Club membership has its benefits. That is the point, of course, to provide members with attractive value-add features and opportunities that outsiders don’t receive. If your “in”, then you are in the good stuff; if your “out”, then you are missing out.
To respond to the gracious invitation of God through belief in Jesus as Lord, transfers a person’s membership from death to life, from wrath to forgiveness, from hopelessness to radiant glory. The benefits for membership in Christ are immense, immeasurable, and incomparably greater than anything offered through any other form of group identification.
But apparently that is not enough for many Christians. Many seem intent on demanding something more immediate and identifiable. Whether from a geographic relocation or some other reason, most who try to attend some new church congregation will experience the pressure heat up to join that group’s private membership.
Identification with Christ is typically not enough. Most congregations of believers expect new attendees to subscribe to their uniquely defined membership list, or stand ostracized along the fringes of acceptance. This coercive expectation has plagued the Church for the past two thousand years.
Chances are you are a signed-up member of your local congregation. Is that a biblical expectation or a worldly pattern? And more importantly, what does that say about your membership in Christ? Can you double-sign; once with Christ and all believers, and then again with a separate list of expectations different from others? Is membership in Christ divided, or defined by your church leaders?
In the days of ancient Israel, godly membership was a birthright belonging to every racial descendant. As the New Covenant teaches, that has shifted through Christ to include only those who are descended from Abraham through faith (Heb 2:16, Gal 4:28-31). Those who believe in Jesus become members of God’s family.
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (Jn 1:12-13)
“Understand then, that those who believe are children of Abraham…So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Gal 3:7-9)
Nor is membership in Christ accomplished by the will of elders or pastors or priests. The marker of that belief is demonstrated through water baptism and the subsequent indwelling of the Holy Spirit:
“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mk 16:16)
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Act 2:38)
It is through this personal profession of faith in Jesus, in accepting his sacrifice in our place to remove our sins, and devoting ourselves to living for him, that we are granted eternal membership as believing Christians. The vast majority of churches, however, do not accept such an easy and uncontrollable list of members and require further promises to a script that they write. If you don’t participate, you can’t join or teach or enjoy the benefits of membership. Members of Christ must become additional members under their leader’s locally defined authority and definition of doctrines rather than submit to the Lord and his word.
“A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy lies, and the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?” (Jer 5:30-31)
That kind of membership is not from God. Such membership requirement is a stumbling-block humans dump in the path of believers in order to manipulate and control those who are looking to find shelter and connection. Local church membership, as often promoted, violates the word of God. It causes believers to separate from other Christians who are different, who have different backgrounds and different levels of understanding, and isolates groups in cliques and denominations and local churches, over which such leaders can exercise dominion and private authority.
“Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us [from remaining unified with the Church], so that you may be zealous for them.” (Gal 4:17)
It is a sad state of affairs that many churches put greater emphasis on local membership, than on professions of faith. Entire classes are taught and required before a Christian will be accepted as a Christian, often with dramatic titles like “fundamentals of the faith”. Seldom do new attendees ever get asked to share their faith and become accepted by faith on such an open declaration. Making a good confession, as the Bible calls it, is not appreciated by those with their own agenda. The focus is local indoctrination, not celebration of faith in Christ.
Notice the prophecy for the end times, and what it implies about efforts toward group exclusiveness:
“For a time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Tim 4:3-4)
Jesus taught that such end times began with the generation that stood before him two millennia ago. Since the start of the Church, many local congregations have gathered members around them who formally agree to only teach and support the specific beliefs of those leaders. Only those who sign on the dotted line are allowed to teach or participate in an influential way, and thereby fulfill this prophecy of forcing a new and exclusive membership based on their myths rather than remaining submissive to the Spirit-established membership of all those who believe in Jesus.
Scripture declares of such leaders, who insist on membership allegiance to what they teach, that they want to boast in your flesh—they want to brag about numbers and give the impression of agreement, by screening out all who might shed light on their ungodly actions. They want to “alienate” you from other believers in neighboring churches, so that you may be more zealous for those in your own self-selected group. They are gate-keepers of private doctrines, rather than shepherds of biblical truth.
Membership is a statement of submission. That is why God restricts believers to joining under one Master. “You cannot serve two masters.” We are told that God simply will not allow or support a person or group that tries to promote dual membership by submitting under masters that are not in complete alignment with God. As much as every church wants to say they are following God, there cannot be a separately identifiable method of membership from that Spirit-caused identification with Jesus through a personal profession of faith declared openly by baptism.
