I am a member of the Fry’s V.I.P. Club; I am also a member of the Davis family. The first came about because I scribbled my phone number on a piece of paper at the grocery store; the second came about because I was born into an existing family. My membership at Fry’s means very little to me; my membership in the Davis family means almost everything to me.
If “membership” can include these two diverse experiences, then any discussion of “church membership” must be handled carefully. Are we asking you to give us your phone number or to come home for Christmas each year? And why are we asking in the first place? Is the idea of membership simply a human construct or do we find it in the Bible?
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul develops the idea that every believer in Christ is a member of Christ’s body, like eyes, ears, legs, and fingers are various parts of one body. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12–13). This membership profoundly changes how we should live. God’s will is “that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:25–26).
While at some level we can experience this “body” dynamic with all believers–for instance, I can read about persecuted Christians in China, empathize with them, and pray for them–Paul’s words are only meaningful if we apply them to specific Christian relationships. The experience of our common baptism into Christ’s body resulting in care for one another primarily takes place in a local context of regularly gathering believers. And “membership” in a local church addresses a simple question: with which believers will I commit to share life in Christ together, suffer together, rejoice together, grow in holiness together, and engage in God’s mission together?
I suppose a person could answer that question by continuing to show up at Sunday services and other church functions. But by having a membership structure, it gives that person the opportunity to say, “I want to experience life as part of the body of Christ with these people.” It helps us as leaders to know that we are responsible for your spiritual flourishing in a way that we are not responsible for the other thousands of Christians in central Phoenix. And it means that someone will come after you if you begin walking away from Christ.
If you trust in Christ’s death and resurrection to make you right with God, membership is already a reality for you. You are a member of Christ’s body, his flock (1 Peter 5:2), his family (1 Tim. 3:15, Eph. 1:5), and his new temple (Eph. 2:21, 2 Cor. 6:16). No process you can go through at Whitton Avenue will make you more or less a member of the eternal, universal church. At the same time, we believe that no believer will experience the full joy and benefits of being in the same body as Christians in general apart from being in intentional relationships with Christians in particular. We call that “church membership,” and pray that you will pursue it with us.
In Christ with you,