Church membership is on the ropes. Anecdotal evidence abounds as our church literally has been knocking on every door here in the city of Alexandria. So many times we’ve heard, “I’m a Christian, but I don’t need to ever go to church.”
Compelling evidence also exists in the statistics of our denomination. The Southern Baptist Convention boasts a membership of over 16 million Christians but at the same time reports that only just over 6 million attend a Southern Baptist church service of any sort. That means that 62% of the SBC is AWOL. That’s alarming!
West Main Baptist Church isn’t much better than the convention statistic. We have 313 members on our roster, but 166 of them have not been to a service here in over a year. That means that 53% of our local church membership is AWOL. That’s shocking and sad and something we are committed to remedy!
Something has gone terribly wrong in the SBC and its churches. Indeed, church membership is on the ropes. In the eyes of many, it has become meaningless and unnecessary.
This view, however, is not based upon the revelation of the New Testament. As we turn to the Scripture, we see a very different outlook concerning believers and the church. In fact, I would argue from the Bible that church membership is vitally important.
So, why is church membership vitally important? We’ll look at eight reasons:
1. Church membership places you under the watchcare of ordained church leadership.
Throughout the Bible, followers of God are figuratively called sheep, and sheep certainly need a shepherd. It’s for this reason that God has ordained the office of pastor. Just grammatically speaking, our Greek word translated “pastor” in the New Testament means “shepherd,” which in itself communicates watchcare and oversight. More importantly though, we have passages like the following:
- Ephesians 4:11-14, And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming;
- Hebrews 13:17, Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
In both passages, the implication is that sheep need a shepherd. Therefore, Christians need a pastor, which only happens through church membership. Through the commitment of church membership, a Christian places himself or herself under the watchcare of the pastor, which in turn clearly defines the pastor/shepherd’s flock. Only then can a Christian experience the fullness of the God-ordained office of pastor.
2. Church membership provides necessary connection for fruitful life and ministry.
Often in our minds we separate the idea of membership from its biblical context. We usually have the YMCA in mind, but when Paul talks about church membership, he’s talking about body parts being connected to a body. Read the following text:
- 1 Corinthians 12:12-20, For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body.
I’m sure most of you remember the Thing from The Addam’s Family. It was that hand that ran around without a body. Of course, it was funny because it’s so silly to think that a hand can run around without a body. It’s equally silly to think that a Christian can have a fruitful life and ministry apart from the local church, which is the body of Christ. Just as a hand severed from a body would quickly shrivel up and die, so goes the Christian apart from the Church.
3. Church membership supplies an ever-present opportunity for the stronger among us to build up the weaker among us.
So, you think that the church is beneath you, that if you get connected to it, it’ll just be dead weight hanging on you. Friend, look again at what the Scripture says. If you are as spiritual as you think you are, then you have an urgent obligation to aid those who are less spiritual. The following text clearly teaches this truth:
- 1 Corinthians 12:21-27, And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.
You as a “presentable” Christian are to help along the “less presentable” ones. There is to be co-laboring toward Christlikeness. What a ministry opportunity people neglect when they remain apart from the local church!
Of course, what I’ve described above is few and far between. It’s not usually the stronger Christians who remain apart from the church but rather the weaker ones. It’s the weaker ones, as Paul basically says, who certainly need to be a part of the local church so that they may be built up and made “presentable” or mature in Christ. Part of the beauty of the church is that the strong help the weak so that nobody is left behind!
4. Church membership promotes commitment, which leads to trust.
Trust is a key component to biblical fellowship, which means far more than sharing meals together. Biblical fellowship is sharing lives together—victories and defeats, happiness and sadness, healings and hurts, courageousness and anxiety. That’s what God has in mind for the people of His church, but this can only happen where trust is found among the people, and trust is advanced by commitment.
Notice what it says about the first New Testament church in Acts 2:41-42, So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. They were “continually devoting themselves” to one another. That’s an environment where trust will thrive because it’s filled with commitment, and commitment to one another is the very essence of church membership. It’s good to know who’s with you and who you can count on because trust will then ensue.
