In November 2019, I decided to write short summaries of each chapter in Thabiti Anabwile’s great book: “What Is A Healthy Church Member?”, which discusses 10 character traits of a healthy church member. This is part 5 in that 10 part series. If you would like to read the other blogs in this series, please visit our blog.
A HEALTHY CHURCH MEMBER IS A COMMITTED MEMBER
In our hyper-individualistic age, spirituality is becoming increasingly private and far less communal. We live in a day where a Christian can attend church in their pajamas on a Sunday morning through live stream, without ever interacting with another brother or sister in Christ. But is this church? Is listening to a sermon online really fulfilling the Biblical requirements for participation in the community? If not, where do we go from here?
All good questions! But, to start, I think we must ask this question:
IS CHURCH MEMBERSHIP BIBLICAL?
While the Bible does not say the words “church membership” there are three Biblical concepts that demonstrate an official and structured membership in the local church was not only a reality but was necessary to the health of the church.
1) Church Leadership.
In the two most classic passages on church leadership (1 Tim. 3:1-13 & Tit. 1:5-9) the qualifications for godly leaders are described. This taken with the call for them to shepherd the flock of God in loving godly ways (Heb. 13:17) allows us to see that leaders were trained and placed over congregations in order to love, disciple, and lead God’s people. With that, let us ask the question, what point would there be in installing leaders over a church if there were no church members? Why would a deliberate model for raising up leaders exist if there was no expectation that they would lead? Wouldn’t that be redundant?
The obvious point is that leaders were qualified and commissioned because congregations of committed Christians needed spiritually mature leaders. The Biblical norm was for a healthy participating community and not a loosely connected group of spiritual isolationists. Real congregations were gathering, live and in-person, to fellowship, sit under the Word, and receive direction from those who served in an eldership role. This means the very fact that leadership exists is a good argument that membership did too.
2) Church Discipline.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul deals with an issue in the Corinthian church that is requiring immediate church discipline. He writes to the church and instructs the congregation to put out of their fellowship a man involved in debased sexual immorality. This is not just a man caught in sin, but a man who was unwilling to repent.
Now, let us ask the question, why would Paul suggest church discipline if there was no such thing as a committed membership to execute it? Doesn’t it seem like Paul is appealing to a Biblical standard of righteousness and repentance that should govern a local body of highly committed believers (see Mt. 18:15-17)? Think about it, why would Paul command this if the health and vitality of a real community was not in jeopardy?
Again, the Bible is not prescribing membership, but we can see from their church discipline that it is at least assuming it.
3) Church Listings & Votings.
While the evidence is slight, a few passages describe lists and votes that the early church kept or participated in. For instance, a list of the widows was maintained so that local church members could assist in caring for them (1 TIm. 5:9). This sort of document assumes a regular group of committed participants, who were not only active in the community but went above and beyond to care for the local widows!
What about Church members voting? Well, there is a Biblical example of a vote being taken (2 Cor. 2:6) and a simple “majority” of Corinthian church members following Paul’s advice on dis-fellowshipping the young man referenced above. Again, while the text does not prescribe a policy or a process on how to vote out unrepentant sinners, it does assume that there was a committed local body of believers, who participated in the health and life of the community and saw church discipline as a vital way of keeping their church healthy. We see that while not everyone was in favor of this approach, a conclusion was reached through a form of voting, which again argues for an organized church body with committed members instead of passive event attenders.
Thabiti summarizes these three points this way:
“Electing leaders, submitting to them, regulating membership, keeping lists, and voting only make sense if a known, identifiable, and distinct body is recognized. So while the Bible does not provide us with a Biblical treatise on membership per se, there is enough evidence in the inspired record to suggest that some form of membership was practiced and was necessary to the church’s operation”
With that, we must look at the essence of Church membership and what it looked like in practice.
WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF CHURCH MEMBERSHIP?
The essence of church membership was a community of saints, blood-bought by Christ, gathering together to obey the commands of Christ. And while Jesus said many things for His followers to do, He summarized the old commands this way: 1) Love God with everything. 2) Love your neighbor as yourself. In these commands all of the Old Testament is encapsulated.
