Before we begin, let us pray…
God of Jesus Christ, give us a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Christ, so that the eyes of our hearts might be enlightened. Help us to know the hope to which you have called us, the riches of the glorious inheritance in the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of your power at work in us. Amen.
Let us continue our preaching on the biblical idea of church membership, (Part 1 link is here)
Church Membership and Worship
Church membership is implied when God’s people gather in worship. We can read from Scripture how God gathers Israel for worship after redeeming them slavery in Egypt. When Israel gathers for worship, they identify themselves as God’s covenant people. From the tent in the wilderness, the holy temple in Jerusalem, God calls his people to commune with his presence. And in the New Testament after exile, God’s people assembles in synagogue for the reading of Scriptures nd prayer. This becomes the pattern for Christian worship every Lord’s Day and the practice revived by the Reformation.
Luke identifies the gathering of the congregation at the wilderness as a church or ecclesia. In Acts 7:38 reading from its NKJV translation, “This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us…” In context this statement comes from Stephen prior to his stoning and the deacon who was full of the Holy Spirit proclaiming Christ as the Messiah. This portion of redemptive history in the wilderness gives us an inspired account of the use of the word “church” and it has been existing even back when Israel was in the wilderness. It means Israel as God’s redeemed people is also called of God’s assembly or God’s people in the church.
But why are they assembling before God? It is to serve and to worship him.
Moses demands for Pharaoh to release God’s people from slavery in several occasions in Exodus:
- Exodus 4:22-23 – Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’
- Exodus 5:1 – Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’
- Exodus 7:16 – And you shall say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.”
These verses simply point to the fact that God redeemed God’s people in order that may feast and serve or worship him. As subjects of God’s covenant, Israel is called to assemble before God to revere him. This is the explicit command from God in Deuteronomy 4:10 where it reads, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.” From this verse we can understand the term assemble which comes the word “qahal” in Hebrew implies a receiver of the action. The direct object receiving the command to assemble is the people. They are the members of the nation Israel whom God saves and calls to assemble.
A gathering assumes a congregation and this congregation implies membership. The identity of Israel as God’s people or “am” establishes the relationship between covenant and membership. Those who belongs to God as his covenant people are included by membership into the family of God. God declares in Exodus 19:5-6, “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.”
And now in the New Testament upon the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ and his Spirit, God’s people extends to all nations, removing all ethnic barriers between Jews and Gentiles. Paul reminds the Christians in Ephesus, “…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:1-2) and in Galatians 3:27-29, Paul emphasizes, “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.” This means God’s people expanded to include all people from all nations. Those were not God’s people where finally included in through faith in our Lord Jesus’ mediatorship unifying the church into one body. It is the fulfilment of the promise God made to Hosea saying, “And the LORD said, “Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God. Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” (Hosea 1:9-10)
God calls his people, his congregation, to gather to worship him and what is true to Israel in Mount Sinai it also true to the church in Mount Zion. The preacher of Hebrews establishes this relationship in Hebrews 12:22-24, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Therefore, membership to God’s church remains the same in the Covenant of Grace in both administrations. This always entails belonging to the CoG as God’s people (am).
However some asserts “I belong of the universal church so I do not need become a member of any particular local church”. But the relationship between church membership and worship do not allow us make such conclusion. It is essential for any gathering or public assembly to include one’s self to this particular visible expression. The church who worships gathers publicly must order itself and account for its assembly in terms of membership. Luke describes this reality when he wrote in Acts 2:46-47, “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” This means the author keeps track of those who belongs to the church and accounts of its growth. We also read it from Acts 16:5, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.” So it is important for us belong to God’s people and to be accounted to God’s assembly, God’s household and family.
Church Membership and Nurturing
Church membership assumes church order and discipline and therefore it is implied in the teaching of Scripture with regard to shepherding and the ministry of nurture in the church. The ordering of the church through the process of discipline Jesus laid down in Matthew 18:15-17 where it reads, “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. 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. 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.” Jesus of course refers the church as an assembly in general and yet not the Christian churches particular but still it implies a group to which one can bring his case to. And since it is a particular group to go t, they are asked to judge the matter. Verse 18 affirms “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This idiomatic expression parallels the verses from Matthew 16 which Jesus establishes the keys of the kingdom. It reads from verses 18-19, “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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” And we can identify here the role of leadership in maintaining the order and discipline in the church. This means when we acknowledge an order of leadership in the church we imply the reality of membership. The elders of the church are tasked to oversee the welfare of its members. They are called to shepherd God’s people. Paul states in Acts 20:28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” And preacher of Hebrews exhorts the Christians of the dispersion to follow their leaders and submit to them, “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 (Hebrews 13:17)”.
In the same way, Peter establishes the relationship between the leadership and members of the church as shepherd/sheep, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3)”. This means the office of the elders (under shepherds) and pastor assumes membership (flock).
Now in the New Testament, the adding of people into membership is implied by the explicit teachings of Paul to remove those under discipline. Of course, this builds upon Christ’s own instruction of discipline in Matthew but Paul in 1 Corinthians made sure to apply it in the churches. Paul exhorts in 1 Corinthians 5:1-2 and 12, “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 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.” Therefore, the adding and removing implies a membership roll that grows and shrinks. Church membership is implied.
I think the issue of membership evokes an emotional response from modern hearers specially those who experienced abusive leadership. However, I would like everyone to acknowledge that while abuses tend to discourage proper use, they are never grounds against it. I was asked how can we reconcile excommunication of members with God’s grace and love. And I admit this is an emotional charged question but objectively speaking, not disciplining is the most unloving act we can offer towards church members. God discipline whom he loves (Hebrews 12:5-6).
However, the cure to abuses is not to abandon church discipline altogether but to remind ourselves again and again that the proper design of eldership is not to overlord but oversight. It is not to dominate but to become proper examples to the flock. We sympathize with all the horror stories of oppressions and abuses and it should serve as warnings against unbiblical practices but by all means, let us encourage one another to become members of the church. Let us answer the call to church leadership and submit to the proper authorities God placed over his church.
ZCRC(Imus), God calls us to assemble before him, and serve and worship him. Let us submit to the order and disciplines of the church, and become its living members. May the Lord continue to add his people to church. Amen.