By Lance Olimb
Are you a member of the church? Have you considered it? If you are not a member but have considered it we would love to have you join us at one of our ENGAGE classes. I wondered if it would be helpful to answer one of the most significant questions I get in this whole process. The question is simple but meaningful. Why do we have church membership at all? We attempt to speak to that question in the class and I wanted to share the answer here. If you’ve been a member for a while it could be a good refresher, and if you’ve been sitting out it may stir some interest.
Is Membership Even in the Bible?
It is true that the Bible doesn't use the word "member" as a specific way to describe how you relate to a particular local church. It never commands local church membership the way it does to refrain from sexual immorality or pride. In fact, whether or not you ever attend a membership class or formally connect to a local body there is some good news. You are already a member of the body of Christ. You've been grafted into the eternal, invisible, pure body of Christ eternally.
If you are already a member in that sense, what do we mean when we say you'll be a “member” of Four Oaks? Why do we emphasize membership?
We emphasize membership because, although there is no explicit reference to membership, there are a ton of specific references to the way Christians are to relate to one another. We believe these commands implicitly require something like membership. Membership in that sense is about how you relate to the visible church temporally.
Some of those commands are beautiful and weighty. Let's look at just two describing Christians generally:
Galatians 6:1–2 (ESV) — 1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
Christians are known to one another closely enough to confront sin. Which Christians do we restore? What are we restoring them to?
1 Timothy 5:9–10 (ESV) — 9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 10 and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.
Who enrolls these widows? Does Jerusalem keep track of the widows in Ephesus?
Here are two other passages which speak to the nature of the relationship between church leaders and the local body. They highlight why membership is important.
Hebrews 13: 17 - Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Acts 20: 28 - Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
From these passages, we can draw some conclusions related to church leadership and membership.
First, one of the pastors' and elders' primary responsibility before the Lord is to care for and shepherd the people of Four Oaks, one day giving an account before God for this responsibility. So, it’s important for church leaders to have clarity on these questions: “Which people” are they to give account for? Who are they? All the Christians in Tallahassee? Those people who come through the front door of the church? Those who attend a worship service, and if so, how many times? Is this care and oversight and authority to be exercised even when someone doesn’t want it or agree to it?
Second, one of the primary responsibilities of the church body is to submit to godly pastors and elders, which is why it’s important to have clarity about the nature of this relationship. “Which elders and pastors am I to entrust myself to? Who are they? All the pastors and elders in Tallahassee? What is the nature of this authority and accountability in my life?” The reason that membership is important is because it involves a mutual commitment to one another and to the Lord. More than just commitment, it is a clarified commitment.
Ultimately, we think it difficult to understand, and joyfully apply, these scripture passages apart from some sort of mutual commitment. We call this mutual commitment “church membership,” and it is a reciprocal commitment. Leaders define the "flock" they are caring for and members have defined which local church they are committing to serving.
The reality is that membership in a local church is the way we describe how our Christian relationships and obligations are going to be acted out in the real world. It is true that we could have called it something else. Partner. Associates. Whatever. We've borrowed the term member from scripture and applied it to our relationship with the visible church. You've already been inseparably grafted into the invisible church. Membership is our way of being committed to the visible church in the place and time we live.
So there you have it. Maybe that was helpful, maybe not. In the class we deep dive into our statement of faith and attempt to define how membership is played out. Overall, it is a really great time. I hope you consider joining us.