Membership and the Local Church
Text: Various Selections
Good morning church. Today we are going to take on one of the most misunderstood AND probably least popular practices of the local church— church membership. Yet, why is this the case? Why is membership such a sticky issue? Well, if we were to take a short survey, we’d quickly identify at least three reasons that true believers struggle with church membership:
- They do not want to “officially commit” themselves to a specific church.
- They have had a “bad experience” with Church membership in the past.
- They cannot find the word “membership” in their Bible.
Now, we could address this topic a number of different ways. But, given that we are rewriting our constitution this year; I’ve decided to address this question from two different perspectives this morning: (1) the history of the Free Church and (2) the witness of the NT. And I’m beginning with our history because I believe it will provide even greater clarity as we turn to the NT.
The History of the Free Church
An Unintended Consequence of the Reformation
The founding of the Free Church in the 1800’s was, in many ways, an unexpected consequence of the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500’s. What I mean by this is that while the reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli recovered the fundamental message of the gospel that: “Sinful humans are justified by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone for the glory of God alone.” And that they did this, by returning to Scripture alone as the only rule for doctrine and practice in the local church… …There was something they failed to recognize or address— the unhealthy and unbiblical “link” between church and state.
In fact, this “link” is the very place where The Law of Unintended Consequences comes into play. Even though the reformers recovered the gospel and the authority of God’s Word, individual people did not really have the freedom to choose what kind of church they attended because the governing authorities of each State retained the sovereign right to determine which Church the entire country would follow. And as a result, (with few exceptions) every person in the country was considered a member of the State’s sanctioned Church whether by citizenship or infant baptism— whether-or-not they ever came to faith in Jesus Christ!
And while the true spiritual impact of this practice was not very evident in the first and second generation of the Protestant Church, it virtually destroyed the work of the Reformation over the next 300-years. By the 1800’s, these Protestant State churches — especially the Lutheran State churches of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark— were spiritually dead churches. Because the pews were increasingly populated with unregenerate (unsaved) people who were being taught and led, for the most part, by unregenerate clergy.
God’s Good and Sovereign Providence
But, by God’s good and sovereign providence, the 1800’s were a period of revival and renewal in Scandinavia as the so-called “Readers Revival” began to sweep across Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. True believers and nominal Christians (people who were Christian in name only) were secretly gathering to read the Bible. And as they did this, God started to do two things. He began to reveal the desperate condition of their spiritually dead State Church to true believers. He began to convict countless nominal Christians (people who were Christian in name only) with their desperate need for faith in Jesus Christ.
And as this happened these true, born-again Scandinavian Christians began to run into increasing conflict with the teaching and practice of Lutheran State Church. Because they were making every effort to define their faith and practice with the singular question, “Where stands it written?”
Yet, as these Christians began to abandon the State Church and organize themselves into official congregations, the most interesting thing happened. They didn’t discard the need for Church membership! No, they clarified and elevated membership by doing everything in their power to reserve membership for those who could (1) give a clear testimony of their faith in Christ and (2) whose lives reflected the fruit of genuine conversion (Today we call this a credible profession of faith).
What I want you to see is that church membership is imbedded in the very DNA of the Free Church and, as such, it is a fundamental, historical distinctive of the Free Church.
But why? Why was membership so important to the founders of the Free Church? Was it because the Lutheran church practiced it? No. It was important for two reasons: (1) they were living in a society, in which, everyone though they were a Christian AND (2) they saw key aspects of membership in the NT church.
The Witness of the New Testament
How Can We Build a Case for Church Membership When it is Never Mentioned OR Mandated in the NT?
Well, I admit that this question often comes across like a first-round knockout in a twelve-round prize fight, in that, it seems to destroy any hope that we can find biblical support for the practice of Church membership. But, if we are reading our Bible’s carefully, the NT consistently portrays the local church (the local assembly of true believers) in terms that describe the unique relationship between a known and defined number of Christians. Notice, the key word here is “describe.” That is to say: our understanding of church membership is not based on a singular passage or command, but the collected witness of the NT’s descriptions of the local church.
