Is church membership a biblical idea? I think to even begin answering this question we first need to quality what we mean by the term biblical. We often hear how Christians regard the Bible as their sole source for everything about faith and practice and this is good but I think as a reformed believer, we need to establish to how this is attained.
Most Christians today define what is biblical by what they can read directly and literally from the text of Scripture. But this reductionist view is actually a by-product of ignorance. I remember back then in my previous denomination, the pastors were debating about changing the name of the church and someone argued what is the point of arguing since the name of the church is not even in the Bible. I think what he meant by this is not directly and literally from any words of the Bible.
Now a cure to this simplistic understanding is actual found in Scripture. In Mark 12, Jesus confronted the Sadducees about their disbelief in the resurrection. This sect limit Scripture only with the Torah, the first five books of the Bible and they insist you cannot read the idea of resurrection from its pages. So Jesus countered this understanding by saying in verse 26-27, “And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong. This is Jesus’ way of arguing a simple deductive reasoning that since our God is a living God, the patriarchs may have died a long time ago but they are now with him in the heaven, and soon they will resurrect with glorified bodies. Our living God lives with his people.
This concept is what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls “by good and necessary consequences. Jonty Rhodes wrote an article in Table Talk online magazine and explained there the importance of this phrase when studying Scripture. We read from WCF Chapter 1, Paragraph 6, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” So aside from what we can read directly from Scripture, we also understand how the Bible also teaches us its doctrines “by good and necessary consequence”. It means we cannot reduce Scripture into isolated text a practice popularized by most evangelicals today. Instead, we need to learn properly deduce from texts of Scripture.
Now, church membership is a teaching established in relation to the Doctrine of Scripture and the Doctrine of the Church. Simply put, Church membership is presupposed in Scripture. It is a good and necessary consequence deducted from the doctrines of the church. Church membership is a sound doctrine derived from the whole counsel of God believed and held by Christians who recognize Scripture as their sole source of authority in faith and practice.
Sadly now a days, Church membership is either assumed and ignored, or neglected and even rejected. Liberal Protestant churches in our country follow their Roman predecessor and simply accept anyone into formal membership without any catechism, deliberation, and examination. And without any credible profession, anyone can enter its gates without any qualifying steps to even ascertain, if they went to church because of what they believe or for other reasons. This led to social agendas entering the leadership of the church and further weakening the institution. In the same way but for different reasons, Modern Evangelicals in our country dismissed church membership altogether and insists on a non-institutionalized church. This led to the secular agendas entering the leadership of the church and despite their growing numbers, the visible church actually becomes more fragmented. Overall, what passes as church today is plagued by Functional Gnosticism, Hyper-spiritualism, Radical Individualism. Churches have accepted a bodiless involvement to the church and teaches the false spirit of individual “souls” becoming “the church”.
Churches today in our country are in great need more than ever to recover the biblical vision of the church and membership to it. For our new sermon series this 2022, we will examine the biblical doctrine of church membership. For this two Lord’s Days, we will first go through the details of the Biblical Idea of Church Membership. We will establish how church membership is related to the several important doctrine of Scripture and Ecclesiology. Our sermon points are: 1) Church Membership and Covenant of Grace; 2) Church Membership and Worship; and 3) Church Membership and Nurturing. As usual, we will explore these point into two parts. This Lord’s, we will go through the introduction, then the first point, and then we will continue next week for the second and third points.
Before we begin, let us pray….
Church Membership and Covenant of Grace
Let us first establish the Covenant of Grace. Now, the term Covenant of Grace cannot be directly and literally read in any of the text from Scripture. It is a theological term of a kind of relationship God establishes with his people. This relationship is what we call covenant. To make a covenant means a bond between two parties with terms and conditions met in order for the relationship to exist. An obvious place we can find this concept is the canonical division of Scripture: the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Now, a testament is understood today as a last will and testament but the term in Scripture also means covenant. In short the Old Testament is the Old Covenant while the New Testament is the New Covenant. While of course, the Old Testament is comprised of 39 books from Genesis to Malachi, it is narrowly called the Old Covenant God made with Moses a mediator. Then the New Testament while includes all 27 books, it is also narrowly regarded as the New Covenant God establish in Christ as its mediator. Scripturally speaking, we can find these concepts in passing from Hebrews 8 when the preacher compared the old and new covenants. It reads, “But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second (Hebrews 8:7-8)”. The exegetical clause of us here is to notice who Scripture refers to the Old Testament as the first covenant while the New Testament as the second covenant. The first and second arrangement distinguishes the two and separates its timeline chronologically and logically. This is not just a proof text a mistake often committed today but a deduction from the text. It is the deduction made by the writer when he compared the old and new covenants.
