As we thank God for the new members He has blessed our congregation with in recent months, it’s a good time to think for a moment about what it means to be a member of the Church. What is membership all about?
Fundamentally, Church membership is submitting to Christ by placing yourself under His chosen structure of accountability and discipleship. We can think of membership in Christ’s church from two aspects. First, we are members of Christ’s Church. Second, we are members of Christ’s Church.
We become members of Christ’s Church by means of baptism, where God Himself puts His name on us, making us Christians by uniting us to His people, giving us personally many great and precious promises to be received by faith, and obligating us to a life of obedience and submission. This aspect of membership focuses on the unity of Christ’s body, and points us toward the reality that the Westminster Confession of Faith describes as the “invisible church”.
We become members of Christ’s Church when we formally unite ourselves with a particular worshiping congregation that you could give driving directions to, and submit to a group of elders that you could call on the phone. Ideally, this happens in conjunction with baptism, but frequently, especially in a transient culture, people find themselves seeking a new church other than the one they were baptized in. This identification with a particular local body often happens through a letter of transfer from the current church, by taking public vows during a worship service or member’s meeting, or some combination of the above. At our church, we request letters of transfer (though sometimes these are not available), and the elders conduct a membership interview, followed by public vows in the worship service. This aspect of membership focuses on the concrete and institutional reality of the church, what Westminster describes as the “visible church”.
A great confusion occurs when these two aspects of membership are forced apart, as if they were describing two separate things, membership in two separate churches, one invisible and spiritual, and one visible and physical. Some people refuse to join a church because they think that their personal connection with Jesus counts as church membership, while others think that just because their name is on a list somewhere that they have a saving connection with Jesus.
While we may distinguish between these two aspects of church membership, we must be careful not to separate them. If the church is Christ’s body, then the baptized person who doesn’t join is like an organ in a bag, waiting to be transplanted – they won’t last outside of the actual body forever! The unbaptized attender, or the baptized person who doesn’t have faith is like an artificial limb, joined in some sense, but not really part of the body in a deeper sense.
But when both aspects are appreciated, the baptized church member is completely joined to the body, and partakes in the life of the body, created by the Father, and sustained by the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit, and the life-giving blood of Jesus Christ.