What is church membership?

We have been thinking about membership a lot as elders of our church. I have previously posted our thoughts on what we expect of church members and what the church is and who belongs to it. But what is church membership in essence? Here is how we answered that question:

A covenant commitment
A covenant is an obligation undertaken with solemn promises. Just as a husband and wife declare solemn vows to one another when they get married, so members make such promises before God when they join the local church. The principles outlined in 1 Corinthians 13, often read at weddings, were first written to a group of church members. Just as a marriage is founded on the unconditional love of each spouse, church membership is grounded in the unconditional love of one member for another.

Love is the basis upon which church membership functions. However, love is not whatever we feel it is but is defined by God. The Bible says: ‘Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1Co 13:4-7).

This means we don’t just love other church members when they are loveable, but we even love the unlovely. We don’t only encourage and pray for the church leaders when they do what we like, we do these things even when they lead in ways we don’t like. We don’t only serve when others are serving, or they appreciate our service, we serve even if we are alone in doing it and nobody seems to notice. In a marriage, we don’t only love and serve our spouse if they serve and appreciate us first; we do it anyway because of our unconditional love for them. This is the same in church membership. All that we do is grounded in our unconditional love for the other members.

Joining a body
One metaphor the Bible uses for the local church is that of a body. Just as a human body is made up of members – to lose an arm is to be dismembered – so a church is made up of members. In one body metaphor, each church member represents a part of the body that makes up the bride of Christ, the church (1Co 12:12-27). In other places, Jesus is the head while church members make up the rest of the body. In either case, individual members represent different parts joined together in one body.

This body imagery tells us that individual members of the church make up the whole body and are each an essential part of the whole (1Co 12:27). Moreover, every member of the church has a role to play. We are all different – some are eyes, others are hands, etc – but all are essential to the body.

A testimony
Membership in the local church testifies to our membership of the universal, invisible church. On what basis can anybody affirm that we belong to Jesus Christ and his body? The answer lies in our local church membership.

When we join the local church, we are testifying to the world that we belong to Jesus Christ. Likewise, by accepting us into membership, the church affirms our profession of faith. This gives a powerful witness to the world as to who truly belongs to Christ; it is those who belong to the body in membership.