I have watched with great interest (and concern) at the evolution of “church membership” over the years. This obviously is seasoned with my own personal experiences, from an early background attending (and technically a “member” of) the Episcopal Church while growing up, to various excursions into differing faith groups – and ultimately being redeemed, baptized, and added to Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Carlisle, Arkansas what seems so long ago. Add to the mix my observations of several modern/contemporary churches which have essentially eliminated the concept of formal church membership, and I have developed rather strong opinion on what Church Membership is. So much so, that I have been led to begin a Sunday evening sermon series regarding what Biblical Church Membership is – what it looks like – and indeed, what is a “healthy” church member (and membership). A great help in my chase on the subject is Jonathan Leeman’s Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. Leeman’s passion for the local church is evident, and while this book does not mine the extensive (and indeed endless) depths of what Scripture has to say about the local church and membership in her, it does serve as an incredible opportunity and tool to help the reader refocus and maybe rediscover what church membership really is.
In fact, I was going to attempt to put into words what I have formed in my own thinking on the subject of how we have maybe gotten it wrong – but then I recalled that in his first chapter, Leeman has a section that lists off some of the symptoms of wrong thinking in and about the “church” and I am simply going to quote that below. I pray it will serve to help us all rethink, and ultimately rediscover what church membership really is.
The following is from Jonathan Leeman’s Church Membership: How The World Knows Who Represents Jesus Copyright ©2012 Johnathan Leeman, pp. 23-24.
Maybe we acquired this understanding of the local church from the Protestant emphasis on the location of preaching and the ordinances. Maybe we’ve been duped by Western democratic society into viewing churches as voluntary associations. Maybe it’s a century’s worth of practice at being consumers. I’m not sure. But here are some of the symptoms of our wrong thinking:
- Christians can think it’s fine to attend a church indefinitely without joining;
- Christians think of getting baptized apart from joining;
- Christians take the Lord’s Supper without joining;*
- Christians view the Lord’s Supper as their own private, mystical experience for Christians and not as an activity for church members who are incorporated into body life together;
- Christians don’t integrate their Monday-to-Saturday lives with the lives of other saints;
- Christians assume they can make a perpetual habit of being absent from the church’s gathers a few Sundays a month or more;
- Christians make major life decisions (moving, accepting a promotion, choosing a spouse, etc.) without considering the effects of those decisions on the family of relationships in the church or without consulting the wisdom of the church’s pastors and other members;
- Christians buy homes or rent apartments with scant regard to how factors such as distance and cost will affect their abilities to serve their church;
- Christians don’t realize that they are partly responsible for both the spiritual welfare and the physical livelihood of the other members of their church, even members they have not met. When one mounts, one morns by himself. When one rejoices, one rejoices by herself.
The Basic disease behind all of these symptoms, the disease which, I admit, courses through my own veins, is the assumption that we have the authority to conduct our Christian lives on our own. We include the church piece when and where we please.
That is to say, we treat the local church like a club to join – or not. And this assumption leaves us conducting our Christian lives somewhat aloof from the local church even when we do join one: “Sure, I’m a member, but why in the world would I ask the church to help me think through accepting that job in Albuquerque?”
Please understand, I’m not just pointing the finger. These are my cultural instincts, too. I confess that I want to do things my way. I want to avoid taking responsibility for others.
But this is not the biblical picture. We need to take off one set of glasses and put on another. Are you ready?
So what, then, shall we do?If even one of the symptoms above are present in our lives – we have an issue to deal with. I sadly believe that many of us today have many of these symptoms in some way evident in our lives. The reality is – we are either going to redefine the meaning of being a church member, or we are going to rediscover what Christ had in mind when He set up His church – and will mirror what He has established in our actions and our relationship one with another. I believe that if we will take the step of genuinely investing in each other, opening our own hearts to be poured in to, while also pouring into others – all while also recognizing the fact that much of the authority Jesus Christ gave was to the church, not to individual Christians acting alone. And in all of this, we also need to recognize that it is God who leads Christians to the church He would have us be a functional part of. As Paul illustrated so often – a body, rightly fitted together.
Remember – First Baptist Church Cave Springs, Arkansas – Evening service series: A Church Member is __________. The first installment filled in the blank with “Functional” (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)