Two weeks ago (July 13) one of our elders (Chris Kuehn) preached a sermon about the importance of membership. He did a fantastic job laying the foundation for it and also showing why it is important. Yet, I know that regardless of how well someone does at preaching a sermon like that, objections will always arise.
With that in mind, what I would like to do in my next couple of posts is try and address the most common objection to membership, namely, that the New Testament did not ractice a formal membership process as many congregations do today. If they did not, why should we?
Now, before I continue, I must say that I would agree with that—there was not a formal process as we know it (other than baptism—as Chris called attention to in his sermon [see Acts 2:38, 41]). So, again, if the New Testament Church did not have formal membership, then why should we?
The short answer to this question is this: Because all the aspects of what our formal process of membership involves were present in the New Testament and, in fact, are demanded for a Christian and a congregation who desire to live faithfully before Jesus Christ. Also, I would go on to say that when our situation is similar to the New Testament Church we can probably go without formal membership also. However, when our situation is not like theirs (we are not facing the real possibility of strong outward persecution) we need formal membership.
Now, let me seek to prove both parts of this short answer with more detail. In the rest of this post I will set forth the New Testament principles behind formal membership. Then, in my next post I will address why persecution or its absence makes a difference.
The Principles Behind Formal Membership Are Demanded In the New Testament
1. Affirmation Of A Person’s Faith Profession
In Matthew 16:19 Jesus says to Peter as a representative of the church (see Mt. 16:18): “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Keys are for locking or unlocking doors—here more specifically the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is not saying that what the church looses or binds is decisive for who is part of the kingdom of heaven or not—as if God follows our lead. Instead, the sense seems to be that the church seeks to affirm what God has announced about a person. In other words, if the person has come to receive and rest upon Jesus alone for salvation and thus is following him, then, as God reveals in the Bible, he is part of the kingdom. If he hasn’t, then he is not. The church helps verify or falsify such faith professions. In fact, we can say this is a key aspect of the church’s mission!
This role of the church affirming or not affirming a person’s profession is also addressed two chapters later (18:18) when Jesus deals with an issue of sin in which a person is unwilling to repent and thus must be treated as an unbeliever (which implies his profession can no longer be affirmed). Jesus says, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” In this passage two or three witnesses to the person’s lack of repentance (the sense is the more witnesses the better) affirm that their profession of faith can no longer be trusted and so they cannot be treated as one who represents Christ and his reputation. In such a situation heaven agrees that this person’s faith affirmation can no longer be substantiated.
Why is this role of faith affirmation important? It is important since it reduces the risk of people thinking they are truly saved when they are not—the kind of situation found in Matthew 7:21-23, where people profess to know Jesus and be known by him, but their lack of true salvation is demonstrated at the future judgment by their lack of obedience. Second, it is important for the preservation of the reputation of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 5:1-13; 6:18-20). Part of the reason the church gives a mixed message and weak witness to the world is because many people who profess to represent Jesus Christ are not even truly saved and thus are not new people. What is more, some who truly are saved, but currently hardened by sin (Heb. 3:12-14) are giving a mixed message to others about what it truly means to follow Jesus.
Now, if this authority of faith verification or falsification that is given to the church collectively is to be exercised, then professing Christians must be part of a local congregation, they must avail themselves of relationships with other Christians, they must be known well by other Christians, and the local congregation must know they are part of that congregation as a professing believer or not. All of these things are necessary to discern whether or not they are to be treated as a fellow Christian who should be corrected (e.g. 1 Cor. 5:1-8) or whether they should be treated as one who is an “outsider” (1 Cor. 14:16, 23) and is merely trying to wrestle with what being a Christian is, but they are not yet a follower of Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-10, 12).
This first principle, then, leads to a second.
2. Clear Knowledge A Person Is Part Of A Local Congregation
In the early days of the New Testament church it was more easily known who was joined to Jesus Christ and thus was part of the church and who was not. For example, in the church in Jerusalem Luke could speak of “the whole church and…all who heard…” (Acts 5:11). In other words, he could differentiate between those part of the church and those not. Just a couple verses later “the rest” is distinguished from “them” and from “believers…added to the Lord” (13-14).
