In rereading Dever’s answer, I realized that it really wouldn’t advance the conversation much from where it was yesterday, so I decided to jump the gun and post some of my thoughts today—maybe one or two points today that you can then jump in on and tear apart, and I’ll just keep on posting until all my best arguments are out there.
Now, truth be told, I didn’t really start thinking seriously about the place of membership in the life of the local church until I started reading Dever (9 Marks of a Healthy Church—an absolute must read), so if you detect his influence in what I say, you can understand why. That being said, I do not agree with Dever at all points, and in this particular book (What Is a Healthy Church?) it seems to me that the answer he gave was a good answer for why all believers should be involved in a local a church, but did not necessarily answer why all believers should be formal members of a local church.
So, I’d like to lay out a few points regarding why I think church membership is imperative for believers. But before I do that, a caveat: Some of what I’m going to argue will not apply to every church because not every church takes membership seriously. In other words, some churches are (in my view) inappropriately lackadaisical about formal membership, and in those churches it would be difficult to expect individual believers not to be similarly lackadaisical. So, in my response on this issue I assume that a given church takes membership seriously, even as I admit that many (if not most) do not.
That being said, here are some reasons why I think that if you are a Christian it is imperative for you to be a formal member of a church that takes membership seriously:
1. You need to make a distinguishing declaration. Let’s be honest: membership, as we conceive of it, is probably not something that the first century church practiced. There is little biblical evidence of ‘church membership’ per se, and it seems that formal church membership didn’t become a regular practice of the church until at least the second century. But here’s the reality: Declaring yourself a follower of Christ WAS a distinguishing declaration in the first century. The social and (later) legal penalties of declaring yourself a follower of Christ in first century Palestine put beyond a doubt with whom you were aligned: Jesus and his people. The title of “Christian” was not something undertaken lightly in the time of the composition of the New Testament.
Sadly, the same does not hold today. Most Americans, on some survey or in some church at one point or another, have declared themselves to be ‘Christian’ with no particular commitment to Christ and his body whatsoever. It seems to me, therefore, that formal church membership is a useful and meaningful practice by which we can distinguish ourselves as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession…” (1 Pet.2:9).
Now, I’m not saying that there are no nominal (i.e. disingenuous) formal church members. Of course there are, and every church has them. This is a cumulative case argument and there are exceptions to every one of these points. Nevertheless, I’m more interested in the rule than the all exceptions.
2. You need to take seriously the biblical metaphor of household. Paul refers to those who are “of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10) and “members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19), as does Peter (1 Pet. 4:17). The connections between church and household in the Pastoral epistles are legion (1 Tim. 3:4; 3:5; 3:12; 3:15; 5:4; 5:8; 5:14; 2 Tim. 1:16; 3:6; 4:19).
“Household” (oikos) was a common word in Greek and was well-understood. It is almost synonymous with “family” (see Acts 10:2; 11:14; 16:15, etc.). So, in this regard, the “marriage” analogy raised in some of the comments yesterday is entirely valid. The entire (capital “C”) Church of God is a “household” or “family” of sorts, but so is each local church a “household” (cf. 1 Tim. 3:5; 3:15) within the larger household. Christians must be members of both. Membership in the universal Church is a matter of union with Christ. Membership in the local church is a matter of union with other believers. Neither commitment ought to be taken lightly. You don’t commit to Christ and then only half-heartedly commit to the local expressions of his Body. Ever.
Now, obviously that doesn’t mean that we cannot associate with, serve with, enjoy fellowship with, etc., other local churches—of course not. I’m not a separatist. That said, all believers must choose a local church that they will commit to as a household, and serve in that church, submit to the leadership of that church, worship regularly at that church, give financially to that church, and consider involvement with other churches “icing on the cake.”
Let me leave it there for the day. I’ll be back for more tomorrow (including the argument I am probably most passionate about). Let the comments fly.