Church Membership as Spiritual Formation


As I’ve written before, I’m enrolled in an online Masters of Art in Christian Studies program at Criswell College. It’s been a great experience so far. I’ve been challenged, I’ve learned, and I’ve read more than normal. I had my first big assignment recently—a 10-page research paper on Church Membership. I chose the topic because it was one I was familiar with yet knew would still challenge me. It was a good mix. Today I share my paper with you. I made an A on it, so it must not have been awful. 

Spiritual formation is not a one-dimensional growth plan. Reading ones Bible alone will not ultimately conform us into the image of Christ. It takes not only learning but application as well. There is a public response to private learning in the form of spiritual disciplines that is essential to our spiritual formation. “The Lord Jesus not only expects these disciplines of us, He modeled them for us. He applied His heart to discipline. He disciplined himself for the purpose of godliness. And if we are going to be Christ-like, we must live as Christ lived.”[1] These public responses can be evidenced through corporate worship, service, prayer, fasting, missions work, ministry, pastoral care, and church membership. While church membership may seem out of place as an act of spiritual formation, our association with a local assembly of believers in a community of faith is essential to the unity of the body of Christ. Ultimately, church membership is prescribed to, productive for, and performed by Christians to grow in their personal faith.

Church Membership Is Prescribed

The biblical basis for church membership is seen in its prescription to the Israelites first, then to the New Testament believers. Church membership can be seen in the Old Testament as God calls his people, Israel, into covenant with him. The feasts, offerings, and times of public worship prescribed to the Israelites in the Torah are a form of membership in the Old Testament. One was not considered part of God’s family in the Old Testament without participating the worship practices of the Jewish faith. This foreshadows the New Testament when believers were specifically called to start and to participate in local communities of faith.

The call for church membership is also Biblical based on the simple expectation for there to actually be churches in cities and for them to assemble regularly. Paul wrote his letters to churches. There are the seven letters in Revelation written to churches. What would be the purpose of writing letters to churches if there were no expectation that there be believers actually making up the bodies of these communities of faith? If churches were not prescribed for believers, several Pauline epistles would be personal letters like we see to Timothy or Philemon. They would not have been written to the churches in Galatia. Or the church in Corinth or Thessalonica.

These local communities of faith in Colossae, Ephesus, Philippi, and beyond had a purpose of meeting together regularly. “Scripture instructs us to assemble regularly so that we can regularly rejoice in our common hope and regularly spur one another on to love and good deeds.”[2]

Another evidence for the prescription of church membership is the calling forth of deacons and elders. Why list qualifications for those who are to lead the church if there was not an expectation of having people within the church to lead once they are actually installed as church officers? Who are the elders to lead? Or on whom are they to practice church discipline if there are no members? Or to whom are the deacons to serve in the church? As we see in 1 Timothy 5:9, a list was kept of widows in the church to whom the leaders would minister. Churches in the New Testament knew who belonged in their assemblies.[3]

We are also provided with roles for those in the church. These roles are prescribed to certain members. 1 Corinthians 12:21-30 states:

So the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” Or again, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” But even more, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are necessary. And those parts of the body that we think to be less honorable, we clothe these with greater honor, and our unpresentable parts have a better presentation. But our presentable parts have no need of clothing. Instead, God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable, so that there would be no division in the body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other. So if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it. And God has placed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, next miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, managing, various kinds of languages. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all do miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in other languages? Do all interpret?

This passage clearly speaks to the expectation and prescription of church membership—even to the point of specifying the different callings and gifts provided to the leaders and members. “The Bible makes it clear that if one part of the body does not do its job well, the whole body does not function well. But if one part does its job well, the whole body rejoices and is stronger.”[4]

The “implications of the body metaphor should be reflected in what we expect from church members. As the members of a physical body love and care for each other, such should be the part of the church member’s commitment . . . Membership is no light matter but has both significant privileges and challenging responsibilities when it is seen as membership in a body.”[5]

However, some throughout history have argued against the Biblical nature of church membership. Some “object to regenerate church membership on the grounds that the New Testament reflects a pioneering evangelistic situation.”[6] Others in history “might argue that the fact that the church as a whole, for the bulk of its history, accepted the idea of the church as a mixed body of believers and non believers should call into question the interpretation of Scripture held by those in the believers’ church camp. For more than a thousand years, some could argue, the idea of the mixed church had not been seen as incompatible with Scripture by some of the most able interpreters in all of church history. If the doctrine of regenerate church membership is as obvious as claimed . . . why did so many notable students of the Bible miss it? Why was it absent for more than a thousand years of Christian history? While these are valid questions, there are three cogent answers to this objection.”[7]

