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We want to take one more week away from our series of messages from Ecclesiastes. This week, we’ll be exploring a question we don’t speak about enough in the church and that is—why should a believer formally join the membership of a local church?  This topic of church membership is much misunderstood and as a result, many in the church see no reason to formally join a church. One reason many people never officially join churches is because they see their relationship to Jesus as a purely individual, private thing.  Many view the Christian life primarily in terms of “me and Jesus—we have this great thing together.”  Why would a person with that view of their walk with God sense any need to make a commitment to a local body of believers?  Mark Dever tells the story of a zealous evangelist who was cold to the suggestion that he join a local church. His response was, “they would just slow me down.”  Do you hear what his underlying assumptions are?  First, he doesn’t see the great need he has for the church—the body of Christ is of no use to him—a distraction from his ministry.  Second, he sees no obligation to use his evangelistic gifts as a ministry of the local church, for the building up of the body as Ephesians chapter four teaches.  He doesn’t understand that evangelists are gifts from God to the local church according to Ephesians 4:11.

Some people hesitate to join a church because they’ve been burned by another church. These folks don’t understand the best place for them to clearly see where their sin may have contributed to the fractured relationships of the past is in the church.  And the best place for the healing of wounds inflicted by the church is in the church. Others refuse to join the church because they don’t see the clear Biblical mandate on the need for commitment to a local church.  The word “membership,” like the word “Trinity” isn’t found in the Bible, but as we’ll see today, the idea of making a membership commitment to a group of believers is all over the New Testament teaching on the church.

As we’ll see, it’s crucial to our spiritual health for us to have a Biblical understanding of how we are to relate to the local church.   Unfortunately, “membership” as that term is often understood in North America doesn’t express a Biblically healthy relationship with a local church.  Signing a sheet of paper, going through confirmation class or having a letter of transfer sent from your former church with no formal screening process--those things are not consistent with the covenant commitment the Scripture implies we must have to the local church.  You sometimes hear people say, “I have my membership at such and such a church.”  Membership isn’t something you “have”--as if it were about having your name on the membership role of a local church.  Membership is something you do and are continually doing.  When we speak of membership, we’re talking about a covenant relationship to a church.

By “covenant commitment” I mean--entering into a formal relationship with a local body of believers characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a believer’s walk with God and the believer’s submission to living out his relationship to God in the care of the church.[1]  Church membership is a bit like a marriage.  Jonathan Leeman (whose definition of membership you just heard) explains that marriages have two components, one is the day-to-day activities that are part of the relationship—companionship, making a home together, marital intimacy, having children, mutual support for one another--things like that. 

The other component of marriage is more formal.  This is the covenant—the promise—the commitment to stay together, be faithful to one another, love each other in good times and bad.  Leeman says the covenant is like the glass goblet that holds the wine of marital activities in place.  It’s the skeleton that provides a structure that supports all the activities.  Today, the world likes the activities of marriage—living together, sexual intimacy, etc… but it hates the formal covenant.  It loves the wine, but doesn’t like the goblet.  Church membership has the same two components.  There are the activities of church life—attending worship services, serving on ministry teams, being part of a small group, getting married and buried, pastoral care, etc…  What holds those activities together (the wine goblet) is the membership commitment—a commitment to stay together unless there is infidelity to 1. Scriptural truth or, 2. Some other basic element of the relationship.  Believers who want to be part of church activities, but refuse to join it are a bit like people who want the activities of a marriage, but don’t want a ring on their finger symbolizing their covenant.  They’re consumers who are looking for spiritual enrichment, but are not willing to  commit to live sacrificially for others.

