In a recent Fish Hooks (Gourmet Jesus?) we explored how Christians are sometimes tempted to think that they have the freedom to customize Jesus, the Bread of Life, to suit their tastes in the same way that we select the most appealing kind of bread in the supermarket. One would certainly hope that few who consider themselves followers of Christ would succumb to that temptation! Yet, at the same time that Christians reject the notion that they are free to choose a recipe for Jesus to fit their personal preferences, a great many do suppose that the lifestyle choices of discipleship are entirely matters of personal freedom. This is especially evident regarding the way people view the matter of church membership.
For much of the history of the Christian Church, there was an assumption that being listed on the membership rolls of the Church was equivalent to being listed in God’s ‘Book of Life’ (Daniel 12:1, Luke 10:20, Revelation 3:5). By the time of Luther this assumption had been ‘weaponized’ by the Roman Catholic Church as a way of silencing dissidents. Since excommunication from the Church was regarded as a sentence to an eternity of torment in hell, its threat terrified commoners and kings alike and kept them compliant.
Martin Luther was not the first reformer to challenge this assumption, but he was the first one that led a successful reform movement (and survived). Like the martyred Jan Hus who preceded him by a century, Luther argued that Scripture speaks of a spiritual Church of which Christ alone is the head (Ephesians 1:22-23), not an earthly institution headed by the Pope. This opened the door for the present proliferation of Protestant denominations, as well as the numerous non-denominational churches of our time.
Given the Biblical truth that salvation is a matter of one’s personal relationship to Jesus Christ, rather than being contingent on membership in a particular church body, many have then concluded that being a member of a church is therefore a matter of no real importance. Thus, you may hear statements such as this: “My faith is a personal matter between God and me, and I don’t need a church for that.” Still others find it convenient to have their names on the membership rolls of a congregation but see no reason to participate any further than necessary to retain that status: “Hey, I don’t expect much from my church, so don’t expect much from me!”
To put it bluntly, many people view church membership in the same way that they view membership at a health club, in a civic organization, or belonging to a special interest group: the decision to join and remain a member is a matter of weighing the costs versus the benefits. For some, membership in a church is like belonging to a country club: it creates social connections that may be pleasant or useful. For others, having an identification with a church is simply something that respectable people do. And for still others, church membership ensures access to the services of the church when required for baptism, marriage, or burial (“hatched, matched, and dispatched” as some have put it). And though many Christians will shake their heads at such a shallow perception of church membership, they might still feel entitled to freely pick and switch their church membership based upon the quality of their experience. Their relationship to the Church is that of consumers.
But is that all there is to church membership? Is it really just a matter of ‘shopping for the right style and fit’ the way we might chose a suit of clothes, which we then wear only when the occasion suits? Do we have the freedom to freely replace our church wardrobe when it ‘goes out of style’ or the fit becomes uncomfortable? Is church membership and participation our own personal lifestyle choice, or does God have something else in mind?
In the coming weeks at Emmanuel we will be featuring a series of sermons and complementary Fish Hooks with the theme of “Membership Matters.” We will not be looking for ‘pat answers’ to justify our preconceptions, but rather we will seek to explore how God’s Word shapes and directs our understanding of membership. Our goal is to be better equipped to serve our Lord’s heavenly purposes through the Church He established on earth.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)