Good morning church! Wanted to welcome everyone who has joined us online and also in person. If you’ve been with us at Gathering, you would have noticed that one of the things we deeply value is the preaching of God’s Word because we believe that God does speak to us clearly and personally to our hearts even today. How does he do that? He does that through the written Word (Bible). So let’s prayerfully prepare our hearts to listen to what God has to tell us today. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been going through this series titled “Why Church?” where we are grappling with the question of why is the church so important in a believer’s life:
- In the first week, we learnt that the church is not a building or a place but a people – the people who have been redeemed and joined together by the sacrifice of Jesus.
- The week after that we tried to understand what are the health markers of a healthy church. And we looked at two aspects which are the Priority of Scripture and the Centrality of the Gospel.
- Last week we saw what leadership in the church looks like. And we saw the importance of having God-qualified elders appointed in the church so that they can model godly character as they lead and serve the church.
- And today we come to the last topic in our series which is “Church Membership”. Before we get started on this, I think it’ll be good for us to pray and ask God to open up our spiritual eyes and hearts to eagerly receive what He has to tell us.
If someone were to ask you what comes to your mind when you think about “church membership”, what would you say? We usually draw from our own church experiences or what we may have seen happen in other churches. I just thought it’ll be good to list down predominant models of church membership that are seen across churches today:
- Attendance model: Like the name goes, regular church attendance is the main criteria in order to become a member of a local church.
- Subscription model: This is viewed more in traditional church settings where they have this concept of “annual subscription”, which is a basic amount that you need to pay to keep your membership in that local church. Even if you aren’t regularly attending the church, that’s okay as long as you are paying your annual subscription.
- Membership class model: This is where churches organize a membership class periodically. As long as you’ve completed the membership class, that’s sufficient to become a member of that local church.
Before I move on, I just want to say that there are aspects of attendance, subscription or the membership class models that are not bad but these models by themselves do not picture a healthy, biblical model of membership. Which is why our duty is not to copy the existing models of membership that we’ve seen around us or create a new version of church membership, but rather to go back to the Word and see what does the bible say about “church membership”. And I hope you don’t see this as something that only elders and leaders need to be concerned about, if it’s biblical then it is something that concerns every single believer. “Why Church Membership” or “Why should we consider to be a member of a local church”?
- Because it helps us live out God’s design for us (1 Cor 12:12-27)
Now the word “church membership” is not mentioned found in Scripture, however, the principles of church membership is seen right throughout Scripture. One of the beautiful metaphors used in the Bible for God’s church is that it’s Jesus’ body (1 Cor 12:12-27). And Jesus’ body consists of various “members”. Now some may argue that this is merely referring to the universal body of Christ – which consists of all believers everywhere. How can you say that it’s talking about being a member in a local church? The main point of this passage is to tell us that a kind of mutual interdependence needs to exist between the members of the body. Each and every member of the body is critical to the functioning of the body. There is not a single member in the body who has any less significant in God’s plan (v18). In fact, it tells us that the members of the body that are less presentable and weaker, are treated with greater modesty, greater honour and greater care. And so this kind of mutual interdependence simply cannot exist if we say that we’re only part of the universal church. It demands that we find ourselves integrated into a local church where we see ourselves as an essential members of the body & at the same time intentionally appreciate and care for others while also inviting others to similarly care for us.
Now isn’t this radically different from our usual church expectations? Sometimes we say “I’m part of this church because the preacher preaches on topics which are relevant to what I’m going through. I’m part of this church because the worship music is closer to what I prefer listening to. I’m part of this church because the people who come here are of my same wavelength. I’m part of this church because I have a prominent role out here. I’m part of this church because they host events that I enjoy participating in”. In other words, we’ve reduced the local church to an amazon shopping cart where just like consumers we pick and choose what we like as long as it fulfils our needs. The moment the church stops meeting our felt needs, what happens? We’ll look out for another local church or worse we’ll stop going to any church. And that’s not what this passage tells us, right? In fact, it tells us that just like the eye cannot tell the hand “I don’t need you”, similarly we cannot tell any other member that we don’t need them. We don’t stop caring and serving the other members because our church preferences or felt needs are not met. We don’t leave the local church for any random reason. (There are exceptional cases where you may leave the local church if God’s calling you to plant a church elsewhere or if your local church stops preaching the true gospel). Because God has specifically “arranged the members of the body, as He chose” (v18). And in order to live out this purpose and design that God has given us, it requires us to be committed members of a local church!
- Because it helps us validate our faith
19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (1 John 2:19)
In this passage in 1 John 2, the context talks about false believers who were among them but have now left and abandoned the local church. These people being described here were not people who turned up once in a blue moon at their church gatherings (Easter / Good Friday / Christmas). These were people who were active in their local church. They probably spent time in each other’s homes. They probably laughed with, cried with and prayed with the other members of the local church. And after all that they decided to abandon and depart from the church. And this is how the apostle John puts it. He says that the fact that they didn’t continue with us, the fact that they left the local church showed that they were never really part of us –they were never believers in the first place.
