I’ve heard well-meaning pastors appeal to church attenders to join in membership by emphasizing open committee positions and the influence of voting on important decisions. At other times, I have heard church membership undersold as an insignificant step that’s something like signing a petition on a street corner. “Sign-up, it makes our numbers look good.” Pastor, help your people see the real reason church membership is important; it is God’s normative discipleship paradigm.
In his little book Understanding the Congregation’s Authority, Jonathan Leeman says the purpose of church membership is about mission, not meetings. Like Leeman, my train of thought and comments assume an elder-led, congregationally-ruled church. If God has placed you into a different structure, I think this will still be applicable for you, but certain gaps may exist. I also want to state clearly my belief that churches of other governance structures can glorify God and make disciples of Jesus.
In the New Testament two groups have authority in the local church. Hebrews 13, Acts 20, and 1 Peter 5 say that the elders are given to the church to oversee as shepherds under Christ. Scriptures such as Matthew 16, 18, and 1 Corinthians 5 say the whole church has authority—specifically over who becomes a member and how a member in sin should be ministered to. Putting these verses together, there emerges a picture of the local church where biblically qualified elders oversee and equip people, but the growth, care, and even discipline of the congregation is a shared responsibility.
With that in mind, here are the three most important responsibilities of every church member.
#1: Receiving new members and disciplining current members
In Matthew 16, Jesus says his followers will have the keys to the kingdom. What He meant by that is not that one Christian or a group of Christians can save or condemn a person, only God does that. Jesus meant that, based on a true confession of Him as Lord, a church will be able to tell whom God has saved for Heaven and, often, who He has not. The practical application is that this is what the church is doing when we receive new members—the congregation of the church is affirming the Christian testimony of another person and giving him/her firm reason to believe God has saved them.
Similarly, in Matthew 18, Jesus says that if a person is in sin and a fellow Christian finds out, first that person should go to their fellow church member and confront them privately to see if he/she will confess and repent. If the one in sin does not, then his or her friend should take another person or two along to try again, hoping that a few more people will help the sinful person to see the seriousness of their situation. If that does not work, the sin should be told to the church in the hope that the whole church will be able to help the person. This is what we call discipline. Discipline is not inherently negative; it is often spoken of biblically in a very positive way. It means instruction. If repeated and ongoing attempts to draw the sinner to repentance fail, the church is left with no choice but to conclude the person was not a true Christian to begin with and remove him/her from membership. We hope these instances are extremely rare, but in the event they occur, it’s important to see that the intention of the church is not punishment, but restoration. Unless there was something extremely egregious and the public reputation of the church was in immediate danger, discipline should only be brought to the entire congregation if those who first confronted the sin and then the elders have been praying for and trying to reach a person for quite some time.
#2: Selecting elders
In 1 Peter 5, the Apostle instructs elders to shepherd and oversee the flock. Hebrews 13:17 says this kind of leadership is good for all of us. Places such as Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 tell us how elders should be known and some of the skills they must possess. Essentially, they should be faithful, mature men with the ability to teach others. This especially makes sense when you consider the role of the congregation. We can summarize it like this: together the congregation holds the keys mentioned above and from the congregation God raises up elders to lead the way in using the keys. This means we must take the elder affirmation process seriously. Only biblically qualified elders should be affirmed because our churches will either benefit or be hindered by their leadership. For individual members, supporting the authority and leadership of the elders helps build trust in God.
#3: Discipling other Christians
Earlier, I wrote that elder-led congregationalism is first and foremost a discipleship paradigm, not a governance structure. I hope you see a little bit more of the reason why now—the congregation has responsibility for affirming Christian testimonies and bears the weight, as a whole, of discipline. The congregation also affirms its leaders. This means that the primary job of church members is discipling other Christians—helping one another grow in grace, mortify sin, and develop as leaders. Discipleship includes everything from formal mentorship to casual encouragement and prayer. Notice when fellow members are not present and let them know you missed seeing them. Ask how you can pray for others in the church. Build one another up. Prioritize meeting with a few younger believers to pour into them. Give you guys opportunities to lead out and when they are faithful with smaller roles, give them larger ones.
If you are not a member, join your local church to glorify God and grow in Him. If you are a pastor, help your attenders and members alike to see the best reason to covenant in membership together—growth in the good news of Jesus.
Adam Fix is the Senior Pastor of Our Saviour Evangelical Free Church in Wheeling, IL. He is a founding member of Reach Chicago, a network of churches committed to planting churches in the city and suburbs of Chicago. He is married to Holly and together they have a daughter. Adam really enjoys coffee and cookies.