By Thom S. Rainer
Churches in America are losing ground in their own backyards. We can blame it on secular culture. We can blame it on the godless politics of our nation. We can even blame it on the churches, the hypocritical members, and the uncaring pastors.
But I am proposing that we who are church members need to look in the mirror. I am suggesting that congregations across America are weak because many of us church members have lost the biblical understanding of what it means to be a part of the body of Christ.
God did not give us local churches to become country clubs where membership means we have privileges and perks. He placed us in churches to serve, to care for others, to pray for leaders, to learn, to teach, to give, and, in some cases, to die for the sake of the gospel.
So what does the Bible say about church membership?
We are all necessary parts of the whole
There are a number of places in the New Testament where we can see a clear picture of church membership. One of the more voluminous sections is 1 Corinthians 12 to 14. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul explains the metaphor of the church being a body with many members.
In 1 Corinthians 13, he established love as the central attitude and action all members should have. And in 1 Corinthians 14, he returns to the messed-up church at Corinth that has the concept of membership all wrong.
Some church leaders and members view membership as a modern business or organizational concept, so they reject the label as unbiblical. Membership, to the contrary, is very biblical.
The Bible explains “members” differently than secular culture. For example, look at the term in 1 Corinthians 12:27–28: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it. And God has placed these in the church.”
Do you get the difference? Members of a church comprise the whole and are essential parts of it. The apostle Paul would carry the body metaphor further and explain that members are individual parts of the body.
Some are eyes; others are ears. Some are feet; still others are hands. That is why he concludes: “For as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body—so also is Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12).
We are different but we still work together
With a country club membership you pay others to do the work for you. With church membership, everyone has a role or function. That is why some are hands, feet, ears, or eyes. We are all different, but we are necessary parts of the whole.
Each part, therefore, has to do its work, or the whole body suffers. There is a beautiful diversity in the midst of unity in church membership. The Bible makes it clear that if one part does not do its job, the whole body does not function well. But if one part does its job well, the whole body rejoices and is stronger: “So if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
Everything we say and do is based on a biblical foundation of love
Most Bible readers will speak glowingly of 1 Corinthians 13, commonly known as “the love chapter.” It is read at weddings. It is used for a husband to declare his love for a wife or vice versa. It is preached to demonstrate a fuller meaning of agape or unconditional love.
While there is nothing wrong with using the love chapter in these contexts, its original meaning was to demonstrate how church members relate one to another. Can you imagine 1 Corinthians 13 being read at an acrimonious church meeting? In its full biblical context that might be the best place to read it.
If we could just abide by the principles of the love chapter, we would have completely healthy churches. It would be a revolution!
Just look at some of the relational principles of 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not conceited, does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs” (vv. 4–5).
The principles of these two verses alone are sufficient to cause a revival in most churches!
We are not to love fellow church members just because they are lovable. We are to love the unlovable as well. We are not to pray for and encourage our pastors just when they are doing things we like. We are to pray for and encourage them when they do things we don’t like. We are not to serve the church only when others are joining in. We are to serve the church even if we are alone in doing so.
Church membership is founded on love. Authentic, biblical, unconditional love.