My lofty ambition is to change the way you think about church membership. Of course, that ambition assumes that many don’t understand church membership well. This may be a poor assumption, but probably not. Certainly, cultural influences have left their mark. Individualism does not lend itself to social cohesion, and we are primarily self-interested individuals. However, the Church can and should present an alternative to our contemporary cultural milieu.
Any attempt to grow in an understanding of church membership begins with accepting the conditions of authority. All membership talk comes under this heading. As Christians, we believe Jesus Christ has ultimate authority over all creation. He is supreme; He is sovereign; He is God.
Those outside the faith might reluctantly confess that the state (governments, presidents, kings) holds ultimate authority. Believers should agree that the state does in fact have power and authority, but only because God gives it authority to do justice—to wield the sword. God also gives authority to other institutional structures such as the family. Parents have authority to raise their children. And, of course, there is the authority of the Church. The Church, like the state and the family, is an institution empowered by God to have authority over our lives.
This is foundational. God has empowered institutions to have authority over our lives.
Most merely nod at this type of institutional authority. For many, authority is simply structural or legal, but not truly binding. Parental authority is fleeting. Governmental authority is a social contract that can be broken when no one is looking. To consider the church as authoritative is borderline cultish. To take the next step of giving it authority over our public and private lives is outlandish.
In understanding that church authority is not only structural or legal, but also spiritual, and in its connection with the Spirit, glorious, you can see why this goal is quite lofty. There is no higher vision of church membership than to understand it as mutual submission to a body that is growing into Christ.
Jonathan Leeman, in his book Church Membership, draws out several obstacles to this vision, beginning with our understanding of church as simply a voluntary association. We love in our country to gather together in associations. It’s part of our who we are; it’s foundational; it’s constitutional. We come together to pursue common goals and express common interests. These are voluntary associations that provide us a service. We are primarily individuals who come together to scratch each other’s back. This process of joining a voluntary association—by becoming a member—feeds our framework for church membership.
But the church is not a voluntary association; it’s not a club. Membership is voluntary for an association, but church membership is not optional for followers of Christ. We do not gather, like the Elk Lodge, because we have the same religious interests.
Leeman is quick to point out and dispel the common objection regarding this understanding of church membership and authority—that it’s not clearly prescribed in the Bible. Of course, what comes out of this objection is a faulty preconceived notion of church membership—that it’s a voluntary association that we can join or not join, that it’s a club where we participate as self-interested individuals that we can get our needs met. We take these ideas to the Scriptures, and then we’re confused as to why we can’t find anything on membership.
Scripture never talks about local church membership this way, as being a part of a club or voluntary association, but everywhere else it talks about the idea of Christians being a part of a kingdom or nation, about citizenship. Leeman writes:
Just as the Bible establishes the government of your nation as your highest authority on earth when it comes to your citizenship in that nation, so the Bible establishes the local church as your highest authority on earth when it comes to your discipleship to Christ and your citizenship in Christ’s present and promised nation.
Our government has the power to decide who is publicly recognized as an American citizen. In a similar way, the local church has the authority to decide who is publicly recognized as a citizen of Christ’s kingdom. As soon as we go to Scripture looking for this idea—being citizens of a kingdom instead of members of a club—we find all kinds of evidence for God’s requiring our connection to a church. You see passages like “being brothers and sisters within a family.” You see images of “vines and branches, holy nations, kings and kingdoms.” We must return to Scripture with these new lenses.
If local church membership is an expression of a believer’s citizenship, then even the language of “joining” or not “joining” makes little sense. If the church is an authority structure like the family or the state, it may be more accurate to speak of “submitting.” Children don’t join their family unit; they submit to their parental authority. Americans don’t join a country; they submit to the laws of the land. In the same way, believers do not join a local church; they submit to a body.
This is the great challenge to reframing our understanding of church membership. Authority and submission are generally anathema to our autonomy. Oh, to loosen the grip on our liberal freedom and to have the epiphany—self-giving over self-interested, communitarian over individualistic. Oh, to see submission and authority as gifts of God.
This is picture of Christ’s Church. Our understanding must grow.