What are the Responsibilities of Church Membership?
I can still remember my excitement at seeing my name on the final basketball roster. I made the cut. High school basketball tryouts were over, the team was set, and my name was on the list. I got the shoes, the jersey, and a locker in the team locker room.
Now the real work was about to begin: conditioning, practices, travel, more conditioning, games, summer camps—and did I mention conditioning? These responsibilities defined my role as a team member. Without accepting them, my place on the team would have been insignificant; indeed it would have been non-existent.
In an individualistic and consumeristic culture, the very notion that church members bear significant responsibilities comes as a surprise to some Christians. But responsibility and church membership go hand-in-hand—you simply can’t have one without the other. In fact, wherever you have a defined group of people, those people necessarily incur responsibility simply by belonging to the group. You’re not a member of the Tuesday night bowling league if you don’t take responsibility to show up on Tuesday nights to bowl. Even more so, if you join a church, you have responsibilities.
So what are the responsibilities of church members?
INDICATIVES BEFORE IMPERATIVES
How we answer that question depends on how we first define the local church. A local church is not a building or a place. A church is a people. More specifically a local church is born-again, Spirit-filled people who gather regularly in the name of the Lord Jesus and under the authority of God’s Word to profess the true gospel and affirm each other’s citizenship in the kingdom of God by the ordinances. That definition is a bit of a mouthful. But it shows us two important things about the church and its membership: the church has a unique identity and the church has a unique authority.
The church is made up of regenerate, Spirit-filled people. They have a new identity. No longer spiritually dead, they’ve been made alive in Christ. They are a new creation, forgiven of their sins, and adopted as God’s sons (Jer. 33:31–34; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 1:7, 13, 22; Rom. 8:15). Each church member bears a responsibility to become who they already are in Christ by walking in a manner worthy of the gospel (Eph. 4:1). Being leads to doing. Or in other words, New Testament imperatives flow from gospel indicatives.
God has also entrusted these local assemblies with authority to render decisions on earth on behalf of the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18:18). Local churches are embassies of God’s kingdom. Through baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and discipline, a local church wields the authority to affirm or denounce someone’s citizenship in God’s kingdom. This responsibility falls to the members of the church, not just its leadership.
SIX RESPONSIBILITIES OF CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
In light of the church’s identity and authority, how do we define the responsibilities of church members? These six points summarize the Bible’s teaching on the responsibilities of membership.
If church members don’t assemble, then there’s no church. In other words, gathering together in the name of the Lord Jesus is part of what makes a church a church. The author of Hebrews commanded his readers not to forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:25). Every church member should prioritize Lord’s day worship with the people of God.
Of course, members may need to assemble for other reasons. If a church designates member’s meetings as the context for budget approvals, receiving new members, handling discipline cases, and clarifying doctrinal positions, then church members have a responsibility to gather at those meetings as well.
Protect the Gospel
Ensuring fidelity to the gospel isn’t the responsibility of pastors alone. Every church member is responsible to uphold and affirm the gospel. When the apostle Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, he chastised the churches, not the elders, for turning to a “different gospel” (Gal 1:2, 6). He held the congregation accountable for allowing error to creep in and distort the gospel (Gal 1:7). Granted, not every member can master the intricacies of systematic theology, but every member should be able to articulate and defend the substance of the gospel. The apostles assumed that every believer would mature in Christ, enabling them to discern true and false doctrine (Eph. 4:13–14; Phil. 1:9–10; 1 Jn. 4:1–6).
At a practical level, protecting the gospel means that church members should know and understand their church’s statement of faith. Every church member is responsible to ensure that the teaching of his or her church is in accord with the church’s confession. Church members that embrace this responsibility will view their private Bible study as more than an act of personal devotion and edification. It will also have an ecclesiological impulse: “I study the Bible to help the whole church maintain doctrinal fidelity.” When every member accepts the responsibility to protect the gospel, the whole church benefits. Together, they mature in the truth and build themselves up in the knowledge of the Son of God (Eph. 4:13).
