Summer 2010, Understanding Church Membership

(* perusal; to examine or consider with attention and in detail) 

Ephesians 5:25-27

25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, 26that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, 27that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.  


Kevin DeYoung's and Ted Kluck's book “Why We love the Church – In Praise of institutions and Organized Religion” is an interesting read.  It seems that many Christians today are taking a long, hard look at the community of the local church.  I applaud their incentive.  The church, as John Calvin stated, is to be “constantly reforming”.  The local church is a hospital for sinners and anyplace that houses sinners needs reforming.


Two thousand years of church history should have taught believers that the local church is imperfect.  In fact because there has been 2,000 years of history we have the privilege of hindsight and the challenge of foresight. But is the “traditional” church to be jettisoned on the altar of pragmatism and convenience?  And is the local church passe' – has it served its purpose and now Christians are to move on to some new, enlightened path of house churches, lessons in lieu of preaching, and social justice in the place of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? 


The apostle Paul wrote a great portion of the New Testament and each of his epistles were written to local churches.  Granted many did meet in homes, for the Christian faith was new and in need of meeting places due to a lack of monetary resources. But we do know that by the close of the first century, churches were being housed in buildings separate from houses.  Also, some early believers did have very large homes with courtyards that could be used for assemblies.  To assume that today the ideal church is to remain confined to a house is a misunderstanding of New Testament ecclesiology. 


The key element is not where one meets; the key element is that a believer does meet with other believers on the Lord's Day for preaching of the Word, fellowship, giving, and corporate worship.  The early church focused on worship through the preaching of the Word of God.  Teaching is important and all sermons should teach, but the need in Christians and unbeliever's lives is for the truth of God in Jesus Christ to be proclaimed with authority.  That generally does not happen with teaching alone.  


One of the gripes the post-modern Christian has with the institutional church is membership.  Is it necessary to “join” a church?  Disillusionment with the church is not new, neither is the fear of uniting with a body of believers that changes from year to year.  Churches have a habit of being slow to learn, if only because human beings have the same habit.  As DeYoung says in his book, “I wonder if they (church-leavers) will be happy in five years with their new form of church. I wonder if they will escape their own cynicism and anger.  Most of all I worry that in leaving the church they are leaving the faith of the church and the Christ of two thousand years of church history.”  


In order to understand the church it is necessary to define what the New Testament taught about churches.  Historically, a church has been defined as a body of believers that meet each week, preferably on the Lord's day, to 1) listen to the preaching of God's word and respond, 2) partake in the ordinances of our faith – baptism by immersion for the new, born again believer and participation in the Lord's Supper for maturing believers, and 3) being submissive to the discipline administered by the church body. There are many good parachurch Christian organizations that strengthen and aid the church but are not churches – Campus Crusade for Christ, Gideons, and various missions endeavors.  They may administer one or two of the three key elements of a church, but are not involved in all three, especially church discipline. 


Why is church membership important? Paul wrote to the church of Ephesus about doctrine and the application of doctrine in both individual’s and family’s lives.  It is important because we are at war against a subtle, highly intelligent foe and only the Person of Jesus Christ and truth of God’s word can equip us to sustain the war.  Believers need a cadre’ of other Christians to support, challenge and correct each other – to discipline the body of Christ, his church, to prevail against Satan’s perpetual denial of glory that belongs to the triune God alone.   


Why is church membership important?  Biblical church membership follows the act of conversion when a regenerated sinner that has been baptized by immersion submits themselves to the authority of Jesus Christ in the church.  It is important because the church presents God’s witness to Himself in the world. It displays his glory. In the church’s membership, then, non-Christians should see in the lives of God’s changed people that God is holy and gracious and that his gospel is powerful for saving and transforming sinners.

As Paul wrote in Ephesians 3, “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”  These are pivotal and powerful words written to define the ministry of the local church.   Yes, the local church with all its sinners, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, is the agency God has appointed for saving the lost, edifying the believer, administering the ordinances, and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ so that the nations of the earth might be glad! 

Sola Deo Gloria,  

Pastor Carey