Submit to Jesus, Submit to His Bride
Church membership can feel boring, secondary, extrabiblical, and unimportant. Aren't there plenty of more pressing things to talk about? Not really, suggests Jonathan Leeman in Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Crossway, 2012). In just 132 pages, Leeman unfolds a clear and compelling case for submitting our lives to King Jesus by submitting to his earthly bride. I corresponded with Leeman, editorial director for 9Marks and editor of its Journal, about the surprisingly pressing significance of local church membership.
Why is it significant to understand that Christians don't really "join" churches so much as submit to them?
"Join" is a club word. You join a club, whether it's a country club or a wholesale shopping club. You pay your dues. You receive the benefits. You come and go as you please. Nothing about your identity changes. No real demands are placed on you that you cannot extricate yourself from. "Submit" is a kingdom and citizenship word. It recognizes the presence of an authority established by King Jesus. It speaks to a changed (new) identity. It suggests that you now belong to a new nation, a new people, a new family. And it suggests that all the new benefits you receive as a member of this nation and family also come with a set of obligations that are not so easily dispensed of.
What difference should church membership make in a Christian's life?
Your question is sort of like asking "what difference should righteousness make in a Christian's life?" It should make all the difference. A Christian is declared righteous in Christ, and then he or she "puts on" that righteousness in everyday decisions. By the same token, a Christian is declared a member of Christ's body through the gospel (e.g., see Eph. 2:14), and then he or she "puts on" that membership in a geographically specific local body. Don't tell me you're united to and committed to the Church---capital C---unless you are united to and committed to a local church: "for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20). Less abstractly, our membership in a local church is where our discipleship to Christ takes shape. It's where we learn to love our enemies, where we learn to turn the other cheek, where we learn to forbear in love, where we learn to go the extra mile, where we learn to employ our spiritual gifts, where we learn to speak to one another in love, and so forth. Certainly, these lessons apply beyond our fellowship in a local church, but the lessons begin here. And they begin here precisely because it's the local church that has the authority of the keys to bind and loose---to formally affirm our profession of faith or deny it.
"Kingdom" is a very popular concept among Christians today. How does the kingdom relate to the local church?
The local church is the place on earth where the citizens of heaven can, at this moment, find official recognition and asylum. Churches represent Christ's rule now. They affirm and protect his citizens now. They proclaim his laws now. They bow before him as King now and call all peoples to do the same. You might say that a local church is a real-life embassy set in the present that represents Christ's future kingdom and his coming universal church. The embassy-like authority of the local church gives individuals who mouth the words "I'm with Jesus" the opportunity to demonstrate that those words mean something. The local church guards the reputation of Christ by sorting out the true professors from the false. The local church enables the world to look upon the canvas of God's people and see an authentic painting of Christ's love and holiness. And the local church lays down a pathway with guardrails and resting stations for the long journey of the Christian life.
How should two Christians who belong to the same church relate to each other differently than two Christians who belong to different churches?
That's a great question that helps us get to the heart of the matter. Picture me and two other Christians, one who is a member of my church and one who is not. You could say that all three of us belong to "the body of Christ" and "the people of God" and the universal church. Furthermore, you could say that Scripture calls all three of us to love each other, to pray for each other, to encourage each other, to rebuke sin, and even to care for one another financially as occasion requires. But what's the difference? Here's a hint: there is the possibility of church discipline with my fellow member but not with the other brother or sister. Jesus has given me and my local church a formal judicial role to play in my fellow member's life that he has not given me in the life of every Christian on earth. And it is this final, adjudicatory authority the local church bears that plays a large role in a Christian's discipleship. Discipleship occurs best in context of godly and loving authority.
What would you say to people who attend churches that don't have formal membership? What about to pastors of churches that don't have formal membership?
Ah, well, that depends on a host of factors. If you're attending that church, maybe it's the only gospel-preaching church in your area, and so you don't have much choice. Or, if you're the pastor of that church, maybe you've inherited the congregation and pushing toward something more formal in the short term will prove divisive. So, it depends. That said, whether a pastor or non-pastor, you want to help your church move toward something like formalized membership for three simple reasons: (1) every Christian needs to know which other Christians he or she is specifically responsible for; (2) every Christian needs to know which church leaders he or she needs to submit to (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:5); (3) every church leader needs to know which Christians he will give an account for (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2). When you show up at your weekly gathering, and when you disperse throughout the week, who is the "we" of Christ's body for whom you are responsible? Don't just say you're responsible for all the kids in your neighborhood. What kids has God made you responsible for?
Matt Smethurst is managing editor of the Gospel Coalition. He has served as both a deacon and an elder at Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.