As a pastor convinced of the importance of each believer being a committed part of a local expression of the body of Christ – a church – I am always grasping at ways to talk about church membership and why it is important. No one can top the inspired picture of “one body with many members” that Paul employs, but recently in an attempt to express to my church what membership is and why it is important, I was struck with the following image.
The Christian life is a mountain climb, the substance beneath our feet is the gospel, the peak is conformity into the image of Christ, church membership is a rope going from base to summit, and becoming a member of a church means laying a hand on that rope. We learn from the New Testament, especially from places like Ephesians 4:11-16, Hebrews 3:13, 10:23-25 that it is by pushing and pulling our fellow climbers, calling up encouragements, echoing down warnings, that we reach the peak.
Imagine if we were strung together on the rope, all at different stages of the climb. What happens if one stops moving? What happens if one falls down? Such a one must be exhorted and encouraged. At times when the weak go limp we may even be required to pull them so that we can keep going. If one starts going backward, pulling the church down, the church must warn, push, and if need be, even cut them loose. When someone lets go of the rope and attempts the hazard of free-climbing, we reach out to them with earnest voice and stretching fingertips, pleading with them to once again lay hold of the rope.
Sometimes we hand people off to another rope (another church), but we dare not let people be free-climbers. Free-climbers are exposed to all sorts of dangers. They fall, they perish, they get lost, they lose track of the sure footing of the gospel.
We must admit, we need the rope. If we knew ourselves and our environment we would know we need the rope. I hope we are honest enough to see that. Our footing (the gospel) is sure, but the climb is steep while wind, rain, and storms of this life lash against the slopes. Darkness crowds in and obscures the peak at times. We need the rope. We need our fellow climbers. We dare not let go. And we dare not stop moving. To stop is not only deadly for us, but it pulls down and endangers others. There will be times when we have to be dragged, when we have to be pushed, but the rope is God’s means for getting us safely to the peak.
Do you see the danger of climbing without clinging to a rope? Have you ever stopped to consider that when you stop your climb, when you stop pulling and moving along with others, what effect that has on those around you? Are you holding a rope? And if you are, what kind of rope-holder are you? Do you put your team of climbers at risk or do you help everyone get to the top?
The invitation to church membership is an invitation to take hold of the rope. Anyone who has ever seen a movie about Everest or some other peak knows that going at it alone never ends well. We are too easily disoriented. Our straying feet slip from the gospel too readily without others to hold us up. When cold surrounds us, and we are fatigued from trying to climb in our own strength, we are tempted to lay down for a nap. And with no one attached to us, to shake us, to slap us, to yell at us amidst the snow, “Don’t you dare fall asleep, because you won’t wake up”, we die.
God keeps his people by his power. This is the truth that drives us on the darkest moments of the climb. But to let go of the rope is to turn aside once again to the very essence of our rebellion – which is to look at God and say, “I know better than you. I believe you will keep me apart from your means.” Such reasoning is Satanic and deadly.
Lay hold of the rope, if you have not already. Pull, push, shout, poke, shout some more. Don’t let go. When you lose your footing someone will be there, holding the rope to help reestablish you on the gospel. When you are weary, someone will be there to pull your weight. When you are falling asleep, overwhelmed with pain and fatigue, a chorus of voices will be there to shout “Only a little farther.”
Much that is called church membership is admittedly a mere association of free-climbers or a rope untethered. But I am speaking of something more meaningful than that. I am talking about a rope that is God’s means of getting his people on the footing of the gospel to the peak of glory in Christ along the slope of sin, through the darkness of deception, and the winds of suffering.
This is what we mean when we talk about church membership. This is the rope we need.