Recognizing differences is perfectly normal and acceptable. Believers can be studied and spoken of in groupings, like by age, gender, race, backgrounds, traditions, etc. However, those distinctions are never to contribute to differences in depressing how a person is treated, accepted, loved, or allowed to participate. Sin, on the other hand, is to be resisted and eventually separated out, which may well require breaking off fellowship and personal association from those who persist in rebellion. Such division is about obedience to the word of God and submission to the Lord’s standard of behavior, and never a factor used to justify private group selection, as if any group could be formed that represented sinless perfection.
Immediately following an extraordinary discourse on how God views membership in him, the Apostle states, “I don’t want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited”, thinking that you as a believer have a better identity connection to God than others around you (Rom 11:25). He then continues with a very important instruction to church leaders about church membership that apparently many miss.
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought [remember, this self-view that he is warning against is in the context of thinking that one group of believers in God is better than another],
“but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. [Notice membership is already connecting as intended, without any need for additional layers of membership]
“We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. [Notice who is being told to “let him”] If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” (Rom 12:3-8)
Did you catch who is being taught here? It is the leaders who hold the authority in the local church. This is not an instruction to the person with the gift. It is a command to the leader who is deciding on whether or not to allow a person gifted by the Spirit to teach, serve, lead, or preach.
The command is “LET HIM”. In other words, Get your high-view of self out of the way, and let the members of Christ participate in every part of the local church as God has gifted them and not as you leader might want to control them. It states that the limitation is not to be measured per the leader’s faith, but rather to allow them to contribute according to that person’s faith. Of course, the Bible has a great deal to instruct, beyond just faith as highlighted in this passage, on guiding such participation in orderly, godly, and obedient ways that uphold the Truth. Church preaching, worship, and participation is not a free-for-all, but the boundaries are defined by Scripture and not by club membership. The text eventually culminates this instruction to church leaders who tend to stand in the way of letting other members do what God wants, by saying,
“So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” (Rom 14:12-13)
Local church membership is very often an obstacle to Christians being allowed to contribute within a congregation as fully accepted members of Christ. It seems many ministers don’t trust the Holy Spirit as capable of maintaining control over a diverse membership. This is why Diotrephes was cited as a dangerous pastor who was restricting church membership, so that he could be first in the minds of his members (3 Jn).
The early church in Corinth had a similar dysfunction and wanted to split membership into denominations of Paul, Peter, Apollos, or Christ. It was in this context that they were corrected:
“For all things belong to you…and you belong to Christ” (1 Cor 3:21-23)
“For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body…and we were all given one Spirit to drink.” (1 Cor 12:13)
That drink confirms our membership, without further layers of requirement to connect to the Lord’s body, the Church. It is to such divisive leaders, that the text continues to rebuke the tendency to think that our local congregation doesn’t need the participation of others who are clearly different—that the hand doesn’t need the foot, or the eye doesn’t need the ear.
If you resist signing up as a local church member, you are guaranteed to hear the mouth tell the ear: “I don’t need you”. As one pastor stated about his demand for allegiance, “perhaps you should look for a different tribe”. According to God’s word, membership comes as a Spirit placement, and not from signing a man-made document.
“But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” (1 Cor 12:18)
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a part [member] of it.” (v.27)
Perhaps the most damning aspect, to the practice of requiring Christians to also make a local profession of allegiance, is the violation of Jesus’ command against making oaths of extra commitment. This is not about avoiding swear words, but about avoiding any form of extra declaration to be more committed, or more obedient, or more honest, or more supportive because of what we sign or declare. Under the expectation of letting our Yes be yes, without further declarations of promises, believers are to practice and profess according to their character of always upholding truth (Mt 5:33-37). We are not to add to our participation in Church further oaths of commitment beyond that which we have already devoted to Jesus, by somehow declaring oaths of obedience to uphold a local church culture or set of defined doctrines. “Signing up”, other than a public declaration of faith through baptism, is adding an oath of joining a church that violates Jesus’ teaching.
We are to live by God’s word, no matter where we attend and worship, and not by man’s interpretation and local certificate.
Don’t be deceived by demands for restrictive and exclusive church membership, thinking that it is a small issue. Remember the Lord’s warning about the Beast and those who submit to such required membership:
“He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark [of membership]…so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark…for it is man’s number” (Rev 13:16-18).
Demands for exclusive membership to leaders that restrict participation or benefits against those who don’t join-up, do not come from God. Allowing yourself to be numbered as devoted to a local church follows a very dangerous pattern. Identification with God is based on the indwelling presence of God in a believer, not based on being numbered by a man-made certificate of exclusive membership. Come out of the world’s ways and be separate.