Jesus also gave a new command in John, which is a summary of new life in the Kingdom of God. He says:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” - John 13:34-35
Do you see what Jesus is saying? If we were to give the briefest summary imaginable, a church - at its essence - is the gathering of Christians in order to grow in the love of God, grow in their love for neighbor, and to lavishly showcase Jesus’ love toward fellow believers so that the world may stop and stare.
The New Testament vision for the church is more than this, but it must never be less.
WHAT DOES A COMMITTED AND HEALTHY CHURCH MEMBER LOOK LIKE?
In light of this, Thabiti ends this chapter with a brief sketch of what a committed church member will look like.
One of the most important ministries we all get to participate in is being present in a local body. This is not a legalistic command to strive for perfect attendance, but a simple acknowledgment that we gain the opportunity to grow in love for God, love for neighbor, and we get to love other believers when we are present. This cannot be done from home or a phone.(See Heb. 10:24-25)
Unlike many stories I hear of church hurt, when power-hungry pastors, divisive elders, backbiting committees, or vicious gossip rings cause irreparable damage; the healthy church is filled with people who seek peace instead of causing division. In fact, this is one of the best ways we get to display Jesus’ love and live out our witness to the world.
(See Rom. 14:19; James 3:18)
The Christian is one who fundamentally turns from being self-focused to others-focused. As we imitate our savior who came not to be served, but to serve others, the healthy church member understands that their primary role within the body is to pour out into others. Again, this cannot be done remotely.(See Mark 10:45; 1 Cor. 12, 14; Eph. 4:11-16)
WARNS AND ADMONISHES OTHERS
We live in a culture that loves affirmation, celebrates placation, but disdains challenge and warning. We do well in our modern relationships, so long as we cheer and never challenge. But this is not what it means to be a healthy member of Jesus’ Church. We are called to share the truth in love and to encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ toward Christ-centered holiness and joy. This is not intrusive or hate-filled, but it also is not avoidant.
Since Christ reconciled us to Himself while we were still His enemies, we have been given and called to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-21). By walking in the footsteps of Christ, we are called to reconcile with any brother or sister in Christ, who we may still be at odds with, even before continuing in public worship (Mt. 5:23-24). How we reconcile with others says a lot about how deeply we understand the Gospel.
BEARS WITH ONE ANOTHER
Living in a community with other people is hard. This is also true with Christians. Sometimes especially true of Christians.While we are all saved by grace, we all can be graceless. But even more than that, sometimes we may simply struggle with a certain personality type. Sometimes we get annoyed by certain people. But, when we know how sacrificial, patient, and longsuffering Jesus has been toward us, we begin to understand how to demonstrate this towards others, even those we find more difficult.
(See Mt. 18:21-22; Rom. 15:1; Gal. 6:2)
PREPARES FOR THE ORDINANCES
Christ established two everlasting ordinances for His bride, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Being a healthy and thriving church member means that we love and enjoy participating in both! Our soul is filled with joy to see a man or woman publicly declare their allegiance to Christ through Baptism. And we, eagerly and joyfully participate in the Lord’s Supper as often as it is given, even preparing our hearts beforehand to receive. The point is this, healthy church members grow to love the things Christ loves. His ordinances for the Church are just one example of that.
SUPPORTS THE WORK OF THE MINISTRY
As you can see from the list above, sharing our presence is vital to our own spiritual health and vital to the health of the church. But, a healthy church member goes beyond just being present to share their whole lives for the good of Jesus’ bride. This means sharing our time and our gifts to help accomplish the mission of the church, as well as sharing our resources in a joyful and cheerful way.
(See Rom. 12:6-8; 2 Cor. 8-9)
Jesus totally gave Himself up for His bride. He died because He loved her and He died to make you and I healthy and participating members. And while there will always be things fighting for our time, many of them good things, we must fight to be present within the body.
Now, don't get me wrong, this will never happen perfectly because we all know that there are times we will be away. There will be vacations, out of state weddings or funerals, sicknesses, etc. The point of participating in Church is not perfection in our attendance but the sanctification in our affections. Do we long to be present in the body? Do we yearn to fellowship with the saints? If not, let us pray that the Lord would reorient our hearts, instill in us a passion for His bride, and give us the energy and love to be fully participating members.
To Him be all the glory!