What Are Members?
Who are you?
The case for membership is certainly an unusual one. Many reject the concept because we do not have clear passages in the Scripture that clearly define church membership. And they are correct. There is no Scripture passage that says “thou shalt practice church membership”
To make matters worse, there are many bad ways to practice church membership. Most churches has such a loose definition and practice of church membership that you wouldn’t even know it was an option unless you asked, and you can join simply by filling out a card.
On the flip side, most negative experiences of church membership in overbearing contexts are felt in the moments of poorly executed church discipline.
As a result, you end up with people having very little idea of what church membership means and why it matters, and many who are resistant to the idea.
When I was in high school and college and first beginning to think about things like church membership, I remember really bristling at the idea and questioning its validity. To me, it was a man-made system with no biblical warrant and should be abandoned in favor of a more organic church life.
It was only later through a handful of experiences and my own careful study of the concepts of church membership that I became convinced that this is a healthy and worthwhile practice for churches, and that it ought to be the expectation that churches practice meaningful church membership and that the people who attend the church would join church membership.
Many who argue for church membership argue for it from the top down. I’d like to argue from the bottom up.
What do I mean by that?
From the top down is to start with a conception of what membership should look like based on history and culture practices, and then seek to find justification for the practice with biblical texts.
From the bottom up is to start with biblical texts and principles and then seek to find the best way to live out those principles. The argument is essentially going to be that membership is the best way to fulfill those principles.
By approaching it this way the goal is to end up with a church polity structure that is centered on biblical principles, not cultural expectations.
So I’d like to start with some basic principles that we see in Scripture that lead us toward to practice of church membership, and then I want to follow that up by giving some definition to how membership can function.
Five principles that lead us to practice meaningful church membership
We talked about this concept back when we were defining what a local church is. Scripture is clear that we are under obligation to gather with other believers on a regular basis for worship, instruction, edification, and exhortation. This text t hat we so often see is Heb 10:
25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Indeed, as we said a few weeks ago, the Bible knows nothing about Christians who are not part of a church in some fashion expect in the most extreme of circumstances like imprisonment or exile. The entire New Testament assumes that God’s people will gather, as the language of being “among” a “flock” implies (Acts 6:3; James 5:14; 1 Pet 5:1-2).
With whom will you gather? Does it have to be the same people each time? Can you bounce around from church to church, never really putting down roots? Is that what we see in Eph 4?
12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
The principles of Ephesians four that speak of being equipped for ministry, being built up in love, finding stability in your faith would seem to suggest that you ought to be committed to a local church body where they give themselves to others who will also give of themselves to you. The need to regularly assemble with a local church implies the need to belong to that church.
That alone doesn’t necessitate membership, but it begins to point us in that direction.
The second principle is the responsibilty that the church as a whole has to defend and uphold the church’s doctrine
Guarding and Upholding Sound Doctrine
Guarding and Upholding Sound Doctrine
The leadership of a church is responsible to teach sound doctrine. We see this in Titus 2:1
1 But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.
And we see this in Acts 20 where Paul instructs the elders to give heed to themselves and all the flock.
But Paul also expects the church as a whole to guard and uphold sound doctrine as well.
We see this in three ways: First, look at how he holds the Galatian church accountable for failing to keep the Gospel:
1 Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia:
This was a letter written to multiple churches.
Skipping down to verse 6:
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.
8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Paul directly confronted the churches as a whole for their departure from sound doctrine.
Second, we see this in how Paul held the Corinthian church accountable to keep the apostolic traditions:
2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.
and then we see it again in verse 17
17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.
Paul had given specific instructions to the church about the Lord’s table and they were failing to live that out. He held them all accountable for that.
Finally, we see that the entire church is responsible to guard and uphold sound doctrine through the way that Paul addressed entire churches and not just leadership when he wrote. There are some letters that were written specifically to leaders like Timothy and Titus, but most were written to entire churches:
17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.
1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:
2 To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
21 but test everything; hold fast what is good.
15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
If the congregation is responsible to uphold sound doctrine, as a matter of practicality, the concept of membership logically flows from this. How is the church to obey this command? If a group of 20 people showed up next week, listened to the sermon, claimed I was teaching false doctrine and demanded that I be fired or that we change our doctrinal statement, would we listen?
You might say, no that’s silly. They only just showed up.
What if they were attending for six months? a year?
Church membership allows us identify who belongs to our church so that we may guard and uphold our doctrine. The process of joining membership allows the leadership to hear the testimony of a potential member and hear them commit to our doctrine. It’s part of the guarding process to vet potential members, and then its the job of the membership to uphold the doctrine and not undermine from within. The need to guard and uphold sound doctrine therefore seems to demand some kind of membership process.
The instructions for church discipline make it clear that there are “insiders” and “outsiders,” and provide the process for how to discipline erring members. (Matt 18:15-17; Rom 16:17; 1 Cor 5; 2 Cor 2:5-11; Titus 3:10-11).
There are several tests we could examine. For the sake of time let’s look at one. In 1 Cor 5, Paul is addressing a significant sin by one of the members of the church. The church has the responsibility to purge out the evil. If someone is living in open unrepentant sin, the responsibility of the church is to put that individual out of the church. Now, we know that the church is not a building. This is not just about barring someone from attending services. This is removing someone from the life of the church. Paul says to cleanse out the old leaven!
Then look at what he says in verse 9-13:
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
The concept of insiders and outsides makes it clear that there is some kind of formal connection to the church. This leads us to consider how one becomes part of a church, and the concepts of church membership begin to be developed.
