Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Yes, Church Membership is Biblical!

Many stumble to answer difficult questions about church membership.  I know I have. The issue is surprisingly contentious and muddy in people's minds. Unfortunately, there is no once-for-all prooftext for those who struggle with good and necessary inference. Some think it is merely a legal function of Western rules of incorporation. Some have a hard time with church membership because it implies uncomfortable things about those who are not church members. Even fencing the table can be difficult (in my case--explosive) if a congregation does not value church membership.

Fortunately, there is enough biblical evidence to deserve a settled conviction and ready answer. So the question is:  What is the Biblical foundation for Church membership?  Here is my attempt at an answer:

The Reality of the Invisible Church. 

We cannot see the invisible church because it is spiritual in nature. Everyone who is a true believer, regardless of denomination or location, is a member of the invisible church. To belong to the invisible church is to be united to Christ and to possess all the benefits of that union.  Paul references the invisible church when he says there is only one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:4-6).

The Nature of the Visible Church. 

The invisible church does not exist in space and time apart from its visible manifestation—the visible church. The testimony of Scripture is that this visible church is local, individual, and plural. In other words, the visible church is made up of a plurality of local churches.* See this post for some Biblical evidence.
The Composition of the Local Church. 

The local church comprises those who have professed faith in Christ**, who have been baptized, and who embrace certain Biblical obligations and privileges:*** None of these as they are described in Scripture can be completely fulfilled outside the context of a local congregation.
  • Unity. Unity is not just an idea that exists in the abstract. Scripture speaks of it as a visible reality. A person who is not united with others cannot have unity (Ephesians 4:1-7; I Corinthians 12:12-27).
  • A common doctrinal understanding. Essentially, Paul says that God has gifted the church with officers that are to lead the church to be on the same page with regard to what they believe and know about Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16). This would imply a commitment to the preaching of the Word through pastoral/teaching offices.  When the truth is spoken in love, the body grows up, is unified, works properly, and builds itself up in love.
  • The use of gifts in service to one another (I Corinthians 12:12-27 ). The explanation of this passage only makes sense if these gifts are applied primarily in local churches.
  • Accountability to elders and submission to church discipline (Hebrews 13:17; I Corinthians 5; Matthew 18:15-18). Church discipline necessarily includes the right and authority to evaluate the professions of those who wish to participate in a local church and to end their participation if their profession proves to be false.
  • Participation in Communion. Communion symbolizes union with Christ, union with the body of Christ, and unity within the local body. Those who are not rightly related to Christ and his body cannot be permitted to participate in communion because it would both violate the symbolism of the ceremony and place their physical well-being in jeopardy (I Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:17-34).
Membership is the Record of the Composition of the Local Church. 

Membership is nothing more or less than the record of those for whom all these Biblical essentials are true. 
  • They have submitted their profession of faith and baptism for the church’s evaluation. 
  • They are committed to unity of, with, and within the church.
  • They are committed to a common doctrinal understanding through the preaching and teaching of the Word. 
  • They are committed to using their gifts in service to the local body.
  • They are committed to the leadership and accountability provided by the local church.
  • They qualify to participate in communion through union with Christ, union with his body, and their pursuit of unity within the local body.
So is church membership Biblical? 

Unless one thinks it is unbiblical for a local church to record the names of all those who embrace these obligations and privileges (a hard case to make), then I cannot see how church membership could possibly be unbiblical. But if these should be true of all professing believers, and if it is reasonable, helpful, wise, and perhaps even necessary to make these commitments a matter of record, then I must conclude that church membership is very Biblical.

*This concept of the local church also assumes regional and inter-regional manifestations and organizational structures. 
**Presbyterians would include "and their children" here.  
***Note the incorporation of the three reformed marks of the church:  the Preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and church discipline.

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