The three answers to historic objections to church membership are first that the mixed church example was not fully accepted, the timeframe for these examples coincide with widespread biblical ignorance by the masses, and a believer’s church has grown more and more prevalent since the Reformation and as the Bible has been available to all.[8] The historic objections are not the only ones. Some Christians are indifferent to church membership, others are ignorant, still, others are indecisive. There are also independent types, and, finally, there are those who are slow to commit to a local church because their affections are inverted.[9]

“The evidence is not abundant, but it is clear, and it is consistent. At the very least, then, we may say that local church membership is a good and necessary implication of God’s desire to keep a clear distinction between His own chosen people and the worldly system of rebellion that surrounds them.”[10] Because of this distinction, church members should strive to be positive, contributing members of the body not only because church membership is prescribed, but because it is also productive.

Church Membership Is Productive

Productivity from church membership is seen not only in the personal benefits, but it is seen in the totality of benefits for the body of the church, its community, and ultimately the mission of God throughout the world. The first of the benefits of church membership is unity.

In his prayer for the disciples in John 17:20-23, Jesus states:

I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in Me through their message. May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me. I have given them the glory You have given Me. May they be one as We are one. I am in them and You are in Me. May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me.

In his final prayer for His disciples, Jesus asks for them to be united to one another as He is to the Father. Unity among believers is best served through church membership. If Jesus called for all believers to be united as one, local church membership is the best possible expression of that unity on a local, personal level. Uniting with a local fellowship of believers provides access to relationships, encouragement, and service. “Unity is vital to the health of a church. And that means every church member . . . must contribute to the unity of the church.”[11]

Christian relationships within the local church are essential to spiritual growth. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17). This sharpening would be impossible without other believers in our lives on a consistent basis.

These relationships offer opportunities for spiritual encouragement, rebuke, healing and more. For man’s physical well being, he eats food, visits the doctor, and exercises. But man is not simply a physical being. Spiritual nourishment and care is needed as well. Man needs the local church and its members for spiritual food, spiritual check-ups, and faith exercises. Opportunities to serve other members of the body are needed as well as the benefit of being served.

This service of others is ultimately grounded in love for one another. “We are not to love fellow church members just because they are lovable. We are to love the unlovable as well. We are not to pray for and encourage our pastors just when they are doing things we like. We are to pray for and encourage them when they do things we don’t like. We are not to serve the church only when others are joining in. We are to serve the church even if we are alone in doing so. Church membership is founded in love. Authentic, biblical, unconditional love.”[12]

The church body should also be familial. “The fact that the church is like a family should increase our love and fellowship with one another. The thought that the church is like the bride of Christ should stimulate us to strive for greater purity and holiness, and also greater love for Christ and submission to Him . . . The metaphor of the church as the body of Christ should increase our interdependence on one another and our appreciation of the diversity of gifts within the body.”[13]

This love in the context of community in the local church also provides encouragement for other forms of spiritual formation. Corporate prayer, corporate worship, serving together, and the practice of evangelism are all built up through the community of faith in the local church. But the individual church member is not the only beneficiary of church membership. The body as a whole benefits from our involvement in the local church.

As a benefit to the full body of believers, church membership is “preceded and safeguarded by believer’s baptism, is the basis for congregational church government…and is a prerequisite for effective church discipline and is protected by church discipline.”[14]

“Church membership should be a regenerate church membership that is, the church should do what it can to ensure that those who become members are genuinely Christians. Membership should be limited to those who profess faith in Christ, have been baptized, and live a life that is consistent with their profession.”[15] As the first act of a Christian, baptism is the entry point into church membership. This obviously varies in certain faith traditions. It also can be a point of contention in some churches and with some believers who do not see the importance to follow Christ’s example of baptism. However, for the majority of churches, membership is first based on salvation then entered into through the act of baptism. The obedience one shows in the act of believer’s baptism displays a picture of submission and obedience—primary qualifications for church membership, and, if needed, church discipline.

Congregational government and structure is also a benefit to the body. Decisions are made and leaders are chosen by the members to advance the kingdom most effectively in the specific context of the local church. Without the membership of a local church working together, local churches would lack clarity of vision, have disjointed processes, and not function as the one body they are called to be. They would lack unity and lose community.

Another benefit of church membership for the local church is the practice of church discipline. Without membership, rebuking and reproving members would not be possible. While some see discipline as a way to punish those who have made mistakes or have intentionally done wrong, it should be intended to restore those who have fallen. Church discipline carried out in a spirit of love and dignity will build up the local body of believers.

