It is reported that the sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther was once asked why he was preaching to his church for the twentieth time on the doctrine of justification. He replied, “Because they have not remembered it after the nineteenth time.”
Repetition is important; in fact, it is essential. We continually need to be reminded of important truths (2 Peter 1:12–13). We forget so easily. It is for this reason that the doctrines of church membership and church discipline are repeatedly emphasised at our church. But it is not simply because it is a particular hobby horse of the eldership and the pastor-teacher. Rather, it is because the New Testament repeatedly reveals to us these doctrines. They obviously matter to God; they should matter to His people as well.
This is the fourth instalment of what has been a brief series on the principal and practical implications of church membership. A member of Brackenhurst Baptist Church will be familiar with the topic of church membership. We talk about it a lot. We teach and preach on the subject quite frequently, and we guard it quite zealously. And again, the reason is because church membership is a big deal. It is a Very BIG Deal.
As has been argued many times in Pastor’s Pen articles, and even more so from the pulpit, becoming a Christian and becoming a member of the church are as inseparable as is the arm from the body. If there is a cleavage here, then something is seriously wrong. Yes, it is possible for someone to be born again and yet not be a formal member of a church. After all, we are not born again by joining a church but rather by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit in conjunction with the hearing of the gospel (John 3:1–8; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23–25; etc.). However, since to be born again unites a believer with the body of Christ, it is an unhealthy aberration to be disconnected from a local expression of that body. Amputated limbs are not a sign of health. In fact, where there is the need for amputation, the greater concern is for the body rather than for the particular body part. As in many realms, the whole is of greater concern than the parts. The apostle Paul expresses this principle many times, most notably perhaps in Ephesians 4:13–16.
Our congregation has been spending a lot of time in Ephesians 4 focusing on the importance of the community of faith; the faith community called, created and commanded by the Lord. But with so much attention being given to this passage, one might be tempted to say “Enough already! How much more can be said about the church and our responsibilities?” Or, “How much more can be said about church membership? Are not four articles enough?”
My answer to the first question is, a whole lot more! And, answering the second: Four is enough for now—but watch this space!
After many years of serving as an elder and pastor-teacher, I am more persuaded than ever that this matter of taking the local church seriously—including taking church membership seriously—is vital to reformation and revival and therefore to the Great Commission reach of the church. The local church, and meaningful membership of the local church, is a BIG deal to God; it should be a BIG deal to Christians—to every Christian.
The word translated “church” is found 114 times in the New Testament. One hundred and nine times, it refers to a “distinctly Christian assembly” (Dever). In almost all of these occurrences, it describes a local gathering of Christians who are presumably in a committed relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. This commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ is expressed in many ways, not the least of which is His disciples sharing together (“fellowship”) in the life of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously referred to the local church as simply, Life Together. Think about that word “together,” for it is deeply descriptive of the local church. We gather together to listen and to learn God’s Word together, to pray together, to sing and to praise together, to break bread together, to baptise together, to bury our dead together, to celebrate the birth of children together, to share our resources together, to serve together, and so forth—together.
All of this implies a commitment to one another; it implies some type of covenantal commitment to one another. It implies an intimate connection with one another. I believe that, taking all of this together, it points to the irrefutable principle and necessary practice of church membership. If a person professes to be a Christian and yet refuses to become a member of a church together with other Christians, then such a profession is hollow. It just does not ring true to those who know their Bibles.
So, as I bring to a close this last (for now!) article on church membership, let me encourage those who get it to continue to appreciate it and to work at it. And for those who do not yet get it, please search the Scriptures more carefully. May the Holy Spirit open your eyes to see that Christians do view the local church, and membership with it, to be a BIG deal—VERY BIG DEAL.