Church MembershipThe Context for Unity
"Living as a Church"Class 2
Good morning and welcome! This is the second class in a thirteen-week course
on living together as a church. This morning, we will consider the idea of
church membership and how it facilitates unity within the church. Before we
begin, let's pray.
Church MembershipWhy Bother?
I wonder if you've thought much about why it's so widely expected that Christians
should join local churches. After all, we don't see any explicit exhortation
in the Bible to "join a church. We also know that membership in a church does
not in any way contribute to our salvation. We are saved by grace alone, through
faith alone, in Christ alone.
Moreover, one might argue that this issue of church membership is just a matter
of semantics. Why do I need to put my name on a list? Can't I be a part of
the church just by showing up, listening to the sermons, and talking to people?
Those are the sort of issues we'll consider today as we talk about church membership.
Last week we talked about how God has chosen to display his manifold wisdom
and glory through the church. We thought about the significance of unity, and
of God's people relating to one another in ways that display God's glory. Over
the next hour, we'll see that it is church membership that provides the context
for that unity.
But I'm Already a Member!
Before we begin, let me address one question you might be asking already.
Perhaps you're thinking, "This lesson on church membership is all fine and
good, but how's it relevant to me? I'm already a member of this church.
Well, the purpose of this class is not to convince you to
join a church. That's what we do in our membership classwe exhort prospective
members to join a church, whether this one or another one, for their good and
In this class, we want to do something different. We want to consider how
church membership provides a necessary context for a healthy church culture,
and we want to make the case that commitment to a local congregation is one
of the basic ingredients of a healthy, unified local church. All the other
aspects of unity that we'll discuss in the coming weekspraying together, submitting
to godly leadership, and othersall assume that we share some level of commitment
to one another. That is why it is so importanteven for people who are already
church membersto think carefully about the responsibilities and privileges
associated with being a member of a church.
In today's class we will focus on three main points.
First, we will see from Scripture that God calls Christians
to commit to a local church body, to do so formally, and evenyesto
be members of that body.
Second, we will look at how the commitment of church membership
facilitates unity in the church.
Finally, we will think about how we should talk to non-members
about the importance of church membership.
II. CHURCH MEMBERSHIP IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
There's a common notion out there that the New Testament does not say anything
at all about joining a local church. And of course that's true if you're just
looking for the words "join a church or "sign this card in the Bible.
But to say that the New Testament doesn't know anything of church membership
is simply not true. The New Testament does call Christians to be committed
to a particular local church. Not only so, it also expects that this commitment
will be a formal one, so that everyone will know who has made that
kind of commitment and who has not. In fact, you may be surprised to hear that
the New Testament even goes so far as to call this kind of commitment membership in
It's About Commitment
One of the most prominent themes in the entire New Testament is Christians'
calling to love one another. Jesus could not have put it more plainly when
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John
The apostle John then reminds us in one of his letters:
And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus
Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. (1 John 3:23)
And Paul says in Romans 12:10:
Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing
The love that Christians are called to have for one another isn't just a feeling,
either. It is love that works itself out in concrete actions. Look at all the
different ways the New Testament describes how Christians are to love each
- Rom 12:15 tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with
those who weep.
- Ephesians 4:2 tells us to bear with one another.
- Eph 4:32 says we are to be kind to one another, and forgive one another.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:11 says we should encourage one another, and build one
- Heb 3:13 tells us to exhort one another.
- Heb 10:24 says to stir one another up to love and good works.
- Jam 5:26 tells us to confess our sins to one another, and pray for each
- 1 Peter 4:9-10 says we are to show hospitality to each other, and use our
gifts to serve one another.
And of course there are other passages, too. The point is that all those actions
require relationships. You can't encourage, exhort, and stir others
up to love and good works if you're just casually running into them at church
once a week. You need to have real and vibrant relationships in place. In fact,
doing all that requires an understanding that you are sharing life together,
that you are open to hearing exhortation, encouragement, and even rebuke from
one another when it's necessary. Put simply, it requires commitment.
Who's In and Who's Out
The commitment Christians make to one another in the church is not just casual
and "understood. Throughout the New Testament, it seems to be a formal one.