Church Membership Is Performed

Finally, church membership is performed by the members of the church. “Biblical church membership gives without qualification. Biblical membership views tithes and offerings as joyous giving. There are no strings attached. Biblical church membership serves and ministers as a natural way of doing things.”[16] However, many claim to be biblical church members only to offer little or no performance to evidence their claims.

“Sadly, it is not uncommon to find a big gap between the number of people officially on the membership rolls and the number who regularly attend.”[17] In a recent study for the Southern Baptist Convention, LifeWay Research found that of the 15,872,404 church members in the SBC, only 5,966,735 were in church on an average Sunday.[18]

For the regenerate members who show up, what are they to do as members? “Church members should attend regularly . . . Being present, being known, and being are the only ways to make Christian love possible. Church members should seek peace and edify others. A healthy church member comes to serve, not be served. Church members should warn and admonish others. This is evident in church discipline and is also seen as church members pursue reconciliation and bear with others. Church members also prepare for the ordinances—the visible proclamations of the gospel through baptism and communion. Finally, church members are called to support the work of the ministry. A committed member gives resources, time, and talent to further the Kingdom both locally and throughout the world.”[19]

This performing of church membership is also biblically based. Hebrews 10:25 instructs us not to neglect assembling with the saints. We are a called people—called to Christ and called to one another. As for gathering with other believers to grow spiritually, “the public assembly is meant for the edification, the building up, the growth of the Christian. Neglecting to participate in the corporate life of the church or failing to actively serve and be served is a sure-fire way to limit our growth . . . When we serve others in the church, bear with one another, love one another, correct one another, and encourage one another, we participate in a kind of ‘spiritual maturity co-op’ where our stores and supplies are multiplied. The end result is growth and discipleship.”[20]

Conclusion

So while some may go at the Christian life alone, it is evident that for us to grow spiritually, we need to be an active participant in a local family of faith. It is life changing for us to become a member of the universal church, but as Christians, we should strive to be life-giving members of a local church as well.

We see that there are not only biblical grounds for church membership, but there are biblical examples of it as well. These biblical grounds and biblical examples seen throughout Scripture show that church membership is prescribed to followers of Christ. There is a biblical basis for church membership, regardless of what those throughout history or even those today may claim. We are part of a body. We are to be a functioning member of that body, and we are to be a unifying member of that body.

This characteristic of unity is best seen in our productivity as a church member. There are benefits to our membership. We benefit from our church membership through the encouragement and love we receive from other members of the body. We also benefit the rest of the body through our reciprocating of love and encouragement as well as through church discipline when necessary.

Our productivity, however, is not automatic. It must be performed. Like our other spiritual disciplines, church membership is not something that happens in a vacuum or without our effort. It requires us to perform to grow. Our actions are a result of our attitude toward church membership. When we are aligned with the body, we act accordingly to build the body up.

Christ gave up his life for us. He sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in us. It is now our turn to work together until He comes again through the power of the Spirit to grow the universal church and to grow in our own sanctification. Nether can be accomplished alone. We need church membership, and we need the body for the work of the Kingdom to be accomplished. That is why church membership is so vitally important to spiritual formation. God has a mission. He has invited His church to join him on that mission in the world. It’s our responsibility as Christians to be an active member in His church through our local churches to live out the mission of God. When we do this, we will grow spiritually.


[1] Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1991), 21.

[2] Mark Dever, What Is a Healthy Church? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 95.

[3] Ibid., 93.

[4] Thom S. Rainer, I Am a Church Member (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2013), 12.

[5] John S. Hammett and Benjamin L. Merkle, Those Who Must Give an Account (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 17.

[6] John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 86.

[7] Ibid., 85-86

[8] Ibid., 86-87

[9] Thabiti Anyabwile, What Is a Healthy Church Member? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 64.

[10] Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 61.

[11] Rainer, I Am a Church Member, 22.

[12] Ibid., 14.

[13] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 859.

[14] Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 107.

[15] Hammett and Merkle, Those Who Must Give an Account, 17.

[16] Rainer, I Am a Church Member, 14.

[17] Dever, What Is a Healthy Church?, 96.

[18] Marty King, “Number of SBC Churches Increased Last Year; Members, Attendance and Baptisms Declined,” http://blog.lifeway.com/factsandtrends/2013/06/05/number-of-sbc-churches-increased-last-year-members-attendance-and-baptisms-declined/ (accessed June 26, 2013).

[19] Anyabwile, What Is a Healthy Church Member, 68-70.

[20] Ibid., 91.