The Biblical Blessing of Covenant Membership in the Local Church (4)
In the previous post we looked briefly at what is actually entailed in covenant membership in the local church. We now turn to some of its practical benefits as well as some objections often heard against it.
In addition to the obvious biblical reasons for covenant membership, there are some practical reasons why membership is important and helpful
First, committing yourself in covenant membership to a local church makes a powerful statement in a “low-commitment” culture. “Many bowling leagues require more of their members than our churches. Where this is true, the church is a sad reflection of its culture. Ours is a consumer culture where everything is tailored to meet our needs and satisfy our preferences. When those needs aren’t met, we can always move on to the next product, or job, or spouse. Joining a church in such an environment makes a counter-cultural statement. It says ‘I am committed to this group of people and they are committed to me. I am here to give, more than get’” (Kevin DeYoung).
Commitment has become something of a cuss word in religious circles. The idea of making a decision and actually sticking with it, even when times are tough, is a foreign concept to many today. All too often, today, “when the going gets tough, the tough simply leave and go to another church!”
DeYoung is right on the mark when he says that “We prefer to date the church – have her around for special events, take her out when life feels lonely, and keep her around for a rainy day. Membership is one way to stop dating churches, and marry one.”
Second, covenant membership in a local church defies the temptation most of us feel to be overly independent. Independence, in many respects, is a wonderful thing that we in America and in western culture in general ought to be thankful for. But biblical culture is also communal: it calls on individuals to become “members one with another” and to live in relationships of mutual support, encouragement, and accountability.
Our society is all about self: self-promotion, self-esteem, self-reliance. But the church is all about mutual submission one to another and humbly deferring to the needs and promotion of others rather than ourselves. The church is all about the pursuit not so much of what best serves me but of what best serves others and their growth in Christ.
Third, covenant membership helps facilitate accountability in a way that few things can. “When we join a church we are offering ourselves to one another to be encouraged, rebuked, corrected, and served. We are placing ourselves under leaders and submitting to their authority (Heb. 13:7). We are saying, ‘I am here to stay. I want to help you grow in godliness. Will you help me to do the same?’” (DeYoung).
Why do people resist the idea of a formal membership in the local church?
I’ve identified a number of reasons, all of which share one thing in common. I wonder if you can identify what it is:
• If we implement a formal membership in our church, people will leave. [Sadly, this may be true, but nothing about covenant membership would require them to do so. We welcome everyone to Bridgeway, regardless of whether or not they embrace covenant membership. At the same time, we cannot, we must not, make our decisions about what we will or will not do based on the fear of how it will affect attendance.]
• I’ve had a bad experience in a church because of their practice of membership. [Yes, and we are profoundly sympathetic towards those who have suffered unjustly and unfairly in this way. But if we were to refuse to obey the Scriptures because someone treated us badly or because someone abused the practice, we would end up with nothing left! We are determined at Bridgeway to do it well. We don’t claim to be perfect, but we are committed to avoiding those abuses that have caused people pain.]
• I was offended by the infamous “membership drive.” It felt manipulative, contrived, and reflected an unhealthy obsession with numbers and growth. [Good for you! I agree! That is why we will never implement anything remotely approaching a membership drive!]
• Membership feels “exclusive.” [It’s hard for me to understand this when our appeal is for all believers at Bridgeway to become covenant members. We don’t exclude anyone. A person can only exclude himself/herself. If by “exclusive” you mean it creates boundaries that identify who’s “inside” the church and who’s “outside,” then I suppose the word “exclusive” fits. But isn’t this precisely what Paul does in 1 Cor. 5:12-13?]
• Membership has been used to prevent some non-members from serving in the church. [The problem here is in defining what kind of “service” you have in mind. We would never require membership for someone who wants to attend a community group or serve in the café or in the bookstore or participate in our missional outreaches. At the same time, we are responsible to protect the sheep. Certain areas of ministry, such as leading a community group or leading worship or teaching a class call for some measure of qualification. Do we really want someone placed in a position of leadership and spiritual influence who isn’t committed to this church, who isn’t willing to be accountable and to uphold the values and beliefs that we embrace?]
• Membership feels too formal and structured. I want a church that is relaxed and organic. [Again, some degree of “form” and “structure” are necessary, lest you have chaos and confusion. Yes, I want a church that is “relaxed” and “organic” (and I think we’ve got one!), but not one that is lazy, sloppy, and lacks unity. The issue is: where and in what areas of ministry does the Word call for structure and in what areas does it encourage informality? It would be unwise to embrace formality and structure and apply them across the board in church life, just as it would be unwise to do the same with a relaxed and organic approach.]