In other words, the early church knew who was a part of their community and
who was not. They had a very clear understanding of who was inside the
church and who was outside of it.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul rebukes the Corinthian church for not expelling a
man who is in serious sin. In verses 11 to 13, he writes,
But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls
himself a brother but is sexually immoral, or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer,
a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business
is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those
inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked man from among you.'
Notice how Paul refers to those "inside the church and those "outside the
church. But how does he know who's in and who's out? How does the church distinguish
between those who are part of it and those who aren't? The answer is that they
must have known very clearly which people had formally committed themselves
to the church, and which had not. That is really the only way that Paul's exhortation
to "expel the sinful man makes any sense. How could the church "put out someone
who had never been "put in? How could they expel someone from their fellowship
if they had no clear understanding of which people were already in their
fellowship? They couldn't, at least not with any meaning. The church could
only legitimately remove from its fellowship those who had formally committed
to the church, identifying themselves with it.
Later, in 2 Corinthians 2, we find that the church had indeed followed Paul's
advice and expelled the man. He apparently repented of his sin sometime after
that, because Paul says in 2:6 that, "The punishment inflicted on him by the
majority is sufficient for him.
Look at that sentence carefully, and especially the word "majority. That
is important because you can't have a majority of anything unless
you know who gets counted and who doesn't. Paul must be talking here about
a majority of a well-defined wholethat is, a majority of those people who
were known to be committed to the church. (Perhaps they even had a
list. . . .)
"MembershipIt's Our Word
Where does the term "membership come from anyway? Why do we call this formal
commitment a person makes to the church "becoming a member? Many people assume
that the church has just borrowed the term from other organizationsthe Rotary
Club or Columbia Records, for instance. But in reality, it's the Rotary Club
that has borrowed "membership from the church!
The idea of being a member of a church comes from the apostle Paul, when he
describes the local church as a "body and each person within it as a "member
of that body. Yep, he actually uses that word! Look at what he says in 1 Corinthians
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of
the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one
Spirit we were all baptized into one bodyJews or Greeks, slaves or freeand
all were made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body does not consist of
one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, "Because I am not
a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less
a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, "Because I am not
an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less
a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the
sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense
of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one
of them, as he chose.
And then, just to make the point explicit, he says to this local church at
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians
The image Paul uses here is a profound one. Each of the members in the body
is dependent on all the others. As Paul puts it, the eye cannot say to the
hand, "I don't need you. Nor can the head say that to the feet. (1 Corinthians
12:21) No member of the body is independent; each depends in a profound way
on all the others. So in the church at Corinth, there were some people gifted
to do certain things, and others gifted to do other things. Each "member in
the church was different, yet working together they had everything necessary
for the building up of the church body (1 Corinthians 14:12).
When you understand what lies behind the word "member, you see why we put
so much emphasis on church membership. "Membership is not just a wordit is
a description of what we intend our commitment to Christ and to each other
to look like.
In that light, it starts to sound ridiculous to talk about being a "member
of Columbia Records, doesn't it? But "membership is the perfect word to describe
the deep and practical commitment we share with each other as members of the
body of Christ in this local church.
III. CHURCH MEMBERSHIP PROMOTES UNITY
Let's think now about how church membership fosters unity within the church.
Specifically, there are two primary ways that this happens:
Unity With These, But Not Those
First and most importantly, church membership defines the group of people
with whom we seek unity. Simply stated, church membership unifies because it
requires members to be Christians. We unite with people who have repented of
sin and trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation.
It is astonishing how often this truth is ignored in churches today. And as
you can imagine, this has drastic consequences for church unity. When churches
are filled with unregenerate, non-Christian people who hold offices and teaching
positions, the result is almost always a church that is full of strife and
division. That's why, when we interview a prospective member of this church,
we ask him to tell us how he became a Christian and also to explain briefly
the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When a church allows into membership people who do not give evidence of faith
in Christ, they are left having to force unity on a group of people who are
not indwelt by the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. Church membership
fosters unity because it makes the nature of our task clear. We are to demonstrate
the glory of God's wisdom by uniting in the local church with a specific group
of peoplethose who are fellow believers in Jesus Christ.
Unity With the Whole Body, Not Just a Part of It
The second way that church membership fosters church unity is by calling us
to commit to the entire church, not just a part of it.