To further reinforce the new covenant as a covenant established by God in Christ. We can explicitly read Jesus referring to his whole life-work ministry as the new covenant in his blood. Jesus said, “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:27-29). This means the old covenant made previously with Moses only points to the new covenant made with Christ and Jesus marks it with blood, meaning his death, his atoning work. This is the very foundation of the gospel itself, the person and work of God, it is of grace. This covenant God establishes and fulfilled in Christ is a relationship extended to God’s people by God’s grace received by faith alone in Christ alone.
So how does the covenant of grace relates to church membership? At this point, we also need to further deduce from Scripture the implication of how God established this covenant of grace in Christ. And another concept related to covenant is the term federal. Federal means representation. It means we are related to God legally by representation. The covenant established to us by God is also a kind of relationship established by representation. This concept of representation is derived from the comparison Paul made between Adam and Christ.
Christ is the mediator of the Covenant of Grace but it is only grace to us primarily because it was first Covenant of Works for Him and Adam. I know out topic of the Covenant of Grace and not the Covenant of Works so I will simply refer it now in relation to Adam but understand simply that by extending the comparison not only with Moses but to Adam, this extends the whole covenant of Grace not only from the time of Moses In Exodus but with Adam in Genesis 3 after the fall. Anyway, going back, Paul explains the idea of representation or federalism in Romans 5:14 then 17-19 (with emphasis on the 19th), “Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come…For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous..” So in Adam we all received death, sin, transgression, condemnation, disobedience and in Christ his people receives, grace, gift of righteousness, life, justification, and obedience. This verse also further establishes that the Covenant God establishes with Christ in indeed gracious to us who receives it. The failure of Adam as our federal head necessitates another federal headship that will bring us life and justification. This is of course the Covenant of Grace.
So the federal relationship when have with Christ established for us in this Covenant of Grace is both legal and therefore formal. Since our relationship with Adam is concrete in character, we can deduce that our relationship with Christ adopts a kind of formality as well. The federal membership to either requires a formal affinity and this we need to trace it out from the Old Testament with Abraham and his family, to Moses with Israel as a nation, then in Christ with all nations both Jews and Gentiles.
Membership to the Covenant of Grace belongs to God’s people and as we can deduce from tracing of redemptive history we know God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17 that includes him and his children, then extending this to Moses and Israel in Exodus 20, then fulfilling it with Christ from Abraham, all nations (Galatians 3). Let us examine them one by one:
- And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God. And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. ” (Genesis 17:7-9)
- …while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Exodus 19:3-6)
- So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:24-29)
So with the federal authority of Abraham over his children membership to the covenant was established with circumcision as a sign (Genesis 17:10), then with Israel as a nation, membership to the covenant was becoming a citizen then finally in Christ, membership to his covenant means profession of faith in Christ and circumcision has been fulfilled by Christ (Colossians 2:11-12) then replaced by water baptism. In Acts 2:38-39, Scripture reads “And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
In short, membership to the Covenant of Grace is covenantal, federal, legal, and formal. Yes it extends now to all nations but it requires inclusion. There are several places we can deduce the importance of formal membership inclusions.
- Genealogies – Genesis 4, Genesis 10, Matthew 1 and Luke 3
- Census – Numbers 1 and 26
- Counts – Acts 1:15; Acts 2:41; Acts 2:47; Acts 4:4; Acts 5:14.
Let us read directly again from the Old Testament and New Testament comparing the census in Numbers and count in Acts. Numbers 26:1-4 reads, “After the plague, the Lord said to Moses and to Eleazar the son of Aaron, the priest, “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, from twenty years old and upward, by their fathers’ houses, all in Israel who are able to go to war.” And Moses and Eleazar the priest spoke with them in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, “Take a census of the people, from twenty years old and upward,” as the Lord commanded Moses. The people of Israel who came out of the land of Egypt were…” Then in Acts 4:21, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” From here we can simply deduce the importance of knowing who are included in the covenant people of God.
We will further establish this idea of covenant membership when we relate it to worship, and then to nurturing as it relates to officebearers and church discipline. Let us get back to it again next Lord’s Day.
ZCRC(Imus), God establishes his covenant with Christ and his people. He calls us to himself with this Word and by this abiding presence. Our God is our covenant Lord and we are his people. Let us continue to abide in him now and forever. Amen.