Now, at this point someone might object, “Wait, that’s not right. You are not allowed to do that. If the NT never uses the word member, neither can you.” But, the problem with this rebuttal is that it overlooks at least two important things. The discipline of Systematic Theology (That asks: What does the entire Bible have to say about this topic?). And the fact that fundamental doctrines of our faith were built the very same way— doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Hypostatic Union (the two natures of Christ). Both of which define the most basic elements of orthodox Christianity!
Here is the link I want you to see with membership. Do we deny the doctrine of the Trinity because they word “Trinity” never appears in our Bible OR because we cannot find a singular text in the Bible that clearly and definitively unpacks the innerworkings of the Godhead? No! We embrace the doctrine of the Trinity BECAUSE it accurately reflects the Bible’s various descriptions of the unique relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Don’t miss this, just as we use the term Trinity to define the Bible’s description of the unique relationships in the Godhead; we use the term Membership to describe the Bible’s multifaceted description of the individual Christian’s unique relationship to the local church.
How Does the NT Describe a Christian’s Relationship with the Local Church?
ONE: It appears to describe it as a formal relationship between a church and a Christian that is characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship. (Acts 2; 6) In fact, if we turn back the very beginning of the church in Acts 2, we quickly see that there was a clear, public distinction between those who had come to faith in Christ from those who had not.
Acts 2:37–41 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
Notice here that Peter doesn’t just tell them to believe, he commands them to publicly identify themselves with Jesus through baptism. And what is going on in this act of baptism? Individual people are coming forward: To publicly profess their faith in Christ and to be publicly affirmed (identified / marked off) as disciples of Jesus Christ by the apostles. Before the day of Pentecost there are only 120 disciples but after Pentecost there are over 3,000 disciples.
And, as we follow the story in verses 42–47 we quickly discover that these believers completely reorientated their lives around both the leaders and fellow baptized members of this new-found faith. Don’t miss this, while they came to faith as individuals their public affirmation through baptism seems to usher them to an entirely new community.
Acts 2:42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers.
Acts 2:44–45 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
What do we see in this? They don’t just listen to the apostles so that they can “get fed.” No, this new community seems to embody the highest values in the OT Law in their everyday lives. They are ignoring the longstanding social barriers that used to separate them and they are willingly opening their pocketbooks to help poor and needy Christians in their midst.
And later on in Acts 6, when a group of Hellenist widows in the church complain that they are not receiving their daily distribution of food, how do the apostles respond? They respond by calling “the full number of the disciples” to discuss the problem and implement a church-centered solution (Acts 6:2). But, how did the apostles know who “the full number of disciples were?” How did they know who truly belonged to the church? Well at this stage of the church, the answer seems to be: All those who had publicly declared their faith in Christ before the apostles and were officially affirmed as Christians and welcomed into church through the ordinance of baptism (Acts 2:38; cf. Matthew 28:18–20).
Yet, as we continue reading through the NT we quickly discover that a Christian’s relationship to the local church doesn’t end at the church’s affirmation and general oversight of their discipleship. Does it? No. Rather, it consistently describes a Christian’s willing submission to live out his or her discipleship under the care of the local church.
TWO: The Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.
QUALIFICATION: Now just in case the word “submission” caused you to tense up or have a painful flashback, let me clearly state what this “submission” is NOT.
- It is not a cowering, servile submission to power-hungry and abusive leaders.
- It is not an expectation that church members are expected to acquiesce belligerent and overbearing congregants OR self-appointed power groups in the church.
- Nor is a requirement that members submit their tax-returns to church leadership so that they can determine or enforce their giving.
Not in the least bit! And if any church ever tries to tell you that’s what submission is, it’s time to find another church.
Now, does this willing submission open us up for correction, rebuke, and discipline? Yes, but it is always purposed for our discipleship to AND maturity in Christ as described in God’s Word, NOT our rigid conformity to man-made expectations. In fact, of the many pictures and images, that the Bible uses to describe the church; this “submission” is typically portrayed in the relational metaphor of a shepherd and his flock.
- Elders are Required to Shepherd and Lovingly Care for Their Flock
Acts 20:17–18; 28 Now from Miletus [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them… 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
What’s Paul saying here? He is saying, their primary responsibility is to shepherd a particular flock. But how are they to know who their flock is OR the people for whom they we give an account to God? Well, Peter brings some helpful clarity.
1 Peter 5:1–3 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
The first thing we see, again, is that the flock is among them, it’s physically present. The flock consists of specific group of faces and names and life stories.
