Something I wrote last week that I thought I would post here . . .
Why Church membership?
I have been asked this question a few times over the past couple of years. Why should I join a (or your) church? Why can’t I just keep going and attending without joining? The Bible doesn’t say anything about church membership.
This is a good question that I think we would do well to explore. For I think it reflects the days in which we live, where “joining” is no longer seen as a good thing. And not just for churches - organizations all across the board are experiencing declines in membership, whether they be civic, social, or religious. It is a sign of the times.
First off, there are a few things to be said.
First, is it true that the Bible doesn’t say anything about church membership? Well, not exactly. It doesn’t speak about congregational membership, but inclusion into the church as the people of God, the body of Christ, by circumcision in the Old Testament and by Holy Baptism in the New Testament, is very important. And so there is a sense of “joining” in the Bible.
Now, where do today’s “congregations” fit into the picture? They are the visible manifestations of the church in the world today. Each congregation is not only part of the church, but is the church in the fullest sense. Each congregation, no matter its size or building, has the fullness of Christ in His Word and Sacraments and so is the church in that place. What this means for today, I think, is that to be in the body of Christ (a baptized Christian) but not to belong to a congregation which is the church in that place, is not a picture that fits in with the biblical witness. One was circumcised into a people, a community. One is baptized into a people, a community.
What has complicated this for us today is the mobility of our society and the plethora of churches that people can, and do, attend. In the not too distant past, one was baptized, catechized, married, and buried, from the same church. Not so today. This is a rare exception to the rule. Instead, people frequently move from place to place, and “church shopping” has become a reality to be dealt with. What church will I attend? Will I join? Do I have to join? Why?
Which brings us to the next question: Why can’t I just keep going and attending and not join?
Well, you can do this. Maybe some pastors will draw the line and force a decision at some point, but I think this is something that people are doing. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Where this becomes a difficult subject is when people have been burned and hurt by churches they have been members of, and do not eagerly want to experience that again. And I think that is understandable. They feel vulnerable and at risk. So maybe it would just be better to not join and just be there . . .
As I thought about this, it seemed to me that this is the same argument that many folks today make to avoid marriage and instead just live together. I don’t need a piece of paper (I don’t need to join); we’ll just live together (I’ll just attend); that doesn’t mean I don’t love them and am not committed to them. But what does it mean? For yes, it does mean something. In truth, this is done because it is easier to walk away; there is no real commitment.
Now, certainly, there is a difference here: living together apart from marriage is sinful, and we’re not talking about sin with regard to church membership. But I still think the analogy is apt. Especially because the relationship between Christ and the church is described in the Bible how? As a marriage! Christ as the bridegroom and His church as the bride. They become one flesh.
As any husband and wife can tell you, marriage involves a certain amount of risk and vulnerability. Your spouse is now going to see you at your worst. You are making a serious commitment. You are opening yourself and your emotions up and so there is the possibility of hurt. Your love may not be returned. Sinful spouses sin. Forgiveness is needed.
So it is also in the church and with church membership. Joining a church is a commitment (vows are made before the congregation!) and there will be a certain amount of risk and vulnerability. And yes, there will be sin. The church is full of sinners that will act like sinners (count on it!), and much forgiveness will be needed.
And so faith is needed. Spouses have faith in one another, certainly; but for a Christian couple, it is faith in our Saviour that keeps a marriage together. That this is the spouse He has given me and who I need. That this is the spouse I am to lay down my life for. That this is the spouse who’s going to need my forgiveness and who is going to need to forgive me. And it may be scary. Couples get “cold feet” before they marry; maybe we are hesitant to join a church because it isn’t exactly what I wanted. Maybe not. But perhaps it is the church you need. The church that your Saviour is giving you, to feed you and strengthen you. The church that also needs you.
To join, then, is an act of faith and commitment, to the heavenly bridegroom and to that particular congregation. It is to promise faithfulness and love and forgiveness; a vow which the congregation, in turn, makes to you. And like in any marriage, there will be good days and bad days, but through it all is the promise of God to bless, and there are great blessings in a Christian marriage and in being a member of a congregation.
Are there “divorces?” Times when people are forced to leave congregations? Surely. And they hurt, just like a divorce. And it takes time to heal. So take the time to heal! That is important. But equally as important: confess your sin and receive the healing love and forgiveness of the One who will never fail you; the One who is perfectly and always faithful; the One who laid down His life for you on the cross, to wash you clean and make you a spotless bride. Pray that He will give you the faith and love to forgive those who sinned against you, and then live that faith boldly! Fully confident that our Saviour is working in you for your good, and through you for the good of others.