12, 27)

Jesus is the Head of His church (Col. 2:19). Local churches are each an expression, or manifestation, of the Body of Christ. No one of us can independently claim to be part of His Body. It is only when we are joined together that the individual members make up the Body of Christ. We are joined, knit together, by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:12-13). This imagery - that we are individual members of a corporate Body, gifted by One Spirit to serve one another, encourage one another, and build up that Body through the gospel of Jesus Christ - is beautiful and worthy of our pursuit. Biblical

Why a Formal Process and Agreement? 

This brings us back to the argument about a formal process and agreement. It is true that the NT doesn't prescribe a system for membership classes or list signed membership covenants. That doesn't mean that there is not biblical rationale for these things. It is clear that the NT is concerned with maintaining clarity in who is and is not a part of a local church for the sake of discipline and purity of the church (1 Cor. 5), developing leaders (1 Tim. 3; Tit. 1), bearing one another's burdens (Gal. 6:1-10), and in unity of purpose and mission (Eph. 4:1-16).

In the NT era people faced dire consequences for following Jesus. Christians needed to cling to each other in the face of persecution. In our culture this is simply not the case. It is too often the case now that people approach church life and involvement transactionally rather than familially, evaluating the level to which their desires are being met and gracing the church with their presence and giving proportionally. If the church involvement is transactional, individuals will balk at the idea of submission to leaders and preservation of unity in the body. Instead, they will fight for their autonomy and rights.

We have addressed our cultural context with a two-pronged approach. First is membership class. At RHC we call this "Foundations". The Foundations Class gives us an opportunity to teach what biblical church membership truly is, addressing the cultural baggage associated with that terminology. It also provides opportunity to talk about our doctrinal commitments and church distinctives so that individuals can asses their alignment with us as a local Body. Providing an opportunity for teaching and dialog on who we are and how we function provides for and preserves unity within this local church.

The second of our two prongs is a membership covenant. Hebrews 13:7 says,

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

We need to seriously consider how we can know how to identify the leaders to whom we are submitted, and our leaders need to know which souls for whom they are responsible before God to give an account.  The cultural platform by which we make commitments is to sign our name to documents. We do this in countless ways, from daily credit card transactions, to gym memberships, to permission slips for school field trips. Signing our name is our culture's way of saying, "Yes. I understand these things and I am committed to fulfill this agreement." RHC's membership covenant includes expectations of the church and church leadership as we commit to each member, as well as commitments of the individual to the church.  It is a reciprocal commitment that we believe applies biblical principle to our cultural setting, which is the calling of every church.

Church membership is biblical. It isn't an optional concept in the New Testament. For Christians, pursuing membership in a local church is a matter of obedience, not preference. It's a matter of commitment and service rather than accessing rights through transactional alignment.

The posts that follow will dig more deeply into all of these things. Stay tuned!