A few fellow pastors and I recently visited a new church plant in Reykjavik, Iceland to encourage the saints and provide, among other things, some helpful resources and training. We offered a short course on the marks of a healthy church, largely influenced by and adopted from the ministry of 9Marks (you may recognize certain phrases and arguments below. I credit this ministry for the bulk my own articulation of these ideas). While there, I presented a brief case for church membership and church discipline, both of which I believe to be practices of a healthy church. I wanted to share my notes with you as a sort of primer to these topics in hopes that it might serve as a brief apologetic for church membership and discipline as you serve in your local church. I’ll divide the teaching into two parts, one on church membership, and one on church discipline, the latter also including several ways Christians can practice radical allegiance and Christian discipleship in the context of the local church. I hope you find it informative and helpful.
In an age where the consumer mindset is often catered to, even (or especially) in the church, the idea of commitment can be a very scary thing. But this need not be the case. In fact, what I hope for us to understand is that the practice of meaningful church membership is a necessary and essential aspect of a healthy church. Church membership, including discipline, helps the church be what it is meant to be and function the way it is meant to function. Briefly consider what is at stake:
- A healthy and consistent communication of the gospel
- Overall church health, unity, and effectiveness
- The care and nourishment of your own soul
- Obedience to God and the fulfillment of his design
Membership exists for the benefit and protection of your soul and for the display of God’s glory to the world (see Ephesians 3:10). It is a means by which God sanctifies and grows his people and by which God keeps the local church pure. The process and function of church membership has a natural filtering and purifying effect on the local body whereby current members are asked to examine and affirm prospective members’ testimony, and all members are expected to live out their covenant with one another in internal and proactive ways. Healthy church membership is the functional foundation of discipleship, counseling, and all other forms of sanctification in the life of a church body.
A proper understanding of what Scripture says about how a church should function and structure itself helps Christians and churches more faithfully display the character and glory of God to the world. So my goal here is simple — first, I aim to build a case for church membership from Scripture. Second, in another post, I will aim to build a case for church discipline in light of Scripture’s teaching on church membership. Lastly, to offer up a few examples of what this looks like in the context of a local church.
The Case for Church Membership
What is the Church?
In order to build a case for church membership, we will need to establish what the church actually is before we can properly discuss its membership practices. Our definition and understanding of what a church is will dictate the kind of membership practices our churches will adopt. Let’s look at the book of Ephesians to help give us an idea of the nature of the church.
Ch 1 — Predestined, Adopted (vv.4-5, 11)
Ch 2 — Redeemed, Unified, Gathered (vv.4-5, 13-16, 19-22)
Ch 3 — Purposed (vv.10-11)
Ch 4 — Equipped, Matured, Sanctified (vv.11-14, 22-24)
Ch 5-6 — Reflects the nature of the gospel in all of life
We can conclude from Paul’s letter that the church is the called, adopted, and redeemed people of God gathered in local bodies in order to equip and be equipped, grow together in love, and walk together in displaying the gospel to the world, all for the glory of God (this is even more clear when we understand the Greek work for church literally means “called out”). This is a big deal, because it means that God has tasked us, as Christians, with the duty to magnify his presence in our gatherings as a church, in order that he may be seen as the great Gatherer, Redeemer, and Unifier.
What membership does, then, is tell us who is responsible for this task. It tells other Christians and the world whom to look to for the proper display of the gospel and the character of God himself. Church membership enumerates, or marks off, every person who has taken on this corporate responsibility, given to the church, and hold them accountable to that job. But what does that job look like? What do members actually do, exactly? Well, that requires one more piece of investigation — the authority of the Church.
What is the Authority of the Local Church? The Local Church Speaks for Heaven
In one sense, we have already seen that the Church has been granted the authority to represent Jesus to the world, but Paul’s emphasis is that this is done through a radically changed life displayed through the corporate witness of a gathered community of Christians. But Jesus adds another aspect of his church’s authority which further helps define our role as church members.
