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Church membership – the importance of belonging

May 2014 | by Mike Plant

One of the greatest privileges of my life is to have been a member of a church and to be in fellowship with the same people over a period of time.

We have seen one another’s children grow up with all the difficulties and joys that brings. We have seen one another in good days and on bad days. This develops a closeness and level of fellowship not otherwise obtainable.

Trust

Frankly, because I am strong-minded and driven, I need people who can tell me I’m wrong and, equally importantly, I need to know that the people telling me I am wrong, or just telling me they see things differently, genuinely love and accept me.

I also need to deal with relationship issues so that I will grow and develop as a person and as a Christian. I remember a sermon illustration about producing polished stones: the method was to put them in a container with sand and water and spin it as fast as possible. Unattractive stones with plenty of sharp edges came out beautifully smooth and shining.

By analogy, we also have a lot of rough edges and only the experience of fellowship and friction will mature us and make us shine as we should. Obviously this can be painful, but it is necessary.

I have often observed that some evangelical Christians move very frequently from church to church and, if they are theologically articulate, can always explain wonderfully well why they have done so.

By my reckoning, the basic problem is that often they cannot sustain relationships once they get beyond the ‘honeymoon’ stage. The tragedy of such Christians is that they never really grow deep in any relationship and miss the real and deep joys of doing so.

Bad experiences

Admittedly, reactions against church membership on the part of some are because of bad experiences. Now of course it is legitimate, right and commanded by Christ that, in some situations — such as sin for which repentance is not forthcoming, and fundamental doctrinal error and unteachability — the church should act to discipline its members.

The only discipline available to the church is the spiritual one of the withdrawal of membership and its privileges. However, the experiences of some Christians of the misuse of church discipline have so scarred them that they have no desire to ever risk being a member of a church again.

I understand this, because the authority of the minister and/or elders may have been used to direct people in ways which Scripture doesn’t mandate. People may have been directed to particular jobs or particular areas to live in; that is, church leaders have intruded into areas that are a matter for the individual’s conscience and guidance.

This can be immensely damaging to Christians who are young and keen and genuinely believe that Christian leaders can know God’s will for them in a way in which they themselves cannot.

The result is to leave Christians with spiritual burn-out and unwilling to commit to a fellowship of God’s people, the legitimate authority of its officers and church meeting.

Response

I think churches need to be clear and upfront about church discipline when we take people into membership. There are three basic conditions for membership: faith in the gospel; gospel living that commends the gospel to others; and commitment to the local fellowship of God’s people.

Church leaders and congregations accept people into membership if these conditions are met, and this means that it is obviously logical to remove people from membership if these conditions are not being met.

However, the church and its leaders are not to use the authority God gives to dominate or direct in areas where the issues are matters of individual conscience before God.

May God bless you in and through the fellowship of his people!

Mike Plant

The author is general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches. This article is edited, with kind permission, from

Congregational Concern (Issue 210).