"Membership: The Covenanted Church"
It is possible that in conversations with friends and family who profess to believe in Jesus you have been confused. It’s confusing because some of these same people do not belong to a particular church. You may have heard statements like, "I follow Jesus. I don't need a church." Or you’ve likely heard “I don’t need the church. It’s full of hypocrites. They just get in the way of my spiritual journey.”
Or perhaps you have thought along similar lines. The church is too hierarchical or permeated with social cliques or outdated or filled with unattainable rules or whatever. Maybe you’ve spent considerable time in churches and have been hurt by them. And you have made it your goal to be bitter for the rest of your life. And you do not have the capacity to forgive.
Regarding the first perspective (I don’t need a church, I follow Jesus), this is truly a fabricated perspective. Jesus came to die for the church because of his great love for her. Take note of Ephesians 5.25 where the husband is to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
Though this sermon cannot exhaustively teach on the nature of the church, I hope that you will come away with at least a fresh perspective of the church. It’s not that churches are (or can be) perfect in this life. But they are the instrument that God has chosen to bring the gospel to the world. At the end of the day, I hope that you will see that when a person is saved by Jesus Christ, he has been transferred into the family of God, which is the church. And the plan is that we collectively use our gifts to build one another up and to declare the message of the gospel to those who have yet to hear. If you were to search the Scriptures, you would find that we were not designed to "follow Christ" alone. God called out a people in the Old Testament to be a light to the nations. And he calls out his Church in the New Testament. And both were called to declare the glories of God to the world.
Let’s begin by looking at our first point, What Church? As we look through the pages of Scripture we notice that there is reference to both a “universal church” and a “local church”. It would serve us well to understand what these refer to.
As I already mentioned, the universal church consists of all believers in Jesus Christ for all time. And so that we can see some Scripture that would point this out, we recall from Matthew 16:18 “18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus is not here referring to First Baptist Church of Galilee. He speaks of the people that will be called on to believe in him and would continue the mission to declare him.
In Ephesians 5:22–27, Paul draws a close comparison of the relationship between husbands and wives, Christ and the church. Paul writes, “22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Inasmuch as Jesus loves individuals, they are not to be isolated from the community into which he calls and saves them.
So, we see that there is a “universal” sense in which believers in Jesus Christ are part of an eternal family. This consists of those who have preceded us and those who will also trust Jesus in the future.
Let’s now pursue an understanding of the concept of a local church. You do not have to go far into the Scriptures to identify this reality. In fact, you would really only need to look at the Table of Contents in your Bible because much of the New Testament is written to churches.
But even before Paul wrote to the church, Jesus refers to a local church context. In the famous passage in Matthew 18 that contains the procedure of discipline of the Christian, we find Jesus gives instruction within this context. Jesus says, “15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” So even here, Jesus anticipates that his followers would be a part of a local community that would place themselves in submission to the Word and church leaders.
Acts 13:1 1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” Again, there was an identifiable community in Antioch. Romans 16:1 “1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae.” Paul identified Phoebe as part of this local church at Cenchreae. And you are most likely familiar that many of addressees in the early part of the book of Revelation were directed to the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
And then to add some weight to this understanding, let’s look at the beginning of several of Paul’s letters. 1 Corinthians 1:2 “2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul correlates those sanctified and saints and part of the church in Corinth. In his second letter, 2 Corinthians 1:1 “1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia.” Ephesians 1:1 1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 1:1 “1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. “ And Philippians 1:1 1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” Here Paul even provides a glimpse to the structure within the church as he points out a couple of the offices in overseers and deacons.
But let’s move beyond this references and look into our second point, which is Mission of the Church. We’ve seen that there is biblical reference to what qualifies to be a part of God’s universal church – belief in Jesus Christ alone. But then we’ve also seen that there is also a close correlation with local expressions of believers.
I want to briefly look at one passage of Scripture to get a better understanding of the why and the how of the church – and how it finds its expression in the local context. Turn in your Bibles to Ephesians 4.11-16. Even before we read this together, we need to remember the context. Paul is referring to the “saints who are in Ephesus”. He is writing to a localized community of believers. And yet we recognize that through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, he writes to all believers for all time. Let’s read Ephesians 4.11-16 together. READ.
The section begins by drawing attention to the uniqueness of some of the gifts that are given by God. You can parallel sections in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. But even out of the gate here in Ephesians 4, we see that is part of the plan for God to gift people uniquely in order to work as a coordinated whole. In this passage, Paul refers first to the apostles, prophets and evangelists. At another time, we could discuss whether or not the gifts of apostleship and prophecy continue. But I think this reference to these first three refer to those who established the initial New Testament churches – including Ephesus.
From what I’ve read, the next two should be combined and not separated. It refers to shepherd/teachers or pastor/teachers. Note what their responsibility is. The job of the pastor is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry”. The first thing we see here is that there is an expectation that when we become a Christian (a saint) we are to be trained for ministry. This is not solely for pastors and scholars. This is for everyone! I would suggest that this involves both a pursuit of knowledge and the practical application of what we learn. We learn and we apply in the church.
