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Church membership and its calling


by Tim Gallant

Drifting. Who has not seen it? Some people switch churches more readily than they switch cars. There is little sense of commitment to a specific body of believers; they are, after all, members of the "invisible, universal Church." "My name is written in heaven," some of them declare. "So why should I need it written on a church roll? God's Church is not divided into these petty denominations and congregations. God's Church is everywhere."

I can be quite sympathetic to such thinking; the splintering of God's Church is a source of frustration, I think, for all true believers. However, belief in a universal Church cannot be used as an excuse to disown any sort of real commitment to localized expressions of church. Moreover, the embrace of some mystical universal Church over against a visible local one is simply a further source of schism and division.

God has not given the keys of the kingdom of heaven to individuals, but to the Church which He instituted. Christ said to Peter, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:19). These words were spoken to Peter as representative of all the apostles, upon whom the Church was founded (Eph. 2:20). Through the preached Word and other forms of discipline, the kingdom of heaven is open and shut; forgiveness is directly related to the keys of the kingdom (Jn. 20:23) - and those keys were entrusted to the institutional, visible Church. True Christianity can never be set over against institutional Christianity in a way that undermines that God-given kingdom authority. A "me and Jesus" faith is not Christianity.

When the call to repentance is answered, there is a call to be identified with the people of God through baptism. This identification is not simply some vague identification with other believers in general. Baptism is administered by particular individuals at a particular time and place. When God added souls to the church at Jerusalem, at the very outset of this era, He placed them "in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42). There was congregational life, centred around official worship.

God maintains the Church universal, yet this maintenance is accomplished through means. God does not detach His saints from one another;1 rather the opposite, He builds His Church by means of union and communion of the saints: He builds His Church by means of churches. If we have understood the covenant at all, we must see that God's dealings with His people not only tie them to Himself, but also to one another in very concrete ways. He rules His Church by His Word and Spirit, but the way He does that is not simply by individual prayer and Bible study, important as that is. Rather, He provides a context in which He promotes mutual edification, accountability, and fellowship between His children. This He accomplishes, first and foremost, through the local church.

The Church is called to "be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind" (Phi. 2:2). God's people are to "comfort each other and edify one another" (1 Thess. 5:11). We are not left to ourselves to devise ways in which to accomplish these things. The writer to the Hebrews urges faithfulness to God through faithfulness to God's order:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.

Hebrews 10:23-25

God's provision for us to "hold fast the confession of our faith" can be found, in part, in the local church. Some pretend that "not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together" does not prove loyalty to a particular congregation; it just means that Christians need one another. They are, in other words, absolutely free to attend whatever church (or informal Christian gathering) they feel like on any given day. They see no requirement to actually seek membership in any particular congregation.2

But this is anti-covenantal thinking, and it is fundamentally opposed to the point made in Hebrews. As the writer later urges,

Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct . . . . Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.

Hebrews 13:7, 17

Such admonitions make no sense whatsoever outside of a context of membership in a local church. Where there is no commitment to membership, there can be no commitment to genuine submission to church authority. There can be no commitment to the covenant.

The call of the covenant is a call to be a living member of a genuine local church. Given the call to submit, this has many implications for the people of God.

First, the question arises whether I may submit to those who rule over me. If the church to which I belong is a true church, the authority exercised will be in compliance with the Law of God as found in the Bible. There will be an attempt to order the life of the church according to the Scripture. Moreover, the grace of God in Christ will be the central, underlying theme of all that the church is and does. As Paul writes, "I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). The church of the living God is "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15); the promotion and application of the truth defines the true church. A "church" unconcerned with the truth is no church of Jesus Christ.

Second, we are confronted with the reality that faith is not simply "me and Jesus have our own thing going." The people of God are accountable to one another as brothers and sisters, and accountable to godly leadership; those in leadership themselves must give account for their work in the church. They "watch over your souls," and they do so with a certain level of God-given authority. They watch over the doctrine and life of the church (Titus 1:5-11), serving as an ordained means to promote the ideal of a people who are of one mind, one voice, and one heart in the Gospel (Phi. 2:2). Submission to such authority is not optional; it is fundamental to true biblical membership in the body of Christ.

Third, the membership necessarily involved in submission is undertaken with a view to bringing productive order into the issue of our relationship to God. There is a certain amount of haze when we speak about mutual accountability between Christians in general, but when they are covenanted together in a particular body of believers, things become more orderly and concrete. There is less opportunity to use liberty as a cloak for self-centredness. There is a call to self-sacrifice; "the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love" (Eph. 4:16).