Look to Matthew 16:13-19. The first thing we need to realize is that the church was created and instituted by Jesus himself. He is building it. The church is his. The second thing we need to see is that Jesus gives his church (not just Peter, but all of his disciples) “the keys of the kingdom“ (v.19). To be in possession of keys is be in possession of authority, albeit authority derived and granted from Jesus who has total and complete authority (see Matthew 28). But authority to do what, exactly? To bind and loose on earth what has been bound and loosed in heaven. In other words, the church has been given authority to align itself and its identity with what has already been established in heaven, by the sovereign will of God. The church’s goal in binding and loosening is to match what has been bound and loosed in heaven.
But we’re begging the question, bind and loose what? And what does binding and loosening look like? Turn now to chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel, verses 15-20. As Jesus is giving his disciples instruction on how to deal with sin in the life of a person who claims to be a disciple, he reminds them again of the authority of the church by reiterating the task of binding and loosening in accordance with heaven, only this time, he shows practically what that really means (in v.19) — the church’s exercise of its authority is expressed in the church’s agreement on matters of doctrine and discipline (discipline here referring to order). It makes discerned and cautious judgment about doctrine (what we believe) and order (how those beliefs require us to live and behave). So what Jesus means by bind and loose is a church-wide agreement of a person’s profession of faith in regards to what he or she says they believe (doctrine) and how their life bears witness to their genuine conversion (discipline). This is the authority Jesus gives to his church, to be exercised in local bodies all around the word — prayerfully affirming or denying formal recognition of a person’s inclusion of the body of Christ.
What all of this means is that the local church, made up of believers, has the authority given by Jesus to recognize who is a member and who is not. To be clear, the church’s basis for this decision is not preference, perfection, or other peripheral matters, but simply a clear belief of the gospel and evidence of conversion (beginning with baptism). That’s it. The job of the church is to essentially recognize who is a citizen of the Kingdom, and who is not. In other words, the church’s authority is directly tied to our understanding of church membership, since every member must appeal to the church to recognize their inclusion in the body of Christ and therefore their membership of a particular outpost (that is, the local church).
So, then, what exactly is church membership? It’s How the world knows who represents Jesus.
“Membership is the church’s affirmation that you are a citizen of Christ’s kingdom and therefore a card-carrying Jesus Representative before the nations…[it] is a public testimony that your highest allegiance belongs to Jesus… Membership puts the…rule of Christ on display for the watching universe (see Matt. 5:13; John 13:34-35; Eph. 3:10; 1 Peter 2:9-12). The very boundaries which are drawn around the membership of a church yields a society of people which invites the nations to something better.” — Jonathan Leeman
Membership means joining together with like-minded Christians in order to advance the proclamation of the gospel and the kingdom of God through faithful preaching, sound doctrine, disciple-making, and community service, so that the glory of God would become visible to those whose lives the church may touch.
There are other reasons for practicing church membership, as well. For instance, if Christians are commanded to submit to an elder body (see 1 Timothy 5:17, Hebrews 13:7), how are they to know to which elder body to submit? If elders are charged to guard the flock and will be accountable for every soul under their charge (Hebrews 13:7, 1 Peter 5:1-5), how are they to know who is part of their specific flock, or for whom they must give an account? The implication is church membership.
Recognized membership in a local church is implied in many New Testaments passages and is generally assumed to be a common practice in the New Testament Church, regardless of how different the membership processes may be today. The Apostle Paul used the analogy of membership in a body to describe the way a church should function — “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. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). Plenty more passages point to the reality of local church membership.
Let me briefly say something about formality. Must membership be formal? I think so. Insofar as the covenant vows of marriage are more meaningful when entered into formally, so too are the covenant vows of membership. Membership is nothing, if not a formal allegiance to a body and to a cause.
So formal church membership is a biblically sanctioned practice of the local church which recognizes and affirms those who appear to indeed be citizens of the Kingdom of God. It’s not only healthy, it’s necessary, since without membership, there is no clear way of knowing who really represents Christ by their faith and their life. Church membership does this. Indeed, only church membership can.