Next, this is for building up the body of Christ. You can’t do this in your recliner watching the television preacher. One of the goals is to build up Jesus’ church. This should consist of both depth and breadth. We should be actively sharing the gospel so that unbelievers embrace Jesus Christ. And we should also be diligent to encourage each other as part of the same body.
How long do we continue to learn and grow and minister and encourage each other? Verse 13 helps us out. Paul says “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature mahood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”. Anyone there yet? Ok. Then we’ll keep at it.
So we’re together shooting for unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God. Notice he says that it is “the faith”. We’ve talked about this a bit in recent studies. We’ve seen it emphasized through our study in the Book of Philippians. We saw it also in the book of Jude where we contend for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” As the church strives together, equipping, building, zealously pursuing to know Jesus, the more unified in the faith we will be.
Verse 14 continues the purpose in the church. “So that” we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. There are a lot of false ideas out there that identify themselves as “Christian”. But these need not affect us if we are diligent in our study and active participation within the church body. As the church is faithful to worship and study and process God’s Word together, we minimize false teaching. And our active participation will also ensure our perseverance to the end. We won’t be led astray so easily.
Rather, verse 15 indicates, by speaking the truth to each other in love, we grow up in every way into him who is the head, Jesus Christ. Did you get all that? These verses are jam packed with good teaching. “speaking the truth in love” could literally be rendered “truthing”. As the church is committed to truth and faithful in lovingly speaking truth to each other, we… the church… grow… in every way… into Christ… our Chief Shepherd.
Let’s pause and recap so far. We began by noting that the church leaders are responsible to the church family. How? To equip them to be the ministers to the church. This doesn’t suggest that leaders are off the hook. Because at the same time, I am also a saint who is expected to minister. Together, we have a responsibility to build up the body of Christ. We will not achieve full maturity and unity until Jesus returns. But these things are our goals. How do we get there? We strive to know more of Jesus, our Savior, and the gospel… together. Jesus is everything! We don’t want to get sidetracked with other things. We want to know more of Jesus. What happens? We grow. We are less susceptible to false teaching. We are committed to the truth of God’s Word. And we commit ourselves to speaking God’s Word to others… lovingly. And we become more like Jesus.
Verse 16 closes the section by saying that Jesus is our head. He rules his church. He rules this church. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. The “body” illustration really is perfect to understand the church. We are created and called to be interdependent. And I love how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12:14–20 14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.”
We are called to be a community of faith that is interdependent on one another. We have all been uniquely created and gifted in order to minister in different capacities. And as we are faithful in this, we see Ephesians 4 carried out. We will see spiritual maturity, unity, truth embraced, false teaching ineffective, “truthing” in love. And finally, verse 16 says that the body will grow and will be characterized by its love for one another. I would think the growth to be quantitative as well as qualitative. When unbelievers see the result, the love for one another, it will confirm the message that we are faithful to declare. If we are characterized by our division and strife, it hampers our mission.
We could look at a variety of other texts in Scripture that speak of many members of the unified church body. But we won’t. I hope that this rich text in Ephesians is sufficient to convince you of both the importance of the local church to fulfill God’s mission as well as the manner in which we carry it out.
The body illustration alone should eradicate any notion of following Jesus but not actively involved in a church community. The Christian cannot thrive nor survive without the fellowship of other believers. I like also the campfire illustration. I’m sure you all know what it’s like to start a healthy roaring campfire. If you do it right, you are careful to set it up strategically – with the right amount of paper starter, kindling, and the gradual increase in the size of the wood. As coals develop and the right amount of oxygen is maintained, you can appreciate your work. But when you take one of the logs out, what happens? The collective flame is affected. When you add it again, the flame rises. You take it out again and set it on the side for a while. What happens to the log? It dies out. It’s withdrawal from the whole has affected itself as well as the whole.
When all are active with their God-given gifts, it makes for a very healthy fire. When people are absent or leave the church, it affects both the finger (or eye or hand or whatever) as well as the body. The eye can’t do a lot without its body. And the body is hampered by the removal of one of its members.
I hope you’re convinced of this much. It really is a major theme throughout Scripture. But perhaps you are unconvinced of church membership. So, let’s look at our third and last point, Why Membership?
Perhaps you’re thinking, “ok. I get it. As a Christian, I know that I have a responsibility to one another in the body of Christ. We are not to go it alone. We need each other. But why can’t I bounce around from church to church? Or, why do I need to become a member? I’m here most of the time anyway. I help out with the bulletins or the luncheons or music. Why should I become a member?”
Let me begin addressing some of these by looking at Bible passages. If you were to do a Bible concordance search for “church membership”, you will likely end up with zero results. “Aha! I knew it!” you say. Wait a minute, I say.
In the Book of Acts, we have visited a passage in chapter 2 for the past several weeks. It is the account of the early church in Jerusalem. We introduced the passage when we talked about baptism and communion. In Acts 2:37, as a result of Peter’s preaching, the people asked “what shall we do?” Peter responds by telling the people to repent and be baptized. They experienced the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. And in Acts 2:40–41 “40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” And from this we observe that there was a numerical record in the early church in Jerusalem.
