You’re going to be hearing me talk about church membership in the coming months at church, and church membership makes some people run a mile. But it might be helpful to think of church membership as a handshake. Handshaking is something we do all the time. At church I try and shake everyone’s hand. It’s a way of saying: “hello” and expressing appreciation for someone. But some handshakes are particularly important: maybe two boys shake hands after a fight, or businessmen shake hands to seal a deal.
In Gal 2:9, Paul talks about a very special handshake. In fact, it’s so special, he gives it its own name and it’s still stuck in his memory years later:
“They gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me”.
This handshake between the leaders in Jerusalem and Paul and Barnabas is called the right hand of fellowship; it clearly isn’t any old handshake. The leaders in Jerusalem didn’t give this handshake to anyone. Nor was it a handshake that Paul could just ask for or demand. “They gave… [it] to Barnabas and me”. And with this gesture the visible church at Jerusalem formally recognized the Christian fellowship they shared with Paul and Barnabas.
This is how we should think of church membership; it’s the visible church of Christ extending the right hand of fellowship to me. So, church membership isn’t primarily something I give, but something I receive. It’s not about me signing up or volunteering in the church. It’s not what the extra enthusiastic Christian does. It’s the visible church of Christ recognising and embracing me as a believer. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it very helpfully when he said:
Many see church membership as a dignity they confer on the church, instead of the highest privilege anyone can ever know – Life in the Spirit, p. 196.
I hope as we move towards church membership, the privilege of receiving “the right hand of fellowship” will stick in your mind; we should be pinching ourselves in disbelief – “do I get to be recognized as part of the body of Christ?! Wow!”.
Now the flip-side of this, of course, is that if church membership is received not given, it can also be taken away from me. If we’re let in, we can also be let out. If there’s a right hand of fellowship, there’s also a right boot of fellowship. But that’s a post for another day…