What does it mean to be a member of a church?
Is it about a monthly meeting? Is it just for those who are keen? How do I qualify? Does it matter, really?
As we start the new year it might be worth a moment’s reflection – whether you are a member of a church or not. If you would like to consider being a member of our church or would like to refresh your understanding of membership drop Alex a line (firstname.lastname@example.org) or come along to the Beacon International Centre at 7.30pm on 2nd Feb and 2nd March.
But here’s something to get you thinking…
Is ‘membership’ even in the Bible?
Yes, ‘membership’ is in the Bible. The New Testament assumes a clarity about who is part of the church is.[i] Commands to leaders assume those leaders know who they are leading and are responsible for; the New Testament letters are written to ‘the church in….’ which assumes both the church internally and society externally knew who was meant; and in Acts we read of a number of times of people being sent out ‘by the church’ or of issues arising ‘in the church’ as a defined group.[ii] We may want to acknowledge there are some blurred edges to this group but nevertheless there seems a clear implicit assumption that the church knew who it was.
Chester and Timmis summarise this well:
To be a Christian is by definition to be part of a community…the New Testament assumes commitment to real people in real local churches with all their faults and foibles.[iii]
Belonging in church
There are of course lots of ways to belong to church, all to be celebrated and all part of our journey with Jesus.
Some are fans
Positive about the church and what it does but who are watching and appreciative as opposed to part of the adventure of faith themselves.
Some are friends
Further along than just spectators. They are engaged with faith and with church but perhaps not fully committed – either to Jesus or to the church.
All can be family
By trusting Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and then committing to this local church as their immediate brothers and sisters to help them follow Jesus.
We obviously long for people to move from fans to friends to family and celebrate and respect all levels of belonging. But it is the ‘family’ level we now turn to. This is our vision of how we relate, love and lead within the context of being brothers and sisters. This is membership.
This family relationship is defined by love: As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35) But what does this love look like?
A wonderful word in the Bible to describe this: Koinonia [iv]
This is the Greek word translated as membership, partnership, or fellowship in English. One definition has it:
The New Testament describes bonds so vital and genuine that a deep level of intimacy can be experienced among the members of a local church…The word has such a multitude of meanings that no single English word is adequate to express its depth and richness…It is a complex, rich, and thoroughly fascinating approach to building community or teamwork.[v]
In Luke 5:7 it is used to describe the fishermen Jesus first called. They are family linked biologically as two sets of brothers. They are partners linked financially and socially. They are mutually-reliant on each other, linked physically in a dangerous and demanding profession. So a commitment to become a member is a commitment to others of this magnitude. After 50 years leading in the local and global church John Stott can write:
Our growth into maturity, according to the purpose of God, takes place in the context of a family group…it is lone members of the congregation who hold themselves aloof from a more intimate Christian fellowship, who are likely to stunt or damage their spiritual progress.[vi]
Koinonia is both about rules in an organisation and relationships that are organic. It is more enduring that a legal document and more tender than an informal relationship. More binding than both ink and blood.
It is expressed by 59 ‘one another’ verses in the New Testament: to love, to be at peace, to encourage, to correct one another, and so the list goes on. You can see the full list in the footnotes.[vii]
The weight of the Bible’s material on membership is toward being a committed band of brothers and sisters helping each other and loving each other so the world can see through our relationships what God is truly like. Therefore:
It is about real support in each other’s lives.
Sometime called pastoral care but perhaps better simply called ‘loving each other’ this is the heart of church membership. It is truly, practically, lovingly, bravely and enduringly being brothers and sisters who are commitment to seeing Jesus reflected in each other and ready to correct and be corrected when we drift from that. It should be both organic and relational, and organised and central. So any structure around membership is mostly about creating the environment where relationships can flourish and steering people toward committing to love each other come what may, including the necessary tough love we all need at times. It is about being family.
It is about a public, verified statement of your faith as genuine.
Leeman answers the question ‘What is church membership’ like this:
It’s a declaration of citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. It’s a passport. It’s an announcement made in the pressroom of Christ’s kingdom. It’s the declaration that you are official, licensed, card-carrying, bona fide Jesus representative.[viii]
When we accept someone as a member we are saying to them and to the world – you are a Christian; look here if you want to see a representative of Jesus. It is about mission.