This double-devotion is what led to the organized deception faced by the early church, where “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees” tried to promote their exclusive brand of belief as required upon all other believers. Their extra-biblical membership was used to try and force other Christians to follow their ways rather than live together according to the Lord’s gospel. Every church that pushes local membership perpetuates this distorted practice.
Membership-plus theories were aggressively promoted by many early Jewish Christians who could not accept that God was calling Gentile believers as his people simply through faith in Christ. They demanded faith plus devotion to their views, like circumcision or the seventh-day sabbath, or obedience to the ten commandments. That Jewish lie continues through a similar form by those who insist on local membership in addition to faith in Jesus.
“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female [this church or that church, this denomination or that tradition]. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:26-29)
The importance of circumcision if often lost on modern Christians. It was the God-required sign of membership through Abraham that every male believer in God must accept in order to belong to God. The teaching that such a mark of membership has changed to an invisible work of the Spirit in circumcising our internal commitment to Jesus is still not acceptable to many church leaders who seem more intent on imposing practices that they can measure and control. They want to see your name under theirs–they want to see your flesh with the removed foreskin–they do not want to rely upon the invisible work of the Holy Spirit which is beyond their personal stimulation.
The former fleshly ritual has been replaced with a new private church membership list, and is just as damaging, by separating those who are locally signed up from those who are not. Both are outward signs of required declarations that replace acceptance of a Christian as a full-rights-member of Christ purely on the combination of open declaration of faith and the primarily hidden act of the Holy Spirit inside a person.
Because the biblical point is addressing the same membership-I.D. problem–believers are warned against the same kind of sinful acts that contribute toward “discord, jealousy… dissensions, factions, and envy… and the like” (Gal 5:19-21)–it would appear that submitting to exclusive outward membership markings, by signing up as a local church member, destroys Christ in a person!
“Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.” (Gal 5:2)
“Those who live like this [by promoting discord, like through exclusive membership] will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21)
The above warning of being prevented from entering the Kingdom is not just against leaders who promote such local separation of believers from other Christians outside of their group, but it also applies toward attendees to tolerate such abuse. If you sign up for local membership or you do nothing to resist such division within the Body of Christ, then “I warn you, as I did before” that you may well receive the same condemnation as those who imposed it. Come out and be separate!
If you believe in Jesus, as Scripture declares, then you are a member of his body without any need for some ministerial review. Members already enjoy all the benefits of belonging to God. They also are already bound under the expectations of a holy God, which means each of us had best take our membership serious and carefully maintain our connection to our Lord as his word instructs.
This truth in no way suggests that believers can walk alone without need for active connection and devotion to other members of Christ. The church is the “ecclesia” Church as two-or-more gather together in doing the will of God. Those who avoid devotion to what is known as the Body of Christ, the active gathering and work of the Church, may claim Christ, “but by their actions they deny him”. We must seek to work, serve, and love together in active fellowship, but membership in Christ is only defined by evidence of a Spirit-transformed life in a professing believer in Jesus. Many will claim such evidence–but we are told that the weeds will worship alongside the wheat, the sheep mixed with the goats, the wolves blending with the lambs–with no one capable of distinguishing who belongs and who doesn’t. Such belonging is defined only by the Lord, known exclusively by God, and will show up listed only in the divine Book of Life.
Those who reject God’s method of open acceptance of belonging simply per an honest declaration of faith in Jesus, without need for more strict methods of identification, will often claim that governments require membership for tax purposes, or in order for the church to maintain its non-profit status, or for other legal protections to apply. All such excuses are a matter of submitting to the world’s ways and can only be sustained in defiance of Scripture, which already provides instructions for orderly participation.
“Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Heb 13:17)
Members of Christ are already bound by biblical commands to submit to their leaders “as they follow Christ”. There is a biblical mandate for members to submit to church authority, but that is determined based on “holding to” Jesus teachings and what was originally taught by the eye-witness apostles, and not according to a privately defined list of beliefs or rules. Such leaders already hold God-given power to both ordain as well as restrict member activity, but it must always be exercised according to what God’s word actually says and not by how later scholars interpret. We are expected to uphold truth, not impose tradition.
Would it not make more sense to look for identifying markers for membership in how the believer professes their faith, in how the word of God is upheld by each and all, in how the Spirit is manifesting himself through each believer, in how we show submission to the Lord’s ability to join his bride together, in recognition of an increasing pattern of godly fruitfulness, and in how we love one another in Christ-like ways?
Instead of demanding local church membership, what ought leaders do to lead without man-made methods of control? Try reading the next chapter that immediately follows the above biblical instructions on membership from 1 Cor 12.
“And now I will show you the most excellent way” to lead a church, to participate as accepted members, and to dwell together in godly unity….