What About Church Membership?
Paul Dean Dr. Paul J. Dean's Weblog
- 2005 Mar 22
Recently, I've been asked a number of times whether or not church membership is important and indeed whether or not there is such a thing as church membership according to the Scriptures. I've been told that church membership is a modern dynamic concocted by men and that it has no basis in Scripture and falls under the rubric of "traditions of men" and should therefore be discarded. Is this assertion true? Or, are people simply confused?
The great Baptist pastor/preacher/evangelist of the nineteenth century, Charles Spurgeon, thought church membership was important. He recalled: "I well remember how I joined the church after my conversion. I forced myself into it by telling the pastor, who was lax and slow, after I had called four or five times and could not see him, that I had done my duty, and if he did not see me and interview me for church membership, I would call a church meeting myself and tell them I believe in Christ and ask them if they would have me." Spurgeon was only sixteen years old at the time. Yet, he understood what so many in our day do not. He understood that commitment to a local church and submission to that church were essential ingredients involved in his spiritual growth. He knew that God wanted elders over him that they might instruct him, admonish him, and oversee his soul. How many in the contemporary church understand such? Our brief discussion revolves around the language of church membership followed by the Scriptural basis for church membership.
The first issue is the language of church membership. Many are quick to point out that the term "church membership" is not found in Scripture. While these individuals are right, we must quickly respond by saying that the concept of church membership is found in Scripture (more on that truth below). Regarding the lack of language related to membership, we must point out, for example, that the word Trinity is not found in Scripture. Yet, we would call someone who denied the Trinitarian nature of God heretical. Why would we use the word Trinity to refer to the nature of God if the word is not in Scripture? The answer lies in the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity is taught in Scripture. The word Trinity is used to describe what the Bible teaches. Many biblical texts could be marshaled to demonstrate that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons in one divine essence (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; Rev. 1:4; Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 48:16; Jn. 15:16; Matt. 3:16-17). The unity of the Godhead is an essential truth taught in Scripture (Deut. 6:4) and yet He is referred to in a plural sense from time to time (Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Num. 6:24-26; Isa. 6:3; 48:16; 61:1; 63:7-10). The formula for Christian baptism is Trinitarian (Matt. 28:19). The Trinity is manifest in creation (Gen. 1:2; Job 26:13; Jn. 1:3), and in providence (Isa. 34:15-16; Heb. 1:3). The Father is God (Mk. 1:1; Lk. 1:35; Gal. 4:4). The Son is God (Matt. 1:23; Jn. 1:1; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Titus 1:3; Heb. 1:8). The Son is called Lord and is the object of worship. He is to be honored equally with the Father and His relations to the Father are those of identity and unity. The Father and the Son are equally known to each other. The same could be said in regard to the Holy Spirit (Gen. 1:2; Matt. 3:16; 12:28; Jn. 3:5; 4:24; Acts 2:17; 5:9; Rom. 8:9-11; 1 Cor. 2:14; 6:11; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 9:14). Obviously, the concept of the Trinity is biblical, even though the word is not found in Scripture.
We could say the same thing about the word rapture. The word is not found in Scripture, but how many would deny the concept is biblical? Regardless of one's millennial or tribulational view, the fact that the church will be caught up to meet Christ in the air is taught in the Bible (1 Thes. 4:13f, etc.). The word rapture is simply used to describe this event. (Please note that those who say that the rapture is not taught in Scripture are referring to a supposed secret rapture prior to the so-called great tribulation. They would indeed affirm the teaching 1 Thes. 4:13f, etc.).
The point is that a word need not be found in Scripture as long as the concept is biblical. Often, words are needed so that dialogue about a certain concept can occur. We would not want to use words to impose theological concepts on Scripture that are not found in Scripture (e.g. covenant of works). This practice tends to foster confusion. Yet, using words to describe biblical concepts that otherwise have no name is helpful.
The second issue is the Scriptural basis for church membership. Such a basis for church membership does indeed exist. Our primary piece of evidence for church membership flows from the concept of church discipline. How can one be put out of the church if he is not a member (or part of the fellowship if you prefer)? In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul admonished them regarding church discipline, gave them instruction regarding church purity, and exhorted them regarding the celebration of salvation. He begins to offer a clarification upon something he had previously written. He simply says, "I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people (v. 9)." He refers to the man who had his father's wife (v. 1) and is urging church discipline upon him. The force of Paul's statement is a bit stronger in the Greek than is translated here. Paul actually said, "I wrote you in my letter not to keep company with fornicators." The word translated "fornicators is pornos. Our English word "pornography" is derived from this family of words. A pornos is one who engages in any form of sexual sin. Thus, "immoral" is a good translation. The incest at Corinth about which Paul is concerned certainly qualifies as sexual sin or immorality. While Paul is not here prohibiting all contact with immoral people as he will affirm in v. 10, we certainly are not allowed to participate in their sinful deeds. It is a biblical principle to keep immoral persons at "arm's length." That is, we may associate with them in many contexts. However, in those contexts in which sin is likely or even possible, we should not get too close.
Paul continues his clarification by explaining, "I referred not to immoral people of this world, or greedy people and swindlers, or idolaters, because then you would have to leave this world (v. 10)." He affirms that in his previous letter, he was not referring to immoral people in general. That is, he was not referring to those who don't claim to know Christ. He was not referring to unbelievers. If we were not allowed to associate with unbelievers who are immoral, then we "would have to leave this world." In other words, most of those who don't know Christ are immoral. We come across them in the every day ebb and flow of our lives. In order to avoid association, we would have to leave the planet. Of course, Paul did not mean to imply such at all. He was concerned with something else.