5. Church membership stimulates us to faithfulness to the Lord.
My five-year-old son Zachariah loves cowboys and Indians, and one of his favorite shows is the Lone Ranger. I’m sure you’re familiar with that show. Even though the cowboy lawman is called the “Lone” Ranger, he is not alone. He has Tonto, his faithful Indian friend. In fact, in the very first episode, which we have on DVD, it’s actually Tonto that saves the Lone Ranger’s life, which provides him to opportunity to become the Lone Ranger. So, even the Lone Ranger needs help from his friends to get by.
The same is true for the Christian life. We need others around us to help us along in the Lord. Look at what Hebrews 10:23-25 says:
- Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
You see, one of the graces that God has given us as we strive to hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering and to produce love and good deeds is fellow believers. That’s why we’re not to neglect regular Christian gatherings, which will become increasingly important as we near the time of Jesus’ return. Friend, you need other Christians to stimulate you to faithfulness in the Lord, and that happens best in the context of church membership.
6. Church membership conforms to the New Covenant pattern.
If we look at the context surrounding Hebrews 10:23-25, we’ll see a major emphasis on the New Covenant in Hebrews 10:19-22:
- Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
We see that God has made a new and living way for us through the sacrifice and priesthood of Jesus Christ. This new and living way is the New Covenant, and as pointed out in Hebrews 10:23-25, one of the graces given us in the New Covenant is church membership. The thinking goes like this: since Jesus Christ has died to make a new way for us, we are to give our entire selves to Him in service and love, which is helped along by church membership. Church membership conforms to the New Covenant pattern.
7. Church membership offers us a biblical context for accountability and discipline.
I know that 20th-century America saw the slide of the biblical doctrine and practice of church discipline, but praise God that here in the 21st-century we’re witnessing a recovery of it. Church discipline is thoroughly biblical and another one of God’s graces to the Christian. Although the word “discipline” seems negative, the heart of church discipline is righteousness and biblical loving care for one another in the faith.
Two basic types are taught in the Scripture. First is formative church discipline, which happens all the time to every Christian. This process is simply the formation of people in the Christian faith by bringing them to maturity in Christ through positive instruction and teaching. Every time we hear the preaching or teaching of the Word, every time we encourage one another in the faith, formative church discipline happens. We see this type of discipline particularly encouraged in the following texts:
- Ephesians 4:11-16, And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
- Hebrews 10:24-25, and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
- Colossians 3:16, Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
But formative church discipline doesn’t just happen through teaching. It also happens by example. Consider these texts:
- 1 Corinthians 4:16, Therefore I [Paul] exhort you, be imitators of me.
- 1 Corinthians 11:1, Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
- 3 John 11, Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God.
- Hebrews 6:11-12, And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
This kind of discipline is crucial because God uses it to prevent the sin that might require the second type, which is corrective church discipline. The more the church is shaped by formative discipline, the less it will need corrective discipline.
As I just alluded to, the second type of church discipline is corrective church discipline, which is the specific admonishment or correction of a particular church member for sin. Sometimes it’s very informal, such as simply pointing out in conversation a wrong way of thinking, attitude, or action, or it can be very formal, such as when the entire congregation has to act on some situation.
We see corrective church discipline commanded in the following texts:
- Matthew 18:15-18, If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
- 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES.
- Galatians 6:1, Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.
Again, the heart behind this type of discipline is righteousness and loving care for one another. Therefore, the goal for the erring church member is always repentance and restoration. Only church membership provides the necessary context for this sort of biblical care for one another.
8. Church membership glorifies God.
Jesus told us in Matthew 16:18 that He is going to build His church and that the gates of Hades will not overpower it. Church membership is a tangible way of seeing Jesus’ work. As we see people profess faith in Christ and commit to a local church body, the local church grows, and God is seen to be advancing in our community. People begin to say, “God must be doing something!” and they would be right. Christians gathered together and growing bears a greater sum witness to the work of God and, in turn, brings Him greater glory.
Church membership may be on the ropes at the moment, but I’m praying in faith that it will recover as the church begins to love again all the things that God loves. May you see church membership as precious and indispensable as it was intended to be!