Define Your Church’s Membership
Church members are responsible to receive and dismiss members. Jesus instructed the church to regard an unrepentant brother as a Gentile and tax collector for refusing to submit to the church’s authority (Matt. 18:15–20). In 1 Corinthians 5:1–13, the apostle Paul rebuked the Corinthian congregation for tolerating evil in their midst. When they “assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” as a church, they were to hand the immoral man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (1 Cor. 5:4–5).
Together, church members are responsible to define their membership. By receiving new members through baptism or transfer from another church, a local church tells the watching world, “this person is a citizen of God’s kingdom” (cf. Matt 16:18–19; 18:17–20; 28:18–20). By regularly fellowshipping around the Lord’s table, the members partake of the on-going sign of church membership, while affirming each other’s status as members of the new covenant (1 Cor. 10:17; 11:23–26).
In cases of discipline, the church effectively testifies that they no longer recognize the one disciplined as a citizen of Christ’s kingdom and member of his body (Matt. 18:15–20). Pastors do not wield this kind of authority alone. The whole church must make these kinds of decisions out of obedience to Christ, for the purity of the church, and to preserve their gospel witness in a fallen world.
Love One Another
“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). Saying that church members are responsible to love one another is almost like saying birds have a responsibility to fly. Affection for God’s people defines our new identity in Christ (1 Jn. 4:7). In the New Testament, love is tangible, active, and expressed through service. Every church member is responsible to fulfill the “one another” passages of the New Testament.
If we take responsibility to love one another, then we’ll actively seek to be discipled and disciple others. In this way, the whole church “builds itself up” in love (Eph. 4:15–16). We won’t be passive about the church’s unity, but eager to maintain and promote a spirit of unity in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). We won’t leave wandering members behind, but pursue them for their good (cf. Matt. 18:10–14). We’ll take prayer seriously (1 Thess. 5:16; Eph. 6:18), bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), show hospitality (Rom. 12:13), put others’ interests ahead of our own (Phil. 2:4), and seek to develop meaningful relationships.
This kind of ministry isn’t just for pastors. Instead, Jesus has established pastors in his church to equip members to fulfill their responsibility and do the work of the ministry of building up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11–12).
Submit to Your Elders
Hebrews 13:17 exhorts Christians to obey their leaders and to submit to them. Elders are a gift from Christ to his church. They are men of character gifted in teaching and applying the Scriptures (1 Tim. 3:1–7). Church members are responsible to obey Jesus by submitting to their elders because the elders keep watch over their souls as those who will give an account (Heb. 13:17). Obviously, church members should not follow their elders blindly, but insofar as the elders are teaching the Scriptures and leading the church biblically, church members should submit to their wisdom, counsel, and instruction.
Evangelize the Lost
The Great Commission is for every Christian, not just pastors and international missionaries. Jesus has commissioned every church member to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:18–20). As a people reconciled to God, we have a responsibility to announce the message of reconciliation to people separated from Christ, without God, and without hope in the world (2 Cor. 5:19; Eph. 2:12). The church is a royal priesthood charged to mediate an authoritative proclamation from God to humanity (1 Pet 2:9). We announce the reign of God in Christ in our public assemblies, and we disperse to proclaim the same truth to a lost world: Christ is King! Repent and believe in him.
No athlete joins a team hoping to sit on the sidelines every practice and game. Church membership is far more important than participating in team sports. But sadly, individualism, consumerism, easy-believism, and unbiblical church polities have left many church members intentionally or unintentionally sidelined.
Are you a church member? Don’t settle for the bench. Jesus calls all of us to get up and get to work.
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Author’s note: I am indebted to Jonathan Leeman’s influence on this piece and on my own thinking on this topic. Much of this piece restates similar arguments made by Jonathan elsewhere.