Dr. Paul J. Dean Christian Blog and Commentary

What About Church Membership? Part Two


Yesterday, we looked at the issue of church membership in regard to the usage of that terminology and in regard to its Scriptural basis. The issue of church discipline from 1 Corinthians 5 was cited as support for the concept of church membership. In that context, Paul is urging that an immoral man be removed from the church. 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. Today, we continue our discussion regarding biblical support for church membership.


In regard to yesterday's discussion of church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5, and the concept of church membership in general, four objections may be raised and answered. The first objection some raise is that the individual is removed from the brotherhood, not the membership of the church. This objection is one of semantics. In an attempt to argue that the church has adopted the traditions of men (and we affirm that it has in many instances), some claim that removal from fellowship or the brotherhood is in view here. We agree. But, what is the brotherhood? What is the fellowship? Is not membership simply another way of saying the same thing? If those who object to church membership do so on these grounds and call into question the contemporary notion of church membership or stir up strife in a church in the name of purity or getting rid of the traditions of men, they are being disingenuous. They are playing word games. Semantics should not divide Christians. Persons must stand on principle, not language.


The second objection flows from the first and has to do with the concept of membership and letters. The question is asked, "why do we have a transfer of letter when we move from one church to another? Surely this practice is not biblical." The letter is to ensure the purity of the church and the safety of the soul.


Regarding the purity of the church, if someone is under church discipline, he is deemed to be an unbeliever. As such, he is not allowed to join the church as he has no part in the church. He may attend, but he is not part of the body of Christ. The biblical concept of church membership is that of a regenerate church membership. Biblically, one is saved by the grace of God. He then publicly professes Christ by way of baptism. Through baptism, he identifies with the people of God and is affirmed as part of the body of Christ. If he denies his prefession by his lifestyle, he is removed with the ultimate goal of restoration. But, until he repents, he is not part of the local body of Christ, nor is he considered to be part of the universal body of Christ.


Regarding the safety of one's soul, if one is under church discipline by a particular local church and he can simply go down the street and join the next church without question, then the seriousness of his sin is ignored. The action of his previous church is ignored. Thus, his eternal peril is ignored and he may be surprised to find himself in Hell one day as he failed to take the people of God seriously and examine his heart. The letter is an aide in these two areas.


We are well aware of the ignorance in the contemporary church regarding such things. Years ago in a previous church, we had a couple apply for membership. We sent for their letter and when it arrived, the previous church indicated that they were not faithful nor were they members in good standing. The church staff thought the letter was unkind and could not understand it. While I tried to explain the issue, I did not get very far as I had not been their long and these concepts were foreign to this typical church. The couple joined the church and after a couple of weeks we never saw them again. This result was both grievous and predictable. I have very little hope that they truly know Christ. This issue before us is important for the sake of souls. The church I serve today understands these things and practices them for the purity of the church, the joy of her members, and the sake of their own souls.


Furthermore, the concept of letters of recommendation is biblical. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote in v. 1, "Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as some others, epistles of commendation to you or letters of commendation from you?" Paul was defending himself against those who tried to slander him and asks if he needs a letter or recommendation. The implication is that they know him and they do not need such a letter. Yet, the concept is there. The same dynamic is in play when Paul recommends his companions in ministry to the churches. Referring to Epaphroditus, Paul tells the Philippians to "receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness; and hold such in reputation (Phil. 2:29)." They were not to simply receive individuals they didn't know. But, if a recommendation comes, they can receive one with confidence. The claim to be a Christian is a serious claim, even if not taken seriously in our contemporary religious culture.


The third objection some raise is that the individual is removed form the universal church, not the local church. Many are those who "squirm" at a local church theology. These individuals point out that only one church existed in Corinth and therefore only one church should exist in any given city or beyond for that matter. The response is multi-fold. While it is true that there was only one church in Corinth, that church was a local church at Corinth, not the universal church. There was a church at Rome, at Ephesus, at Laodicea, etc. In any given city, there were far fewer Christians than are in a given city today. Any mega-church today has more members than the church at Corinth. More population centers within a city require more local churches. If one looks at the number of persons associated with the church at Corinth or the church at Jerusalem, he will find that the number corresponds with that of most local churches today.


