Church membership – option or obligation?

Leland Harder on the importance of church membership within the Mennonite Brethren Conference (see Anabaptists Four Centuries Later, pages 69-73) indicates that 27% of the people surveyed do not consider church membership to be very important.

I would like to offer some evidence that membership in a given church is not a private option but a personal obligation which accompanies the privilege of being called a child of God. Church leaders of the Mennonite Brethren Conference can preach and teach this doctrine with the confidence that they stand well within the arena of biblical faith.

Voluntarism vs. optional membership

New Testament Christianity teaches personal salvation and endorses individual responsibility in trusting Christ and accepting the Gospel. Those of us who seek to express our Christian faith today in terms of New Testament principles wince at the thought of involuntary Christianity. We would scarcely subscribe to the notion, once widely accepted, that with the conquest of a country the population became Christian and joined the church. Infant baptism, as well, is rejected as a form of forced membership.

But it is possible that a reaction to coerced membership in the church has led to the equally erroneous extreme of optional membership. Voluntarism, in biblical thought, implies that the individual responds to the gospel of Jesus Christ in repentance and faith, and as surely as day follows night he unites with fellow disciples of Christ in a community of like-precious faith.

The Lord Jesus came to create a recognizably new order of life on this earth, a quality of life and relationship which is possible only in Christian community, his Church (Matthew 16:18 “church” – ekklesia – in the New Testament refers to a sanctified community either in the general or the local sense. Cf. Acts 2:47, 1 Timothy 3:15, etc.). An alternate plan does not exist. It would be futile to attempt to prove from the New Testament that Christianity is merely a host of isolated souls throughout the world who are saved by God’s grace in Christ. The plain fact is that the new community life is not optional for the Christian; it is normative and mandatory.

Gospel mandate

Church membership is deeply imbedded in the original charter of Christianity. The apostolic group who gathered around the resurrected Lord could hardly mistake the emphasis on community in his mandate to them: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19; cf. Luke 24:46-47; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:8; and the less reliable text of Mark 16:15-16).

The evangel includes baptism and baptism involves membership in the fellowship of new disciples wherever they appear. As a symbol, baptism carries a meaningful message, of course (Romans 6:1-4), but with its symbolism the event itself, as it was practiced in the first century Church, involved the initiation of the new convert into the redeemed group. Baptism in (or literally “into”) the mime of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit admitted the Christian believer into full membership in the new communion of Christians.

Within each community unit in the Graeco-Roman World the Christian enjoyed the benefits of full participation in Christian relationship, and grew in grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus through apostolic education. To put it in the language of Acts, “those who had received [Peter’s] word were baptized; and there were added that day about 3000 souls. And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:41, 42).

Loyalty to the gospel mandate demands that the ongoing Christian church teach and practice church membership. The very nature of the gospel (i.e. the proclamation of a restored relationship to God and men through Christ) will not permit cultural substitutes for Christian community.

Normative Christianity

Perhaps the most evident substitute for Christian community in our century has been (and to a large extent still is) the “personal encounter with God”. It is not surprising to see the evangelistic scales tip to the side of “personal encounter” in an age of self-expression and self-actualization.

Private Christian experience can never be normative for the believer. Paul, John and Peter, three major witnesses from the apostolic period of the Church’s development (see Ephesians 2:20), present an unmistakable view of normative Christian existence as life in community. The Pauline correspondence as a whole attests to this fact. Paul’s teaching is consistently church oriented: “You (plural) are Christ’s body (singular)”, he writes to the divisive Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 12:27).

Likewise John’s teaching against anti-Christian ideas is directed to a forgiven fellowship (1 John 1:7) and to a loving family (l John 3:9-14). Mystical individualism finds no place in his theology of love.

Peter also testifies to the norm of Christian community when he refers to his readers as “a people for God’s own possession” (1 Peter 2:9). The people of God is the place within which “persons” discover their true identity as subjects in the eternal kingdom and objects of divine favour. Solitary Christianity, then, is anomalous; Christian community is normative.

Church membership in Christian education

This limited treatment of the doctrine of Christian community is less than adequate to meet the need of the hour. We can be thankful that modern evangelistic organizations are beginning to see the importance of church-oriented proclamation and conversion. But the real work must be done by church leaders, especially pastors. A thorough study of the New Testament teaching on the subject will doubtless lift it from the level of “talks in the membership class” to that of fresh and relevant teaching and preaching. Only then will church membership rise from an insignificant option to a supremely meaningful obligation.

—George Shillington

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