In 1 Timothy 5, Paul instructs Timothy about his responsibility to widows. And it repeatedly refers to a record of these widows. So it is not merely a hypothetical or universal principal, but a very specific one within Timothy’s church.
In Acts 6, you may recall that there was a complaint from the Greek-speaking Jews against the Hebrews because widows were being neglected in food distribution. What happened? It appears as though there was an election to determine who might be Spirit-filled and wise folks from among them who could apply themselves to this ministry so that the apostles could dedicate their time to preach the word of God.
In Hebrews 13:17, the author to the Hebrews writes this: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” This passage clearly points out that there is a recognized leadership and followership, doesn’t it? If leaders have to provide an account for the followers, do you think that it is important that they know who the followers are? Church membership provides the context to which we submit to church leadership.
Now this is a fun topic to talk about these days. But think about it. If we as Christians are truly committed to what we talked about in Ephesians, why would we hesitate here? Let me put it this way. Spiritual leadership in the local church is not an authority unto itself. There are a number of passages that indicate that all church leadership sits under the authority of God and his Word. Church leadership is expected to be characterized by integrity and spiritual maturity. And this leads to a healthy church. Leaders are to ensure that what we do as a local church is God’s expectation for his church. And when church members submit to this kind of leadership, we follow God’s plan for the church. Hebrews 13.17 seems to indicate that when we do this, it is to our advantage. And I believe the advantage is a popular buzz-word called “accountability”. We willingly submit to leaders as they submit to God’s word.
Inasmuch as our pursuing this kind of accountability to church leadership is advantageous in membership, I think it also is beneficial to the church. As the leaders gain a better understanding of who is in their care, the other church members benefit as well. We know who we are locking arms with for the cause of Jesus Christ.
In Romans 16, Paul sends personal greetings to several members of the church in Rome. This indicates that he knew who was a member there. And of course we already looked at the number of Paul’s letters that address the local churches.
Let’s add some contemporary relevance and personal testimony to this. I have seen a contemporary situation from two different perspectives now – as leader and follower. There are always people in churches that have one foot out the door. They’ll hang around only until something is said or done that they don't like. Then they’re moving on. It can actually be a week-to-week involvement. They may say, “I'm still here this Sunday. But that doesn't mean I'll be back next Sunday.” Why is that? It's easier. It's much easier to not deal with conflict with people, than to stick around and do the hard work of reconciliation. And it takes humility to place yourself in a position of submission to authority and discipline. How healthy can a church be healthy or unified if it is filled with people that you don't know whether or not they will do the hard work, or be there consistently for each other.
Church life (just like Christianity) is difficult at times. The church consists of a bunch of people that continue to act out of our selfishness, pride, insensitivities. But we are called to coexist despite our failings. Dealing with sinful people (which is all of us) is part of our sanctification! Does that make sense? How will we ever learn to deal with conflict if we consistently flee the situation? I would argue that it is precisely in conflict that we grow and God is glorified. I can guarantee you that if you join this church or any other, someone will let you down. And when the world sees that Christians can forgive and reconcile and even grow closer to one another because of Jesus Christ, God will be glorified.
Let me add a bit of testimony from my own life. My history and tendency with conflict is escapism. So I can identify with what I have been saying. When I was a teen, my parents got divorced. Even at the moment I was being informed of this, the first thing I wanted to do was to call my friends to pick me up and take me out. In these times, I managed to cause enough trouble to be shunned by my church family and the Christian school I was attending. Neither of these communities handled it well. But neither did I. I distanced myself from any community of faith and ventured headlong into worldliness.
God, in his grace (and not so gently) restored my relationship to him and I returned to the only place I knew, the local church I attended previously. However, I kept the church at arm’s length. For the next couple of years, I found myself “dating the church”, as Josh Harris indicates. I was a consumer who attended my home church for the biblical sermon, attending another church because it had a good singles ministry. I was a consumer with no roots. It served my purposes, but not God’s. You see God created me to use my gifts for his body. And I wasn’t. After being taught and convinced of setting roots in a church family, I began to understand why. It was then I began to see the fruits of my labor. I was accountable. I allowed people to lovingly correct me and “truth” me. I was serving. And I experienced great joy. It's much easier to keep the church at arm's length. But we’re not called to easy.
The church has been (and will always be) God’s plan until Jesus returns. In conclusion, listen to the words from Eric Alexander, the great preacher from Scotland as he paints this picture regarding the church. He states that “The most significant thing happening in history is the calling, redeeming, and perfecting of the people of God. God is building the church of Jesus Christ. The rest of history is simply a stage God erects for that purpose. He is calling out a people. He is perfecting them. He is changing them. History’s great climax comes when God brings down the curtain on this bankrupt world and the Lord Jesus Christ arrives in his infinite glory. The rest of history is simply the scaffolding for the real work.”
This is our objective: To be part of God’s plan as his people – living out a biblically faithful understanding of Jesus’ church. Let’s pray together.