Ronald L. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
Last time we established the importance and the duty of membership in the visible, instituted church of Jesus Christ. There are many today who disparage church membership. There are many who find it quite sufficient to listen to the wide variety of religious programs broadcast these days over the radio and television. Others are content to read good Christian books or to listen to sermons on tapes. Others will attend worship services, but never actually join a specific church, and often drift from one church to another.
The Scriptures makes plain the calling of the believer to be a member of Christ’s church in the world. But the responsibility isn’t only church membership. The responsibility if LIVING church membership. There are many people who are members of the church. There are not so many people who are living church members. We are called to be lively, active enthusiastic members of the church.
What is living church membership?
Living church membership, in the first place, is membership in a faithful congregation of Jesus Christ. If I take my church membership seriously, then it is not enough that I simply am a member of any church, but I am a member of a true church of God. That means that I am a member of a church that exhibits the marks of the true church in the world as those marks are described in the Belgic Confession, Article 29. Those marks are three: the pure preaching of the gospel, the proper administration of the sacraments, the faithful exercise of Christian discipline. This is the criterion of church membership. The criterion is not the people, not the pleasing personality of the preacher, not the beautiful church building, nor the nice-sounding choir. But the criterion is the pure preaching of the gospel, and standing in support of that pure preaching, the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of Christian discipline. In such a congregation God is present and God is active by His Spirit and grace. To such a congregation I am called to belong.
In the second place, living church membership is genuine church membership. If we are living church members, we are not members of the church simply because this is socially acceptable. If we are living church members, then we are not members of the church simply because we’ve been born and raised in the church and probably most of our friends are members of the church. If we are living church members, then we are not members of the church simply to please a husband or a wife, father or mother. But if we are living church members, we are members of the church because we love the church and love Jesus Christ who is worshipped and praised in the church. Our membership in the church is willing, heart-felt, and sincere.
Thirdly, living church membership is diligent church membership. Living church membership means diligent church attendance. If we are living church members, then we are faithful in our presence at the services for divine worship. And then we are not just there bodily, but we’re there for the purpose of worship.
Several things may be included in diligent church membership besides our faithful attendance at the worship services. Diligent church membership includes our taking seriously the financial support of the church, paying the budget for the support of the ministry and contributing to the relief of the poor. Anyone who neglects this aspect of church membership, who fails to carry out his financial obligations towards the church, is not a living member of the church. Living church membership means that when a meeting of the church is called, such as a congregational meeting, we’re present. The congregational meetings are official meetings of the church. We ought to take seriously our responsibility to participate in these meetings. This diligence in church membership shows itself in submission, willing, joyful submission to the rule of Christ in the church through the officebearers. For the young people especially, included in diligent church membership is the responsibility of full membership in the church by way of confession of faith, and in the way of participation at the Lord’s Supper. Diligent church membership will also manifest itself in involvement in the organic life of the congregation. That member of the church who only attends the church services on Sunday, but who has no other contact with the members of the church the rest of the week, and doesn’t care to have any other contact with the members of the church, displays a serious weakness in church membership. It is a striking testimony to the good condition of the early church that we read not simply that the believers continued to gather regularly for weekly worship, but that they had daily contact with each other, Acts 2:46-47. There ought to be the contact with one another that takes the form of our visiting with one another in our homes, then not with just a certain few, but with the members of the church generally. The fellowship of the Bible study societies of the congregation afford the members an excellent opportunity during the week to meet with one another. This is living church membership.
Finally, it is characteristic of the living church member that he shows himself to be interested in the welfare and advantage of the other members of the church. This is an aspect of church membership that is emphasized by the Heidelberg Catechism in Q.A. 55: “… that every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.” It is easy for us to forget this aspect of church membership. It is easy for us to become self-centered in the matter of our church membership. Then church membership is a matter of what is in it for me, how am I served by my membership in the church. Living church membership expresses itself in care and concern for the other members of the church.
This care and concern will manifest itself in especially two ways. First, it will show itself by our help of those who are in physical need and physical distress. James says in James 1:27, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” We will visit those in the hospital, the shut-ins, the widows and widowers. We will comfort and assist the poor, the downcast, and the despairing. We will encourage those who have experienced disappointment or loss. This is living church membership. This is love and concern for the church herself.
Our care and concern will also manifest itself in our carrying our responsibility toward those members of the church who have strayed from the fold and are walking in sin. Motivated by the advantage and salvation of the other members of the church, we will seek them out to admonish them, to call them to repentance, and to seek forgiveness along with ourselves at the foot of the cross.
In the way of living, active church membership there will also be joy in our membership in the church. There two go hand in hand. Often there is in our lives a lack of joy over our membership in the church. We take no special delight in our church membership. Our church membership can even becomes a burden rather than a blessing. At these times we are tempted to withdraw from active life in the church, to go off by ourselves in our own little corner. This is a mistake! This is wrong! At these times more than at any other times we need to remind ourselves of our calling to be living members of the church.
What must motivate us to be living church members is the sense of privilege that church membership is. Membership in the church is a privilege and a blessing. You and I do not deserve to be members of the church. That we are members of the church is due to the grace of God. What a privilege that we who by nature are enemies of God should be brought into the fellowship of His church! What a privilege that we should be made members of the blessed body of Jesus Christ! What a privilege that we should share in the salvation which is enjoyed in the church! We deserve none of this! How good God is to gather us into the membership of His church!
Our greatest motivation to living church membership, however, must be the glory of God. The purpose of the church is the worship and glory of God. That is what the Apostle says in Ephesians 3:21, “Unto Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end.” This is what church membership and going to church are all about. A man goes to church in order to worship and praise God.
But God is glorified, not by dead, but by living church membership. This is the result of living church membership. When a man hears and believes the preaching of the gospel in the church on the Lord’s Day, God is glorified. When a man sings songs of the church, God is glorified. When a man communes with the saints, God is glorified. When a man supports the ministry and contributes to the relief of the poor, God is glorified. When a man assists his fellow church member and shows himself to be interested in the salvation and advantage of his fellow church member, God is glorified. That is what church membership is all about.
If the church exists for the glory of God, it is clear to us what our attitude ought to be towards the church and toward our membership in the church. As much as we love God and love the glory of God, we ought to love the church and value our membership in the church. Our attitude toward the church ought to be the attitude expressed in the hymn:
I love Thy kingdom, Lord,
The house of Thine abode,
The Church our blest Redeemer saved
With His own precious blood.
I love Thy Church, O God!
Her walls before Thee stand,
Dear as the apple of Thine eye,
And graven on Thy hand.
For her my tears shall fall;
For her my prayers ascend;
To her my cares and toils be given,
Till toils can cares shall end.