THE ENDURING PRACTICE OF MEMBERSHIP
More and more these days, churches have moved away from the concept and practice of church membership. Some of the reasons for this are understandable. For one thing, we live in a very mobile society where people are almost always on the move. Whether it be seasonal moving (going south for the winter), frequent career related moves, or just regular trips to family, friends, or weekend cottages, the concept of being an official member of a local congregation doesn’t fit as nicely as it once did when we were more tied to our local communities.
In addition, there has been a general move in recent decades away from a focus on doctrine and toward a focus on worship styles or tailored church programs. Because of this, many people may find themselves enjoying participation in a church even though its doctrines are not fully in line with their own beliefs. In other words, people are often much more comfortable with participating in a congregation than they are with officially joining it. Eliminating the practice, importance, or even requirement of church membership, then, has seemed to make a lot of sense in our contemporary context.
~~ There are, however, some very good reasons for holding on to the practice of church membership, and they are the very same reasons that church membership developed in the first place.
The First of Reason
To be a Christian means to belong to other Christians in a deep and meaningful way.
The church is not primarily an organization or an institution. Neither is it a religious business which simply seeks to supply the kind of worship and programs that the market is hungry for, and to try to do so better than the church down the street.
The church is, primarily, an organism.
The church is people – people who are connected in a deep and meaningful way to God in Christ, and as a result, connected in deep and meaningful ways as individual members of a single body, the body of Christ.
~~ As Christians, we belong to Christ and we belong to one another.
Now the full body of Christ is obviously too large a group for a person to be an active part of in this world as it encompasses many millions of people in every corner of the world. However, each and every congregation represents this body of Christ in miniature, and as we join ourselves to that congregation, we are joining ourselves to the body of Christ.
~~ This idea is so important as explained in the next two reasons for holding on to the practice of church membership.
The Second Reason
It is this formal membership in the local congregation that most tangibly secures our place among God’s people. This doesn’t mean that we don’t really belong unless our name has been put on an official piece of paper. Rather, the official piece of paper represents the official, public declaration by the individual that he/she has joined himself/herself to this body of Christ – is in true relationship with Christ and seeks to be in true relationship with his people.
~~ Formal membership, then, is not first of all a statement made by the church, but a statement made by the individual member: “I am a believer in Jesus. I belong to Him, and because of that, I belong to you.
The Third Reason
It is this formal membership in the local congregation that makes possible a loving and effective atmosphere of mutual accountability and pastoral care. Since official church membership is an individual declaration of belonging to Christ and to his people, it is also an implicit request made by the member that this body of Christ would help them to keep the faith and to finish the race. The writer of the book of Hebrews refers to the role of the church in this regard:
~~ 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. - Hebrews 13:17
Each individual member is benefited by the careful oversight that the church gives to both the doctrine (beliefs) and life (activities) of individual members, helping all together to hold to Christ and his truth so that we will all be received in his open arms of grace upon our deaths or his return. And it is only a formal practice of church membership that allows such an oversight to have any tangible existence. If someone attending a church has not formally declared their membership in Christ and his church, on what grounds does the church hold them accountable to beliefs and practices that conform to Christ’s teaching? Only where individuals have publicly declared their belonging (in the form of an official church membership) are there grounds for this terribly important work to take place.
Because of these important things, we continue to utilize a formal practice of church membership. It is this formal commitment to Christ and to one another that lays the foundation for the church to function as Christ intended, glorifying him and blessing all those who are among his people.
But this discussion of church membership may bring to mind a question:
“Just what must I do or say in order to become a member?” The answer to that question is easy. All you need to do is meet with the elders of the church and share with them your story of belonging to Jesus – how he lead you to himself through the gospel – the gospel that declares to us the terrible danger of our sinful condition, his free forgiveness for those who will repent and place their trust in him for salvation, and the call to discipleship wherein we make him lord of our lives.
~~ The gospel is the only test for membership in the body of Christ, and that is the only one we employ here.
While formal membership does also require the individual to believe that our church doctrine is a faithful representation of the truth of God’s Word, that is a determination which must be made by the individual rather than the church.
A summary of our doctrinal beliefs is found in the Ecumenical Creeds (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed) and the Reformed Confessions (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort). These can be accessed through the Creeds & Confessions Page of our website or in the back of the grey Psalter Hymnal, and copies of them are also available upon request.