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Changed By Glory

"And we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." II Cor. 3:18

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church membership

One Even As We Are One: Church Membership & The Prayer of Jesus

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may be one, just as you Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

John 17:20-21

There are perhaps few passages of Scripture more precious and rich than John 17. It doesn’t get better than this – so many themes in John’s gospel flood together in the prayer of our Savior for us. A prayer which we may place confident hope in and one from which we may also learn so much.

One thing that we may not think of as being promoted in this prayer is church membership. By church membership I mean a voluntary commitment to a group of Christians in recognition of the identity we share and the calling we have been given in Christ.

Few Christians doubt the oneness, the unity, they share with all Christians. No one disputes the need for unity. But it is that unity expressed through commitment, which is so often lacking. In a world, especially in the west, that is increasingly individualistic church is treated like something to be consumed, not something to be joined; like a service that is offered, and not like a reality to be expressed. Because of this, sometimes in the name being inclusive, churches have abandoned the idea of any formal commitment to a local group or “body” of believers all together. Or membership has become meaningless, without substance. This leads to churches where unity is assumed, rather than intentional; where commitment is nebulous; and where being “one body” is more theoretical than substantive when push comes to shove.

But this is not the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for his people. Because it is not the kind of unity with the Father that he displayed in his life. The unity of the Father with the Son was visible in the words and works of the incarnate Son in 1st century Palestine. His commitment was not nebulous, but clearly defined with sweat drops of blood and cries of agony as he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” His oneness with his Father was not theoretical but clearly perceived in hearable and seeable things which showed he did only what he saw his Father doing. In fact, in John’s gospel Jesus appeals again and again to this “tangible unity” as proof of his oneness with the Father (i.e. John 5:37-38,7:16,8:19).

Why then would we think, that the life we are called to as Christians together would be any less tangible, any less committed, any less substantive? We are real people, living in real time and space, therefore, the kind of unity that God wills, which Christ prayed for us, is “incarnated” where we are in the context of the church.

Unity remains a mere idea until it is expressed in real time/space in the form of mutual commitment, shared mission, and tangible oneness. This is accomplished through membership in a local church.

The unity that Jesus prayed for his people is to be a reflection of the very real, gritty, painful, beautiful, lasting, loving oneness that we see displayed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The unity that Jesus prayed for his people is experienced and displayed through membership to a local church. And whether they scoff or marvel, it is such commitment alone which will display to the real world around us that the Father sent the Son to save sinners and it is to him, and therefore, to each other, that we belong.

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The Rope – A Picture of Church Membership

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.

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