Why Covenant Membership?
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:14–20)
Words like duty and promise, pledges and vows, oaths and formal agreements seem like concepts from the distant past. Contemporary Western cultures are enthralled by choice and committed primarily to the preservation of the freedom to withdraw, move on, reconsider and renegotiate. We are faithful to our spouses until fidelity is uncomfortable and inconvenient. We are loyal to our employers until we get a better offer. The gravitational pull of a "bigger better deal" and greener pastures is part and parcel of our cultural currency.
While our immediate culture is committed to consumerism, if Christians are not careful even our view of church will be nothing more than a semi-sanctified microcosm of the surrounding world. We attend when we want, are accountable to the degree we want, submit to whom we want and only when we want, and give only when it is convenient. We may go through the motions and check certain things off a list, but is this really what and how and who the church was created to be.
Reading Scripture, we find that the local church is more than a place. It is more than occasional attendance and casual involvement, halfhearted conversations, facades and flattery. The church is the glorious gathering of the redeemed, the sanctified flock of the great Shepherd, the united household of God, the beloved body and beautiful bride of Christ. It is the “manifold wisdom of God” manifest for the display of His glory (Ephesians 3:10).
Honestly, does this portrait even make sense? Such an exalted picture of the church seems silly as long as regenerate hearts are content with superficial relationships and shallow connections. It seems impossible while feelings are tossed to and fro in the futile pursuit of finite happiness in infinite choice and entertainment.
What is the local church? It is the institution that Jesus created and authorized to pronounce the gospel of the kingdom, to affirm gospel professors, to oversee their discipleship, and to expose impostors. -Jonathan Leeman
Even a casual reading of the Scripture reveals that the commitment of believers to one another is anything but casual. In both descriptive and prescriptive language the Bible attests to the formal and profound relationship that exists among those who have been reconciled to God and each other.
The Scriptures call us to love one another, outdo one another in showing honor, live in harmony with one another, instruct, greet, comfort, serve, bear the burdens of, forgive, encourage, always seek to do good to, exhort, stir up to love and good works, confess your sins to, pray for, and show hospitality to one another. That’s just a small sampling of our responsibility and privilege as disciples of Christ.
But how can this be pursued without a deep and real commitment to the good of others?
And though these commands transcend the borders of any particular flock, yet it is clear that the primary way in which we are to fulfill these obligations to each other is within the fold of this messy and beautiful reality called the local church.
Ever since its inception the Church universal has been arranged into smaller congregations called local churches. Though Christians are divided on the exact relationship that exists between these local churches and other intricate matters of ecclesiology, all have always believed that these individual congregations exist and that they are essential communities instituted by God for His glory and our good.
We know historically that early churches had lists or rolls that they kept in order to distinguish who belonged to that particular body. But beyond the historical evidences and the biblical calls to mutually love and serve one another, does Scripture itself actually suggest membership? Although the phrase "church membership" is found nowhere in our English Bibles, the concept is certainly present (as the word "trinity" is not found, but Trinitarian theology permeates the New Testament). Below are a few examples of the implicit biblical evidences for something like modern church membership.
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. (Hebrews 13:17)
Consider the commands to submit to elders. How might one do that without belonging to a particular body? If one is going to argue against any a local expression of church membership, then one would have to submit to all elders everywhere (even the really crazy ones). As a wife only submits to her own husband and not all men everywhere, so believers are just called to submit to their own pastors and not all elders everywhere.
Related to the above, who are pastors accountable for in light of passages such as Hebrews 13:17? Are all pastors responsible for all believers everywhere or is there an assumption that they bear responsibility for those entrusted to their care within a particular flock (see also 1 Peter 5:1-3)?
Furthermore, how would the church practice church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, et al) and remove members if such members never really belonged in the first place? For more on the glory and necessity of church discipline, see here and here.
For these and various other reasons, it seems clear that although we might not find the phrase "church membership," the concept certainly exists within the Bible as an implicit and assumed relationship among believers.
What is Membership?
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul draws on the imagery of a body as a metaphor for the local church. Far from commending self-sufficiency and independence, the apostle upholds a radically countercultural vision of interdependence marked by love, service, humility, sacrifice and sympathy. And, as participants in the body are called “members,” so this participation in the local church body is called membership.
“Church membership is a formal relationship between a Church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.” (Leeman)
Membership is not about privilege or prestige. It is not some elevated level of access with secret insider benefits. It is not a legal document or means of control. It is a recognition and response to the reality of the call to discipleship in the context of gospel-centered community. It is an affirmation and agreement to be a participant contributing to the good of the body rather than a mere parasite consuming from it.
Membership is a call to commitment to the life of Christ by belonging to and participating in His body. It is formalization of that which already implicitly exists, that is, an obligation to sacrificially seek the good of others in the body of Christ. It is an opportunity to take the general call toward service and incarnate it within a particular people while fighting our innate fear of vulnerability, or the convenience of remaining on the periphery, or the distrust of authority. Membership is an expression of a trust in God's word over our own history and experience and cultural ideals.
When the Bible speaks of various types of formal relationships it uses the concept of a covenant. Some of these are between people (1 Samuel 18:3, 20:16; 2 Samuel 5:3) while others are between God and man (Genesis 6:18, 9;16, 15:18; Luke 22:20; Hebrews 8:6-7). In some covenants, one party binds his or herself to fulfill the obligations of both sides of the agreement. In others, the parties are reciprocally bound to adhere to the obligations.
Though types of covenants are varied, yet the concept of covenant itself saturates the Biblical text. What better way to evidence the formal relationship with each other into which we have been called than through covenantal promise?
And covenants typically include some sort of visible representation. All cultures have symbols for agreements, contracts, and covenants to signify comprehension and consent.
At times those agreements include cutting animals in two and walking between the pieces (Genesis 15). Sometimes they are confirmed by placing a hand under a thigh (2 Samuel 24), removing and exchanging a sandal (Ruth 4) or instituting and enjoying a ceremonial dinner (Matthew 26:17-29). While the particular symbol may change, yet the abiding call to covenant is clear.
Christians are charged to commit themselves to each other in the context of the local church and this formal commitment is typified in countless cultural ways. At The Parkway Church, you don't have to dissect an animal or take off your shoes to join the church. Our current process for membership involves listening to some pre-class materials, attending a membership class, and completing some online "paperwork." Far from mere formality, these expressions are actually important representations of the formal commitment to which we each pledge as they provide opportunity for instruction in what our covenant with each other entails.
Membership within a local church is seldom easy or expedient - and it shouldn't be. Biblical ecclesiology stands against Western individualism and consumerism and beckons us to something deeper than our own lives and hopes and dreams.
God calls His people into covenant, not only to Himself but each other. He summons us to a life of sacrifice, generosity, service and radical commitment to the good of the body and her individual members. And this happy obligation is most readily pursued within the context of a particular body – a local church in all her beauty and clutter - as we await a day when all her blemishes will be made new and Christ will be all in all.
Various cultures may uphold the freedom to renege and renegotiate and refrain as the highest virtue. Yet God manifests His freedom through covenanting with a people. His liberty is reflected in His love and it is this love that calls Him to bind Himself to the pursuit of the good of a particular people. As those created in His image and renewed into His kingdom, we of all people should be eager to mirror Him in love by covenanting with His people.
So, beyond the desire for convenience and preference, why wouldn’t you formally join a local church? What is holding you back from covenanting with a particular people to live out the gospel together and image our glorious God?
Church Membership: Jonathan Leeman