Article by Matt Smethurst, managing editor of The Gospel Coalition and author of 1–2 Thessalonians: A 12-Week Study (Crossway, 2017). He and his wife, Maghan, have three children and live in Louisville, Kentucky. They belong to Third Avenue Baptist Church, where Matt serves as an elder. (original source here)
Church membership can feel boring, secondary, extrabiblical, and unimportant. Aren’t there plenty of more pressing things to talk about? Not really, suggests Jonathan Leeman in Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Crossway, 2012). In just 132 pages, Leeman unfolds a clear and compelling case for submitting our lives to King Jesus by submitting to his earthly bride.
I corresponded with Leeman, editorial director for 9Marks and editor of its Journal, about the surprisingly pressing significance of local church membership.
Why is it significant to understand that Christians don’t really “join” churches so much as submit to them?
“Join” is a club word. You join a club, whether it’s a country club or a wholesale shopping club. You pay your dues. You receive the benefits. You come and go as you please. Nothing about your identity changes. No real demands are placed on you that you cannot extricate yourself from.
“Submit” is a kingdom and citizenship word. It recognizes the presence of an authority established by King Jesus. It speaks to a changed (new) identity. It suggests that you now belong to a new nation, a new people, a new family. And it suggests that all the new benefits you receive as a member of this nation and family also come with a set of obligations that are not so easily dispensed of.
What difference should church membership make in a Christian’s life?
Your question is sort of like asking “what difference should righteousness make in a Christian’s life?” It should make all the difference. A Christian is declared righteous in Christ, and then he or she “puts on” that righteousness in everyday decisions. By the same token, a Christian is declared a member of Christ’s body through the gospel (e.g., see Eph. 2:14), and then he or she “puts on” that membership in a geographically specific local body.
Don’t tell me you’re united to and committed to the Church—-capital C—-unless you are united to and committed to a local church: “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
Less abstractly, our membership in a local church is where our discipleship to Christ takes shape. It’s where we learn to love our enemies, where we learn to turn the other cheek, where we learn to forbear in love, where we learn to go the extra mile, where we learn to employ our spiritual gifts, where we learn to speak to one another in love, and so forth. Certainly, these lessons apply beyond our fellowship in a local church, but the lessons begin here. And they begin here precisely because it’s the local church that has the authority of the keys to bind and loose—-to formally affirm our profession of faith or deny it.
“Kingdom” is a very popular concept among Christians today. How does the kingdom relate to the local church?
The local church is the place on earth where the citizens of heaven can, at this moment, find official recognition and asylum. Churches represent Christ’s rule now. They affirm and protect his citizens now. They proclaim his laws now. They bow before him as King now and call all peoples to do the same. You might say that a local church is a real-life embassy set in the present that represents Christ’s future kingdom and his coming universal church. Continue reading