Editors’ note: 

This is also available in Finnish.

What comes to your mind when you think of the word commitment? For some, it means supporting a sports club with season tickets and fan clubs. For others, it’s listening exclusively to the music of their favourite band, buying their entire discography, and going to their gigs whenever possible. Some are committed to eating organic food, while others use only products made by a particular manufacturer. There are many different varieties of commitment, and these show up in our lives. Our commitments serve to meet our needs, bring us satisfaction, and improve our lives in general. How then should we think about commitment to the church, to the body of Jesus?

Commitment as a calling

Before we examine commitment to the life of the local church more closely, we should first ask consider the nature of membership. Who is a member of the church? Or more generally, who is a Christian? The Bible offers a number of complementary answers to this question, and states that love is one of the most important characteristics to define a Christian. A Christian is a person who has received the love of God in Christ Jesus, has been personally affected and changed by this love, and now passes this love on to his or her neighbor.

John writes in his first letter, “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says he loves God but hates his brother, he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should also love his brother.” (1 John 4:19–21) Love, specifically the love of God in man, is what shows a true Christian. Man then loves with the love of God and shows it in the manner of Christ.

What does this have to do with commitment to the local church? Precisely this: if we have become partakers of God’s love, we should naturally love what God loves. God has a special love for his people, the church, the body of his Son. And he is committed to his people to bring his sanctifying work to its blessed conclusion.

When we begin to look at commitment from the perspective of God and his actions, commitment becomes a lifelong reality, a mission, and a calling for us as his followers. This commitment thus manifests itself, among other things, in joining a local church and thus committing ourselves to one another, in contrast to a consumer culture that emphasises the individual. We do not join a church to “buy” ourselves services or rights. We join to commit ourselves to serving those to whom God himself has committed himself in his love.

We do not join a church to “buy” ourselves services or rights. We join to commit ourselves to serving those to whom God himself has committed himself in his love.

Commitment is formal

It is sometimes said that there is no basis in the Bible for membership of a local church, and therefore belonging to the so-called universal, worldwide church is enough for many. Although the early church did not have the same kind of membership registers we have today, it was not uncommon for members to be recorded (1 Tim. 5:9). In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul rebukes the church for not dealing with its sinning members. He says that the church should have been grieved and removed the immoral person from their midst (1 Cor. 5:2). Whether or not the church had a written record of its members is beside the point. The question is, can such a measure can be taken in a universal, anonymous church? In order for church disciple to be properly applied to the degree laid out in 1 Corinthians (excommunication), a person must belong to a church community.

I have often compared church membership to the difference between marriage and cohabitation. Why should a cohabiting couple get married if they love each other as much as they would love if legally married? Why do they need a pastor to say amen or a certificate from the city hall to prove their love? What is the benefit? Well, we do not live in isolation from each other and therefore from the culture around us. Each culture has its own characteristics, which are understood in the same way by the people of that culture. Thus, for example, in some cultures, when a man takes a woman into his dwelling, the whole village community knows that they are now a couple. In many cultures, this union is celebrated with different ceremonies. This has also been the case for cultures steeped in Christianity. A couple’s union is then celebrated before the church of God. After this formality, the local community has recognized that the couple now belong to each other.

In the same way, membership of an association, gym, political party, or local church, for example, is a formality, which in our culture is implemented through some kind of membership register. In this way, it is clear who are members and who have the rights and obligations reserved for members. In the life of a local church, this means that the church knows whom it is committed to looking after and who is subject to its care, teaching, and discipline.

Commitment in practice

How does this commitment manifest itself then? In many different ways, of which I will mention three. First, commitment to the local church is manifested in encouragement. Hebrews tells us to “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,” (10:24). Keeping the faith is a community project for the whole church. We need each other to endure in the faith. Therefore, we must always encourage and exhort one another to care for all members of the church. Second, commitment is therefore a matter of encounter. To paraphrase Hebrews again, we are not to “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some” (10:25).  In order to encourage one another, we naturally must see one another, and so it is important that when we commit ourselves to the church, we commit ourselves to coming to our common gatherings.

Thirdly, by committing ourselves to the church, we also commit ourselves to looking after each other. Jesus tells us to approach and rebuke a sinning church member (Matt. 18:15). The motive for such a rebuke should be love for the fallen one and desire to win him back into the fellowship of the church (Gal. 6:1). In this way we want to protect him from more fatal errors. But at the same time, we do this to protect the whole church. For if a person, despite many exhortations and rebukes, does not show repentance, he has lost his place in fellowship with the church (Matt. 18:17). However, this very painful and extreme measure is for the good of the church and protects it from corrupting influence.

Your commitment

If you do not belong to a local church, I encourage you to find one and join. Remember, you cannot separate loving God from loving his own (1 John 4:19–21). If you love God, you will also want to commit to what God himself is committed to: his church.

Secondly, invest in relationships. This is absolutely essential for the sound growth of a child of God. We need to be surrounded by brothers and sisters with whom we can raise difficult questions and confess sins, and with whom we can pray and share life.

Thirdly, commit to the whole church. Be willing to build relationships across generations and ethnic backgrounds. Of course, we all have different personalities, and making new friends may not be that easy for some of us. We commit ourselves to our congregation understanding these very different  personalities, preferences, and gifts God has given to each of us is “for our common good” (1 Cor. 14:7).

Church membership is part of our commitment to the church. By becoming a member of a congregation, we visibly demonstrate our commitment and thus make it public. Unlike many other memberships, church membership is not primarily intended to serve our interests or satisfaction. As members of the congregation, we are committed to serving each other, for the good of one other. So let us commit ourselves to the church as God does, for the growth and edification of one another (1 Thess. 5:11).

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