As those who belong to Jesus Christ by faith, Christians also belong to each other in love as the body of Christ: “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:5). As a body, the earliest Christians devoted themselves to each other in what Luke called “the fellowship” (Acts 2:42). As a congregation we desire that same love and devotion “by serving to build up one another, according to the gifts God has given [us] as members of each other in the same body” (Belgic Confession, art. 28). I’d like to explain to you what being a member is all about.
Is Membership Biblical?
First, is membership biblical? Many today would say it is not and instead, that it is enough to profess Jesus and attend a church whenever able. While we do not claim that every minute detail about our membership process is found in the Bible, what we do believe is that formal membership is a meaningful way of expressing the biblical concepts of our relationship with Christ and his people and manifesting these relationships in a particular local church.
Becoming a member of a local church, then, is an application of the biblical metaphors of the church: God is Father, Christ is Son, and we are sons of God and fellow brothers and sisters of each other. This is why our relationship to the church is described as a mother-son relationship (Gal. 4:21–27; Isa. 54:1; Rev. 12:17). The ancient Christian theologian, Cyprian, said, “You cannot have God for your father unless you have the Church for your mother. If you could escape outside Noah’s ark, you could escape outside the Church” (On the Unity of the Church, 6). This relationship is also described in terms of a vine-branch (John 15), shepherd-sheep (John 10), temple-stones (1 Peter 2), body-members (Rom. 12), and bride-husband (Eph. 5).
Membership is also based in the fact that the visible church is described in the Bible as a marked out community distinguishable from the rest of the world. If you were a Gentile (non-Jew) and you came to believe in the God of Israel, you would have to undergo a public ritual of becoming Jewish through circumcision (Gen. 17:1–14; Ex. 12:43–49). In the New Testament, those who professed Christ and were baptized were “added” to the countable and distinct group of the church (Acts 2:41, 47).
Membership is also an application of church discipline. Members of local churches are to submit to the overseers and rulers of the church (1 Thes. 5:12–13; Heb. 13:17). If a member is living in sin, their overseers are to rebuke them. If, over the course of time and many rebukes, they do not repent, they are to be excommunicated, literally, put outside the communion of the church. The Bible describes these members as undergoing a change of status from member to non-member, insider to outsider (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:9–11; 2 Thes. 3:14–15). The question is, how can the New Testament speak of the church actually disciplining its members if they do not belong to the church in a meaningful way?
The Process of Membership
Because of the above, we have a process for membership. It takes some time, which is meant to edify you and communicate the significance of what you are doing.
If you are a new believer or a believer who is new to a Reformed church, the first step in the process of membership is a period of instruction with Pastor Danny through the book, Welcome to a Reformed Church, which will familiarize you with our beliefs.
After this, the second step is meeting with Pastor Danny and an elder for an hour-long conversation about our doctrine and your Christian life (you will work through the questions in step one).
Then comes the third step of being invited to come to a meeting of all our pastors and elders for a brief 15 minute “get to know you” conversation. This encourages us in hearing of your faith and encourages you in committing to our church family.
The fourth step is a public notification to our congregation for two weeks that you will soon be received into our family.
Finally, the fifth step is public reception in a morning service. Since this is such a joyful moment in your life and the life of our church family, we encourage you to invite family and friends, especially those who do not know Jesus Christ.
If you are coming to us as a member of another congregation that belongs to a Reformed or Presbyterian denomination with whom the URCNA has a relationship, you may join us by having your home church forward your membership papers to our consistory. Please speak with a pastor or elder about how to do this.
As a church rooted in history, we follow ancient Christian practice in having new members make sacred membership vows before God and his church (Psalter Hymnal, pp. 132–133).
Vow #1: A Common Faith
The first membership vow asks whether you confess a common faith with the congregation:
First, do you heartily believe the doctrine contained in the Old and the New Testament, and in the articles of the Christian Faith [the Apostles’ Creed], and taught in this Christian Church, to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation, and do you promise by the grace of God steadfastly to continue in this profession?
Vow #2: A Common Salvation
The second membership vow asks whether you confess a common salvation with the congregation:
Second, do you openly accept God’s covenant promise, which has been signified and sealed unto you in your baptism, and do you confess that you abhor and humble yourself before God because of your sins, and that you seek your life not in yourself, but only in Jesus Christ your Savior?
Vow #3: A Common Life
The third membership vow asks whether you confess a common life with the congregation:
Third, do you declare that you love the Lord, and that it is your heartfelt desire to serve Him according to His Word, to forsake the world, to mortify your old nature, and to lead a godly life?
