Church Membership: Why Bother?

Last year I changed pastorates from a church in the southeastern United States to a church in the Pacific Northwest. Of course there are cultural changes that come along with geographic shifts, but one of the biggest differences I noticed was the attitude toward church membership. I am painting with a broad brush here, but in general it seems that southerners highly value church membership. Whether or not someone attends church, it seems almost more significant from a social perspective that they at least be members somewhere.

Anecdotally speaking, I remember hearing about a session who decided to remove a woman from the rolls who had not come to church at all in three years. She lived two hours away and when she received the letter indicating the session’s intention to remove her from the rolls for non-attendance she made a special trip to visit with the session, reamed them up one side and down the other, and wouldn’t you believe it the session were just terrified enough of this woman that they kept her on the rolls! She didn’t want to attend church, but she wanted her name on that roll.

In other words, some people value church membership over church attendance. On the other hand, it seems to also be the case that in the Pacific Northwest (and I suspect in lots of other places) there is a very different issue, as church attendance is highly valued, but church membership itself is greatly under-valued. Many churches today don’t even have a concept of membership! For many Christians, the fact that one is in church, hearing the word, joining in worship, and participating in the life of the church is more important than signing one’s name on the dotted line. In other words, I’ve noticed that it’s possible for membership to be over-valued, and also under-valued. Both of these tendencies are errors, and I think they both arise from a misunderstanding of the good that God intends to come from church membership.

Perhaps the most potent passage I sometimes take people to when discussing the need for church membership is Hebrews 13:17 which reads:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

The first responsibility that the passage assumes is the responsibility of believers and their families to visibly identify with the church. The author assumes that there is a point at which a Christian goes to the elders and there is a mutual agreement and recognition: “I recognize the elders as men who have the responsibilities this passage talks about.” There is necessarily something formal about this because such a responsibility requires clarity. Without clarity, the author of this text cannot even say something as simple as “your leaders.” Do such leaders have a responsibility? Do they know that they have responsibility without any sort of statements or mutual agreements? This can hardly be the case. Visible and formal membership is implied in this command.

The second responsibility this passage mentions is the responsibility of the Christian to obey and submit. Even Christians chafe at the idea of submission. We chafe at submission to government (Rom. 13), we chafe at the idea of submission in marriage (Eph. 5:22, 24; 1 Peter 3:5), in our flesh we chafe at submitting to God (Romans 10:3; James 4:7) and yes, we even chafe at the idea of submitting to our own church leaders, even though all of these things are commanded by God in Scripture. And yet, willing submission is a part of God’s design for his church.

It’s worth noting, however, that when church members submit to elders of the church, they are not agreeing to do anything and everything that elders say. Elders do not have worldly authority, which means we don’t physically lay hands on God’s people in discipline, for example. We only have spiritual authority. We can’t command church members to do just anything we want; they have to be things that God himself has commanded.

A man may be an elder, but he has zero authority to tell a church member that they must hop on one foot for two minutes straight. We are constrained in our authority by the Word of God. So church members obey and submit to elders as elders. They do not owe elders obedience and submission when the elders try to act outside of their authority from God. The authority of elders is modest and limited by God himself because ultimately this is God’s authority, not ours.

The flipside of this is that when elders give the commands of God to members, and they are acting in keeping with God’s authority, church members are obligated to listen and obey. This is what submission looks like. The proverbial example of this may be a man who is living with his girlfriend. The elders of the church are absolutely bound to tell such a man that he is living in sin (Ex. 20:14; See WLC 137-140), and such a man is absolutely bound by his vows and by God’s Word to respond affirmatively to the correction of the elders. This is what it looks like to submit as the author of Hebrews puts it here.

These are the responsibilities of church members, as far as the author of Hebrews is concerned in this passage. The rest of Scripture elaborates more what it means to be a church member, but even restricting ourselves to one passage I hope that it is plain to see that church membership is most certainly biblical and that furthermore without it, one endeavors in vain to know how a non-member could even keep the command of Hebrews 13:17.

The responsibilities of church membership don’t only flow in one direction, however. In fact, it might be argued that the weight of Hebrews 13:17 presses much more forcefully upon the elders of the church as it elaborates responsibilities for church leaders. I want the reader to note that there is a tight connection between the obligation of the member to submit and the obligation of the leaders. Notice the word “for” that bridges the obligation to have leaders and submit to them, and the obligations of leaders I’m about to mention. In other words, the author of Hebrews says, in essence, that the member is able to join and submit because the elders also carry a heavy obligation, themselves.

The first responsibility that the author of Hebrews mentions in this text is the responsibility of elders to keep watch over the souls of members (“for they are keeping watch over your souls”). It’s worth noting that the elders aren’t responsible for the member’s body: they are responsible for the soul. The soul is easily neglected, especially in our own day, but the elders of the church are meant to be specialists for the member’s spiritual good. How is this done? What does soul care look like? The answer is probably too broad for our purposes here, but at the bare minimum the answer should include ensuring that the word, the sacraments, and prayer are safeguarded in the local church. These three things are the primary and ordinary way that God plans to care for his people, and if they aren’t in place church leaders are shirking their responsibility to “keep watch over [the] souls” of God’s people.

Second, this passage tells us that elders have another responsibility, and that is the responsibility to answer to God for how they lead (“they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”) The idea is that elders are meant to be watchmen who look out for and guard those who are members. The counter-example of this in Scripture comes from Isaiah 56:10: “[Israel’s] watchmen are blind; they are all without knowledge; they are all silent dogs; they cannot bark, dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber.” What a terrifying thing to have it said of elders that we would be like this.

I remember a young family who joined our church, and immediately after joining they ceased attending (I suspect that they wanted membership without the obligations). I reached out to him, imploring him to return to worship, and after a while he responded with great irritation, “Why do you care? Whose business is it of yours?” My response was to basically say to him, “God has given me a heavy responsibility that weighs upon my heart. He has made me an elder, and he’s made you a member. And one day I will have to stand before God and answer for why I did nothing in this situation. As long as you are a member of Jesus’ church, I will have no choice but to care for you and your family, to pray for you, and to encourage you to come to church or to become a member somewhere else.”

It's a heavy burden. Yes, being a member and submitting to the elders is hard, but the weight of that obligation becomes easy when you have elders who are fulfilling their own calling. I find this principle to generally be the case in all situations where submission is called for: it is so easy to obey and submit when the one you are obeying and submitting to has your good in mind and you know it! I think this is the design of the author of Hebrews here: being members of the church who joyfully submit to elders who in turn are loving and caring for the souls of the members and always living with their spiritual health in mind, knowing that the elders themselves will have to be accountable to God. 

Adam Parker is the Senior Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Beaverton, Oregon. He is the husband of Arryn and a father of four. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.

Related Links

"Join, or Die?" by William Boekestein

"Leaving a Church to the Glory of God" by Christian McShaffrey

"How to Delight in Serving Your Church" by Megan Hill

"Where Jesus Is" by Terry Johnson

What Is the Church? with Michael Horton, Greg Gilbert, and Robert Norris

The Church: One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic by Richard Phillips, Philip Ryken, & Mark Dever