Church Membership and the Gospel
Church membership often presents itself as a frightening prospect to many. It involves an array of potentially unpleasant things: offering envelopes, planned giving, annual congregational meetings, weekly programming, requests to serve on the council, board or in a volunteer group, or maybe even leading a bible study or small group. Getting involved like this might be enjoyable to some people, but to others, it’s hard work. It just looks like more clutter on the calendar.
Perhaps this is why so many people avoid church membership completely, choosing instead to simply attend, give, and get involved at their convenience and on their own terms. Church membership is understandably threatening because it is a matter of the Law, or something we must do, which will always accuse the conscience. God has entrusted His creatures with the responsibility for maintaining their relationships with the other things He has made. Because of this, church membership is governed by this responsibility.
And this is precisely how it should be, too. Congregations are, after all, earthly institutions that need to pay the bills, keep the lights on, and heat the building. Without these things––which inevitably involve money and effort––the operation of the church would be impossible. Unpleasant though it may be, church membership has its practical benefits, and the Law is distinctly practical in its application to earthly life. It is quite good at what it does, externally speaking, and so the Law functions critically in the church’s business in the world as an earthly institution.
Membership in a congregation certainly comes with obligations and responsibilities, just like any other institution within God’s creation. Martin Luther, who was not remarkable or innovative in noticing this, suggested that the orders of creation and preservation consist of three basic categories, or “estates,” as he called them: the family, the church, and government. Both family and the church, he argued, precede the condition of human sin; only government is a unique institution shaped as a response to the fall of humanity. But given the reality of human sin, even the church, constituted as it is to the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, has earthly dimensions which require the use of the Law to restrain sin and organize the disorganized.
(A very helpful presentation of Luther’s views on the orders of creation and the estates is to be found in Oswald Bayer’s Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation)
However, being a member of a church is not simply a matter of the Law. It does not merely involve our contribution, financial and otherwise. Nor is church membership only about ecclesiastical discipline––as if the only reason churches have members is so they can exert control and enforce the right kind of behavior modification. These things all have their place, on some level, but if church membership makes either discipline or service its central feature, we have failed to give proper place to the Gospel.
For this reason, we must come to understand church membership in distinctly evangelical terms. Being a member of a church connects people to the whole reason the church has for existing: that we might obtain justifying faith in Jesus Christ through Word and Sacrament (Augsburg Confession). The church exists so that repentance and the forgiveness of sins might be proclaimed to the ends of the earth (Luke 24:47), to every last sinner in need of Christ’s forgiveness. The church exists so that these sinners will also be brought to the font for Baptism, which will wash away even the most wretched of sins. The church exists so that Christ might impart his body and blood with the continuing, sustaining promise of yet more forgiveness.
In all these ways, through Word and Sacrament, Christ is drawing us to Himself. Consequently, church membership is as much about having a specific place where one can receive Christ as it is anything else. Church membership is a blessing of the Gospel because life is challenging. Sometimes terrible things happen. Having a place of refuge and safety is important––especially when it comes to life and death. So when the powers which oppose and oppress enter in, tempting us to believe God is other than good, then we are in need of a place where we can hear once again that Christ is our Savior, that God is the giver of every gift, and that the Holy Spirit will sanctify and sustain even in the hardest of times.
Church membership means having access to a pastor who will consistently and faithfully proclaim all of these things, especially when it matters the most. Discerning where one will join also requires one to listen for where Christ crucified for sin is actually, and unconditionally, proclaimed. Those searching for such a church with which to affiliate can trust that the Holy Spirit will supply faithful preachers and teachers of this Gospel when and where they are needed. God promises to hear our prayers, of course, and that includes prayers in which we lament the absence of good preaching. God will also hear our prayers in which we demand from Him even more of the good gifts He gives through Word and Sacrament.
Church membership might, indeed, be frightening to some. Connecting with church on a more casual basis could seem like the safer option, especially for those who have been hurt by the church in the past. A healthy distance might seem like the only way for church to remain a part of one’s life. Yet the Gospel is always at work to mitigate our fears, and that includes even our fears about getting involved with a congregation. For it is the Gospel and the Sacraments, ultimately, that create and carry on the work of the church itself.