Does the formality of church membership work against authentic fellowship? It turns out formal commitment is the best route to authentic fellowship. We tend to think relationships lead to commitment, but it’s the other way around. Just like cohabitating before marriage leads to higher divorce rates, noncommittal church attendance leads to weak fellowship.
The early church didn’t need to practice church membership the way we do because they didn’t wake up to an ecclesiological buffet every Sunday. The Christians in a given city formed that city’s church. The Romans, Corinthians and Galatians were stuck with each other. This forced them to do the hard work of fellowship.
Because we have no such forced commitment, we need formal commitment. There are 19 churches within 10 miles of my neighborhood, making it easy to switch churches when the fellowship gets uncomfortable. We don’t have to be “bearing with one another” (Ephesians 4:2) if we can leave when people aggravate us. We won’t learn how to be “forgiving one another” (Ephesians 4:32) because we’ll escape instead. We’ll never experience “harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16) because we’ll seek out people just like ourselves. Like a kite needs a string, American Christians need church membership. Otherwise they’ll fail at fellowship.
Authentic Christian Relationships
Although 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 is always read at weddings, it’s actually about our relationships with other Christians:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
This is what authentic Christian relationships look like. It takes commitment to love someone who tests your patience, lives a different lifestyle than you, has a different perspective than you, irritates you and wrongs you. Church membership is the spiritual discipline that enables authentic fellowship. Just as fasting enables prayerful communion with God, commitment enables genuine relationships.