Some 20+ years later when Paul was writing to the church in Corinth it also was clear that the church knew more readily who was part of them and who was not. The church had a responsibility to exercise church discipline (keys of the kingdom) against the former, but not the latter (see 1 Cor. 5).
In both Jerusalem and in Corinth this distinction was made because some professed Jesus Christ, were baptized, and thus assembled together with the church to worship and to serve (cf. Acts 2:38, 41, 42-47; 5:12; 1 Cor. 1:13; 12:13). These were viewed as part of the church, members of the body of Jesus Christ. As we will see in my next post, though it was possible people could be false professors of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 13:5), it was less likely to make a flippant claim of salvation when hostile surroundings could put a person in peril.
When we fast forward to our own day, we see a situation in which people are mobile—moving from town to town or state to state, but also can visit from church to church within a town. Often people in a congregation will not be close enough to some guests or even short-term regular attenders to know: Have they professed faith in Jesus Christ? Have they publically professed Jesus Christ through baptism? Do their lives and beliefs suggest their profession is valid? Similarly how does a local church today help exercise the keys of the kingdom on those whom they know have committed to Christ to serve him in this local congregation and to be subject to the accountability and authority of the church? A tool that helps with all these matters is the formal membership process.
3. Believers Must Submit To Serve Christ In A Local Congregation
Here is the principle in which we see that Christians commit to each other and acknowledge others need them and vice versa. It is because of this need the author of Hebrews (20-30 years after Paul wrote to the Corinthians) exhorts believers, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…” (Heb. 10:24-25). In these intervening decades some believers had become slack in assembling together, but they are corrected since we need others and others need us. This comes seven chapters after the same author commands us to “exhort one another every day…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13).
The New Testament Church understood that Jesus not only saved them as individuals, but saved them to gospel community in which they were to live out their new lives and serve him. To seek to do otherwise (just live as if it’s Jesus and me without any others) was virtually unheard of. After all, the New Testament calls us to love one another, pray for one another, exhort one another, encourage one another, build up one another, accept one another, etc. How can we carry out this kind of walk with Christ without being committed to serve our Lord among other believers? How can we show the world we are disciples of Jesus by our love for and unity with one another (John 13:34-35; 17:20-23) unless we regularly assemble together and live out life together in a way that the unsaved are invited in to witness this. This is done through committed church life together.
4. Believers Must Be The Ones Who Exercise Authority And Make Decisions In The Church
We discover in Acts 15 that when decisions about issues of conflict had arisen it was “the apostles and the elders, with the whole church” that made a decision (15:22). Most likely the church consisted of the same group of folks we read of early in Acts: those who had repented and trusted in Jesus Christ—professing this in baptism. They did not bring in outsiders. Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 5 it was the church that was to make decisions regarding issues of discipline, not those who were only guests or visiting.
This practice in the early church has led churches through much of history to allow only officially recognized members to make decisions about the congregation and its direction. This only makes sense. Again, in a very mobile society in which many people move and in which people often visit different churches it would not be wise to let just anyone cast a vote. It is more likely that a non-member would not have a vested interest in the church and may not be around long-term. As such, typically, they are not in as good a position to be involved in such decisions.
What we see from this sampling of New Testament principles is that the key ingredients of membership were present in the New Testament Church. Each New Testament fellowship exercised the authority to affirm one’s faith profession or not, they knew who was part of the church or not, they taught the importance of living out one’s walk with Christ within a local congregation, among other believers in a committed fashion, and they seemed to limit decision making to those who were part of the church and not merely outsiders.
So, though the New Testament Church did not take its members through a formal membership process, the principles that make up formal membership all were present among them.
But, this raises a question: Why could the New Testament Church exercise these principles without a formal membership process, but such a process is needed for us? The answer to this is found in a difference between their setting and ours—a difference that centers around the presence or absence of outright persecution. I will address this in my next post.