Metaphors and Membership: How Biblical Metaphors for the Church Require Church Membership

The Bible unfurls the relationship between the church and its members with a series of metaphors.

If we unpack all of what Scripture teaches about the local church, we’ll find that church membership is in fact in every nook and cranny of the New Testament. In that light, I want to focus on just one aspect of how Scripture talks about the church—the images of the church—and consider how these metaphors support and inform our understanding church membership.

 

If you’re looking for the words “thou shalt be a church member” in Scripture, you won’t find them. But if that troubles you, let me encourage you to think a little differently about how to arrive at biblical conclusions. The Bible doesn’t necessarily provide us with a “chapter and verse” prooftext for everything we ought to do or believe. Yes, we should rigorously tether our beliefs to Scripture, but we need all of Scripture, not just bite-size snippets.

If we unpack all of what Scripture teaches about the local church, we’ll find that church membership is in fact in every nook and cranny of the New Testament. In that light, I want to focus on just one aspect of how Scripture talks about the church—the images of the church—and consider how these metaphors support and inform our understanding church membership.

Metaphors And Membership

The Bible doesn’t simply command us to join a church—it does something far better. It unfurls the relationship between the church and its members with a series of metaphors that shape our identity and challenge our near constant sinful inclination to individualism, self-sufficiency, pride, and I-got-this-ness.

If the Bible simply said, “join a church,” we could treat membership like checking a box on a to do list. But by portraying the church and its members as a body, a temple, a flock, and a family, the Bible forces us not only to join a church but to consider how well our lives fit with that biblical imagery. The metaphors force us to ask, “Does my church membership look like that?” These metaphors provoke our imaginations, “How might I be more like what the Bible describes? Am I really a family member in my church or more like a next-door neighbor? Am I really a hand or a foot in the body, or more like some dispensable house shoes?”

The metaphors show us that membership is more than about having our name on a piece of paper; being a church member shapes how we choose to live.

So what metaphors does Scripture use to describe the church? Consider just three of them.

The Church is a Body

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul refers to the church as the “body of Christ” and to Christians as “members” of that body—an image he likely adopted from Jesus himself (cf. Acts 9:4). For Paul, an individual Christian is neither isolated nor independent. A Christian is like a hand, a foot, a toe, an artery, an adrenal gland, or any other body part—we’re only healthy and useful if we’re in the body.

This metaphor is fertile for application. It dignifies every church member. Every body part is necessary, so there’s no excuse for self-pity (1 Cor. 12:15–20) or pride (1 Cor. 12:21–26). The metaphor also suggests the danger of not being in the body. How healthy, after all, is a detached limb or a discarded organ? The metaphor ties our spiritual good to one another. As we know from our own bodies, when one member suffers, the whole body suffers (12:26).

Read More