Moreover, simply think of the language we all frequently use. We speak in terms of the church at Corinth, the church at Rome, the church at Jerusalem. Are these not and are we not affirming them as local churches when we speak of them that way? We do not refer to them as the universal church. Consider Paul's directive to Titus in the same way: "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you (1:5)." Appointing elders in every city refers to appointing elders in every local church. Simply because we get the impression, and we are probably correct in that impression, that at that time there was only one church in every city, they were still local churches as opposed to the universal church.


A church that covered a large geographical area with thousands of members would be hard-pressed to remain pure. Pastoral oversight would be next to impossible. Part of the reason the local church exists is so that persons can be held accountable and so that elders know the persons whom they shepherd. Local churches are exemplified throughout Scripture.


Moreover, nine times out of ten when the church is mentioned in the New Testament, it is the local church that is in view.  By way of application, in the city of Atlanta for example, where thousands of churches have been established, how does one submit to authority if he is not part of a local church? How is an individual held accountable if he is not a member of the local church? If we were to say that persons could jump from one church to another without letters of recommendation or transfer of membership, no spiritual accountability would exist and the dynamic Paul laid out in 1 Corinthians 5 would be non-existent. If an unrepentant adulterer moves from one church to another and no one at the new church knows of his sin, this adulterer remains in spiritual danger. He may be deceived and lost. Without confrontation, he may remain in a state of complacency and die without Christ. The purpose of church discipline is to shake persons from their spiritual lethargy that they might persevere to the end and be saved.


The fourth objection raised has to do with disunity in the body of Christ at large. Doctrinal distinctives have created new denominations and churches. While it is lamentable that division of this nature exists within the true church, one may not compromise doctrine to join with those who are in error. Ecumenicalism is an egregious error itself. Churches that maintain their doctrinal distinctiveness are honoring their commitment to Christ while those who do not are compromising in a sinful way. "Can two walk together except they be agreed (Amos 3:3)?" By way of example, those who call the doctrine of "justification by faith alone" anathama cannot walk with those of us who affirm the doctrine. Those of us who affirm that salvation is by grace alone cannot walk with those who embrace a sacramental system of works.


Two contemporary trends should be noted in regard to church membership. The first trend has to do with those who believe that church membership is a man-made tradition and not a biblical concept. We have answered that line of thinking above. The second trend has to do with those individuals who simply do not see the importance of church membership in regard to themselves. Drawing from Wayne Mack, we offer further Scriptural support as to why church membership is important and indeed biblical.


One dynamic that calls for church membership is the notion that we are involved in the lives of one another. The "one anothering commands" of Scripture call for church membership. Among other things, we are told to honor one another, serve one another, admonish one another, forgive one another, bear with one another, and so much more. In fact, there are fifty-eight such commands in the New Testament. The Lord Jesus said, "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another (Jn. 13:34-35)." The concept of "one anothering" implies union with Christ, familial relationship, responsibility, and accountability. These dynamics are accomplished in the context of commitment and togetherness. One finds such in the local church.


Further, the fact that church members have a responsibility to their elders calls for the concept of church membership. For example, the saints are told to "obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you (Heb. 13:17)." While the concepts of authority and submission from the saints are highlighted here, at the same time, a responsibility is placed upon the elders to watch out for their souls. These dynamics are grounded in relationship which is realized in the context of the local church. Other texts that highlight similar things include Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17; and 1 Thes. 5:12-13. While an elder is responsible to engage in evangelism, he is not held accountable to God for the soul of the average man on the street in the same way he is for members of the church he shepherds. Moreover, he is not held accountable for the members of the church down the street. He does not even know them. He is accountable for those in the local church he serves. To shun a theology related to the concept of the local church is silly.


