This past weekend, five of us went down to Portland for the 9Marks Northwest Conference. 9Marks is a ministry based out of Capital Hill Baptist Church in DC, that grew out of Mark Dever’s (pastor of CHBC) book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. This is an annual conference, with each year focusing on one of the “nine marks.” This year’s theme was Meaningful Membership, with eight sessions given by four different teachers.

Going to conferences like this with others from your church is much more valuable than going alone, as it provides space to discuss what is being taught, and then bring the ideas and insights back home to the church.

I wanted to share some of the things that stood out to me from the teaching, as a means of helping us think through and practice the membership that God calls us to as a church.

  1. The Bible talks about Christians with images that imply they are knit together, stuck together, glued together, etc. The church is compared to a physical body, with the members of the church being the body parts: eyes, ears, feet, legs, etc. (1 Cor. 12, 14). The church is compared to a family, with brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers (Mt. 12:49-50; 1 Tim. 3:15). The church is compared to a “dwelling place,” with members being the various building materials that make up the house (Eph. 2:19-22). All of these metaphors proclaim that being a Christian means being “stuck together” with other Christians. Body parts are stuck to the body, family members are stuck to the family they were born into, bricks are stuck to the house they are helping to build. These things are not meant to be isolated, but intimately connected with the other parts. This leads to a second point…
  2. Belonging to a church is fundamental to the normal Christian life. Bobby Jameison, one of the speakers, said, “Church membership is the normal, natural backdrop of the Christian life. It is the shape that following Jesus takes.” While the formal process of church membership may take various forms depending on context, the overarching reality of Christians committing to one another and taking responsibility for one another, under the shepherding of pastor/elders is central to living out the Christian life. You won’t live a healthy Christian life outside the context of a local church body.
  3. Church membership is about expressing real, tangible love to real, tangible people. We live in a culture that is characterized by individualism and consumerism, which are not totally bad things, but carry dangers when they are not moderated by other things. And as churches, we often buy into individualism and consumerism indiscriminately, in ways that actually inhibit the love that God calls his people to (“just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another”—John 13:34). We offer “church” as a service or production, to meet your needs or entertain you. We won’t call you to any commitment that might bump up against your individual desires, needs and plans. Church membership, on the other hand, says: I realize that in belonging to God, I also belong to his people. Church is not something I attend or observe, but something I belong to. I have responsibilities to this group of people, and they to me. And the river running through all of those responsibilities is real, tangible, longsuffering love, shown to real people you bump up against regularly.
  4. Making clear lines between those inside and outside the church is not only biblical, but loving and helpful. Bobby Jameison made a point from 1 Corinthians 5 that I hadn’t considered: Paul had told the church “…not to associate with sexually immoral people,” but he realizes he needs to clarify what he meant:

“…not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

1 Cor. 5:9-13)

Paul speaks of those outside and inside the church. And he says that in this specific situation (blatant, unrepentant sin), the church is to respond one way to those inside the church, and a very different way to those outside. Now, it’s certainly not only at the end of a process of “judging” unrepentant sin (see Mt. 18) that we need to know who’s part of the church or not. Certainly we ought to also know who specifically we are to encourage, exhort, speak the truth in love, bear with, forgive, and all the other things the Bible calls us to. Certainly the pastors ought to know who they are responsible to shepherd.

To whom do we have these responsibilities? The guy who shows up once a month, who’s made no commitment? The believers in the church across town? A Christian friend in Korea? By practicing church membership, we are making clear: these are the specific individuals on planet earth who have confessed Christ, have committed themselves to the care and oversight of this specific church body, and to whom we have a responsibility.

Now, one response that we might bring up is this: Couldn’t all this biblical language be talking about the universal church, believers all over the world, and all throughout time? Is it really talking about specific, local churches? The Bible clearly does talk about both the universal church and the local church, and there are surely some aspects of all of this that apply to the universal church as well.

But consider what that would look like if we limited these things to only the universal church: What value is there in saying we are like a body, family, and house if we never physically connect with the other “members”? How are we to love one another like Christ has loved us—along with all the other one anothers in Scripture—if we aren’t in regular, ongoing, tangible community with other believers? If there are times when someone is to be removed from a church (as Paul says there is, when their life no longer affirms their confession), then surely there is also a process for adding individuals to a church. But how do we every do this if we aren’t thinking about specific, local churches, with real, tangible people whom we bump up against?!

It is quite obvious that much of this flies in the face of how we tend to see church today. Again, we tend to see it as individualistic consumers: “What do they provide that I need? Don’t ask me to commit or submit, because that encroaches on my autonomy.” But God’s vision for the church is much deeper, much more meaningful, much more tangible, much more life-giving, and much better.