Church Membership & The Doctrine Of The Church
Before we can have a meaningful conversation about the importance of church membership we need to have a biblical view of the church. Therefore our study of this important subject must begin, with “how is the Church pictured in the Bible?”
- How Is the Church Pictured in the Bible?
The Biblical doctrine of the Church is so rich that no one metaphor is capable of capturing the fullness of this doctrine; this is why the Bible uses at least six different metaphors to describe the Church.
- The covenant People of God (Eph 2:12; 1 Peter 2:10)
NKJ Ephesians 2:12 that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
NKJ 1 Peter 2:10 who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.
- The Kingdom of God (Eph 2:19)
NKJ Ephesians 2:19 Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,
- Citizen warriors (Eph 6)
- Christ the King
- The Household or Family of God (Eph 2:19, 3:15, 4:16)
NKJ Ephesians 2:19 Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,
NKJ Ephesians 3:14 ¶ For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,
- Adopted children of God in Christ
NKJ Ephesians 1:5 having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will,
- Christ our Eldest Brother
- The Temple of God (Eph 2:21f; John 2:19f; 1 Cor 3:9; 1 Peter 2:4f)
- The Spiritual House (1 Peter 2:5)
NKJ 1 Peter 2:5 you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house (temple), a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
NKJ Ephesians 2:20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
- Christ the cornerstone / foundation
- The Body of Christ (Col 1:18, 2:18-19; Eph 3:6, 4:11-16; 1 Cor 12:27)
- Christ the Head
- The Bride of Christ (Eph 5:22-23,32; Rev 21:2, 9, 22:17)
- Christ the Bridegroom
NKJ Ephesians 5:22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body.
- What does it mean to be a member of a church?
People don’t always understand what it means to be a member of a church, but they do sense that it’s a formal commitment of some kind—something like a marriage.
To begin with, membership in the church of Christ and particularly in a local church is not an option but a Biblically-mandated necessity. Some might argue: “The bible only commands us to worship together as Christians. It doesn’t tell us that we have to become members of a local church.”
Now it is true that the Bible contains no one single text explicitly commanding church membership, but it does infer it (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or, by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture).
The keys of the kingdom, and in particular church discipline infer church membership. How can someone be formally excluded from the kingdom without first being a formal member of the kingdom? If there is no church membership there is no provision for church discipline.
Notice the words of 1 Corinthians 5:1-13:
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles — that a man has his father’s wife! 2 And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. 3 ¶ For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. 6 ¶ Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. 9 ¶ I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner — not even to eat with such a person. 12 For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? 13 But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.”
What three phrases in verses 12 and 13 speak of individuals being inside (members) the church or outside the church?
How should we understand Paul’s instructs in verses 4 and 5 in regard to church membership? Is Paul equating exclusion from membership with “delivering such a person to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus?”
- What does the Bible and our Confessions teach about church membership?
Notice the words of Hebrews 10:21-25:
“And since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”
What three phrases in these verses begin with “let us”?
How is the church described in Ephesians chapter 5? What is the importance of that description? What about Jesus’ teaching in Matt. 18, does this presuppose the institution?
In 1 Timothy 3:15, the church is described as the “household of God.” The church is God’s family. We are not just individuals but we are part of a family and are called to be committed to this family. And the way this family comes to expression is in both the church universal and the church local.
How does Ephesians 2:19-22 describe the church?
The idea of church membership is also derived from our understanding of the covenant. A covenant is a marriage between God and His people involving contracting parties, promises, obligations, and penalties (Genesis 17; Deuteronomy 28 and 29). These elements of covenant are also found in church membership.
In membership we formally covenant with God, but also with His people (through a process of membership class, elders interview, and welcome). We also assume certain responsibilities or obligations (faithful worship, submission to elders, exercise of gifts, etc.), while having the promises of certain privileges (shepherding of elders, diaconal aid, sacraments, fellowship of the body, etc.).
Notice the following statement from the Belgic Confession:
“We believe that this whole assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and that there is no salvation apart from it. No one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition. But all people are obliged to join and unite with it, keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and by serving to build up one another, according to the gifts God has given them as members of each other in the same body.”
The Westminster Confession of Faith says this:
“The visible church consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house of the family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”
- What do you think of the statement, “outside the church there is no possibility of salvation?”
- What are some of the reasons it is important that we belong to a local church?
- Do you think Augustine was correct when he said, “You cannot have God for your Father if you do not have the church as your mother”?
