They were truly delightful. Probably in their late fifties, recently retired, just relocated to Franklin, Tenn., to be closer to their grandkids. They started attending the church several months earlier and had just expressed excitement about participating in the upcoming inquirers’ class. Hearing this, I was encouraged but mistakenly concluded that signing up for the inquirers’ class meant they were exploring the possibility of membership. I innocently began to ask about churches they were members of in the past when the conversation shifted.
“I’m sorry. I’m afraid we misled you,” they said. “Even if we attend the inquirers’ class, we won’t be joining the church.” Surprised, and a little confused, I asked why that would be the case. “We don’t do membership. We’ve found it comes with certain expectations about attendance and involvement, and we just prefer to be freer than that.”
Though rarely expressed so honestly, such sentiment is representative of a significant number of professing Christians across North America. It seems many are happy to maintain a loose affiliation with a church fellowship, but consider membership just a little too much commitment for their tastes.
To be fair, some of the views or feelings expressed about membership stem from bad experiences in local churches. It is true that some churches and denominations have a history of using membership as a legalistic billy club. If someone is coming from that background, it will take time to heal, build trust, and reshape what biblical church membership is supposed to look like.
Other Christians have simply never been taught a biblical view of membership and instinctively connect the word with the Rotary Club and Costco. For this person, the idea of membership feels like an exclusive clique where only those who pay the dues are welcome. Again, biblical instruction coupled with loving care will often lead these brothers and sisters into joyously committing to membership.
In my experience, however, an increasing percentage of professing Christians resist making the membership plunge for the reason the couple above stated: “We prefer to be freer than that.” Here’s the question though: Is the freedom of non-membership the freedom God wants for us?
When we take an honest look at Scripture, it is clear that we are redeemed not to be alone or loosely associated but to be numbered among the body of Christ. And contrary to how it may feel at times, membership is exactly the kind of freedom for which we have been designed.
At first blush, it may seem odd to call membership the kind of freedom we’re designed to experience, but that is the way Scripture speaks of it. One of the primary ways Scripture speaks of membership is with reference to the metaphor of the physical body.
In Ephesians 4:1–16 and 1 Corinthians 12:1–27, Christian membership is analogous to the membership shared by the various parts of our body. The way your hand and foot are attached to your physical body is the same way individual Christians are to be attached to Christ and other Christians. The Bible is giving us a picture of a fellowship that is so interrelated and interdependent that true life and belonging cannot be expected without each part’s being connected to one another. Very simply, we cannot be ourselves by ourselves (Rom. 12:5).
Now, from a certain angle, one could argue that a hand or foot’s attachment to the body is restrictive. It is true that an attached hand or foot is not experiencing the “liberty” of being unattached from the body. The question we should ask is whether the so-called liberty of being unattached to the body is the kind of liberty the hand or foot is designed to experience. Can the hand or the foot be what they are supposed to be without the body? Can we expect the hand and foot to function and develop without the body? The obvious answer is no.
To be honest, the situation is far more serious than a matter of functioning and development. It’s a matter of life and death. When a hand or foot is dismembered from the body, the very life of the hand or foot is drained out of it. It ceases to live. This is not to mention the fact that it’s very disturbing to see a part of the body cut off.
Interestingly, when a hand or foot is attached to a body as it’s designed, it strikes us as the most ordinary thing in the world. But if you see a hand lying on the ground, it’s traumatic—the stuff of horror movies.
It makes sense, then, why John Calvin, leaning heavily on the early church fathers, argued that the church is the “bosom [in which] God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith . . . so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother” (Institutes 4.1.1).
Far from being restrictive to our freedom, membership in a local church is the exact condition and constraint that makes for a healthy—and free—Christian life. In the end, membership really is the right kind of freedom.