I will be a functioning church member.
Are you a church member?
Membership counts are important to churches for measuring growth, for stable revenue sources, for volunteers. And as church members, we expect the church to serve us in turn – to pray for us, to feed our spiritual growth, to teach our children, and to bring meals when we are sick or injured (to name just a few).
Now, before we go any further, I have a confession to make: I’m not actually a church member. At least, not officially.
Because in an official capacity, I’ve always thought of church membership as a denominational issue: Do you subscribe to Methodism, or perhaps Presbyterianism? Or maybe Catholicism. For me, the answer has always been: None of the above. This can likely be attributed to the fact that my first serious exposure to the Bible and theology was an interdenominational college study group. This gave me a wonderful foundation for engaging with and struggling with Scripture on a frequent and personal basis – but it also left me feeling a bit outside any single established church.
But in the first chapter of I am a Church Member, Thom S. Rainer wiped away all my preconceptions about church membership and belonging with his astute observation that church membership as actually biblically based – not social, economic, or even denominational. As a basis for his argument, Rainer cites 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, where Paul describes what it means to be church members (aka “the body of Christ”):
The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body and one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.
In short, Paul says that is our belief in Christ and our acceptance of his Spirit into our hearts that binds us together and make us church members. So… I guess I am a church member after all?
Church membership doesn’t just end there though, because the Holy Spirit is anything but passive. In fact, in John 14:16-17, Jesus describes the Spirit as “the Advocate… who leads into all truth.” He says that the Spirit which lives in you and me, and every member of the church, is not a passive spirit – it is an advocate, a word which Merriam-Webster defines as “a person who works for a cause or group.”
What cause or group does the Spirit work for? 1 Corinthians 12 says that the Spirit works to help church members achieve two ends:
1. To serve the Lord (v. 5).
2. To help each other (v. 7).
Or in other words, the Spirit works to help us fulfill the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36-40):
“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”
Rainer goes on (in great and fascinating detail) to discuss spiritual gifts, and how they impact our ability to serve the Lord and help each other, but above all of these, he points out that Paul specifies one single thing that is “best of all” to help us fulfill this commandment: Love (1 Corinthians 12:31). (Ok, so he doesn’t actually say “love” there, but the entire following chapter sort of spells it out in not-so-subtle detail.)
I’ll be honest: This new context for reading 1 Corinthians 13 – the so-called “Love Chapter” – completely blew my mind. I (and most people, I assume) typically hear this chapter in the context of marriage, but Rainer emphasizes the fact that Paul wrote it in the context of church membership, and how we treat our fellow members. So what happens if we read it and hold ourselves accountable to that standard?
Be patient and kind to your fellow church members. Do not be jealous of them, do not brag about yourself to them, and do not be rude to them. Do not demand or expect to get everything YOU want from the church, or its members, and don’t be irritated or hold a grudge when things don’t go your way. Don’t be happy when unfair things happen (even if they’re in your favor), but always seek and rejoice in the truth. Never give up on your church, never lose faith in your fellow church members, always be hopeful, and stick by your church & its members through every circumstance (paraphrased from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
Gulp. I mean, I know I’m supposed to be kind and patient and forgiving to my husband, and to never give up on him. That is a tall enough order when it comes to the person I’ve chosen to be my one true companion in life. But… to the church elder who is always bossing people around? To the woman always nagging and trying to guilt me into volunteer in areas I am not spiritually gifted? To the pastor who was unfaithful to his wife?
Sure am double glad I never joined a church, now!
Except, by Rainer (and Paul)’s standard, I am a church member. So can I use the fact that I didn’t attend a little class and participate in a little ceremony as an excuse to shirk my duties to both my church and my fellow members? I suppose I have, and I can, and I could.
But there’s this saying that I like to toss around: “If we knew better, we would do better.” Now, I know what it means to truly be a church member. So now, I can do better.