Do Christians have a mandate for membership? To find the answers to these questions, I want us to look at the book of Hebrews—an epistle written to a group of Jewish believers on the verge of defecting from the faith in the face of severe persecution. The writer of Hebrews states,
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb. 10:22–25 NIV)
The book of Hebrews is probably second only to Revelation on the list of Most Difficult Biblical Books To Understand. Making complete sense of it requires a thorough comprehension of Old Testament customs and theology, most notably the concept of covenant. By definition, a covenant is a divinely established, spiritually binding relationship between two or more parties who agree to function under a designated structure of authority in accordance with revealed guidelines resulting in long-term effects.
For the purpose of our discussion, let’s focus specifically on how this covenant relationship with God is established. In Old Testament times, the blood of sacrificed animals, offered in accordance with laws and customs laid out by God, temporarily washed the sins of mankind away.
When Jesus gave His life on the cross, He became the “mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 9:15) in which our sins were cleansed not by the blood of bulls, goats, and sheep but by the sacrifice of the Savior. The church then is the “community of the covenant”—the assembly of those who share in the sacrifice of God’s Son.
It’s important to understand that it is within the context of this covenant community that many of the benefits of our relationship with Christ are realized. In the same way that children are promised a greater length and quality of life if they keep covenant with their parents through obedience (see Eph. 6:1–3) and in the same way a husband is provided access to God in prayer based on his relationship with his wife (see 1 Peter 3:7), so some of the advantages individual Christians enjoy can only be experienced as they relate properly to the family of God in the context of the local church. Unfortunately, too many Christians are spiritual orphans with no family or like foster children bouncing around from place to place, never landing anywhere.
“Too many Christians are spiritual orphans with no family or like foster children bouncing around from place to place, never landing anywhere.”
For example, Paul tells us that Christians can only experience the spiritual growth they need as they are linked with other believers (Eph. 4:12–16). God shows His supernatural power in meeting the needs of His people as the church brings Him glory (Eph. 3:20–21). On the other side of the coin, God promises to judge those who bring harm to the church (1 Cor. 3:16–18). There is a level of personal care and support that can only be realized in the dynamic relationship of the local church (1 Cor. 12:18–20, 25), which is to function like a human body. This can only occur through formal, accountable connectivity. God’s power over Satan can only be fully experienced in the context of the covenant of the church (Eph. 3:10).
Here’s the point: our relationship to the corporate body of Christians is crucial to our personal relationship with God (see 1 John 4:12). Church membership may be properly defined as the commitment to be identified and dynamically involved with a local body of believers who are growing together as disciples of Jesus Christ. Just as believers share a formal and relational connection with Christ in conversion and just as the members of our physical bodies have a formal and functional attachment, even so Christians are to have a formal and functional relationship to a local body of believers.
Our commitment is not only to Christ but to other Christians as well (see 2 Cor. 8:5). In fact, our fellowship with other Christians can actually validate or invalidate our fellowship with Christ (see 1 John 2:19). While our salvation is personal, it is not private. If all of us in the body don’t play the part God has called us to play, then the ministry of the church will be stymied. And to the degree that we stymie the church, accordingly we will lose God’s blessing and incur His judgment (see 1 Cor. 3:16–17).
Paul said something profoundly important about Christ’s body, the church, in 1 Corinthians 12: “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (v. 26). I can’t emphasize often enough that we as Christians are joined together in a vital, living, organic unity that is indispensable to the church’s proper functioning and its impact in the world.
Membership in a local church is necessary for a believer to partake consistently of the four vital experiences of worship, fellowship, education, and outreach that are necessary for the discipleship process to occur. No church membership means limited or no discipleship and is outright rebellion against the expressed will of God.
When Jesus gave His life on the cross, He became “the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 9:15) in which our sins were cleansed by His sacrifice. The church, then, is the “community of the covenant,” the assembly of those who share in the sacrifice of God’s Son, and thus tap into the benefits of the covenant collectively on a greater level.
Believers are to use their God-given gifts within the context of the local church to build up the body of Christ and serve the kingdom of God. Ephesians 4 is a classic passage that makes this absolutely clear. Paul wrote, “And [Christ] gave some as . . . pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (vv. 11–12).
There is no such thing as a Christian who does not serve the kingdom by ministering to the church. You can’t build a home without all the members doing their part, and you can’t build a church without all the members doing their part. Therefore, pastors need to make sure that their congregation understands the importance of having a functional church membership, not merely church attenders. Membership means more than people just attending worship services.
Paul went on to say:
We are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Eph. 4:15–16)
Every member of the body has a part to play in making the body function. Your job as a church leader is not to do the ministry while the people watch. That’s why I believe it is a sin for a person to benefit from the ministry of the church and yet not contribute anything. Too many people come to church and say, “Preach to me. Sing to me. Serve me. If I’m sick, visit me. If I’m hurting, comfort me. If I need encouragement, encourage me. But don’t expect me to give any of my time, talents, or resources to this work.”
Such a member is a church leech and not a truly functioning church member, sucking the lifeblood of the church’s ministry without making any meaningful contribution. That’s a sin and an insult to the Father who has invited us into His family. We are not in His family because we deserve to be here. We are here by grace (Eph. 2:8–9), adopted into God’s family, and therefore should consider it a privilege to serve the Lord and our spiritual brothers and sisters.
“Every member of the body has a part to play in making the body function.”
God did not call 20 percent of the church to serve the other 80 percent. He called 100 percent of us to serve each other. That’s why at our church in Dallas, people must agree to serve in one of the many ministry opportunities offered before they are accepted into the membership. As we saw earlier in David’s leadership combination of heart and skill, members also need to engage with each other and serve one another with both heart and skill. Therefore, the pastor should make sure that the church is offering meaningful opportunities for members to utilize their spiritual gifts for the building up of the body, as well as ministry to the community under the guidance and accountability of loving, spiritual leaders. Remember, the church grows through what every joint supplies (see Eph. 4:16).
Across the street from our church in Dallas is our Education Center, which gives us the space and technology to hold a huge variety of programs—particularly for children and youth—but also supplemented with many adult programs. Some time ago, however, we encountered a major problem in this center. People entering on the east side of the building were being hit with a putrid smell, and they quickly let us know that something was wrong. So we had this dilemma that despite the size and cost of this building, and despite all the programs that were held there, the environment was not conducive to accomplishing the purposes for which the building had been built.
We brought in professionals to try to find out why such a valuable facility was also such an offensive one. They discovered that a pipe coming off one of the restrooms was cracked and leaking. At the same time, the fan designed to vent the bathroom was actually turning the wrong way, pushing the odor back down into the building instead of lifting it out. Until the problem was fixed and the atmosphere was cleared, a facility that was designed for good was being contaminated by something bad.
There’s a lesson here for us as pastors and leaders of churches. If there is a contaminated atmosphere in your church membership caused by a faulty spiritual, relational, or emotional connection among the members, it doesn’t matter how much money you spend on plans and programs or how carefully your calendar is laid out. It doesn’t even matter how great you preach. Until the reason for the “odor” is addressed, what was designed for good will become contaminated.
by Tony Evans
Concise Wisdom from a Pastoral Veteran The Kingdom Pastor’s Library is a new series that brings you a succinct, complete pastoral...
Sign up for resources delivered to your inbox weekly
Sign up for learning delivered to your inbox weekly