The Principles of oversight and submission.
Oversight and Submission
Oversight and Submission
Elders are called to shepherd the flock of God “among” them, and the church is called to submit to their leadership. (Heb 13:7, 17; 1 Pet 5:2, 5).
We looked at some of these texts as we were considering elders a few weeks ago. Let’s refresh our minds.
1 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. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
The Elders are charged with the responsibility to shepherd the flock and exercise oversight. Who makes up the flock? Who are they to oversee? Is every elder responsible for every person in every church? Membership helps define the responsibility that Elders have.
Likewise, the congregation is to be subject to the elders. As the Elder provide oversight, the church is to submit to them. Who are they to submit to? The preacher on YouTube? The guy across town?
Let’s look at one more text:
7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
The church is called to remember their leaders. There are people in their lives that they are called to imitate. Skip down to verse 17
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.
The leaders are to watch over the souls of the congregation, and the people are to obey and submit to the leadership. Again, what defines someone as being part of the church? Who will elders be held accountable for? If someone floats in and out and is only around once every 2 or 3 weeks, is the leadership accountable for them to the same degree as the faithful member who is there week after week and serves the church in some way? It’s difficult to imagine so.
Membership helps bring clarity and definition to these things. It helps the leadership know who is serious about their faith. It helps the congregation know who their leaders are. There has to be some kind of definition and structure for this to be done well.
There are more texts than we have time for. There are many passages in the NT that govern an individual’s relationship to others in the world, but when the phrase “one another” appears, it is almost always used to describe the relationships that are to exist between two individuals in the church.
Just a few examples
10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Who makes up the one-anothers? Someone might say “well, it can be anyone who names the name of Christ” and I do think there is truth to that. However, I think it is also true that these commands were given to local churches and the expectation was that they had relationships with one another. They each knew that the other was committed to the same things they were.
Furthermore, there are examples of list-keeping that helped the church define who was who as well. We saw this last week in Acts 6. There were people who were known to be part of the church and were being overlooked. We see something similar in 1 Timothy 5, where Paul gives instructions about how to care for widows. Not just anyone was allowed the support of the church. Ministry was expanded or restricted to an approved list of members in certain scenarios. Membership helps bring definition to how we live out the one-anothers.
Those are five principles that lead us to consider that church membership is a good and biblical thing.
From those principles I have developed some definitions and descriptions of what membership looks like.
1. Membership is a Relational Construct
Joining membership at a local church enters you into a new relationship with that church where you are committing yourself to them and they to you for accountability, service, and growth. There is a responsibility to one another that is deepened through a mutual commitment in the same body. If you are a believer in Christ then the Spirit has granted you one or more spiritual gifts. Joining membership is you identifying the body among which you will serve with those gifts. It is a relational construct.
But it is also a practical mechanism
2. Membership is a Practical Mechanism
Membership helps bring practical definition for whom you have this responsibility and relationship. It helps the leaders know for whom they are responsible, and who the the congregation is responsible to. It helps bring definition for the time when a vote is appropriate, who is allowed to vote? When Church discipline must be practiced, membership helps bring clarity to that process. It’s a practical mechanism that facilitates the ministry.
3. Membership is about identification and commitment.
This flows out of the relational construct and practical mechanism ideas. Joining membership is a commitment. I will serve. I will be help accountable. I will support the ministries of this collection of saints.
It is identification. It’s choosing to identify yourself with a group of believers, its the choice to identify with a certain body of doctrine contained in our doctrinal statement, its identification with the philosophy of ministry. When someone asks “To what church do you belong?” and you say “Pillar Fellowship” you are identifying yourself with the church, and everything that comes with it.
4. Membership is about accountability, service, growth, and Gospel ministry.
Joining membership means you are willing to be held accountable by that church, and it means that you are willing to hold others accountable. Do you see a brother or sister in sin? Lovingly speak to that person desiring to restore them. If someone comes to you and says, hey I heard you say this....or I saw you do that… you don’t get defensive, but you listen and consider if it is true. If someone is missing from our gatherings, you give them a call to check in. etc. Accountabilty.
Its about service. We all have spiritual gifts. Church membership is NOT like costco membership, where you are a consumer and looking to see what you can get out of the deal. We are all called to serve in the body of Christ! We are called to give ourselves to service in some way. If I could modify JFK’s famous line, “Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church”. Maybe trite, but it expresses a significant truth. Christians aren’t supposed to be mere consumers in the church. We are to serve.
It’s about growth. The expectation for every believer in Christ is never to be in a place of spiritual plateau, but to be growing in our walk with Christ. This largely happens in the context of accountability and service.
Finally, its about gospel ministry. The church is not to be merely a location where we gather, but we are to be a people who go out to proclaim the good news. Being part of a local church is designed to train and equip you for this ministry. There will be opportunities for service in Gospel outreach ministry. Membership says “yes, I want to proclaim the Gospel with this local church body”
I think that represents a biblical theology of church membership that flows out of biblical principles. I hope that each and every one of you would desire to be a member at Pillar Fellowship. In many ways, this series was designed to get to this point to help us understand the basics of what a church is and how it functions so that we could take steps forward in chartering our membership.
In the weeks ahead you can expect to hear more about how we will pursue charting our membership. Today’s goal was to examine biblical principles so that we can see that membership is really designed to help facilitate the responsibilities that we have before God from His word. If we are to be good stewards and serve one another well, membership is the practical pathway to that end. May God give us the grace we need take these steps together.