There are plenty of unexpected things in the Bible: floating axe heads, a talking donkey, water turned to wine, apocalyptic horsemen. But scour the New Testament all you like, and there’s one thing you’d be hard pressed to find: a churchless Christian. And before you cry, “Ethiopian eunuch!” (Acts 8:26–39), let’s just agree he gets a free pass; a local church hadn’t yet been established in his home country.
At the very least, “churchless Christians” are a rare species in the New Testament.
As pastor and writer Thabiti Anyabwile says in What is a Healthy Church Member?:
As with so many things, you can’t turn in the Bible to ‘the Book of Church Membership’ or to a chapter conveniently labeled by Bible publishers, ‘On Becoming a Member.’ The biblical data isn’t as obvious as that, yet the idea of membership is nearly everywhere in Scripture.
When they aren’t outright commanding it (Heb 10:24–25), the biblical writers are assuming it: Christians will belong to a community of fellow believers. Most books in the New Testament are written to churches or groups of churches, after all.
But all those letters to local churches have an awful lot to say about how individual Christians live their lives, too—and especially how they interact with the rest of the body of Christ. A church is only as healthy as its members.
Understanding what a healthy church member looks like is essential to building healthy churches. In this book, Thabiti Anyabwile offers 10 answers to the question “What is a healthy church member?”
Some of those answers are expected—healthy church members are dedicated to prayer, the gospel, and of course the local church—but here are three you probably haven’t thought of.
A healthy church member is an expositional listener
In a companion resource to What is a Healthy Church Member?, Mark Dever says expositional preaching isn’t just “a verbal commentary on some passage of Scripture.” Rather, it makes the main point of a passage of Scripture the main point of the sermon.
Anyabwile says we don’t just need expositional preaching in our churches, we need expositional listening.
When we listen to the preaching of the Word, we should not listen primarily for ‘practical how-to advice,’ though Scripture teaches us much about everyday matters. Nor should we listen for messages that bolster our self-esteem or that rouse us to political and social causes. Rather, as members of Christian churches we should listen primarily for the voice and message of God as revealed in his Word. We should listen to hear what he has written, in his omniscient love, for his glory and for our blessing.
Expositional listening is being attentive to God’s message in the preached Word of God. It’s “listening for the meaning of a passage of Scripture and accepting that meaning as the main idea to be grasped for our personal and corporate lives as Christians.”
Anyabwile says that listening to a sermon with this attitude cultivates a hunger for God’s Word. When we let God’s Word speak for itself, we experience its true power—which will cause us to crave it all the more.
The Word of God pushes aside our own agendas, opening us up to the transformative power of God’s will for our lives. And since we are being shaped by the message of Scripture—rather than shaping Scripture to our liking—expositional listening safeguards the church from distorting the gospel.
A healthy church member is a biblical theologian
Everyone has their favorite verses, but beware: a little bit of context may completely alter the significance of your “life verse.”
That passage you memorized for encouragement when your sister moved to Phoenix? Well, “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are out of one another’s sight” (Gen 31:49) may feel like a warm sentiment—but the context of the verse says otherwise.
When we lift verses out of context, we distort our understanding of Scripture. The answer isn’t to stop memorizing verses or to cease having favorite passages. The solution is to gain a more robust understanding of Scripture.
That’s one reason a healthy church member is a biblical theologian—someone who understands the sweeping narrative of Scripture and appreciates passages in their literary and redemptive context.
Biblical theology can also help Christians and churches overcome erroneous doctrine.
When we give ourselves to understanding the grand sweep of biblical revelation and the total weight of Scripture’s teaching on a particular subject, we are more readily convinced of our wrong ideas.
And far from being an impractical, academic exercise, understanding biblical theology actually deepens our appreciation for the gospel.
Jesus and his disciples did not need the New Testament to proclaim the gospel. They relied on the Old Testament and understood that the Old Testament Scriptures pointed to Jesus. The biblical theologian follows in the steps of Jesus and the apostles by mastering the unity of Scripture, seeing Christ and the gospel throughout.
A healthy church member seeks discipline
If you’re a parent, I’ll bet your kids are constantly pleading for more disciplinary rigor.
“Mom, can I sit in the corner for a few more minutes? I haven’t quite learned my lesson.”
“Dad, I really think my curfew should be a couple hours earlier.”
Or, if your kids are normal humans like you and me, they don’t seek out discipline; they avoid it.
But Anyabwile says Christians should seek out biblical discipline in the context of the local church, because ultimately it makes us more like Jesus.
Discipline is about education and learning, order and growth. It is discipline in the life of the congregation and the healthy church member that provides an atmosphere for growth and development. It leads to the rare polished jewel of Christlikeness.
Discipline gets a bad rap in part because we think of it only in terms of corrective discipline, e.g. “painful punishment.” But discipline can be both formative and corrective, and Christians need both.
The apostle writes in 2 Timothy 3:16, ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.’
When Paul writes that the Scripture is ‘profitable for teaching’ and ‘for training in righteousness,’ he is describing positive or formative discipline. Formative discipline refers to how Scripture shapes and molds the Christian as he or she imbibes its teaching and is trained to live for God. . . .
Likewise, when Paul refers to the Scriptures as profitable ‘for reproof, for correction’ he is describing how the Word of God confronts us and turns us away from error to righteousness. This is corrective discipline.
God has prescribed both formative and corrective discipline for Christians in the local church. Healthy church members will seek out both, learning to receive correction with humility, offering loving discipline to other Christians in a spirit of meekness, and being shaped by the corrective power of God’s Word.