John Calvin put it beautifully:
“Let us learn from the simple title ‘mother’ how useful, indeed, necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us as her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like angels (Matthew 22:30). Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation. God’s fatherly favor and the special witness of spiritual life are limited to His flock, so that it is always disastrous to leave the church.”
Notice what the Heidelberg Catechism says in its treatment of the church:
- 55: “What do you understand by the communion of saints?”
- 55: “Believers one and all, as members of this (one holy catholic church) community, share in Christ and in all His treasures and gifts. Second, that each member should consider it a duty to use these gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members.”
When a person floats from church to church, treats the church like the menu at a Chinese restaurant, or attends a local church regularly without intending to become a member, there is no real obligation to use his or her gifts, because there has been no formal “marriage” to a local body. That person receives all the privileges of membership without any of the responsibilities.
Members, on the other hand, are duty-bound to use their gifts because they have formally joined the local church. Membership, then, is not a light matter nor is it optional. The bride of Christ is called to be faithful to her husband and she is most faithful when she commits herself to her husband at the local level.
In his excellent book entitled “With A Shepherd’s Heart,” John Sittema lists six biblical principles of membership:
- Membership in the local church is the visible expression of belonging to Christ; conversely, one cannot appropriately consider himself/herself to belong to Christ if he/she does not belong to Christ’s church in a formal way.
- The Scriptural notion of membership is that the individual/family expresses willing submission to the spiritual authority of the local eldership (Hebrews 13:7,17; Acts 20:28ff).
- Members belong to the local church; local churches (may) belong to a denomination.
- “Transferring membership” means requesting release from the care of the elders of one church, and a self-conscious submission of the individual or family to the pastoral care and responsibility of the eldership of another church.
- Membership involves doctrinal commitment.
- Membership is a visible testimony of commitment to other members.
How do I choose a church to join?
How do you decide on which local church to become a member? In Lynden Washington there are many churches to choose from. The Bible never teaches that we are to treat the church as a smorgasbord and go wherever the food is best that particular week. The Bible does give us direction in what to look for, however:
According to Acts 2:42-47, to what essentials was the early church devoted?
According to Belgic Confession Article 29, what are the marks of the true church?
Michael Horton, professor at Westminster Seminary and founder of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, lists some questions to ask the pastor of a church you are considering joining:
- What is the church’s view of Scripture? Is it infallible, the only ultimate authority for faith and practice?
- What is the church’s confession of faith? Where does this particular minister stand on it and is it the criterion for the teaching and preaching of God’s Word? If you really get “lucky,” you might even find a church that still uses its catechism. A confession of faith is not equal to Scripture, but it does set forth what the church body believes God’s Word teaches and expects us to know. A catechism is simply a means of instruction about that confession of faith, usually through a question and answer approach, with biblical texts supporting each answer. In many confessionally consistent denominations, one may find Sunday school curricula that follows a person all of the way from pre-school age to the twilight years. This is important, because it organizes our thoughts about God and reading of Scripture into a coherent, clear, and systematic whole.
- Is the service conducted as God’s meeting with His people to give them His grace and for them to respond in thanksgiving? Or is it modeled on entertainment?
- Is Jesus Christ proclaimed as a moral hero or as redeemer? In other words, is He made to sound like Freud, Ben Franklin, a politician, and an end-times seer, or is the preaching concerned with “Christ and Him crucified,” as Paul put it?
What is involved in covenanting to join the Lynden United Reformed Church?
- I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and is my Savior who saves me from my sin. I believe that Jesus is, therefore, Lord of my life, and I promise to follow His teachings and obey His commands.
- I believe that the Bible is God’s Word, the foundation for both believing and living. I believe that the creeds and confessions of the Lynden United Reformed Church faithfully summarize and reflect the teachings of the Bible.
- I believe that God gave me a sign and seal of His gracious promises in my baptism. I believe that I am joined with Christ and His church by faith, and that the Lord’s Supper is a visible witness of that union.
- I believe joining with God’s people in the worship of God is necessary both to honor Him and strengthen my faith. I promise that I will faithfully attend to God’s worship and to the preaching of the Word.
- I believe God calls me to love fellow believers, honor the authority of the elders of the church, and serve God with my resources, gifts, and talents. I promise to show such love, such honor, and such willing service to the God who has saved me.
What is Lynden United Reformed Church’s promise to its members?
- The faithful preaching of the Word of God.
- The administration of the sacraments.
- The shepherding of the elders.
- The love of the family of God.
- A place to serve God and His Church