This morning let’s look at three lines of Biblical evidence supporting the claim that believers are to make a formal membership commitment to a local church. The first and longest line of evidence is implied in the Biblical mandate that the local church must lovingly hold its people accountable to live godly lives.  As we’ll see, this accountability to the local church is clearly taught in Scripture and I see three ways that the necessity of church membership is implied through this expectation of accountability in the local church.  One way we see this accountability is in the Biblical teaching about how the church is to relate to its God-appointed leaders.   Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” The author’s point is simple. The leaders will have to stand before God for the way they kept “watch over your souls.” They bear a sobering level of responsibility and they themselves will be held accountable by God.  In order for the leaders to carry out their responsibility to “keep watch over the souls” under their care, God has given them some limited authority and the command, not the suggestion to the church is to obey them. Obedience implies accountability.  Why would the author of Hebrews tell believers to obey the leaders unless something would happen if they did not?  It’s assumed that if one of God’s commands is disobeyed, there must be accountability 

Genuine authority always implies accountability.  Bethlehem Baptist in the Twin Cities says it well. “Leadership and submission have no meaning where there is no commitment to accountability (that is, to membership).”  How can someone outside the formal church membership be held accountable for any habitual, unrepentant sin?  If the church is only a social club, then you can just walk away with impunity if someone confronts you with your sin. If there are leaders with real, God-given authority, there must be accountability within the body. This kind of accountability is found when the church and leadership have committed to hold one another accountable through a membership relationship.

Think about it this way.  What is the church?  It’s an expression of the kingdom of God.  In the Old Testament, national Israel expressed God’s kingdom—a geographical, national kingdom.  In the New Testament, Christ expresses his kingdom through the church.  But, as Jonathan Leeman says, the church--unlike ancient Israel “is a kingdom with no land and no geographical boundaries [and that poses] a serious political dilemma:  anyone could claim to be a citizen in this kingdom.  And Jesus said that all sorts of imposters would.”  Leeman asks, “How would a landless, borderless kingdom like Jesus’ [church] mark off its citizens?  Who would exercise border control where there are no borders?”   He goes on to say that “…Church membership is a declaration of citizenship in Christ’s kingdom.”  This is what Jesus means when he says in Matthew 16 to Peter (as the first gospel preacher in the church), “19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

The person with the keys has the authority to permit or exclude entrance.  The local church—as first expressed by Peter, proclaims the gospel and through the gospel message, the church opens the door to the kingdom to those who accept it, but for those who reject Christ, the gospel-wielding local church closes the doors to the kingdom.  Likewise, if a person claims to be part of the church, but is living like an unbeliever in unrepentant sin, the local church has the authority to remove that person from the church.  That means that God has given the local church the authority not to determine, but to declare who is, and who is not a citizen of the kingdom.[2]   When the local church uses her authority to remove someone from the church that implies they have the authority to assess a person’s life and doctrine and to render a judgment.[3]  There is accountability to the church there and that implies the believer has made a formal commitment to it.

A second way church membership is implied through accountability is: the indispensable role the local church plays in the spiritual growth of each believer.  It’s clear from Ephesians chapter four that our spiritual growth only happens as we are equipped for ministry by the local church.  Spiritual maturity never happens in a vacuum—it occurs only as we are in relationship with other believers in the local church.  Ephesians 4:13 says the ultimate purpose of the saints being equipped for ministry by the loving, truth-telling leaders is, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,”  Hear the stress on oneness in the local church there—we are all part of a whole and one purpose of loving, truth-telling equipping ministry in the church is to unite us in the faith.  The ultimate purpose of being equipped for ministry within the church is not about strengthening the individual believer, it’s corporate--church unity—that we would be of one faith together.  In light of that, it’s simply inconsistent to say, “Yes, I want to relate to others in the church in a way that will cause me to grow in my walk with God.  I agree with Scripture that the purpose of the equipping I receive from the church is being one in faith with this local church body—to be working with them together toward unity of faith—but …I don’t want to formally commit to this church?”  That’s a huge disconnect!  If we agree with Ephesians chapter four that our equipping for ministry results in an increasing unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God as a local church, then making a firm commitment to a church is assumed within that purpose.

