Becoming a Church Member
By Matthew Castro
This semester at Light Collective, we have been discussing the subject of church membership. This is a controversial topic with many Christians. Why should it matter if I am committed to a local church if I am a Christian and I simply attend a church service on occasion?
I would argue that the importance of membership of a local church is the same argument for the importance of marriage over co-habitation. While several couples enjoy the wonderful things that a married couple gets to do: live together, make a home together, engage in marital intimacy, have children, share confidences, and so forth. These are activities of marriage. People enjoy attending a church, taking part in discipleship opportunities, and participating in fellowship events. Yet like with marriage, people reject the formal institution. They want the activities of marriage, but they reject the formal covenant of marriage, which calls them to gather in the sight of God and others to commit exclusively to one another. The man and woman affirm, “With this ring, I thee wed.” The marital covenant forms the one-flesh union. It is the glass that holds the wine of marital activity in place. If you lose the glass, and you will lose the wine. The world today likes the activities, but not the institution, which is why more and more couples live together without getting married. They want the wine without the glass. People want the activities of the church without the commitment to membership.
What is a local church? A local church is a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and his kingdom through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances.
When we speak of the kingdom, we are focusing on God’s rule on earth. In the Old Testament, this was personified with the nation of Israel. God choose Israel among all the nations of the world to be his people. He saved them, and brought them out of Egypt. He then placed them in the land of Canaan. Israel was commissioned to be God’s representatives on earth. However, Israel failed their commission.
God then sent his eternal son, Jesus Christ, into the world to establish a new kingdom. Paul wrote in Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” He has through his blood and death on the cross redeemed a people to be his representatives on earth. Paul wrote in Titus 2:11-14, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and a godly way in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people for his own possession, eager to do good works.” Christ has established his kingdom, and those who have trusted in his work are the citizens of his kingdom. They join him in representing God on earth (Col. 3:9-10).
Who has the authority to authorize that someone is part of Christ’s kingdom? Unlikely Israel, there is no land to designate, who is apart of the kingdom. There is also no physical marker like circumcision for Israel to mark someone a member. This means that anyone can claim to be apart of the kingdom. Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. One that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in you name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers’” (Matt. 7:21-23)! So just because someone claims to be a Christian does not make them a Christian. Personal proclamation does not give you the right to be a representative of Christ’ kingdom, to be an ambassador of Jesus Christ, or someone who speaks for him. Authorization to affirm someone as a Christian is given to the church.
Jesus asked his disciples in Matthew 16:13, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter confessed that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus responded that Peter’s confession is the foundation, by which the church will be built on. The church will be built on confessors of Jesus’ identity as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus gives the keys of his kingdom to the church. Jesus said, “I will give you the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:19). The authority to do what Jesus did with Peter and confirm God’s official representatives on earth as gospel confessors is given to the church. Christ gives the keys to assess a person’s gospel words and deeds and to render a judgement of their faith.
Jesus shows us later on in Matthew 18 how this plays out in real time. Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matt. 18:15). The brother in this scenario given by Jesus has stepped out of his confession of faith. He is not living like one who has been redeemed by Christ. Therefore, when the brother repents of his sin, the church then affirms that he represents Jesus rightly. Jesus continues his scenario, “If he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like a Gentile and a tax collector to you” (Matt. 18:17). The church has the authority from Christ to judge that a person’s refusal to repent as a rejection of faith in Jesus Christ. When it comes to a Christian’s discipleship to Christ, the local church is the Christian’s highest authority on earth.
As a citizen of the kingdom of Christ, a Christian is obligated to submit to the oversight of the local church. The local church affirms your citizenship in heaven, but it does not make you a citizen. You have no right to affirm your citizenship without the affirmation of the church through baptism and then inclusion in membership.
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. The church then publicly affirms and acknowledges you as belonging to Christ and the oversight of the fellowship of believers. The Christian, who becomes a member, recognizes the church as a faithful, gospel-declaring church, and then submits their presence and discipleship to your love and oversight. Therefore, church membership is all about a church taking specific responsibility for you, and you for a church.
Hence why the New Testament writers use different metaphors to describe the local church. Paul in 1 Corinthians’s 12:27 wrote, “Now you are a body of Christ, and individual members of it.” The church community is a body made of different parts and members. Through the body, Christians love one another (John 13:34), they carry each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), and serve one another with our gifts (1 Pt. 4:10). The body metaphor describes the unity and commitment of the believers with one another.
Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:14-15, “For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” Families described the beauty and love the believers have to one another in the church. Christians through the Holy Spirit have a deeper love in Christ than family members through blood.
If membership is so important, how does someone become a member? To be a member of something is, by definition, to be something that are others are not. Church membership is exclusive. There are standards of church membership.
A church member must be a Christian. They must understand their sinful nature, and their need for the blood of Christ as the means of their redemption. They must practice repentance. A repenting believer is a true believer. Jesus said in Mark 1:15, “This is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” Also a Christian must be baptized to be a member. Jesus commissioned his disciples, “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Christians are affirmed of their faith through baptism. A Christian who has not been baptized is an unconfirmed Christian by Christ’s commissioned authority on earth, his church.
Again, a church does not make you a Christian. However, a church affirms publicly your identity as a Christian. While an embassy does not make you an American, however, an embassy affirms your American citizenship, while you live in a foreign land. A Christian, who is not a member of a church, is a citizen living in a foreign land without a passport. You have no authorization on earth to claim your citizenship in Christ’s kingdom.