In order to rightly understand who a church member is according to the New Testament, we have to look to the various images within Scripture used to describe its members. These images frame up for us the necessary structure to give support to our understanding of membership within the local church.
Understanding the image of the body as it is used in Scripture prevents us from thinking of membership as a formal, dry, man-made institution or the simple matter of paperwork. The various members of a physical body are vital, they are life-giving, they are interdependent, and the health of the entire body depends on the health of its various members.
The body-member image is used in Scripture to emphasize the unity that exists within diversity (one body, many members), the necessary care for one another and the connection of the members to the head, Christ. 1 In short, those who are members of the body of Christ, have been placed within the body by God as he sees fit (1 Corinthians 12:18), in order that this body might achieve its full purpose, “so that through the church, the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known” (Ephesians 3:10). To be a member of the body is to be a participant in the God-established means in caring for one another and displaying his glory and that is a tremendous privilege.
In some church cultures, the terms “brother” or “sister” are so frequently and flippantly used that they are robbed of their Scriptural emphasis. When Paul referred to a fellow believer as “brother” or “sister” he had in mind the staggering concept of sinners being adopted into the family of God. Additionally, the widespread use of “Father” to refer to God within the New Testament underscores the wonderful declaration John makes, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” (1 John 3:1, ESV). To be a member of this family is a radical reorientation of how we relate to God and each other.
A third way of understanding membership lies within the image of the church as an outpost or embassy of the kingdom of God. In saying this, it is important to note that the church is not the kingdom, but the church is a part of God’s kingdom. This becomes clear when we consider Paul’s teaching in Philippians 3:20 and Peter’s instruction in 1 Peter 2:11. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, living as exiles on earth. Christians serve as representatives of this coming kingdom, who presently live in a foreign country, but do so with all the authority and backing of their King. Therefore, when a person professes to be a Christian, they are simultaneously proclaiming not only their citizenship but their rightful position as a Kingdom representative.
Given the high calling and tremendous responsibility endowed upon a believer, it quickly becomes apparent there is a need to “vet” a professing Christian. After all, the health of the body, the safety of the family and the honor of the Kingdom are at stake. Someone may claim to be a follower of Jesus, yet advocate for beliefs or behaviors that run contrary to Scripture. When this happens, we often see Christians try and distance themselves from these rogue professors, saying things like, “They don’t speak for us” or “that is not what the Bible teaches.”
It is at this point that church membership suddenly becomes all-important in guarding the integrity of the church’s reputation and message. It is for this reason that church membership not a self-proclaimed title, but a conferred title, agreed upon by the church.
This is precisely what church membership aims at.
- Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:20,26; Colossians 2:19-20 ↩︎