In conversation with one of the people who has decided to open up his church during lockdown, he was quick to talk about the positives because he was seeing growth during the past few weeks following the decision. I asked him whether this growth was from hungry unbelievers desperate to find Gospel food, from discontent Christians unhappy at their own church’s decision to go online or from non-Christians who saw it as a political protest over freedom. He responded that there were both Christians and non-Christians joining his church. He didn’t give reasons for why the non-Christians were coming. However, he acknowledged that the Christians turning up were deeply unhappy with their own churches failure to open and saw this as a failure to witness.
When a few people gently suggested that with those Christians, surely he should be sending them back to their own church to get things resolved, this simply would not compute with him. He could not see any benefit in sending people back who had no respect for their leaders. Attempting to insist Christians stayed with their church was for him something near to impossible and probably cultish. He noted that prior to lockdown he had people join his church for issues such as disagreement over matters as minor as musical style. The impression I get is that even on such matters he wouldn’t be willing to encouraged someone to return.
So, I want to explain here why I think that membership of a local church and loyalty matters. From there I want to show why how we move between churches matters. There isn’t of course a Bible passage that says you should have a membership, certainly no requirement for membership forms. However, the Bible does make it clear that we should be committed to a local church. This comes across:
- In 1 Corinthians 5 when it is the church family together who determine whether or not discipline should happen
- In 1 Corinthians 11 where we are instructed that healthy communion requires discernment of the body (in other words care for one another in the church)
- In 1 Corinthians 12 where gifting is compared to body parts and where we see that we are so interconnected that we share each other’s joys and pains
- In Hebrews 13:17 where we are instructed to submit to our leaders and to obey them. Similarly, submission to elders is required in 1 Peter 5:5. We know from Acts 20:17-35 and Titus 1:5 that these elders are responsible for local congregations.
- At the same time local congregations have responsibility for social care and providing for widows (1 Timothy 5:9).
There is practical wisdom in getting settled into a church and committing to being part of it as a member (whether or not the church talks about formal membership). Here are some good reasons for doing so:
- This is the place where you are going to be known and loved. It is where you will received the spiritual and practical care you need. You will be challenged in order to encourage spiritual growth.
- This is the place where you will serve. You will commit to the care of others.
- This is the place where you will be a witness. What will the world see? Will it see consumers who move around on a whim or will it see people committed to one another in Christ?
May I also suggest as someone who is committed to “congregational” church government that there is something special about having a church family where people are committed to one another for the long term. Corporate accountability and decision making requires that people have made those deep, long term commitments to one another and to the body. That’s why membership matters. You don’t want people turning up at a members’ meeting to choose your next pastor or decide on having an extra service who rarely, if ever attend church or have only been with you a few weeks. Therefore, without that kind of commitment what are we left with? I want to suggest that we are left in a position where it is only the leaders who can make decisions. This leads to a situation where they regard the church as theirs. It is their agenda and vision too. In other words, commitment to church membership is an important safeguard against autocratic and even abusive church leadership.
So, when people have come to join us at Bearwood, we have always sought to get references from their previous church and to establish if there are any outstanding issues. Even if the person ends up joining us, we prefer it if possible to be with the blessing of the previous church and for outstanding issues to be resolved.
We rarely experience this the other way which is both sad and dangerous. I know of at least one situation where a person was welcomed into fellowship at another church when they had been disciplined by our members due to unrepentant unfaithfulness. So, it is unwise to take people in without relating to a previous church. When you do this, you send out the following messages:
- That you know best. You set yourself up in competition with the other church. If people are joining you from other churches then this implies that there must be something defective in them.
- So, it shows a low regard for other churches. A lack of care for Gospel unity.
- It suggests that you too consider those second or third order issues to be primary. You are endorsing a decision to split over them.
- It encourages consumerism because you invite people to come and go, choosing church according to preference.
- It means that you risk bringing people into fellowship who have in fact been trouble causes under discipline elsewhere. You may well pick up a few bullies and abusers along the way. Therefore it shows little regard for the vulnerabilities of your own church members.
I want to suggest that during these uncertain days, a high regard for church membership and a high concern for relationships with other Gospel churches has become more important, not less.