The second thing I want you to see, is not as clear in our English Bibles. What I mean by this is, the phrase “those in your charge” (in verse 3) indicates so much more than physical proximity because the Greek noun translated “charge” is a word that was used to describe a clearly defined portion, share, or lot. Think of it like property boundaries laid out in a legal document OR how an inheritance is carefully distributed according to the instructions laid out in a person’s last will and testament. See, Peter seems to be indicating that the membership in these churches was clearly known and defined group of people.
Yet, the idea of “membership” becomes even stronger as we turn our attention to the believer’s relationship to the leadership of the church because the call to “submit” completely exceeds and eclipses the previous categories of learning, fellowship, and caring in Acts 2.
- Christians are Required to Submit to Their Leaders
Hebrews 13:17 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.
1 Thessalonians 5:12–13 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
My question is this: Without some kind of expressed willingness or covenant or agreement or commitment, which group of elders does God require an individual Christian to submit too? (Don’t miss this, we are talking about a command!) Does every Christian who walks through the doors of a local church instantly have submit their discipleship to the elders of the church? And should the elders of every church expect that they should? I don’t think so, because both commands imply an established and agreed upon relationship and responsibilities to one another.
My point is this, without some kind of clear agreement or commitment can does any group of elders know that I am OR should be submitting to them? In fact, this question becomes even more important if my lifestyle is in direct conflict with my confession of faith in Jesus Christ… because the local church is called to discipline its “members.”
- The Local Church is called to Discipline Its Members
Matthew 18:15–17 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. 16 But 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. 17 If 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.
For the sake of time this morning, I am going to limit myself to A Necessary Clarification and Important Observation.
CLARIFICATION: When Jesus tells us to remove someone from the church, he is not talking about bruised egos, pet-peeves, or even patterns of indwelling sin. No. He is talking about the kind of flagrant, substantial sins that openly contradict and are clearly at odds with a Christian’s true discipleship to Jesus Christ. Or to put it another way, they are behaving as if they never came to faith in Christ (that’s what Jesus means to treat them like a Gentile or tax collector).
Therefore, we can rightfully say that the ultimate goal (in this escalating confrontation and threat of discipline) is that the sinning Christian would respond in repentance and be restored to a right relationship with God and fellowship with the church.
OBSERVATION: Did you notice who renders the final decision when it comes to church discipline? It’ not the elders. It’s not the deacons. It’s not a regional synod or ecclesiastical authority. No, the power to ultimately and finally remove someone from the church belongs to the Local Church. (We’ll talk more about this next week
So, let me ask two practical questions that flow from this passage.
How should we define “the church” (as in, tell it to the church) in this text today? Everyone who happens to walk through the door of our church. Everyone who attends at least 2–3 Sundays a month. Everyone who considers Olympic their home church. Or might there be a better, more Biblical way to define it?
Even more, if the individual in question has not officially agreed to submit their discipleship to the loving, biblical oversight of the Local Church. Do you think that this kind of biblical discipline can happen, in our day and age, without the instantaneous accusation of discrimination and immediate threat of legal action?
Friends, I realize this morning, that many of you have no qualms with church membership BUT that others are, in some way, resistant to it. My singular goal this morning has been to demonstrate that the relational categoriesof church “membership” are both described and implied throughout the New Testament. And these various descriptions help us see at least three things:
One, that apart from a few unique episodes in the early chapters of Acts, the New Testament never describes Christians apart from their individual accountability to local churches. Rather, it consistently indicates that an individual’s union with Christ was typically expressed in their union with a local church.
Two, the modern idea of an expressly individualistic “lone ranger” Christianity is completely foreign to the New Testament. Because the descriptions of church discipline point us to the implication that to be officially excluded from the church was to be considered and unbeliever and excluded from Christ himself.
Three, the gathered “membership” of the church possesses a unique authority that the elders or deacons or the denomination do not possess— the authority to remove a willfully unrepentant church “member” from “membership.”
In light of these findings, I believe it is legitimate to say that: Church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship AND the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.
 Religious Jews, Muslims, and adamant atheists.
 This section (and the two-fold definition) is developed from, Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, Building Healthy Churches (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 35–48.
 Walter Bauer et al., A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2000), 548.
 Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 685.