Formalizing the bonds that unite us.
How would you describe the difference between a couple who love each other, live with each other and sleep with each other, but are not married, and a couple who are married? That’s become a difficult question for our culture to answer. Some might say, “It’s just a piece of paper,” or “It’s just an old fashioned ceremony.” Some Christians might add, “What does the Bible say about weddings anyway?”
While the Bible does use the word “marry” and “marriage,” rather than add an eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt have a wedding,” there is a commandment not to commit adultery. And you begin to realize that if it’s a sin to sleep with someone who’s not your husband or wife, then there must be some formal process to identify where a marriage begins and when it ends. In a world without weddings or marriage, you’d never have adultery. Because the lines were never formally drawn, it would be impossible to nail down when you’d actually crossed them. I think church membership is a little bit like marriage.
Like commandments about weddings, it’s tough to find lots of verses mentioning church membership. Instead, there are lots of teachings and commands that are impossible to fulfill without some kind of process of church membership underpinning them. So for instance Paul exhorts the leaders in the church at Ephesus to “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28), but without some process of membership it’s difficult for leadership to know who they are responsible for. Similarly, the author of Hebrews writes, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17) but without church membership we’re in the same position as someone trying to obey the adultery verses without a concept of a wedding. Which Christian leaders do you have to submit to, John MacArthur or Benny Hinn? And surely God can’t hold a leader accountable for every Christian alive. Church membership is the process by which a Christian says, ‘I submit myself to this church and its leadership,’ and in return the church welcomes you into a church family committed to serving one another and reaching the community.
When a couple lives together without a wedding, they might say, “We love each other and that’s what’s most important.” But in the back of their mind there’s always the question, “Doesn’t he love me enough to make a commitment to me?” Without church membership there is a distance between a believer and the church that says, ‘I’m keeping my options open.’ There’s a classic passage in Ephesians where Paul says that God has given leaders to the church to equip the saints for the work of ministry “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). While I know that there are many things that God uses to encourage us in our walk with God, ultimately I believe God’s main strategy is the church. While it can feel like a small technicality, without a clear commitment as a member of a specific local church, a Christian can be like a student who instead of registering in a particular school, drops in on classes they find helpful, hands in homework they feel they’d benefit from, and otherwise keeps their distance from the administration. That would be a hard path to academic success.
Talking about love and marriage is a lot more fun than talking about a wedding licence. But I think the former is richer and more secure with the latter.
In awe of Him,