Paul completes his clarification. "But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler--not even to eat with such a one (v. 11)." Paul explains that he was referring to those who claimed to be Christians, those who called themselves brothers, but in reality, were immoral, covetous, etc.
Note Paul's specificity. Earlier, he referred to "immoral people." Here, he speaks of an immoral person. No doubt he has in mind two dynamics here. First, he is referring to the incestuous individual who needs to be put out of the church. Second, he does not consider him a brother, even though he may call himself a brother. He considers him an immoral person. While a Christian may fall into immorality from time to time, he cannot be an immoral person. Immoral persons do not inherit the kingdom of God. A marked change exists in the believer's life and he is moving in a different direction. Repentance from sin is evidence of this marked change while unrepentance is evidence to the contrary. This so-called brother was unrepentant. Thus, he was deemed an unbeliever.
Not only does Paul refer to immoral persons, or rather an immoral person, but he goes on to refer to a "covetous [person], or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler..." If one claims to be a brother, but, proves himself to be a "covetous [person], or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler," this is the person with whom the Christian is not to associate. Two points may be made here. First, while one may claim to be a Christian, his lifestyle may prove him to be otherwise. Falling into sin would not prove such a dynamic, but, unrepentance in the aftermath of church discipline would, as far as humans are able to tell. Only God can make the ultimate judgment (v. 5). Second, Paul's list here is not meant to be a check-list. It is not meant to be exhaustive. It is merely representative. That is why he can add other dynamics to the list previously given.
So, Paul's clarification is that the believer is not to associate with one who claims to be a Christian but proves himself to be otherwise. He goes on to say, ". . . with such an one, do not even eat." Why this prohibition? Paul prohibits Christians from eating with so-called brothers under church discipline for at least two reasons. First, eating with someone is a sign of fellowship. To eat with someone under church discipline would indicate to that person that his sin is not so serious. He may infer, "we still have fellowship." He needs to understand that he is not part of God's family (the church) and therefore he is not in fellowship with God's people.
This issue was particularly significant in the early church. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 met largely in regard to the issue of table fellowship. For a Jew to have table fellowship with an individual, that individual would have to be deemed clean. Part of the significance of the Lord's Supper is that we have table fellowship with God and with one another. Figuratively and spiritually speaking, the one who claims to know Christ but proves otherwise, is unclean. We may not have table fellowship with him.
Second, for a believer to eat with one under church discipline, as alluded to above, would be a sure sign to the so-called brother that his sin was not so serious. The whole point of church discipline is to bring the weight of the reality of being outside of the fold (the church) upon the erring one. The goal is that he will be "shaken up" as it were by the seriousness of his sin as demonstrated by the willingness of the church to remove him from the fellowship (membership). If he sees his sin in that light, he should repent. Once he repents, then he is restored to the fellowship. The only contact that a believer should have with an individual under church discipline is that of admonishment, that is, pleading with him to repent.
No doubt, some will argue that this practice seems harsh and is apt to drive persons further away. Remember, Paul's exhortation is set in the larger context of God's wisdom reigning supreme (chapters 1-2). It is arrogant to think that our wisdom is superior to God's. Yet, that is where most of the contemporary church finds itself today in regard to this issue.
The question will be raised, "if we are not allowed to eat with those under church discipline, are we then prohibited from eating with the immoral people of the world?" We are not prohibited from such. However, our goal in those relationships should be to win them to Christ. We need not be abrasive, but, with wisdom, gentleness, and patience, we must press the claims of Christ upon them with our words and with our lives.
Paul offers a supporting argument for his clarification. "For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church (v. 12)?" Paul is referring to the judgment of church discipline. In other words, if a person claims to be a Christian and then gives evidence to the contrary, he is judged by the church. He is not judged in the sense that his eternal destiny is determined by the church. Nor is the church even saying beyond doubt that this person is an unbeliever. The church is examining the circumstances and the fruit of an erring brother. If the erring one refuses to repent, the church judges him in the sense that he is removed from the fellowship (membership) and treated like an unbeliever. We judge those within the church in relation to their claim and their fruit.
With regard to those outside the church already, that is those who make no claim to know Christ, no judgement in this regard is necessary. They are already outside of the church. Paul simply affirms that God will judge the hearts and the eternal destiny of those who are already outside the church. His statement is simple, "but those who are outside, God judges (v. 13)." Not only is he affirming what God does, but he is supporting his previous statement. We do not judge those outside the church. Keep in mind that he is not saying that we do not judge their fruit and words in accord with Scripture. He is simply saying we do not bring them before the church and judge them in the same way we judge unrepentant members of the church. They are not members so we don't judge them as we do members.
Paul closes with that which he said earlier, "remove the wicked man from among yourselves." Again, the unrepentant man in the Corinthian church must be removed for the sake of Christ, the church, and indeed his own soul (see vv. 1-8). Herein lies the concept of church membership. This man is part of the church and the consequence of his sin is removal from the church. Moreover, he is removed by the local church at Corinth from the church at Corinth and indeed the church as a whole. The church at Rome for example, had no say in his removal. Yet, if he were to wind up in Rome, they would not receive him into the fellowship (membership) without consulting the eldership at Corinth or at least the apostle Paul himself in that historical context. It is the local church that has authority and exercises discipline. Yet, there are ramifications concerning the church at large.
Church membership has nothing to do with being part of a club. It has to do with being part of the body of Christ. If one is removed from such in a biblical manner, eternal consequences are in view. Again, the church does not determine who is or who is not saved. Yet, if a church removes someone from the chruch as the result of discipline, the one removed should take that act very seriously and examine his heart before God. Church membership is not to be ignored. Not only is it biblical, it is critical.
[Part Two Tomorrow]