Jonathan Leeman's expressed purpose in this substantive and well-written little book is to show "what church membership is", and to present a vision of its "astounding reality." (18) For me, however, this book had the unintended effect of strengthening my doubts about the Biblical case for, and the helpfulness of, requiring formal church membership.
Leeman says that we approach the subject all wrong--we think of churches as clubs where membership is optional. Instead, he argues, the church has the highest earthly authority, given to it by Jesus Christ, who has absolute authority. Church membership is "a declaration of citizenship in Christ's Kingdom...the declaration that you are an official,licensed, card-carrying bona fide Jesus representative." (64)
Great emphasis is placed on the authority of the local church. I do not find the same emphasis on local church authority in Scripture; I did not find the Biblical case Leeman presents cogent. For example, he cites Matt. 28:28-30 where Jesus states that all authority in Heaven and in earth has been given to him. But Jesus's claim is followed by a "therefore." Christ's states his authority as the reason for missions, for the disciples going and making new disciples of the Risen Lord! In Ch. 2, "Membership Sightings in the New Testament." every mention of the church in the New Testament is understood as meaning formal members of a local church. For this Protestant, this suggests identifying the spiritual reality of Christ's church with the human institution. As J. I, Packer has said, "The Roman church says, 'Come to church and we will give you Jesus. The Protestant says, 'Come to Jesus and you are the church'."
More troubling is the description of non-formal church members: According to Leeman, these people are likely guilty of a long list: they "view the Lord's supper as their own private, mystical experience," they "don't integrate their Monday-to-Saturday lives with the lives of other saints;" they "assume they can make a perpetual habit of being absent from the church's gathering a few Sundays a month or more." (23) This leaves little room for honest disagreement. More to the point, the stereotype does not fit the godly Christians I have known throughout my life who serve their Lord passionately and sacrificially love the Body of Jesus Christ, yet are not formal members of a local church, through circumstance or conviction.
I am also puzzled by the omissions. I realize that this book is small and focused, but can any discussion of church membership not address whether the church you are thinking of joining and submitting to is a Biblical church? Isn't it far more important to regularly attend and listen to solid, expository preaching than to formally join a church which uses God's Word to support its own agenda?
As my difficulties mounted, I realized that my disagreements with the argument of this book went far deeper--they went to the question of requiring church membership itself. I offer my conclusions here, but would like to say first that, for me, the question of whether to require formal church membership is not an essential component of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because it is a secondary matter, Christians can agree to disagree and still recognize our unity in Christ:
First, the emphasis on requiring formal membership lessens the New Testament emphasis on spiritual reality. We are the church, the body of Christ, because we have been given spiritual life, made alive in Christ, by faith. God has given us a new birth, made us his sons, and given us His Spirit. (Eph. 1:3-13) As His body, we are members of each other. (Rom. 12:5, Eph. 4:25) We are commanded to love each other, rejoice and weep together, keep the unity of the Spirit, and think others better than ourselves. (Phil. 1:1-5) Wherever we live, we assemble with other Christians, gathering as the disciples did, for teaching, prayer, breaking of bread, and fellowship (Acts 2:42) We also recognize our oneness with the global church. What joy to meet someone in whom we recognize the Spirit! Today, we experience the spiritual reality of our oneness in Christ in conferences, conversations, phone calls, letters and even emails. (I draw the line at Twitter.)
2) A position that insists on the necessity of every Christian's being in submission to a local authority and the highlighting of discipline seems to insert a layer of human accountability that I do not find emphasized in Scripture, though church order is certainly Biblical. Biblical local churches do have leaders, recognized by those who gather. Individuals do need to submit--the primary text here is Hebrews 13:17. (Interestingly, the Greek word translated "leaders" or "rulers" emphasizes ruling rather than shepherding. Somebody, in any group, has to make decisions, and clearly express the doctrine and practice of the church. The word used in this text for "obey" has the sense of yielding, giving way--it is a dynamic term--not the word used for the subjection urged upon children and wives. (Greek scholars may correct me--this is only from my looking-up.) The main Biblical passage for church discipline is in Corinthians, where Paul writes to the whole church that they are to disassociate themselves from the person who is creating a public scandal. The New Testament emphasis is not on discipline as the dynamic of the church, but love, supernatural love, to God and to others. The picture is of a worldwide redeemed church, one in Christ, loving and obeying her Lord, gathering locally, being taught and transformed by the working of the Spirit, remembering the Lord, praying and fellow-shipping together and serving each other in love. Paul writes to the Thessalonians. "Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another."
3) The emphasis on considering only the local church in all of our life decisions, seems to limit our caring for other believers who are not local. But in this instant-communication age, we do not leave people behind! (Actually, this is not so new--Paul writes that he left the Thessalonians, "in person but not in heart.") (2:17) My life is full of former students and far-flung friends. Email lets me into their lives--this means praying for them and seeking wisdom how to respond. These are important relationships. I love the believers that I worship with every Sunday, but God chooses whom He also brings into my life. Recently, I emailed in response to a mission's newsletter, hesitantly raising a theological question. It brought this sweet response: "When anyone writes or teaches here--including me--we represent not only ourselves and (the mission) but the body of Christ. And as part of the body, we need every part. So I am happy to hear from you, and even to be corrected by you when helpful or necessary." That, to me, is the picture of the church of Jesus Christ in action! The Apostle Paul writes to the believers in Thessalonians: "for indeed you do practice it (loving one another) toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. (emphasis added). They are taught by God to love all the Christians in Macedonia!
4) The requiring of formal membership can be sadly divisive, as I have witnessed numerous times. Two examples: A regular attender, a home-schooler and an excellent Bible teacher, is not allowed to teach children in Sunday School because she is not a formal member! A pastor justifies ignoring Matt. 18's call for addressing an offense first with personal confrontation, because the offending person is not a formal member, only a regular attender--for years! I could go on. Because formal membership can lead to failure to acknowledge our membership in the Body of Christ, it can harm the Biblical unity we are Scripturally called to.
5) Leeman sees individualism as a major problem of the church today, asserting that the solution is submission to a church. But how does joining, even submitting, to a local institution, of itself, change a heart? One may recite a covenant with a heart full of pride or bitterness toward a fellow believer. The problem with the Christian church is, and always has been, worldliness: loving self more than God, as Tozer says in The Pursuit of God. Or, as J. I. Packer writes, "Knowing about God is not the same as knowing God." God changes our hearts as we meet Him humbly in His Word, hear it preached, fellowship with other believers, repent of our sins, and grow in our knowledge of God. I am sure Leeman agrees with this.
Paradoxically, the case here presented for the necessity of formally joining a church feels humanistic, emphasizing human formalities rather than recognizing that we are, in truth, a spiritual reality: the body of Christ, his church, bought with His blood, from every tribe and nation, yet one in the Lord. This Biblical understanding of the Church needs to be preached from the pulpit. The vision in Church Membership is our submitting to the authority of the church. I have a different vision: A new person comes into our midst. We get to know him (or her), and seek to express our love. This means we listen and observe to discern where he is spiritually. If he is a fellow member of the body of Christ, we are all responsible to care for him, including speaking truth he needs to hear, in love. If he is not a believer, we proclaim the Gospel to him and pray for his salvation.
Church Membership's subtitle is How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. Jesus, in talking to his disciples at the Last Supper, says, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:35)