Note: This past Sunday, I preached a topical sermon on church membership and a membership covenant. What follows in this post is an edited manuscript of the introduction to that sermon.
August 13 is the tenth anniversary of the birth of my first child. She is growing to be a beautiful young lady, and I am thankful to God for her. Despite what it seems, though, she did not grow up overnight. It’s not as they say: “I [didn’t blink] and she was grown up.” She has matured one day at a time, one decision at a time. As she grows she is starting to make her own decisions—her favorite color, favorite food, favorite book, what clothes she wants to wear. She’s starting to think through what she wants to be when she grows up (she hasn’t decided yet, and that’s fine). She is changing every day. She is evaluating what she believes and what it means to be her. And that’s a good thing.
It is the same growth process in the life of the church. Every day we wake up and fight sin and by God’s grace persevere in the faith. As a church, we change each week. From time to time it is good to evaluate what we believe and what it means to be us. This morning I want to deviate from the 1 Corinthians series to talk about something I think is important to us as a church. I want us as a congregation to review what we believe and what it means to be us. We have documents that answer those questions. They are summaries of what we find in scripture. They are called the Statement of Faith and Covenant. We also have an organizational document, the Constitution. This morning I want to look to the scriptures to help us start the evaluation process. I want to focus on the covenant and seek to answer the question, what does it look like for us to be a church?
The Doctrine of Church Membership
The doctrine of church membership in scripture is like the doctrine of the trinity. We do not dismiss a doctrine merely because no text of scripture explicitly teaches it. No explicit text teaches that we worship one God in three equal yet inseparable persons, but collectively we look at the texts that talk about God and we conclude that the Father is God but is not the Son or the Spirit, the Son is God but is not the Spirit or the Father, and the Spirit is God but is not the Father or the Son—all three persons are God. Likewise, no explicit text teaches that we must join a church in formal membership, but we look at the texts of the New Testament and find that Christians are responsible to do certain things together. These things make no sense if there is not some mechanism by which to accomplish them. One such passage that makes no sense absent a mechanism for church membership is 1 Cor 5:1–13.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:1–13).
The subject of this passage is how the church ought to deal with scandalous behavior. I won’t take the time to deal with that specifically. What I want to focus on are the underlying presuppositions of the passage. Paul instructs the church to judge this man and put him out of the assembly (v. 2). He tells them in verse 4 that when they are “gathered together” to deliver the man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. Paul reminds them that God will judge those outside the church, but they are responsible to judge those inside the church (v. 12, 13).
The Mechanism of Membership
Now let’s ask some questions of this text because Paul assumes a lot of the Corinthian church—there is a lot here that Paul does not explain but the church in Corinth understands. First, how is the church to determine who are to be the ones to “deliver this man to Satan”? How do they know who the church is? Or, more specifically, how do they know who is in and who is not? The answer that question is not in the text. Paul assumes it, but it is an essential part of understanding what Paul is instructing. Some were inside the church, being responsible when they were assembled to exercise authority over this man—these were not private individuals or a select sub committee of the church. It was the entire congregation, but how did they determine who the whole congregation was?
It couldn’t have been the mere presence of an individual in the gathering because there were non-Christians in the assembly. We know this by how Paul teaches them to conduct their worship services in order: “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (1Corinthians 14:23, emphasis added). Paul assumes there will be outsiders in the gatherings. Neither could it have been all Christians because Paul doesn’t include himself in the act of the congregation. Therefore, some mechanism existed to determine who was in the church and who was not. There was something that the Corinthian church had to decide two things: (1) that this man was one over whom they had the authority and responsibility to dismiss and (2) who was included in the particular group (i.e., the congregation) to participate in the vote to dismiss this man. Therefore, whether formal or informal, written or unwritten, some kind of list must have existed. Without this conclusion, 1 Corinthians 5 makes no sense.
The kind of mechanism implied in 1 Corinthians 5 of mutual accountability and relationship in the church is what we call church membership. Church membership is the intentional act of individual Christians to submit themselves to one another and to take responsibility for one another as part of one church. This kind of relationship doesn’t happen without the knowledge of all parties involved. The only way for this to happen is for the individual to agree to submit to the congregation and for the congregation to accept responsibility for accountability. Historically this act involves a solemn agreement, commitments that church members make to one another. This agreement comes in the form of a membership covenant. The membership covenant represents and states the agreement about what it means to be a church. It is true that formalizing these documents is a matter of Christian liberty. But historically Protestant churches have determined there is no better tool than formal membership to answer the questions implied in 1 Corinthians 5 and elsewhere: Who are we? Who takes the ordinances? Who is the pastor responsible for shepherding? Who is the congregation accountable for?
Therefore, a local church today ought to have formal membership to answer these biblical questions. Along with answering the ‘who,’ the church must be able to answer the ‘what’ of membership—what does membership look like? Or, how do we commit to live together? In my next post, I will outline seven commitments Christians must make to be a church.