Church membership is necessitated to clarify the difference between believers and unbelievers. "And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42)." The Lord added to the church universal in the context of adding to the local church at Jerusalem. "And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women (Acts 5:14)." Believers are distinguished from unbelievers here. Moreover, the fact that new converts were counted implies that someone was keeping records. Those records had to do with who or who was not in the church. In Acts 2:41 we read, "then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls." A little later, in Acts 4:4, we are told that "many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand." A distinction is made between those who are part of the church and those who are not.


In addition, orderliness in the church requires some concept of church membership. The fact that elders and deacons or some kind of structure exists in the church implies a mutual commitment to one another (1 Cor. 14:40; 1 Tim. 3:1-7). Elders, for example, are told to shepherd the flock of God (1 Pet. 5:1-2). Again, mutual accountability and responsibility is here implied. Membership is needed for the orderly administration of the church.


Identity with Christ calls for church membership. In the Scriptures, we are told to own Christ before men. Baptism and initiation in to the church are biblical ways to make one's profession of faith in Christ public. To be baptized and become part of the church demonstrates an identity with Christ.


Membership is implied in the concept of ministry. Once a person becomes a member of the church, he or she can expect to engage in ministry responsibilities in regard to that local church. Paul declares, "But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased (1 Cor. 12:18)." No doubt this concept applies to the church universal. At the same time, Paul is writing to a local church in which individuals are boasting in themselves and their own giftedness at the expense of others who were deemed to have lesser gifts. Paul's point is that every member of the church at Corinth is important. He is admonishing a local congregation. He informs them that God has added to their body as He has seen fit. Ministry flows from God's sovereignty in putting persons in the universal and indeed in the local church.


Further, Paul tells us, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith (Gal. 6:10)." Note that we are to do good to those who are the household of faith. Again, how can one do good, practically speaking, to a member of the household of faith in China? We are to do good to one another in the context of the local church. At the same time, ministry privileges follow ministry responsibilities.  These privileges relate primarily to spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12).


Decisions about time and resources call for church membership. In other words, we are called to be stewards of the time, talents, and resources God has given us. This stewardship often falls into the context of the local church as we are added to the body to edify one another.


Moreover, consider these specific texts. We have already mentioned 1 Cor. 5:13: "Put away from yourselves the evil person."  This verse refers to putting an individual out of the membership. The same dynamic is in view in Mt 18:15-17: "Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector." In 1Jn. 2:19 we read, "they went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us." Again, this verse demonstrates that some left the church out of necessity. Once they realized they were not part of the body of Christ, they felt compelled to leave the local assembly. Even the writer in Heb. 10:24-25 exhorts us to be faithful in regard to our membership and responsibilities: "And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching."


We could go on, but the point is made. Is church membership important? We have seen that it is. The great Dutch theologian R. B. Kuiper wrote, "It's clear that in the days of the apostles, it was the universal practice to receive believers into the visible church. It's possible that a true believer, because of some unusual circumstances, may fail to unite with the church. One may, for instance, believe in Christ and die before receiving baptism, or joining a local church. But such instances are exceptional. The Scriptural rule is that while membership is not a prerequisite for salvation, it is a necessary consequence of salvation."


As we conclude our discussion, it may prove helpful to refer to Paul one more time. He makes a significant statement regarding the church while explaining his call to ministry. He states: "To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph. 3:8-11)." Much gold is to be found in this text. For our purposes however, Paul says that the manifold or multi-colored wisdom of God is being made known to all the principalities and powers in heavenly places by and through the church. God's wisdom is on display by the church. How can God's wisdom be on display if persons are not committed to His church? Paul says that God's eternal purpose of revealing His wisdom is accomplished in Christ, and by necessity, His body, the church.


Indeed church membership is vital. The church is the very dynamic through which God puts His glory on display as those who hate each other come together as one in Christ. This dynamic is no doubt on display in the universal church. Yet, how much more is it on display when little black children come together with little white children; when persons from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds come together; when persons from different geo-political nation states come together in a local body and put their unity on display before the hidden principalities of the universe. It's in the local church that love and unity are expressed for the glory of God. It's in the local church that the manifold wisdom of God in the gospel that breaks down all barriers is put on practical display. Is church membership important? Just ask the angels who marvel at what God is doing in the church.


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