A third way church membership is implied in Ephesians four through mutual accountability is in the goal of our spiritual maturity found in verse 14. “...so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”  One implication of spiritual maturity—found in rightly relating to the church is—it guards our souls from deception.  The most serious deception for us to guard against is believing bad doctrine that leads us to self-deception as it relates to our own salvation.  That is—believing a lie that causes us to think we are in the kingdom when we’re out and thinking we are out when we’re in. The New Testament repeatedly claims it’s possible to be self-deceived about the state of your soul. Paul tells the professing believers in Corinth in 2 Corinthians 13:5. “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” Jesus says in Matthew 7:21 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' 23And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'”

The New Testament teaches that it is frightfully more easy to be self-deceived about the state of our souls than we might think. Making a covenant commitment to a local church is crucial in helping us guard against self-deception with respect to our souls.  Here’s why.  When a person wants to commit to membership in a church that has a Biblical understanding of membership, he/she must go through a careful screening process. The reason is because the leadership is responsible, as much as is in their power, to allow only people who manifest the saving grace of God into the membership. The church of Christ is made up of the redeemed only. The leadership discovers the proposed member’s understanding of the gospel and his/her life in Christ.  More than that, there is an informal process where over time the body becomes acquainted with prospective members.  When a person joins this church, the body and the leadership is taking on an awesome responsibility because it’s saying to that person admitted into membership, “We see the grace of God in your life. As far as we can tell, we believe you are part of the redeemed universal church, so we welcome you into this local expression of Christ’s church.”

In this way, church membership is a bit like ordination to the gospel ministry. When a man is ordained into the gospel ministry, that is an affirmation that the body has recognized the call of God on that man’s life. Likewise, when a person is admitted into this membership, that is the body affirming the presence of God’s saving grace in a person’s life. In this way, being a part of a covenant community is part of what gives a believer assurance of their salvation. “After the last two weeks of sin and condemnation, I sure don’t feel much like a Christian, but the people in my local church know me—they know my secrets and my struggles and they affirm that I’m in Christ.”  The assessment of the local church can’t be the only ground for a person’s assurance of salvation—there are also the promises of the gospel, a person’s spiritual fruit and their inward witness of the Spirit, but the local church’s acceptance of us into membership should encourage us in our assurance.  Notice that this understanding of membership implies a familiarity and intimacy with one another—a level of community that many in the body do not experience.  This is why small groups are so vitally important.  That’s where these relationships develop.

Related to this, First John 2:9-10 says, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.” That verse tells us that one way a person can discover if they are not a genuine believer is if he/she hates his brother. On the other hand, loving the brethren is an important indicator that you love Jesus.  John 13:35 says, “35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.  Mark Dever comments in this context, “Do you want to know that your new life is real? Commit yourself to a local group of saved sinners. Try to love them. Don’t just do it for three weeks. Don’t just do it for six months. Do it for years. And I think you’ll find out, and others will, too, whether or not you love God. The truth will show itself.” This kind of commitment to a local church helps us guard against this very important area of potential self-deception.

In addition to helping keep us from self-deception, Ephesians 4:15 gives us another essential element of spiritual maturity and that is truth-telling in love.15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” Lovingly speaking the truth to each other helps us grow to maturity in Christ.  That speaks of accountability. If you see me in a self-destructive sin and you humbly and gently correct me with the truth, what are the consequences for me if I tell you to take a flying leap?  If there are no consequences—if there’s no accountability, then correcting a brother or sister will have little impact.  Jesus outlines what this process looks like in Matthew 18. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” That’s accountability.  Paul says the same thing in First Corinthians chapter five.  Of a man in the church living in blatant sexual immorality he says, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”  In Second Corinthians, Paul writes of one the church had disciplined and as a result had repented of his sin.  Chapter 2:6 says, “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough.  Do you hear how we in the local church are to hold each other accountable to live godly lives and if that isn’t done, we are to bring the loving, corrective, purifying discipline of God to the unrepentant?

Also, notice that Paul uses the word “majority” there. If the church at Corinth was just this free-floating, unorganized, non-committed group, the word “majority” would be meaningless. By definition, a “majority” implies a fixed number of people and that someone has established who is to be part of that fixed number of people.  In today’s world, apart from formal membership in a church, there is no accountability. How can you formally remove someone from the body, when they have made no formal commitment to be part of the local body?