While it must be stressed that Christians do bear responsibility for brothers and sisters outside of their own congregation, they are in particular charged with the care and edification (building up) of those within the local church (Heb. 13:17). Within the church there is more opportunity for wholesale reconstruction of life and doctrine; contact with those beyond these confines tends to be more individual and piecemeal. In this way, I may grow in areas of my own interest (which is good), but not necessarily in those areas where I most need to (not so good).

The local church, then, is a fundamental means of grace which God employs in the sanctification of His people. God puts His people together in a covenantal context, and uses that context to strengthen, nurture, and develop them. Most important, in a faithful church, He feeds them through His Word, through consistent, well-balanced preaching and teaching. Without these means of grace, the Christian cannot mature properly, if at all. Why? Because growth in faith, like so many other things, is covenantal growth. The covenant body is Christ's, and its members are members one of another (Eph. 4:25).

This fact of mutual membership is one of the most significant truths concerning the churches of Jesus Christ. It implies responsibility and empathy for one another. Paul suggests that the ties between Christians are of such a bond that if one member suffers, then so do the others (1 Cor. 12:26). He urges, not only like-mindedness (unity of confession), but also "consolation in Christ," "comfort of love," "affection" (Phi. 2:1): unity of heart and harmony of life.

Yet this "unity of heart" is not gushy affection without real, practical means of expression. Paul writes to the Ephesians,

I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to have a walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:1-3

This calling that Paul has in view is the calling to be citizens of God's household, becoming God's spiritual habitation (Eph. 2:19-22). This is a glorious calling based in God's sovereign grace (Eph. 2:1-10). Yet Paul does not leave the calling behind in redemptive history; nor does he turn it to individualism by leaving it with personal salvation and nothing more. The "calling of the saints" is a mandate to be "called-out ones" - together. When he says, "walk worthy of the calling," he proceeds to instruct them how God has arranged for this to be accomplished. As it turns out, God gave office-bearers3 to the Church "for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:12, 13).

It is crucial to notice that Paul does not say that the office-bearers were given to do the work of ministry, although their callings are certainly ministries. Rather, the office-bearers are given to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Some would primarily apply this to the worship of the church, and on this basis defend the practice of "letting everybody have their say." But that is altogether to miss the richness of Paul's intent. Such an understanding reflects a rather shallow and narrow view of what ministry is.

No, Paul has in view the means by which the saints may walk worthy of their calling, and that calling has to do with the Body of Christ.

There are those who suppose that safeguarding the pulpit effectively does away with the contributions of the members of the church. This is far from the truth. If we return to the Reformation in terms of our worship, we will certainly safeguard the pulpit. But if we return to the Reformation in terms of our view of the church, we will elevate the office of all believers, and begin to see that the office of saint is a high and noble calling. The call to ministry is not limited to the pulpit. Ministry is covenantal service, a broad and deep calling.

It is interesting that the biblical approach does not pit office-bearers against congregation in a battle for significance. The offices are necessary for the equipping of the saints for service. Evangelism, for example, is not merely a task of the office-bearers. It is the church which is "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). The believer's role in the covenant means day-to-day proclamation of the covenant God. Membership in the church means a covenantal responsibility to declare the Person and saving works of God: "Sing to the Lord, bless His name; proclaim the good news [gospel] of His salvation from day to day. Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples" (Psalm 96:2, 3). If the saints are frustrated that the church is not growing through the work of evangelism, the problem must be recognized as a problem in the pew, and not just in the leadership.

Biblically speaking, effective leadership complements and encourages an active congregation. Paul communicates this in Thessalonians, where he urges the brothers "to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake" (1 Thess. 5:12, 13). The apostle Paul calls upon the people of God to be thankful and gracious and respectful concerning the offices with which God has gifted the church. However, he does not stop there. He continues, "Be at peace among yourselves. Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all. See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all" (vv. 13b-15). Moreover, in the immediately prior context, Paul urged the believers to "comfort each other and edify one another" (v. 11). You see, the importance of the leadership in no way detracts from the very real authority of the congregation to edify one another and to do the work of Christ. True esteem for godly leadership does not lead to passively watching the elders do all the work; rather, it means joining hands gratefully, labouring to edify the people of God.

The Lord has gifted the Church with office-bearers (Eph. 4:11) for the express purpose that each part causes growth in the Body; every member, "joined and knit together," works in love for the edification of the whole (Eph. 4:16). God's plan for His people is not a comfortable pew, but a place of service to the Body of Christ. There are myriads of facets to this service, and it would be impossible, within the space of a short article, to address them all. However, to give some direction to our understanding, I would like to discuss, very briefly, three significant areas in which we ought to express community within our church family.
Mutual discipline

I deal with church discipline at length in another article. However, besides looking at discipline in terms of official sanctions (which I do in the companion article), we need to see that it ought to be rooted in daily congregational life. The basic and ordinary discipline of the church is not that which is exercised by elders, but that which finds life in the congregation.

