This post should go viral. After all, church membership is just a red hot topic in Christianity today. I can not even list all of the books that are one the Best Seller’s list that ruminate on the issues surrounding church membership. The blogs devoted to it are too many to list.
Either that or records of church membership are something mostly kept to once a year to appease the record keepers at the LCMS Roster and Statistics Office, lest we be chastised by District Presidents and Circuit Visitors. Either that or they are something we keep in order to track giving and to fill out those back pages in the pictorial directory. Either that or we have them but don’t really care about them unless they give us reason to boast or judge someone else’s pastoral care.
Truth be told most of the time we act as if church membership does not really matter all that much. Membership is in many cases granted after a very brief introduction to the congregations and its doctrine. Members are left on the rolls even when there has been no tangible connection to the congregations in some cases for decades. Sometimes pastors arrive at a church to find there is no definitive way to even know who is on the list.
So which is it? If membership is just a formality that only is really needed for a few statistical purposes, well then let’s treat it as if it is really nothing. Who cares who joins and who cares who remains on the rolls? Who cares if we even have a list? Just serve those who show up and don’t waste time with the paperwork or membership software data entry.
But if it is important, then let us act like it. And what does that look like? Well, it means that we do our best to really make sure those joining our rolls hold to the confession our congregation binds itself to. This involves good catechesis and the integrity to make clear that people joining for other reasons simply does not make sense and is not our desire. It means that we do not let people join who we know are engaged in ongoing unrepentant sin. It means that we remove those who are on the rolls who no longer hold our confession or are letting sin reign in their lives without repentance, including not being gathered to Jesus for the divine service. And when we remove them, we do not just release them, but warn them of the spiritual peril they are in. In short, we practice the church discipline pastors and lay leaders promise to be diligent about in our vows before God.
Furthermore, we must treat those who are fellow members with affection and care. We must be willing to share all things with them. We must mourn when they mourn and rejoice when they rejoice.
And why would we ascribe such importance to membership? Because God deals with us through His Church and her pastors. While so much has been done in the last few decades to cause people to not remember this truth, the Scriptures are clear. What the Church forgives is forgiven in heaven. What it binds is bound in heaven. Church membership traditionally then has been understood as the temporal record of the Church’ exercise of the keys entrusted to her by Jesus. And therefore, it is also a record of one’s eternal standing with God. It is assumed rightly that those on the rolls are not just in good standing with a congregation but with God himself. And, likewise, those removed or not welcomed onto the rolls are not in good standing with Him.
Of course, there will never be a one for one correspondence between the congregation’s record books and the Lamb’s Book of Life. Churches, pastors, and congregations can err. And many times those that have fallen into disbelief through unrepentant sins are not manifested as such easily. But those of us entrusted with such records should do our best to get them as close as we can to the Lamb’s Book of Life.
Finally, even as we commit ourselves to this understanding and the practices that follow it, let us realize that that which has been broken for decades will not be fixed overnight. Instead, we must bear with one another as we move in this direction. Let the one with perfect rolls throw the first stone at others who are seeking to work towards the loving and regular practice of church discipline that gives confidence to the saved and caution to the erring. Treat one another as brothers fighting for the same cause. Help one another with resources to help teach this important understanding to our people.
Membership is everything in so far as we treat it as a record of the spiritual condition of those entrusted to our care. May God forgive us for forgetting that truth and the courage and encouragement to change it with His Spirit’s constant aid.