Groucho Marx once lamented: I would not belong to any club that would have me as a member.
Church membership has become passe. Why need I be a member of the local church? Can’t I worship God just as effectively at home listening to Charles Stanley or T. D. Jakes? Isn’t God honored by my worship of Him through the enjoyment of nature? Why should I bother be part of church when I can go it alone spiritually?
Yet, at this point I do think we need to ask ourselves, “Is membership within a local church body even Biblical?”
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:27: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
Here in this verse Paul puts a premium on church membership.
However, someone might reply: Isn’t the real church the universal body of Christ, the Kingdom of God, and not some localized expression of that body? After all, I became a part of the universal body of Christ the moment I came into faith.
Those who reject formalized church membership rightly emphasize belonging to the universal body of Christ. They are also right in their concern that some forms of membership can become simply a formality and empty ritual without any true transformation. Indeed the size of a church’s membership says nothing about the spiritual vitality of its members. They could be on the cusp of flat-lining.
Yet, the consistent biblical narrative insists that God loves formalized commitment. He is a God of covenant … a God of commitment … and if that is true is it really a stretch to say that formalizing our commitment within a localized expression of the body of Christ is in line with the heart of God? If we can admit we are a part of the universal body of Christ, then should it not have a localized and geographical expression? It is important to live out our commitment to Christ every day in our local contexts. To simply say we belong to the universal body is not enough because it inevitably remains an abstract concept. It’s too easy, flimsy and ethereal. It can lead to inaction. It’s in the local church that we’ll actually have to begin the ongoing work of living out our commitment in a real and tangible way.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a leading preacher of the last century, has said, “We must grasp once again, the idea of church membership as being the membership of the body of Christ and as the biggest honour which can come a man’s way in this world.”
Yet, I think, if we are honest with ourselves, it’s not just that we’re against church membership. That’s not the true issue at all. I want to suggest that we’re afraid of commitment and the restriction commitment brings upon our lives.
For example, if I commit to a church does that mean I have to stick it out with that church even when leadership changes? Even if the vision shifts over time? Does that mean I actually have to be accountable to others and let people speak into my life … even when it’s uncomfortable? Does that mean I actually have to consult with others in my community before making major life decisions such as moving to another city or moving in with this person?
Perhaps the actual problem is that we don’t want to commit to a bunch of broken people who will inevitably hurt us and let us down. So we settle for tarnished intimacy and feigned vulnerability. What we’re really saying is we’ll take Jesus’ willingness to love us and meet us in our mess, but we don’t want to extend that in a committed and consistent way to others. Hence, it’s more convenient to belong to the universal body as a concept. I can pray for faceless and nameless Christians around the globe (which of course is a good thing), but it doesn’t inconvenience me like when a single mom in my community calls me because her babysitter bailed at the last minute and she needs my help.
Commitment to a church community is a healthy corrective to our hyper-individualistic (and let’s confess, narcissistic) tendencies. Yet the commitment is not only communal. It is also personal. There isn’t true belonging if it is only a dead formality. If we make a commitment to a community of faith it means we are committing to following Jesus together, which also means you are committing to follow Jesus.