Baptism and Church Membership (Pt. 2)
Dear Friends and Fellow Missionaries:
This is the second in a series of articles in which I wish to clear up confusion about the issue of baptism, the separate issue of church membership, and the relationship between the two.
In my previous article, I addressed the issue of baptism. I showed that baptism is an “ordinance,” which means that it was specifically ordained by the Lord Jesus Christ as a rite to be followed by His Church. It is the first act of obedience for anyone who has declared his trust in and allegiance to the Lord Jesus. Therefore, baptism is not only open or available for all disciples of any age, it is and should be encouraged, even expected.
Now, let’s move on to the issue of church membership.
Church membership is a more difficult issue, I think, for two reasons. 1) It is not an ordinance. Jesus said not a single word about church membership. 2) While the New Testament speaks of church membership in a certain sense, our language and our understanding have changed so dramatically that when we talk about “church membership,” we just are not talking about what the Bible is talking about. To some (perhaps most) of us, “church membership” means that a person is placed on the roll of a particular church. They “join” a church, as one might “join” a fraternal order or a country club. And just as a member of the country club is entitled to certain rights and privileges, so the church member is entitled to certain church rights and privileges, such as voting.
But the Bible just does not use the term in that way. Instead of talking about our rights and privileges, it speaks of membership in terms of our responsibilities and obligations to one another. For example, consider Romans 12:4-8: “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.”
See how different this Biblical idea of church membership is from our modern concept.
Even at the definitional level, the Bible is talking about being a member of the broad body of Christ, not a particular local church. And while we may use the word “member” to describe a person listed on a church roll, the Scriptures simply do not use the term in this way. In fact, “member” in the Bible almost always means an individual part of a body (see, e.g., Matthew 5:28-29 and Rom. 6:19). So, to be a “member” in the Biblical sense is to be an integral part of the whole, a vital component, a part of the whole without which the body would be incomplete.
So in the Biblical sense, “each member belongs to all the others.” Biblical membership, then, is not concerned with our privileges, but with our responsibilities. Belonging to one another enables us to fulfill those Biblical obligations we could not fulfill otherwise. It is how we strengthen one another, edify one another, encourage one another, support one another, bear one another’s burdens, and hold one another accountable.
This Biblical concept points out a key deficiency in the modern notion of membership. Under the modern idea, some choose a church and join as members based upon what they may derive from it. This ought not be our motivation. Biblical membership is not caught up in the question, “What do I get out of this church?” but rather, “What do I bring to this church?” In the modern sense, people change churches like they change cable providers. Does that sound compatible with the Biblical definition of a “member?”
Also, you will notice that the Bible knows nothing of a “member” which does not have a function. In other words, a church “member” in Biblical times would not be someone who is listed on a roll, but rather someone who is functioning within the body. Obviously, not all members have the same function. “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” Some are teachers, others quiet encouragers. Some have money, others energy. Some use public leadership skills, others privately demonstrate the gift of mercy. But there is simply no such thing as a member without a function.
We recognize this truth when it comes to our physical bodies. We would be alarmed by something which draws from our body without contributing to it. We would not consider such a growth to be a “member” of our body at all, but rather a threat to our health. Shouldn’t we look with the same alarm upon this modern notion of a “member” who draws from the body without actively participating in the life and health of the body?
And so I ask the question, “Are you a member of First Baptist Church?” Are you a vital part without which we would be incomplete? Are you functioning in some capacity? If not, why not? Why not make the commitment to connect, to participate, to actively be involved in the life and health of this body?
As a pastor, I have a great concern that we add more members in the Biblical sense. I have no interest at all in simply adding more names to our church roll. Indeed, I think pastors and churches who do that for their own glory should be ashamed.
Now, with all that said, there is still a place for “church membership” in the modern context. And that, God willing, will be the subject of my next article.
With love and devotion,