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Questions, Vows & Membership - What for?


Questions, Vows & Membership - What for?

Let’s ask an obvious question: why do we have membership vows at all? Why do we have any membership criteria? Why don’t we just all come together in one building and whoever shows up shows up, and there are no members, no membership? Why can’t it be like that? It sounds much less exclusive than having to join something or take vows, right?

The reason we have church membership is actually quite simple. Christians are referred to as believers. The basis of Christianity is a belief system. Church membership is an acknowledgment by a particular church that the people who are joining the church have a belief system that is consistent with their own belief system. When someone joins the church, he doesn’t become a believer; he is acknowledged as a believer. If someone’s beliefs are found to be consistent with the beliefs of a particular church, then such a person is welcomed as a member of that church.

Imagine a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say you are the only Christian in a particular city and you have lived as the only Christian there for some time. Imagine that one day, while shopping at the local grocery store, you strike up a conversation with someone. As you make small talk, imagine she says to you something like this: “Well, I’m buying all this stuff because I’m new to town and just getting settled. I have most everything I need, except a Bible. Mine is still packed.” Bells and whistles go off in your head. A Bible? Still packed? Maybe this person owns a Bible for a reason! Remember in our ridiculously hypothetical scenario that you are the only Christian you know. You then ask her, “Why do you own a Bible?” and she responds, “Well, this may sound strange to you since I don’t think there are many religious people around here, but I am what they call a ‘Christian.’”

More bells and whistles go off. You whisper to her, “Me too!” and she gets a really excited look on her face! As the two of you keep talking, you both pull your carts over to the side and go a bit deeper in the conversation.

“You said you were a Christian, right?”
And she says, “Right!”
“That is unbelievable!” You add, “I have never met someone who believes what I believe.”
You probe a little further. “Let me ask you another question. Do you believe that the Bible is God’s Word?”
“Yes, I do!” she exclaims.
You reply, “Me too!”
She might ask you in return, “Do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead?”
You say, “Yes, I have believed that since I became a Christian!”
She says, “Me too!”
Then you ask another question, “Do you think that when we Christians die we go to heaven?”
“Yes, I definitely believe that!”
You reply, “Me too!”

That conversation might go on for a while, and after swapping several more “Me too!” comments, the two of you determine that you have the same fundamental beliefs. At that point, you might decide to meet together to worship the same God you both believe in! You decide that Sunday mornings are a good time to meet and make plans for worship together.

This little example is much caricatured, but if you take the essence of this scenario and repeat it over and over again, then you have a very crude example of how belief systems are established and how churches begin. Doctrine is not a hurdle erected by man to keep people out of the church; it is a clear admission of what a group of people believe who happen to be inside a particular church!

Think for a moment how unhelpful it would be for a church to be unclear about its exact beliefs. Imagine attending a particular church for a while and then learning that in all the music for the next month the name Jesus was going to be replaced with Buddha because many of the other people felt that Jesus and Buddha were both peaceful prophets and deserved equal airtime in the music. You might respond, “Oh, I don’t think I believe that. I’m not sure I can affiliate as part of this group anymore since our beliefs are so different.”

This principle holds true in a myriad of arenas in life. We affiliate with political parties based on shared beliefs, join service organizations based on shared beliefs, and join fraternal organizations based on shared beliefs. Human beings affiliate on the basis of shared beliefs in countless ways. Affiliating with a church based on shared beliefs is consistent with normal human expressions of affinity.

Suppose someone showed up at a meeting where vegetarians share organic recipes with each other. Imagine the horror in the room if a new person stood up and asked if anyone had a good fried chicken recipe or a great steak marinade. You would quickly learn that you were at the wrong meeting. The same would be true if a vegetarian showed up at the local Cattleman’s Association wearing a “Meat is murder” T-shirt. In either case, you would have misperceived the purpose of the group and its belief system. Affiliation with that group would be irrational since your personal views were inconsistent with the group’s corporate views.

The reason for church membership criteria is exactly the same. We ask questions and respond with answers to ensure that our beliefs and doctrine are the same as the group we are joining. The publicly stated theological views of a particular church allow anyone who says, “I do,” to know that they are part of a larger group of people nodding their heads and saying, “Me too!”

Just Jesus and Me
Some people may be able to say “Me too!” to particular theological propositions. Those same folks may even find themselves aligned doctrinally with many other people who believe the same things, but they still might consider formal church membership to be unnecessary. Someone might skeptically think, Yes, I do believe in Jesus, and yes, I do agree with that doctrine, but being a member of a church isn’t necessary to go to heaven so why do I need to join a church? Can’t I have a relationship with God with just Jesus and me? I don’t have to sit in a building on Sundays to be a child of God! Sitting in McDonald’s doesn’t make you a Big Mac, and sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian. I don’t see what the big deal is about church membership! I think religion is man-made, and I just want to worship God like I’m supposed to—just Jesus and me! Many people would say amen to the above sentiments.

The skeptic above is right. There is nothing you must say or do in order to be a Christian, other than to believe in Jesus Christ. (1)  This question was asked of Jesus in the gospel of John: “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” And Jesus Himself answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (2)  We believe that faith alone in Christ alone through grace alone is what makes a person a child of God. Period. End of story. No disclaimers. You do not have to be a member of a church to be saved or be loved by God or to go to heaven. You can be technically converted, call yourself a Christian, and not be a member of a local church—but please keep reading!

Any Christian who would take that last paragraph and use it as personal justification for never joining a church is missing the whole point of his inclusion in the kingdom! It is neither healthy nor good to live disconnected from the body of Christ, the church. You and Jesus together do not make up the perfect church. Half of your church is perfect, and the other half is you.

There may be times and seasons when individual believers are not connected to a local fellowship, but unless you are reading this while shipwrecked on a desert island, it is not likely that you are the only Christian for hundreds of miles. If you can’t find someone else who says, “Me too!” with your belief system, then you might need to reexamine your belief system. My pastoral advice to anyone who is disconnected from a local church is that any season of time like that should be short-lived and marked by active pursuit of a local church with which to affiliate!

We need to be members of a local church because we need each other. We need community. We need membership vows because we need to be able to understand and articulate exactly what we mean when we look at a gathered group of fellow believers and say, “Me too!”

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(1) It should be said that even the words “believe in Jesus Christ” must have substance to them! What do we mean by “believe”? Is that assent or is it trust? If it is trust, then trust for what? Even the most basic statements of assent and belief must have theological substance or they are meaningless.
(2) John 6:28–29. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, Ill.: Standard Bible Society, 2001