Metaphors and Membership: How Biblical Metaphors for the Church Require Church Membership
If you’re looking for the words “thou shalt be a church member” in Scripture, you won’t find them. But if that troubles you, let me encourage you to think a little differently about how to arrive at biblical conclusions. The Bible doesn’t necessarily provide us with a “chapter and verse” prooftext for everything we ought to do or believe. Yes, we should rigorously tether our beliefs to Scripture, but we need all of Scripture, not just bite-size snippets.
If we unpack all of what Scripture teaches about the local church, we’ll find that church membership is in fact in every nook and cranny of the New Testament. In that light, I want to focus on just one aspect of how Scripture talks about the church—the images of the church—and consider how these metaphors support and inform our understanding church membership.
METAPHORS AND MEMBERSHIP
The Bible doesn’t simply command us to join a church—it does something far better. It unfurls the relationship between the church and its members with a series of metaphors that shape our identity and challenge our near constant sinful inclination to individualism, self-sufficiency, pride, and I-got-this-ness.
If the Bible simply said, “join a church,” we could treat membership like checking a box on a to do list. But by portraying the church and its members as a body, a temple, a flock, and a family, the Bible forces us not only to join a church but to consider how well our lives fit with that biblical imagery. The metaphors force us to ask, “Does my church membership look like that?” These metaphors provoke our imaginations, “How might I be more like what the Bible describes? Am I really a family member in my church or more like a next-door neighbor? Am I really a hand or a foot in the body, or more like some dispensable house shoes?”
The metaphors show us that membership is more than about having our name on a piece of paper; being a church member shapes how we choose to live.
So what metaphors does Scripture use to describe the church? Consider just three of them.
The Church is a Body
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul refers to the church as the “body of Christ” and to Christians as “members” of that body—an image he likely adopted from Jesus himself (cf. Acts 9:4). For Paul, an individual Christian is neither isolated nor independent. A Christian is like a hand, a foot, a toe, an artery, an adrenal gland, or any other body part—we’re only healthy and useful if we’re in the body.
This metaphor is fertile for application. It dignifies every church member. Every body part is necessary, so there’s no excuse for self-pity (1 Cor. 12:15–20) or pride (1 Cor. 12:21–26). The metaphor also suggests the danger of not being in the body. How healthy, after all, is a detached limb or a discarded organ? The metaphor ties our spiritual good to one another. As we know from our own bodies, when one member suffers, the whole body suffers (12:26).
Notice also that when we talk about church membership we’re speaking the language of Paul. The phrase church “member” is a biblical term. In 1 Corinthians 12:12–27, Paul refers to the believers at Corinth as “members” of the body of Christ five times. Pastors didn’t invent the term, Paul did.
Notably, in this passage Paul is referring to being a “member” of a local church, not just the universal church. Paul is, after all, speaking to a local church. He describes being a member of the body of Christ as being vitally connected to the life of the body—so much so that the joys and suffering of other members become your own (1 Cor. 12:26). The shared life between the members assumes that they’re rubbing shoulders with one another, bearing one another’s griefs, and sharing in each other’s burdens.
Additionally, Paul made it clear earlier in 1 Corinthians that he intended his readers to see the body metaphor as referring to a local congregation: “because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). These “members” compose one “body” precisely because they share the Lord’s Supper together—a single loaf shared by a local congregation.
The Church is a Family
Both Paul and Peter call the church God’s “household” (1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 4:17)—another word for “family.” What’s your family made of? Members, of course. Family members aren’t simply names on a paper, or a file folder of marriage and birth certificates. A family is a network of relationships and obligations. Family members are bound to one another. They share meals, they celebrate together, they mourn together, they rejoice together, they make decisions together, and, when apart, they long to reunite.
The church is a family. Like the natural family, the church family is a network of relationships and obligations. Members unite with one another as brothers and sisters. Our commitment to one another shows itself as we do “family things”—gathering, caring, laughing, weeping, worshiping, and serving. Once again, the New Testament conceives of membership not as an item on a checklist, but as a way of life. Just like being a husband and a dad shapes my life and priorities, so too does being a church member. Regularly attending a local church but not joining is like frequently visiting a neighbor’s house; you may enjoy the occasional fellowship but you’re not a part of the family.
The Church is a Temple
Finally, Paul calls the church the “temple of God” (1 Cor. 3:16–17). Peter calls Christians “living stones” that build up a “spiritual house (1 Pet. 2:4–5). As the fulfilment of both the garden and the temple in the Old Testament, Jesus now pours his Spirit on the church. As we await the coming of Christ, the local congregation is now the dwelling place of God. Like bricks mortared together, the local church is composed of individuals built into a single temple. As we work for the “common good” of the congregation, we manifest the Spirit that resides in us (1 Cor. 12:7).
A FEW IMPLICATIONS FOR CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
Let’s consider a few big implications from these metaphors.
First, church membership is biblical. If you belong to God, then you’re a part of a body, a sibling in a family, or a brick in a building. It’s simply impossible to read these metaphors describing the church and assume a Christian can somehow “opt out.”
Second, instead of simply commanding Christians to join a church, the Bible portrays the Christian life in such a way that it can never be separated from the church. The biblical metaphors for the church show that membership means having a vital connection to a local congregation. This connection shapes our everyday life.
Third, these metaphors provoke our imaginations to consider how we might more fully integrate our lives with others in our local congregations. It’s useful to enumerate the specific responsibilities of church membership found throughout Scripture. Matt Emadi helpfully laid out those responsibilities in another article. But consider for a moment the larger principle at play in these biblical metaphors. They ought to create dispositions of the heart. New Testament metaphors for the church don’t just mandate that we join a church, they shape our character and our values. They don’t just tell us what to do, they tell us who we are.
For instance, if we see ourselves as stones in a temple, we’ll labor to gather with members (formally and informally). Bricks, after all, don’t make a temple unless assembled together. If we see ourselves as members of a body, we’ll value the health of the whole body, not just our personal spiritual health. After all, what good is a healthy bicep if the rest of you is covered in flesh-eating bacteria? If we see ourselves as members of a family, we’ll strive to be just that—a family.
Reducing these points even further, these biblical metaphors for the church teach one big principle: we should strive to build up the spiritual well-being of our local church, not just our personal spiritual health. If you’re part of a body, a sibling in a family, and a brick in a building, how could it be otherwise?