It is about purposeful support of the church family’s mission.
It means being delighted in getting involved as and how you can in all sorts of ways in the corporate life and mission of the church. It means contributing in time and skills, money and wisdom as Jesus’ family together on his mission, sharing an agreed vision and carrying an appropriate part of that shared burden.
[i] Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership (Crossways, 2012) chapter 2 ‘Membership sightings in the New Testament’ is a good summary.
[ii] It’s worth noting here we butcher the biblical meaning of the word ‘church’ in English. It can mean the people, the building, an individual church, the churches across a town, the global church, the universal church of all believers across time and space, the ‘national, Anglican church, etc. In Greek it simply and only means ‘a gathering of people’.
[iii] Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Total Church (IVP, 2007) p.84-85
[iv] John Stott, The Living Church (IVP, 2007) has a brilliant, short chapter on the meaning and implications of this word. Chapter 5: Fellowship: The Implications of Koinonia (p.91ff)
[v] New Bible Dictionary (IVP)
[vi] John Stott, The Living Church (IVP, 2007) p.92
[vii] 1. “…Be at peace with each other.” (Mark 9:50) 2. “…Wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14) 3. “…Love one another…” (John 13:34) 4. “…Love one another…” (John 13:34) 5. “…Love one another…” (John 13:35) 6. “…Love one another…” (John 15:12) 7. “…Love one another” (John 15:17) 8. “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love…” (Romans 12:10) 9. “…Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10) 10. “Live in harmony with one another…” (Romans 12:16) 11. “…Love one another…” (Romans 13:8) 12. “…Stop passing judgment on one another.” (Romans 14:13) 13. “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…” (Romans 15:7) 14. “…Instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14) 15. “Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Romans 16:16) 16. “…When you come together to eat, wait for each other.” (I Cor. 11:33) 17. “…Have equal concern for each other.” (I Corinthians 12:25) 18. “…Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (I Corinthians 16:20) 19. “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (II Corinthians 13:12) 20. “…Serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13) 21. “If you keep on biting and devouring each other…you will be destroyed by each other.” (Galatians 5:15) 22. “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Galatians 5:26) 23. “Carry each other’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2) 24. “…Be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2) 25. “Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32) 26. “…Forgiving each other…” (Ephesians 4:32) 27. “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” (Ephesians 5:19) 28. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) 29. “…In humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) 30. “Do not lie to each other…” (Colossians 3:9) 31. “Bear with each other…” (Colossians 3:13) 32. “…Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.” (Colossians 3:13) 33. “Teach…[one another]” (Colossians 3:16) 34. “…Admonish one another (Colossians 3:16) 35. “…Make your love increase and overflow for each other.” (I Thessalonians 3:12) 36. “…Love each other.” (I Thessalonians 4:9) 37. “…Encourage each other…”(I Thessalonians 4:18) 38. “…Encourage each other…” I Thessalonians 5:11) 39. “…Build each other up…” (I Thessalonians 5:11) 40. “Encourage one another daily…” Hebrews 3:13) 41. “…Spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:24) 42. “…Encourage one another.” (Hebrews 10:25) 43. “…Do not slander one another.” (James 4:11) 44. “Don’t grumble against each other…” (James 5:9) 45. “Confess your sins to each other…” (James 5:16) 46. “…Pray for each other.” (James 5:16) 47. “…Love one another deeply, from the heart.” (I Peter 3:8) 48. “…Live in harmony with one another…” (I Peter 3:8) 49. “…Love each other deeply…” (I Peter 4:8) 50. “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (I Peter 4:9) 51. “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others…” (I Peter 4:10) 52. “…Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another…”(I Peter 5:5) 53. “Greet one another with a kiss of love.” (I Peter 5:14) 54. “…Love one another.” (I John 3:11) 55. “…Love one another.” (I John 3:23) 56. “…Love one another.” (I John 4:7) 57. “…Love one another.” (I John 4:11) 58. “…Love one another.” (I John 4:12) 59. “…Love one another.” (II John 5)
[viii] Jonathaon Leeman, Church Membership (Crossways, 2012) p.64