I hope we are able to grasp the seriousness of this verse. Our perseverance and commitment to the local church proves that we are genuinely believers. And that’s why when a church declares or confirms a person to be a member, the church is also affirming that they have seen the fruit of the gospel in that person’s life!
That’s why there is an absolute co-relation between our relationship with Jesus Christ and our relationship with His church. When people say “I love Jesus but I can’t stand the local church”, it simply doesn’t make sense because how can we say that we love Jesus but hate His bride whom He bought with His own blood?
20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot[a] love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:20, 21)
So to be able to love our brothers and sisters, it would require a close, committed, steadfast relationship with the body which is why we need church membership.
- Because it helps us exercise church discipline
I know the word “discipline” is a pretty intense word & sometimes churches may choose to exclude these verses fearing that it might make people hesitant to join their church. But let’s try to understand it from Scripture:
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matt 18:15-17)
When you look at these verses, we realize that church discipline although temporarily painful for the people involved, it’s aimed at restoring the person’s heart and relationship with God. So the first step is always to have a private conversation, but if the person continues in unrepentant sin, then ask two or three more people to speak to that person. If that person still refuses to listen, then this needs to be brought before the church, and if the person still continues in sin then the person is to be put out of the church (in the sense where the person won’t enjoy the safety and intimacy of community as he or she did earlier). Do note that it’s not the elders, it’s not an individual but the final authority is given to the church to keep the person outside the church if he/she continues in unrepentance. And I’m aware that some of this might seem too harsh or extreme for some of us, but let’s not lose sight of grace being shown to help the person repent and come back into a right relationship with God. Now does this mean that every single sin comes under the category of church discipline? No, I think it is in reference to public, unrepentant sin which can be a negative influence on others within the church.
And therefore church membership is important so that you know who are the members of the church and are able to also exercise gracious discipline.
- Because it helps us know who are our leaders
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. (Heb 13:17)
When we are committed to a local body of believers, then we also know that we’re called to submit to the elders of that local church. And this has become blurry, especially with this post-pandemic world where tuning into online churches across the globe has become so accessible and easy. Now there’s nothing wrong in tuning into another service, but let’s also be wary of the tendency to look at these wonderful pastors and preachers around the world and assume them to be our elders. John Piper is a wonderful preacher and pastor and I’ve been so encouraged by his sermons and writings, but the fact is that he’s not called to be my elder. I’m not called to submit to him in the way that I’m called to submit to Saju’s leadership. For every church, God has called, qualified and gifted certain people in their local context to lead and care for that church.
Similarly, as elders, we are called to keep a watch over the souls of this local church. Scripture says that we will need to give an account for these souls. But how will we know whom to give an account for if there’s no clear understanding of who are the members of this local church?
- Because it helps our witness to the outside world
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21)
When Jesus prayed the High Priestly prayer in John 17, think about all the different things He could have prayed for us. But out of all the things, don’t you find it interesting and surprising that He would pray for our unity as a church? And He prays that through our unity, it would serve as a powerful witness to the world around us! Think with me for a second why would He pray for our unity? Probably because in His church – the body – He would have members from very different upbringings, He would have members who would be culturally different from each other, He would have members who didn’t look like or talk like each other, He would have members who would want to use their giftings to serve themselves rather than serve the other, He would have members who had their own set of the baggage of sin, selfishness and unbelief and would drag it into every close relationship, He would have members who no matter what they convinced themselves were at the core very difficult to love and serve. These would be members whom you would never picture together in a single room but yet they would be united because of the same Jesus Christ who died for them all & rose again for them on the third Day & is continuing to shape and change them through this thing/organism known as “local church”. And in God’s mind – His purpose is to join together these pieces of broken glass / broken mirror (us) so that His power, mercy, and patience can be reflected world that is lost and dying and is in desperate need for God.
Church, I don’t know what’s going through your mind when you think about membership now? Maybe it’s apprehension because of some abuse in your previous church experience. Maybe it’s fear of being known – you’re afraid of people knowing who you are if you come into this kind of close commitment. Maybe it’s the hesitation of having to deal with conflict and difficulty that comes with close relationships. Maybe it’s the reluctance of keeping your life accountable to others. And I’m not downplaying any of these reasons but what if the very thing you’ve been running away from is the very thing that God is planning to use to change you? What if the local church is God’s way of shaping your heart, using your life and together with others powerfully witness to His glory to a lost and dying world? Wouldn’t you want that? The local church is God’s Plan A. We’ve been created and called to live out our purpose in the context of being committed members of a local church!