The Meaningful Mess of Membership – Part 3
In this last post my hope is that church membership would be seen as a meaningful and necessary aspect of Christian life flowing out of our identity in Christ and Christ’s purpose for us.
Identity: Body of Christ & Family of God
When you become united to Christ by faith, you become a part of Christ’s body – the Church (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 5:29-30). Belonging to Christ and to His people is a package deal. It is sometimes argued that we can be a part of the universal, invisible Church without committing to a local church. But one cannot be a part of the larger, general entity without first being part of a smaller, particular unit. To call yourself an NBA basketball player, you must first be enlisted on a team. You cannot be a part of the universal church without being a member of a particular local church. It is illogical, inconsistent, impossible.
In the New Testament (NT) it is assumed that followers of Christ are members of local churches. In the book of Acts we see that references to the “disciples” and to “the church” in certain locales are almost interchangeable. Where are the disciples found? In actual churches. To whom are most of the letters of the NT written? To actual churches — not the church in general nor to individual Christians.
Another biblical metaphor used to manifest our interdependent, corporate identity in Christ is that of a family. We are the family of God and by our union with Christ we are adopted children of God (Galatians 3:26; 4:4-7), sharing one Father (Romans 8:14-17), and brothers and sisters of one another (1 John 4:20). This not only displays our united identity, but also conveys the wonderful intimacy that we share with one another.
Purpose: Maturity in Christ
One of the greatest misconceptions relating to membership is the assumption that we have the ability and authority to self-direct our Christian life. Refusing membership is not only radically inconsistent with our Christian identity; it is also extremely unhealthy – having the potential to stunt our spiritual growth. We need to participate in a particular church for the sake of our growth in Christlikeness. We each bring something to the table in our pursuit of Christian maturity, and we need the contributions of all (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-11; Eph. 4:11-16). We will only be able to receive and give these contributions in a significant way by committing to an identifiable community.
Not everyone plays the same role in the community. In both our biblical metaphors so far, the body of Christ and the family of God, there is an implicit idea of hierarchy, which is explicitly described in those NT texts that discuss the spiritual gifts. Church membership necessarily involves submission. In a recent book on church membership Jonathan Leeman argues that, “Christians don’t join churches; they submit to them.” Our shepherds and teachers are given to equip the saints (i.e., all Christians) for work of ministry and to build up the body. To do this effectively church leaders need to know the flock for whom they are accountable (Acts 20:28; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:2), and the sheep need to know which elders they are to honor and submit to. This is a good thing, since God has given us authorities to help us grow into maturity. One aspect of our discipleship is discipline, under the loving direction of our godly leaders.
Purpose: Witness for Christ
This leads us to the last purpose of membership – faithful representation of Christ in the world. Consider this question: “Who is authorized to speak for Christ?” Let me introduce one more metaphor to help answer this question: that of the church as embassy. In his book, Leeman describes the function of an embassy as “an institution that represents one nation inside another nation. It declares its home nation’s interests to the host nation, and it protects the citizens of the home nation living in the host nation.”
Our home is in Christ’s kingdom, which will cover the earth when He returns. Local churches are outposts of that future reality. Membership in a local church is like a passport that reminds us of our true citizenship and which confirms to the world that our identification with Christ is valid, not a forgery. By this Christ’s reputation is guarded from impostors and the world can witness a faithful picture of Him. Jesus doesn’t display Himself to the world primarily through individuals, but through healthy, mature, and loving communities. It is through our love for each other that the world knows that we are Christ’s and that Christ is God’s (John 13:34-35; 17:23; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:23). We shine as lights in the world as a people, sojourning together in a land which is not our home (Phil. 2:15; 1 Peter 2:9-12).
So what does this all mean? It means you need the Church, and that means you need to be a committed member of a local church. This church, like your natural family, will be messy. Expect problems. Though she will one day be beautiful without blemish, today she has many warts. But, just like in your family, give yourself to it and love the members, warts and all, so that we might become beautiful together.
 The Pastoral Epistles (i.e., 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) are written to leaders of churches. They are not just for their personal discipleship, but for their church leadership. The one exception to this is Philemon, which is a letter from Paul to a Christian slave-owner.
 Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 30.
 Ibid., 27, emphasis his.