Why Membership Matters
Nowhere in the New Testament can you find the phrase "church member," or "church membership." There is no command from Jesus to "repent, believe, and then go take a membership class at the closest church." So what's all the fuss? Why is becoming an official member of a church important? Why does membership matter?
Just because there is no explicit mention of church membership in the Bible, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be supported and practiced. (The term "Trinity" is never mentioned either, but the reality of a three-person Godhead is found all over the place). Membership matters because a lot of other things matter. The New Testament mentions all of these things explicitly, so we can implicitly come to the conclusion of church membership.
The gospel matters. The Bible is crystal clear about God's plan to redeem humanity from our fallen and sinful state. The bad news is that we all depart from the good design of God's reality and begin defining good and evil on our own terms. This rebellion leads to brokenness. Broken friendships, broken families, broken spirituality, broken communities. But there's good news! God doesn’t leave us there. God the Son came down to earth as a human, in order to live a perfect life according to God's design on our behalf. Then He died the death we deserve in our place. Three days later He rose from the grave, defeating the enemies of sin, death, and the devil forever. Now, before He returns, He is creating a new people for Himself: those who trust in Jesus and His gospel. We are called the Church. Church membership is not a requirement for salvation, but it is a way to formally identify yourself with those who have believed the gospel (1 Pet. 2:9-10).
The Church matters. God has chosen to reach the world through His Church – a global body of disciples who gather in local communities. Just like the Father sent His Son Jesus into the world to bring salvation, so Jesus sends us out as His disciples to share His message (John 17:18). We can make it clear that we have joined this mission by becoming church members.
People matter. The Bible often uses the metaphor of sheep to refer to God's people. Jesus is the "Chief Shepherd" (1 Pet. 5:4), and our pastors and elders are under-shepherds. Every sheep matters to Jesus. He leaves the 99 to find the one (Luke 15:3-7). It is important for the under-shepherds to know exactly who their sheep are, because every person matters. Our pastors and elders have been given authority over and responsibility for every sheep in their flock. Church membership gives them a crystal-clear picture of who those people are.
Commitment matters. My dad has been a pastor for over 30 years. When I asked him why church membership matters, he said this: "Church membership demonstrates the individual's commitment to the church, and the church's commitment to the individual." It goes both ways. In an age of individualism and isolation, church membership serves as a counterculture of self-giving love and commitment. Another long-time pastor I know says that all people are both "needy and needed." Church membership is a way to formally commit to meeting others' needs and allowing them to meet your own. Perhaps a better word for this whole concept and practice is church "partner" instead of member. The word "member" may carry connotations of country clubs and social groups. Members pay a fee and receive certain perks in return. This is NOT the idea of church membership. Becoming a member is signing up to be a committed partner who does the work of the ministry by serving the body through their spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:7). We all commit to one another as one body.
Clarity matters. I have heard it said, "To be unclear is to be unkind." Church membership gives both the church body and the surrounding community a clear picture of who exactly makes up the church. The individual makes their commitment clear to the church, and the church returns the favor. There is no guess work when it comes to who is on board and who is not. Church membership also gives believers a clear authority to submit themselves to. Ray Ortlund says every Christian should ask themselves this question to determine if they are indeed in a gospel community: "To whom do [I] submit?" (Gospel, p. 41). There are several commands in the New Testament to respect the authority of your pastors and elders (1 Thess. 5:12, Heb. 13:17, 1 Tim. 5:17). Make it clear who you will submit to.
**Caveat: Unfortunately, this authority can be abused by pastors and elders in unhealthy ways. The Chief Shepherd (Jesus) requires unconditional obedience. His imperfect under-shepherds should be held accountable to communicate His truth and commands; not their own opinions. So submission to them is only required to the extent they reflect and communicate His truth.
Unity matters. Ephesians 4 says, "There is one body, and one Spirit . . . one hope . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all." The word "body" is used in several different places to describe the church. Each member serves a unique role to help the body function (Rom. 12:4-8). In a healthy body, all parts work together in sync to accomplish any task. A church is one body. Not just a group of isolated persons. Church membership signifies an individual accepting a role that unites his/herself to the whole.
Love matters. Love is our gospel-witness as a church. "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." - John 13:35. Our commitment to one another through church membership is an act of love. It is giving of ourselves to become a part of the unified whole – the body. Because Jesus loves us endlessly, we overflow with love for Him and for others. Our cups spill over. We love Jesus, so we unite ourselves to His body – the Church. We love other believers, so we commit to the new humanity God is creating. We love the world, so we join in God's plan of using the Church to transform outsiders into insiders.