The Reason for Membership
When 10 people hear the word 'membership', 20 things run through their minds. Costco, Gold's Gym, Spurwing Country Club and a host of other concepts, feelings and attitudes. The wide way in which this word is used creates challenges in talking about church membership since there are obviously many differences between the membership benefits of buying hotdogs at Costco and being a member of a local church!
The Bible does not directly address the formal concept of membership, but rather, has left the implementation of the membership principles to each local body. Faith Community Bible Church has decided on a formal membership process whereby interested candidates attend a two-part class and sign a membership document at the end. Since new classes are just around the corner, we thought it appropriate to explain why we think membership is helpful in fulfilling our mission statement: "We exist to glorify God by pointing the affections of all peoples to the all-satisfying person of Jesus Christ."
Reason #1: Responsibility
The first reason for membership is that we feel it is an important part of being responsible in the nation in which we live. Being responsible in 21st century American culture means making sure we have in place the documents and procedures which make us a legitimate religious institution in the eyes of the state of Idaho and in the eyes of the courts of the United States. Lawsuits are inevitable but non-profits can do a lot to mitigate their unnecessary impact. The feeling that we were bordering on being irresponsible is, in fact, what initially pushed us to take action and actually move forward with membership.
One thing membership can do is provide legal protection in the event of a lawsuit. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is with a hypothetical example: suppose that a leader in our church was counseling someone who took that information way beyond what was intended - maybe they committed suicide or a violent act. The family members of that person could come after the church and claim that the given cousel drove the victim to acts of violence. How are the courts going to rule in that situation? The answer is - it depends.
It depends on how well the church has tried to communicate what it means to be a part of their body. If the church has a well documented statement of faith, that helps. If the church has a well documented doctrinal statement, that helps. If the church has a philosophy of counseling document, that helps. And if the church has a membership process whereby the members of the church are asked to go through a class, so that they are unavoidably introduced to the core values and beliefs of the church, that really helps.
Reason #2: Community
A lot of people will say, "Why do I need to be a member? Why can't I just go and participate?" The short answer is, because there is value to it. Most people who are married went through the formal process of marriage. Why? Why couldn't they have just called themselves married? Sure there are legal reasons, but if that were not the case? Why is this process so important? Because formal commitment is valuable.
If ever we lived in an independent society it’s now. It's attractive to be unattached. Most people dislike membership because they have an aversion to signing a piece of paper and committing to something. Many like the idea of keeping their options open. Some say, "I am a member of the universal church, but not of the local church," but that is like saying, "I am a citizen of the United States, but I am not an Idahoan." I think this attitude in most cases reflects the resistance we have to signing our name on a line. We realize that signing our name makes us actually responsible. In our society we can say all kinds of things, but we know that when our name goes down on paper, its showtime. There's no turning back at that point. We are legally bound.
But the Bible asks us to bind ourselves. God wants us to formally submit to leaders. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders, and submit to them.” The question for each believer is, “Who are your leaders?” This is a command from God that we all need to have leaders, and we all need to submit to them. How could you obey this command if you don’t have a place you call home? Of course it is possible to faithfully obey this command without a membership process. But again, there is value in the extra step of formalizing it.
By identifying ourselves with a particular church, we let the pastors and other members of that local church know that we intend to be committed in attendance, giving, prayer, and service. We increase others' expectations of us in these areas, and we make it known that we are the responsibility of this local church. We assure the church of our commitment to Christ in serving with them, and we call for their commitment to serve us in love and to encourage us in our discipleship.
Our updated constitution says this, “It is expected of members who confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior to be baptized, to care for one another according to 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, and to regularly attend Faith Community Bible Church.”
Reason #3: Doctrinal Consistency
The third reason for membership is doctrinal and philosophical unity. This is really important. Sound doctrine is essential for the unity of the church because the only true unity is unity in the truth (2 John 10-11).
Think about it. Without sound doctrine the church will be a jumbled mess of everyone’s personal beliefs. Have you ever been in a group of people that sat around discussing something and thought to yourself, we are just pooling our collective ignorance? The church is different in this way. The church is not made up of the opinions of its members. The church believes what God tells us to believe.
It cannot be assumed that everyone who walks in the door of our church understands our doctrinal statement. We must go through the process.
Consider a Freshman orientation class at a university. Why do they do this? Answer: they want to make absolutely sure that everyone understands the most important things about belonging to that institution. Most of the things that are said in an orientation are likely understood beforehand or could be figured out by common sense, but the consequences of not knowing one or two of those things can be so catastrophic that they require every person to participate so they can ensure equal footing.
Church membership has a way of almost certifying the core doctrinal beliefs of a person. USDA beef is certified to be a certain quality. There is a bit of confidence in that. So in a similar way, it is helpful to know that every member of the church has read through the doctrinal statement, the statement of faith and heard some basic philosophical principles that we operate under. As elders, God actually holds us responsible for the doctrinal purity of his church and so membership becomes a very good tool to help us make sure that doctrinal differences surface in a safe environment before they surprise us down the road.
We hope that if you have not taken the step of pursuing membership, you would take advantage of this next opportunity! May God richly bless you!