We just started another round of our membership class here at Cornerstone. It’s a tailored opportunity for individuals and families who are guests at Cornerstone to learn more about what we believe and how we practice those beliefs.
During the Q&A time I was asked an insightful question (I’m paraphrasing): “If all the relational elements of membership are fulfilled, does the formality of membership matter?”. This question delighted me in two regards. First, it’s central to the very purpose for the class. After all we titled the class “Membership Matters”. This would lead to the question – “does it?” Second, this question came up in the first class. I’m glad those in attendance desired to ask the important questions straight away.
So, to the question – does it matter? At Cornerstone, we require prospective members to fill out an application, possibly meet with an elder to confirm their profession and understanding of the gospel, baptize the person if they have not already been baptized, and then present that person before the church where we affirm a membership covenant. Is that ceremony necessary? Membership doesn’t prohibit one from the important aspects of body life, right? You can pray for others. You can faithfully attend worship services. You can love and care for those in the body (the “relationship” described above). And all without formal membership. Aren’t those relational aspects the important parts of membership?
4 Benefits of Membership
1. Membership Clarifies Expectations
Scripture is replete with commands to the followers of Christ that are carried out in the local church (love one another, serve one another, etc.). How do I know the target of those commands? Whom am I to love and serve and pray for? We only have a limited capacity, so we must pick some select group to love and serve. Is it those that seem to attend regularly? Is it those in my fellowship group? Membership clarifies those who have committed to this body and to whom we have this shared responsibly.
This also keeps us from “playing favorites” (James 2). If the expectations are loose, we face a temptation to draw near to other church members we like. We’ll miss the sanctifying experience of ministering to those who are from a different generation, social class, or race. Membership clarifies those expectations when it is both comfortable and uncomfortable.
2. Membership Clarifies Shepherding Responsibilities
As an elder, I am responsible to shepherd Christ’s sheep under my charge (Heb. 13:17). Who are those sheep? Does someone have to attend for so many Sundays before the elders become responsible for them? On the inverse, how long must one attend before they are obliged to submit to the rule and shepherding of the elders? Membership clarifies the scope of the leadership and the member’s responsibility.
3. Membership Clarifies Commitment
Think of the typical marriage ceremony. Both man and woman stand before God and community and make vows to each other for life. It takes some fortitude to make those declarations publicly. Did the couple love each other before those vows? Did a relationship exist beforehand? I hope the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Then why go through the “ceremony”? Because it removes ambiguity. There is now an amplification and formalization of that commitment and trust in each other. Breaking that trust comes with social and legal ramifications. It’s a way of saying, “I’m serious,” and, “you can trust me.” Membership has the same dynamic. One may say that they are committed to a local church. They may demonstrate that commitment through involvement in the church. However, why not “walk the aisle” and make that commitment public and clear?
4. Membership Gives Legitimacy to the Believer
Membership and baptism is the church’s way of declaring “this person is one of us!” We understand that we don’t broker or withhold salvation through these actions but we do “stamp your papers” in affirmation of that salvation. On the other side, if a member walks in unrepentant sin, through church discipline we are able to declare to the church and the world that “this person is not one of us!”
To the believer, it gives confidence that they are included in a local body and their profession is affirmed. To the shepherds of the flock, it provides a great defense against the wolves in sheep’s clothing. To the watching world, it gives clarity to what it means a to be a follower of Christ.
Can I point to a passage in a pastoral epistle where Paul clearly instructs Timothy or Titus to distribute membership applications and keep the rolls up to date? No. Does that mean membership doesn’t matter? I don’t know how we’d faithfully shepherd, serve, and love one another without it.
photo credit: astaves.from-ri.com