This is question one in a five part interview series with Dr. John Hammett on the Importance of Church Membership. Dr. Hammett (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) currently serves as Professor of Systematic Theology and the Associate Dean of Theological Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.
Previous posts in this series: Introduction
Dr. Hammett, Is local church membership really that important, is it even biblical?
I think it is, and understand that some may see church membership somewhat negatively, as a worthless formality that reeks of institutionalism. One might think, “what matters is your heart relationship with Jesus. Love him, serve him, follow him, and don’t worry about formalities.” I would say you’re separating what God has joined together.
1. The call to come to Christ is also a call to be joined to his people.
Look at I Peter 2:4-5:
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Look at the order there. As you come to Christ he sticks you to other believers. God doesn’t call his people to be Lone Rangers, or even to casual association with other believers. You are to be like stones that are built together into a house. That means connection, mortar, being stuck together. Think of the people in your church family —these are the people you’re stuck to and stuck with. Now I can understand some hesitancy about that. There’s a saying that I think must have been written by a longtime church member:
“To live above with saints we love, O that will be glory! To live below with saints we know; well, that’s another story!”
It can be tough, but that’s part of the call. All those called to Jesus are called to join themselves to his people. You may say, okay, I’ll come, I’ll be involved with the body. But I’m just not a joiner. Surely, the New Testament churches didn’t have membership rolls and such. Do we have to get all formal and jump through hoops and sign on the dotted line?
2. The call to follow Christ is also a call to openly identify with a local church.
I’m not sure if they had a written list of members, but they did know who was part of their local body. In I Corinthians 5, Paul is instructing the church there about how they should handle the sad case of a man who was living in immorality. He told them they had to hold this man accountable. He specifically says that it is different than someone living that way who was outside the body.
I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. (9-11)
They knew who their members were. They had to, because they were accountable; that’s one of the blessings of membership. They had some expectations for members in terms of living a life that would not bring reproach upon the cause of Christ and maybe one reason why some people hesitate to join is they don’t want to be identified and responsible and accountable. They’d rather be a free agent. But that’s not your calling as a follower of Christ; Christ calls you to membership in his body.
As to the importance of actually going through an open, public process, let me offer a comparison. If you are a father you may have a daughter who is falling in love with a young man. You approve of him, you see God’s hand in their relationship, and rejoice in it. But would you say, “Honey, what matters is that you and your young man love each other and are committed to each other, and see God’s leading you together. You can just privately make that commitment to love and stick with each other, and we can just skip this wedding thing. I mean the wedding dress and the reception and all that stuff costs a bundle and is not really necessary. It’s just a formality.” Do you think you could get away with that? No, the wedding is the public declaration and open commitment of two people. In the same way, all those who love Jesus should declare it openly by publicly and formally committing themselves to a local expression of Christ’s body.
Furthermore, I believe that commitment to a body of believers is a command, you can’t be fully faithful to Christ and not be a church member. Further, I don’t know how someone could live out the one-another commands of the NT (over 30) or use their spiritual gifts for the common good (I Corinthians 12:7), or grow to maturity (Ephesians 4:16) without the body.
The next question, what are the requirements one must meet for local church membership?