• Membership feels authoritarian and hierarchical. [It won’t in the way we do it! As for the words themselves, there is such a thing as legitimate spiritual “authority,” as those many texts regarding the leadership of Elders would indicate. The word “hierarchical” is a bit negative and prejudices the discussion. We believe in the fundamental equality of all believers in Jesus. We are all priests before God. No one is more important than another. But let us not forget that members of a local church are exhorted to respect “those who are over you in the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:12-13).]
• Membership feels excessively “denominational” and a reversion to older, so-called “fundamentalist” Christianity. [We are not part of a denomination, and as long as I’m here we never will be. And honestly, I hardly think we are in danger of being thought of as angry, isolated, separatistic fundamentalists!]
• Someone close to me was hurt deeply by membership. [Yes, I’m sure that is true in a number of cases. So let’s commit ourselves to not letting it happen at Bridgeway!]
• I’m fearful of being controlled. [Good. If you ever feel as if the Elders or Pastors at Bridgeway are controlling you in an unhealthy or unbiblical way, you let me know and we’ll deal with it. But our aim isn’t to control anyone. Our aim is with God’s help for all believers here to be known, loved, fed, led, and protected.]
• I’m a “member” of the universal Church, so why do I have to be a “member” of a local church? [Because the Bible says so. Sorry for being so blunt. I’m not trying to be insensitive. But what else can I say?]
• Membership serves only to divide the body. [But only when it is done badly and unbiblically. Its primary aim is to unify the body.]
• I’ve been in this church for years without a formal membership and we’ve done fine so far. To pursue membership now suggests that we’ve done it all wrong before. [Our move toward covenant membership is not an indictment or criticism of Bridgeway in past years. It’s simply a recognition of what we see in the Bible and a desire to follow God’s pattern for NT church life.]
• Membership simply isn’t in our spiritual DNA. It’s not “who we are”. [But the important question isn’t whether or not covenant membership is or has been in our spiritual DNA, but whether or not it should be. And it is going to be part of our DNA from this point on. It is now and henceforth “who we are.”]
• Membership will make broken and wounded people feel unsafe and unwelcome. [Nothing could be farther from the truth! Covenant membership, properly and compassionately and biblically implemented, will make them feel safe and loved and protected and cared for.]
• Membership will restrict my freedom to come and go as I please. [Well, yes and no. Covenant membership does run counter to the unfettered exercise of personal autonomy that says, ‘If I don’t like what’s here I’ll go to one of the two dozen other churches down the road.’ On the other hand, no one is forcing you against your will to partner with us at Bridgeway. But ask yourself this question: “What do I value more: autonomy or community?”]
• I don’t like boundaries. [Are you sure? All boundaries? What about biblical boundaries? We want nothing to do with artificial, man-made barriers, but we do want to acknowledge and honor the spiritual and moral boundaries called for in Scripture.]
What links all these reasons for resisting membership is that not one of them is biblical! I’m not saying that negative things such as listed above have not or cannot occur when membership is implemented in an unbiblical, unloving, and un-Christlike way. I’m simply saying that none of these reasons is ever found in the Scriptures as a reason why a church should not embrace some expression of formal membership. Virtually all of the above are grounded or based in an individual’s negative personal experience. As bad as that experience may have been, it is not a sufficient reason to reject what appears to be present throughout the NT.
In our pastoral team discussions on this topic, I asked the other guys for their input. Everything they said was helpful. One of my associate pastors, J. J. Seid, chose to send me his comments in an e-mail, and I think they are worth citing in full. He has drawn considerably on the wisdom of others in articulating this excellent statement. With this, then, I close.
“This isn't a way to stop people going out the back door. This is wanting to know who's going to stand at your shoulder when you're taking fire instead of throwing down their weapon and running away.
This is a commitment to stay, even if it means sometimes hearing hard words from friends, even when flatterers are waiting outside, ever willing to tell us what we want to hear.
This is a recognition that our self-perception is about as accurate as a carnival mirror, so we dare not cut ourselves out of the pack, or we risk being ridden down by the wolves of our own self-deception and cocky pride.
This is a promise that prepares the way for us to pour our lives out for each other without constantly wondering if a whim or flit of fancy will blow us out of each other's lives into another local expression of the church that we've found to be more convenient, where we can hide more comfortably.
This covenant commitment is a promise between friends. A bond between brothers.
This a commitment to yourself to choose Christian community on the basis of the Holy Spirit's leading instead of your own capricious convenience.
This is a sacred trust that declares "We're not interested in ecclesiological buffet—we're building a family." This is an acknowledgment that Christian community is not something we create—it's given to us by God. We are entrusted into one another's care, and we will not abandon that trust when it becomes inconvenient.
In an age of transience, isolation, and selfishness, we're taking a stand for intentional, humble, sacrificial community with Christ at the center, who bids us come and die—to die to our transient, isolated, proud selves in order to be reborn into a community created to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his glorious light.”