“I am a regular attender, not a member.”
Those were the sad words I heard; another person explaining to me the nature of their relationship with the church that they had been attending for eight years.
I asked her:
“I know your church practices formal church membership, why haven’t you joined?”
“I had such a bad experience in my former church where I was a member that I resolved to never again join a church. Conflicts in that church hurt me a lot and, being a member, drew me into situations I would rather have avoided, so I said ‘NEVER AGAIN!’ Besides, what difference does it make? I do everything in this church a member does except vote.”
Here, again, was an apparently sincere Christian declaring that her personal past experience could, and would, trump God’s Word. God’s declared will as revealed in the Scriptures was irrelevant when stacked against her own experience. When I pointed out to her that the Bible consistently presupposes that believers will form relationships of spiritual accountability, service, and soul care within a local church she became indignant and said:
“What does that have to do with anything?”
And then she walked away.
I don’t usually quote Universalist pastors, but in this case, Edwin Hubbell Chapin (1814-1880) said something that applies well here:
“Tribulation will not hurt you, unless, as it often does, it hardens you and makes you sour, narrow, and skeptical.”
That certainly seemed to be the effect that this woman’s prior experience with church conflict had on her. Here she was, years later, carrying the baggage from a prior church conflict. She claimed to be a Christian who “believed in” God’s Word and who attended a local church. But since her church was properly organized, she would not be allowed to:
- Serve in any children’s ministries (legal liability limitations)
- Use her spiritual gift in the care of others (accountability and oversight issues)
- Receive the benefit of corrective care through the appropriate church discipline of her elders (1 Corinthians 5:12-13 and legal limitations)
- Participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (never having publicly professed her faith in the church she now called her home church)
Her perspective was that she was just like any member of her church, but, in fact, she was not (in any meaningful sense) a part of her church at all.
The heart of the New Testament church is meaningful engagement through full enjoyment of what it means to be a “member of Christ’s body” (Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 6:15, 12:24; Ephesians 3:6, 4:25, 5:30; Colossians 3:15). Church membership means being a part of something eternal. It does not merely mean “getting to vote at congregational meetings.” As Pastor Edmund Clowney has written:
“The lists of names in the book of Numbers give evidence of God’s concern to define membership in his people; God’s book of life is the archetype of the earthly register of his people (Ex.32:32-33; Mal. 3:16).” The Church, p. 104
This poor and misguided woman had allowed her prior experience to stand between her and what life as a member of Christ’s body—the church—was all about. More significantly, she did so by believing that her personal experience was more valuable and trustworthy than the Word of God, a book she professed to believe in. Her actions spoke far louder than her words, however, and she was actually a hypocrite who didn’t realize that failing to join her church was an act of unbelief that set her in the company of those apart from God. Again, I quote Dr. Clowney:
“Those who say that church membership is not necessary, or even that it is unbiblical, fail to grasp what the New Testament teaches about the church and the administration of the sacraments. Jesus accompanied his promise to build his church with the gift of the keys of the kingdom. Those who do not heed the final discipline of the church are to be regarded as Gentiles and publicans, that is, as outside the membership of the community. (MT 18:17)” Id.
The other sad aspect of this story is what unintended effects her prior church’s conflicts had on her present spiritual life. That past conflict situation stood as the root cause of her present unbelief in the church as Christ’s body. Few church leaders and members fail to count the cost that conflict may inflict on others or themselves—presently and in the future.
May we be careful and wise as we live before the face of God!
Grateful for the church,