For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 1 Corinthians 12:14–20
Where are the days of duty and promise, pledges and vows, oaths and formal agreements? Contemporary Western cultures are enthralled by choice and committed primarily to preserving the freedom to withdraw, move on, reconsider and renegotiate. We are faithful to our spouses until fidelity is uncomfortable and inconvenient. We are loyal to our employers until we get a better offer.
Ours is a culture committed to consumerism, and if Christians are not careful, even our churches will be nothing more than a semi-sanctified microcosm of the surrounding world. We attend when we want, are accountable to the degree we want, submit to whom we want and only when we want and give only when it is convenient.
We are going through the motions and checking things off a list, but is this really what and how and who the church was created to be?
The local church is more than a place. The church is the glorious gathering of the redeemed, the sanctified flock of the great Shepherd, the united household of God, the beautiful body and bride of Christ. It manifests the “manifold wisdom of God” for the display of His glory (Eph. 3:10).
Such an exalted picture of the church seems silly as long as we’re content with superficial relationships and shallow connections. It seems impossible as long as we pursue finite happiness in infinite choice and entertainment.
Even a casual reading of Scripture reveals that the commitment of believers to one another is anything but casual. In both descriptive and prescriptive language, the Bible attests to the formal and profound relationship that exists among those who have been reconciled to God and each other.
The Scriptures call us to love one another, outdo one another in showing honor, live in harmony with one another, instruct, greet, comfort, serve, bear the burdens of, forgive, encourage, always seek to do good to, exhort, stir up to love and good works, confess your sins to, pray for and show hospitality to one another.
But how can this be pursued without a deep and real commitment to the good of others?
Believers may pursue these obligations to each other through many avenues, but the primary way in which we are to fulfill them is within the fold of this messy and beautiful reality called the local church.
Ever since its inception, the Church universal has been arranged into smaller congregations called local churches. Though Christians are divided on the exact relationship that exists between these local churches and other intricate matters of ecclesiology, all have believed that they are essential communities instituted by God for His glory and our good.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul draws on the imagery of a body as a metaphor for the local church. Far from commending self-sufficiency and independence, the apostle upholds a radically countercultural vision of desperate interdependence marked by love, service, humility, sacrifice and sympathy.
And, as participants in the body are called “members,” so this participation in the local church body is called membership.
Jonathan Leeman writes:
Church membership is a formal relationship between a Church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.
Membership is not about privilege or prestige. It is not some elevated level of access with secret insider benefits. It is not a legal document or means of control.
Membership recognizes and responds to the call of discipleship in the context of gospel-centered community. It is an affirmation and agreement to contribute to the good of the body rather than consume from it. It is a formalization of that which already implicitly exists. It is an obligation to sacrificially seek the good of others in the body of Christ by taking the general call toward service and incarnating it within a particular people.
When the Bible speaks of these formal relationships, it uses the concept of a covenant. Some of these are between people (1 Sam.18:3, 20:16; 2 Sam. 5:3) while others are between God and man (Gen. 6:18, 9;16, 15:18; Luke 22:20; Heb. 8:6-7). In some covenants, one party binds him or herself to fulfill the obligations of both sides. In others, the parties are reciprocally bound to adhere to the obligations.
Though types of covenants vary, the concept itself saturates the biblical text. What better way to evidence the formal relationship into which we have been called than through covenantal promise?
Covenants also include some sort of visible representation. All cultures have symbols to signify comprehension and consent. At times those agreements include cutting animals in two and walking between the pieces (Gen. 15), placing a hand under a thigh (2 Sam. 24), removing and exchanging a sandal (Ruth 4) or instituting and enjoying a ceremonial dinner (Matt. 26:17-29). While the symbol may change, the abiding call to covenant is clear.
Christians commit themselves to each other in the context of the local church in countless cultural ways. At The Village, the current process for membership involves a class, a subsequent meeting and some paperwork. Far from mere formality, these expressions are important representations of the formal commitment.
God calls His people into covenant, not only to Himself but also to each other. He calls us to a life of sacrifice, generosity, service and radical commitment to the good of the body. And this happy obligation is most readily pursued within the context of a particular body—a local church.
So, why wouldn’t you formally join a local church? What is holding you back from covenanting with a particular people to live out the gospel together?