Who cares about church membership?

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Who cares about church membership?

If you are a shepherd, you do, of course! I know that it is in vogue these days of “no commitment” to say that membership doesn’t matter. While I could multiply this blog into several points I’m going to boil it down to two perspectives; the leader’s perspective and the perspective of someone in your church. Both arguments for membership can be made from the same text; Hebrews 13:17 where we read: “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.”

First of all, from the leader’s perspective this text is among the “texts that terrify” because it clearly teaches that leaders in the church will have “to give an account” to God for those under their care. What will this accountability look like? We don’t know. But the question for our consideration is, given that reality, for whom specifically will leaders have to give an account? I don’t know about you but I would like to know for which sheep I will have to give an answer. This is where church membership is of great help. In my ecclesial context (PCA) new members affirm a willingness to “submit to the government and discipline of the church.” This complements the commitment that leaders make in their ordination vows. For the church leader this membership commitment represents the member’s willingness to receive shepherding care including discipline (of straying and lost sheep) when necessary. Otherwise someone coming to your church can just say “Who do you think you are?” when efforts are made to show them that they are off course. What is the answer to the “for whom do I have to give an account” question for those who don’t have church membership? Is it “You just know?” Sorry, that’s just not good enough for me. In these litigious times church membership is not only legitimate biblically speaking but it’s just wise to have clear membership commitments lest we are called to give an answer to a civil authority because a stray sheep doesn’t like being “sought.”

Second of all from the flock’s perspective the text clearly indicates that there are “leaders” whom they must “obey.” The sheep might well ask, “Whom does the writer have in mind for me to obey?” Good question. The answer must be those who are

legitimately authorized to care for the flock. The book of Hebrews uses the term for “leader” three times: here in 13:17; earlier in 13:7 in which the readers are called upon to “remember those who led you, who spoke the Word of God to you”; and in 13:24 where greetings are sent to “all of your leaders and all the saints.” In these three texts you see 1) that leaders are to be obeyed, 2) that the leaders spoke the Word to them and 3) the distinction between leaders and the rest of the church. It is clear that those who are spoken of in these verses are the “official” leaders of the church. In the mutual ministry of KNOWING it is important not only that the shepherds “know” who their sheep are, but that the sheep “know” who their shepherds are.

This relationship is sealed by church membership in which the sheep say, “I submit to you as someone who is called to care for (oversee) me,” and the leader says, “You are now one of the sheep for whom I will care and for whom I am accountable to God.”

As Philip E. Hughes commented on this passage.

Christian leadership is intended for the advantage of all, not just for the advantage of those who hold positions of authority, and good and successful leadership is to a considerable degree dependent on the willing response of obedience and submission on the part of those who are under authority.

While the terminology of “church membership” isn’t found in the New Testament, the principles of responsibility and accountability in the church are found in many places, of which Hebrews 13:17 is an important example. What are the arguments against church membership? It seems that the only ones I hear relate to people’s unwillingness to make commitments these days. You usually hear this about the unwillingness of attendees to commit to membership but I am concerned about the possibility that there is unwillingness of leaders to make the commitments necessary to really care for people.

So, if you are a leader, it is time to take seriously your responsibility to care for the sheep. If you are a believer attending a church without membership, look for a church where the leaders are willing to take responsibility before the Lord to care for you as those who will have to give an account to the Lord.


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