A second line of evidence that this membership commitment is implied in the New Testament is in the metaphors used for the church.  The New Testament uses more than 20 metaphors for the church—each of which communicates something different about the church.  For instance, the church is frequently called a “temple.” Speaking of the church as God’s temple, First Peter 2:5 says, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” That means this church is an expression of God’s temple with each believer being joined together by God, “mortared” into the larger structure.  Do you hear the commitment to the other stones or bricks implied in that metaphor?  The great Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon says of this metaphor in relationship to church membership, “I know there are some who say, ‘Well, I have given myself to the Lord, but I do not intend to give myself to the church.’ Now why not? “Because I can be a Christian without it?” Are you quite clear about that?... What is a brick made for? To help build a house. It is of no use for that brick to tell you that it is just as good a brick while it is kicking about on the ground as it would be in the house. It is a good-for-nothing brick...”  Being a brick in a temple implies a formal commitment to the temple.

Another metaphor implying this commitment to the church is “the body of Christ.” Each local church is an expression of his body.  First Corinthians chapter 12 teaches the church as Christ’s body and Paul is referring to the local expression of it in Corinth. It is to a local church he wrote, “For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” The “body” metaphor implies a commitment to the other parts of the body. Human body parts have a very reassuring tendency of being intentionally joined together and remaining in that condition barring serious injury.  It’s foolish for a believer to claim to be part of the body of Christ universally, but never join a local expression of Christ’s body on earth?[4]  Finally, the church is pictured in the New Testament as a “family.

First Timothy 3:15 says, “…if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household [family] of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth.” Local churches are families of believers and that implies commitment.  You cannot have the Father and the Son but not join the whole family—as Jonathan Leeman says, “It’s a package deal.” [5]  If you join the Father and the Son, you join the family.  If you refuse to join a local expression of the God’s sons and daughters, that says something ominous about your relationship to the Father and the Son?  How do you think the Father and the Son respond to a person who refuses to join themselves to a local expression of their family?

A third and final line of evidence that the membership commitment in the local church is implied in the New Testament is in Christ’s identification with, and commitment to His church.  Listen to how closely Christ identifies with his body.  In Acts chapter nine, Saul of Tarsus—who has been viciously persecuting the church is confronted on the Damascus Road by the risen Christ and in response to the blinding light Saul says, “Who are you, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Saul had been persecuting the church of Christ, yet Jesus confronts him about persecuting him.  It’s simply not consistent for those who claim to love Jesus to say, “I refuse to join in membership with his local church.”   Christ so closely identifies with his church that if you refuse to join the church, you’re refusing Christ!  In that context, listen to First John 3:16. The apostle says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.

John is saying that Jesus’ love is modeled for us in dying for the church and that same level of commitment to the church should be seen in us.  How can a person say that he/she—as John commends—is willing to die for Christ’s church, but won’t formally commit to a local expression of it? It’s inconsistent to say that you love Christ, but are not willing to formally join with the people he died for. John says just the opposite is true. If you want to know if you love God, ask yourself, do I love his people?  And if you love his people, you will die for them which is a far greater  commitment than joining them in the membership of a local church.

I hope that some of the fog that today surrounds the topic of church membership has been blown away for you and that it’s clear that membership in a local church is not just a nice gesture or good idea, it’s vitally important for your spiritual health.  We have a new membership class beginning March third.  It meets during the Sunday school hour and takes about ten weeks.  We give you information you need about our church, our doctrine and how and why we minister the way we do.  If you want to grow to spiritual maturity and feel at home in our church, please pray about signing up on the sheet provided in the Fellowship Hall bulletin board.  May God give us the grace to love Him and love the church of his Son for our joy and his glory.

[1] This is slightly deviated from Leeman, Jonathan, “Church Membership,” Crossway, 2012, p. 64

[2] Leeman, Jonathan, Church Membership,”  Crossway, 2012, pp. 58-61.

[3] Leeman, Jonathan, p. 61, 64.

[4] Leeman, Jonathan, “Church Membership,” Crossway, 2-12, p. 74.

[5] Leeman, Jonathan, “Church Membership,” Crossway, 2012, p. 31.


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