Vow #4: A Common Discipline
The fourth membership vow asks whether you will live in submission to a common discipline with the congregation:
Fourth, do you promise to submit to the government of the Church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?
Finally, when you join our church family, you are making a commitment to us, and we are to you. Together we share in the following basic expectations of membership:
Faithful worship attendance
The most basic expectation is sanctifying the Lord’s Day as holy (Gen. 2:3; Ex. 20:8–11; Rev. 1:10) with faithful worship attendance: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24–25). No doubt you are familiar with our morning service, which focuses on confessing our sins, hearing the Word, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper [See our booklet, “On the Weekly Celebration of Holy Communion”]. We also have an evening service, which focuses on singing the Psalms, hearing the Word, and praying. The first evening service each month is devoted to prayer, as the sermon focuses on the theme of prayer and then we spend substantial time praying for our congregation.
While none will be sinless in this life (1 John 1:8), we are called to “strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14) and to “be holy in all [our] conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15–16). Holiness also has an evangelistic purpose. Since the world views Jesus through the members of his church, we need to “conduct [ourselves] wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of the time” (Col. 4:5) and “let [our] light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Praying and reading the Bible
We also expect members to be praying and reading the Bible daily. These are the means God has given us for conversing with him. In the Word we hear from God and in prayer we speak to God. To help you in this, Pastor Danny produces a devotional booklet entitled, “Weekly Bible Readings” that is available every Lord’s Day and on our website.
Participating in the full life of the church
Membership is being a “living member” of the church (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 54). This means participating in the full life of the church. Participate in Sunday school classes for all ages, including adults [September–May]. When invited, join our weekly hospitality lunch to spend time together. Participate in mid-week gatherings for study, prayer, and fellowship [see the bulletin for times].
We also encourage you to get to know your brothers and sisters on your own, spending time with one another outside of church activities. Despite the busy-ness of our society, make every effort to develop close, lasting relationships with your fellow members: “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord . . . seek to show hospitality” (Rom. 12:10–11, 13).
Receive the visitations of the pastors and elders
As Paul went “from house to house” (Acts 20:20), we as pastors and elders have the goal of visiting every member of the church every twelve months. When called upon, receive the visitations of the pastors and elders so “that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Rom. 1:12). At this visits we talk about our relationship with the Lord, our joys and sorrows, and pray together. We also desire to visit you if you should be hospitalized, have special needs, or feel like you need spiritual counsel [see our booklet, “Counseling at the OURC”]. We are here to serve you.
Support the ministry
For our church to exist, we need members to support the ministry. Because God has so generously given us Christ, we are to give cheerfully and generously: “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). Not only does our financial support provide for our day-to-day expenses, it particularly supports the pastor and his family, freeing him from worldly concerns to devote himself to the ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4; 1 Tim. 5:17–18). By this financial support, every member becomes a partner in the ministry with the pastor (Phil. 1:5–7; 4:14–19). Giving is also how we support the ministry of our deacons in assisting members and those outside in tangible ways [see our booklet “The Ministry of the Deacons at OURC”].
Since our finances are all of our responsibility, we provide periodic financial statements in the Sunday bulletin. At any time, members may request our most recent statements. Every December at our annual congregational meeting the church’s financial needs are discussed and approved. At that meeting, we also discuss our tangible needs for service. You can volunteer to serve or suggest other ways in which we can be a vibrant and growing church [for a current list, ask for the handouts, “Serving the OURC” and “Standing Committees of the OURC”]. We want you to utilize the gifts Christ has given you “readily and cheerfully for the advantage and welfare of other members” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 55).
Being a witness
Finally, we expect you to eagerly participate in the church’s commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19) by being a witness. Through our lips and lives, we are called to bear witness to Jesus Christ in every area of our daily life. We want to see our church grow with new believers so we encourage you to pray for the lost, invite friends, family, and co-workers to church, and to be genuinely friendly and welcoming when visitors attend.
Being a member of our local church is a blessing in so many ways personally as well as corporately. And we pray, that through us, we would be a blessing to the world:
One of the most powerful reasons for our lack of gladness is that ours is a culture of solo efforts. We live our Christian faith independently—not inextricably linked with other members of the Body of believers. Consequently, we do not experience the Hilarity of being enfolded in a moment–by–moment awareness of the good news of our hope and life in Jesus Christ . . . what would it be like if the Christian Church were truly a community that thoroughly enjoyed being itself? It seems to me it could change the world! (Marva Dawn, Truly the Community, xi).
—Rev. Daniel R. Hyde (ThM, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary) is the Pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, CA.
*To download a .pdf version of this article, click here.
*To download a printable .pdf booklet of this article, click here.