“I don’t like my church.”
It was a confession that he didn’t seem eager to make, but he couldn’t hide it either. My friend had been wrestling with choosing a church for quite a few years and his latest attempt was beginning to fizzle out. I sat across the table from him, halfway into my second cup of coffee, listening as he tried to articulate the reasons why the church wasn’t a good fit for his family. Many of his reasons were sound: poor theology, lack of pastoral passion, undeveloped children’s programs. And on top of these, his initial complaint loomed large. As I listened to my friend build a case against his church, a question crept into my mind: Is there any church against which a similar case can’t be built?
How would you label your level of commitment to your church?
Before attempting to answer that question, I want to suggest that a tremendously helpful parallel exists between church membership and marriage. Before you recoil from that analogy and stop reading, take a minute to ponder your relationship to the church you currently attend. How would you label your level of commitment to your church? What would it take for you to leave your church? How would you define your church’s commitment to you? Has there been any formal and public commitment between you and the church? In crises situations do you run towards or away from your church?
All of these questions could equally be asked of a romantic relationship. Relationships go through various “stages.” Get-to-know-you, dating, engagement, marriage. Each stage carries different levels of commitment, expectation, and inertia. It’s easy to break off a relationship in the get-to-know-you stage: don’t call him back. It’s much more difficult to break the relationship in the marriage stage.
Your relationship with your church has similar stages. It’s easy after visiting for one Sunday to never return again. It’s harder once you’ve become a regular participant in the life of the church through small groups, serving, and tasting Miss Kathy’s famous Sweet Potato Casserole at the church potluck. This involvement with the church is analogous to dating. As a dating relationship moves forward, it eventually culminates in (and demands) a formalized commitment. In most churches, this commitment is called membership. Church membership is a public and formal declaration of commitment between a church and a member which in many cases takes the biblical form of a covenant.
Why do I need to make a formal, public commitment to a church?
At this point that you may object. “Why do I need to make a formal, public commitment to a church? I never miss a Sunday or Wednesday. I teach Sunday School. I play guitar during worship. I’m just as (and maybe more!) committed than everyone else!” In terms of our analogy, this sounds very much like what a couple who lives together before marriage might say to the Pastor who suggests that they ought to get married. Although the Bible doesn’t mandate any specific marriage ceremonies and vows, very few of us will deny the importance of formalizing a marriage relationship. Two people acting like they are married does not, of course, make them married. Marriage is a covenant relationship, and as such it demands that the stipulations of the relationship be agreed upon and formalized by both parties.
I fear that many Christians, to put it crudely, treat their church as a live-in partner. This kind of relationship provides all the benefits of marriage (or so it seems), but without the formalized commitment from both parties. Additionally it allows for an easy and unencumbered exit when one party no longer desires to continue. Just as my friend was ready to ditch his church because his list of dislikes was long enough, so cohabitation without marriage creates an atmosphere ripe for this sort of easy and constraint-free dissolution.
Conversely, the Bible presents formalized relationships with the utmost respect. In fact, many theologians argue that ‘covenant’ is the most fundamental type of relationship in the Bible. God makes covenants with his people, kings make covenants with their servants, individuals covenant together. The covenant is universally presented as a proper, healthy, and even necessary form of intimate and serious relationship. Serious biblical relationships are presented as covenantal; that is to say, formalized and binding. A biblical worldview, therefore, demands a high view of formalized relationships, and it is reasonable and proper to include church membership in this category.
A biblical worldview . . . demands a high view of formalized relationships . . .
Just as in marriage, formalizing the commitment provides a level of safety and security that will never exist in a casual relationship. I remember the years that my wife and I spent dating and engaged. These times were fraught with the little voice of doubt, reminding me that one of us might still pull the eject lever. Our marriage covenant silenced that voice. Although many marriages still end in divorce, I am convinced that without marriage the percentage of broken relationships and families would be astronomically higher. If we enter a relationship and keep one foot out the door, the temptation to leave when the going gets rough is too difficult for us to withstand. I may not always “like” my wife or my church, but in the context of a covenant commitment such an objection feels petty.
Cleaving to Your Church
Let me return to the question I posed at the start: Is there any church for which a convincing list of reasons to leave can’t be made? I doubt it. But those in committed relationships aren’t out searching for reasons to leave. In fact, Christ demonstrated for us that love (read: commitment) means staying even when sufficient reason to leave is found. How would our churches be different if instead of looking for reasons to leave, we refused to leave even when there was just cause? How would your church be different if you were as committed to that body as you are to your spouse? Our churches are in desperate need of members who are formally and publically committed for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health. May God grant us the grace to commit ourselves to our flawed churches for the glory of His name and the good of His kingdom.
1 Corinthians 12:18 “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”
 Biblically, only adultery or desertion can break the marriage relationship. My wife may refuse to return my call on a particular day, but this doesn’t have the power to “un-marry” us.