When I was in high school there was a commonly understood, culturally accepted relationship phase. More than friends, not quite “exclusive.” During this phase the guy and girl might hang out or talk on the phone, but their status was vague. Something was clearly going on, but the parameters hadn’t been defined. Consequently, either person could walk away or (gasp) talk to another boy or girl with no consequences.

At this stage in the relationship, someone would inevitably inquire, “Have you DTRed?” The DTR, for those not up to speed on dating world acronymns of yesteryear, stands for “define the relationship.” DTRing meant ambiguity was thrown out the window as the guy spoke clarity into the vagueness. A successful DTR usually led to the young lady getting a letter jacket, or, since I wasn’t the greatest athlete, settling for the title “girlfriend.”

Gift of Clarity

Even if it proves difficult, people long for clarity in their relationships. Whether it’s at work or on the dating scene, people want to be clear about lines of authority and the structure of their relationships. We want to know what we should expect from others, and what they can expect from us. Very simply, we want to know where we stand.

In an age of rampant individualism and consumerism, Christians should question the prevailing tendency to treat the church with the same kind of ambiguity and carelessness as an immature high school boy—happy to reap all the benefits of a “gal pal” yet unwilling to make any semblance of commitment.

Simply put, church membership is how the divinely ordained assembly of God’s people define the relationship between each other. It’s the mechanism that brings clarity to the relationships in the congregation. It’s how the good lines of God-given authority are exercised.

Strengthen and Radiate

As a pastor of a church plant in the United Arab Emirates, I have the privilege of ministering in a place where people come from all over the world to live and work. Transience is the norm. And since believers have come for what they believe to be only a brief period of time, many treat the local church as a helpful add-on to their time here but not the community into which they’ve been saved and summoned to live out their discipleship to Jesus.

But as with anywhere, fringe involvement in the church takes its toll on the soul and adversely affects the witness of Christ.

The believing community here isn’t as strong as it could be since many live out their lives isolated from fellow believers. For those growing spiritually, I often think how much more beautiful and strong their consistent, committed presence would make the bride of Christ look in this place. For those struggling spiritually, I long for them to experience the blood-bought graces that could be theirs through intentional, committed membership in the body.

Even in a Muslim context, I was recently reminded how the church is the “manifold wisdom of God” (Eph. 3:10) as we had the joy of walking through the trial of cancer with a sister in Christ. Certainly we desired to encourage her faith, but she did far more to encourage and strengthen ours as she maintained confidence in the Lord. Yet it didn’t stop with us. She recounted to me how her Muslim friends at work watched her church support her through cancer and were moved and provoked by the corporate witness of Christ’s body. Through the bonds of covenant membership, we were able to radiate Christ together in a far more compelling way than we’d ever have been able to do on our own.

Fitness Club Standards

Church membership enables pastors to know the souls over whom they’re called to watch and for whom they will one day give give an account before God (Heb. 13:17). It enables Christians to know whom exactly they’re responsible to specially love (John 13:14) and with whom their unity will cause the world to believe that the Father sent the Son (John 17:23). When we submit to the local church through formal membership, we help pastors carry out their God-given work of shepherding the flock of God (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). And we tell our brothers and sisters they can expect the kind of Christ-exalting, Spirit-given commitment Christ has purchased for us at the cost of his own blood (Acts 20:28).

Moreover, through membership, we make an important statement that we’re no longer simply in a “casual” relationship with a particular manifestation of Christ’s body. Rather, we’re in a clearly and biblically defined relationship that enables the church to be all that she’s called to be. With a fitness or country club, the relationship is clearly defined from the beginning—and it dissolves as soon as a member doesn’t live up to his or her end of the bargain. Surely Christ’s church deserves just as much or more commitment than a fitness club.

DTRing through Membership

It’s easy to roll our eyes when considering the nonsense and immaturity of a boy or girl in some vague, pseudo-dating relationship with no defined commitment from either side. Yet this is precisely how many professing Christians relate to the local church. Friends, this should not be. As we move from place to place as circumstances often necessitate in this world, we should be the people deliberately looking to define our relationship with a church as soon as possible. We should be seeking to make ourselves known to pastors and other believers so they know they can count on us, and we on them. As we give ourselves to this kind of unity, the world begins to see a living, embodied picture of the triune unity we proclaim from our pulpits.

For the glory of Christ, the good of his people, and our witness to him in the world, let’s labor for churches in which relationships are clearly and biblically defined so that the world might embrace him. I can think of no better reason to have a DTR.