The Paradoxes of Church Membership

by Drew Humphrey

If you’re a church member, have you ever stopped to think about how weird you are? Because you are. Very, very weird.

But don’t take it personally. It really has nothing to do with you. (You’re totally normal. I promise.) Instead, the weirdness has to do with the nature of church membership itself.

Most of us have probably joined a club. Or been a part of a family. Or played on a team. And so we might be tempted to assume that being a church member is roughly the same thing. But there’s really nothing quite like church membership.

Although the uniqueness of church membership manifests itself in many ways, today I’d like to point your attention to just one aspect of that: the strangely paradoxical expectations to which church members find themselves called. Let me explain.

One of the things we know about church members is that they must be submissive. God has appointed leaders over his church, and he expects those leaders to be followed, respected, honored, and obeyed. The church should not be a disordered group of rogues in which everyone is going their own way, doing whatever is right in their own eyes. Rather, there should be a unified spirit of humble submission.

But at the same time, a church member must be discerning. Leaders are fallen, faulty human beings, just like everyone else. And this means that they can easily be wrong. They can abuse power. They can rebel against God. They can teach what is false. In such cases, being a church member means knowing how to identify a wayward leader and deciding when not to follow.

Or consider another example. A church member is needy. You come into the community of faith with areas of spiritual immaturity. You lack wisdom and understanding. Your ability to follow Jesus is still developing. In some cases, you may even have physical, financial, or other practical needs. And the church should be a place where you can be honest about your needs and allow others to meet them.

But there’s a paradox here, because a church member should also be generous. You have been given gifts to be used for the edification and encouragement of your brothers and sisters. You have been given resources that God expects you to share. Even though you have needs of your own, God calls you to proactively meet the needs of others. You give, even as you receive.

One last example: A church member should be restful. At the very heart of Christianity is the idea that we do not earn our salvation. Instead, we cast ourselves upon mercy and rest in what Jesus has done on our behalf. This means that we don’t need to be at the church building every time the doors are open, running around like a chicken with its head cut off, feverishly trying to prove something to God or to others. Our work is done, and Jesus is the one who has done it.

But church membership brings a responsibility to be active, as well. We can’t just sit on the sidelines while everyone else does the works of service and ministry that make the church tick. Laziness is not an option. God has given us a globe-sized task, and we shouldn’t slack off until that task has been accomplished. (And for those of you scoring along at home, note that this task still remains unfinished!)

The point is that church membership requires a truly unique interplay between seemingly contradictory ideals. Submissive yet discerning. Needy yet generous. Restful yet active. (If you can think of more such paradoxes, leave them in the comments below!) To be a church member is not a simple task.

What tends to happen, however, is that we like to embrace one side of the paradox while overlooking the other. We veer toward what is most comfortable or natural. We try to eliminate the complexity. We stick to what’s straightforward and simple.

But although simplicity might be easy, it’s not what church membership is meant to be. To reduce your role as a church member to something one-dimensional or one-sided is to lose what makes you unique.

You’re supposed to be weird. So stay that way.