In the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul rebukes the Corinthian
church for its quarreling and divisiveness. Some were claiming to be followers
of Paul, others of Apollos, and still others of Peter. Paul tells them in 3:4-5:
When one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are
you not being merely human? 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants
through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.
If some of us decided that we were only going to attend church on the Sundays
when the pastor is preaching because we like his sermons best, and others of
us decided that we would only attend when the associate pastor is preaching
because we prefer his sermons, we would quickly become a divided church.
Similarly, if we commit to a small group of friends who are like us in some
way, rather than to the church body as a whole, the church will become divided.
As Christians, our primary commitment must be to the congregation at large,
not to a smaller group of friends. We want to encourage Christians to invest
energy in relationships with everyone that God brings to this church, not just
with people who are similar to us in socio-economic level, occupation, race,
ethnicity, or even interests. Far from being based on any of those things,
our unity is grounded in our shared love for Jesus Christ and his gospel.
IV. Encouraging Christians to Join a Church
How can we encourage Christian friends who are not members of a church? This
is a very practical question because there are thousands of people out there
who claim to be Christians, but who have not joined a church. Some of those
people are simply afraid of committing to something for fear of being hurt.
Others say they have a "theological problem with the whole idea of church
membership, and wonder why they can't be a part of the church simply by showing
up. How should we talk to people like that?
First and foremost, we should go out of our way to make such people feel welcome
in our church. In Romans 12:13, Paul commands Christians to be hospitable.
Specifically, the word he uses there is "xenophilia. You may be familiar with
the opposite of this word, "xenophobia, which means a fear or dislike of strangers
or foreigners. Paul calls Christians not to be xenophobes, but xenophiles!
So the next time you're trying to decide who to talk to after church, or who
to invite over for lunch, remember your calling to be a friend of strangers.
Join A Church!
I'm sure many of you know people who claim to be Christians, and yet for one
reason or another refuse to commit themselves to a local church. How can we
help those people to see the significance of church membership? There are many
good points you could make, but let's concentrate on three.
- First, not joining a church is dangerous.
We are sinful people, and therefore we simply cannot trust ourselves. By
joining a church, we ask others to hold us accountable to live as Christians
and, if necessary, even to discipline us if we are not living as Christians.
Proverbs 12:1 is instructive:
Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid.
When we commit to a church by becoming a member, other members can help us
guard against our own self-delusion and hold us accountable.
- Second, joining a church brings glory to God.
Perhaps you've had conversations with Christians who reject the idea that
we need to join the church. And perhaps these friends appear to be strong
Christians. They are active witnesses for the gospel, they read Scripture
regularly, and they pray frequently.
All these things are good, but by refusing to join a church, a person betrays
a fundamental misunderstanding of God's plan for displaying his glory. As we
discussed some last week, God displays his glory through the church.
God's plan is not about us as mere individuals. It is far larger and grander
than that. God wants people to unite around his Son, the Lord Jesus Christpeople
who have many different faults and peculiarities, people who may be very different
from you, people who may not always even be your favorite people, but people
with whom you have Christ in common. That's what Paul means in Ephesians 3
where he says that it is through the church that God's manifold wisdom is made
- Finally, joining a church identifies us with Christ.
In Acts 9, the risen Jesus appears to Saul as he is heading toward Damascus
to persecute Christians. Do you remember what Jesus says to him? He doesn't
say "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting those Christians? He doesn't even
say "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting the church? He says, "Saul,
Saul, why are you persecuting me? Jesus so closely
identifies with the church that he refers to the congregation of Christians
at Damascus as "me.
If Jesus himself so completely identifies with the church, shouldn't we do
We started this class by asking why anyone should bother with church membership.
I hope that by now you have a good understanding of why membership is so important.
We are not called to live the Christian life as isolated individuals, but rather
as members of Christ's bodythat is, as members of a local church. That is
not just some arbitrary requirement, either. When we commit our lives to one
another in the church, we are given the encouragement and accountability we
need, and God is glorified by the amazing spectacle of people from utterly
different backgrounds uniting solely for the sake of his Son Jesus. Ultimately
then, church membership is both for our good and for God's glory!
May/June 2008, ©9Marks
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