The very most basic form of discipline is, of course, self-discipline. It is the calling of every Christian to listen attentively to the voice of God in the preaching of the Word, and to apply it to his life, as well as to study the Scriptures for himself with a faithful and obedient heart.

But we need more than that. We need each other, and we carry very real responsibilities toward each other in this area. I earlier cited Hebrews 10:24: "And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works." Literally, "we should consider one another for provoking to love and to good works." In another words, we do not live our Christian lives unto ourselves, and we are not to leave our brothers and sisters to merely live their own lives. This is not a popular concept in our world. We are told to "live and let live." "What others do is their business." But when you are covenanted to other people as the children of God, your lives are each other's business. Not that you become meddlesome, but you seek to build up the Body of Christ in love and good works. This means that when your brother is sinning by speaking covetously, or lustfully, or self-righteously, or any other "--ly," you do not stand idly by, but in humility offer correction.

The idea, of course, is not to be "nit-picking." Love covers a multitude of sins. And forbearance, which Scripture repeatedly calls us to, means that we set realistic expectations of one another, that we are gentle, that we do not expect to see perfection by tomorrow "or we're out of here." The vision of the church as a body, with fellow members, ought to help us here. If we are a body, we are careful to distinguish between infected members and infection itself. The model of the body thus both encourages compassion and patience, and yet, at the same time, action in Christ's name. Reformation in a body implies that reformation begins with me, but that it cannot end there. The reformation of myself will instill in me a covenant love for the church as a whole and its members in particular - a love that cries out for the edification of the body.

There would be few greater means of grace toward holiness of life and conversation, than if every Christian asked his brothers and sisters to correct him in love whenever he was in need of it. If every believer could understand that this approach is a genuine sign of true covenant love, and began to practice it, the beauty of holiness in our lives would grow significantly, and we would all become far less flippant and careless in our attitude toward so-called "little sins."
Practical instructions and assistance

How many older Christian women regard teaching the younger women to be effective homemakers to be a spiritual duty? Paul taught Titus that the aged women should "school" the younger women to be, among other things, homemakers and lovers of their families (Titus 2:3, 4). "Household women" are out of fashion in our enlightened age, of course. But fashion is not the arbiter of truth; nor does it address the genuine needs of the people of God.

The interesting thing about this statement of Paul's, along with many others, is that he does not think small in terms of his mandate to edify the people of God, or, more particularly, to equip the people of God to edify each other. He does not limit his instructions here to, "Tell the older women to lead Bible studies for the younger ones," as profitable as that may be. No, he brings Christianity into the physical, material world.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul taught that the saints are members of one another in a manner similar to a human body. Not every member is a hand, or an eye, or an ear. But every member is nonetheless a part of the body, placed there in God's wonderful wisdom for the good of the church.

If we are to be hands and feet to each other, we should not assume that our relationship is limited to meeting for Sunday worship together, or even only for what we would call "church functions." Both the apostles James and John saw true filial Christian love as something which sets out to meet the needs of God's family.4 Although these passages use the specific example of material need, it would be severe reductionism to limit our responsibility to that of merely ensuring that our fellow believers are clothed and fed. The real stress is not on the sort of need, but rather on the call for love to rise to meet the needs of the brotherhood.

Real-to-life examples? How about baby-sitting for a couple, either to meet a pressing need5 or simply to alleviate some stress? Do you have some extra fall vacation time? How about using some of it to help a farmer get off his year's crop? What about playing taxi service for some of the elderly in your congregation? Take them visiting, take them shopping, take them to the park. Don't forget to read to them; perhaps a game would be nice. Somebody moving? Would a food hamper, not to mention some strong backs, help? From time to time, write a letter of encouragement to your pastor, to your elder, to your brother, to your sister. Some time when you are visiting church friends, take some time to play with their children. Help an unemployed person with a resume. Teach him skills.

There are so many more examples that we all could give. These, if offered to one another as unto Christ, are not merely helpful social ideas. They are spiritual service of the members one to another. If we would pause and think about how we might live in community as Christians, we might surprise ourselves with how quickly warmth can grow within the local church.
Prayer for the family of God

Perhaps the most underestimated power of love and community is the power of prayer. The call to "continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving" (Col. 4:2) is not only a Christian duty, but also a privilege of membership, and a means to growth in true love. Engaging in honest prayer for your brothers and sisters is the most effective way I know to be rid of bitterness, or indifference, toward them. Think of Paul's prayers for the Corinthians, and for the Ephesians. Is it any wonder that their concerns were so close to his heart, when he consistently prayed for them? Notice how much he links his joy to their spiritual well-being. Could he have done this without being the man of prayer that he was?

If we are ever to live as communities and love as brothers and sisters, it is genuine, consistent prayer for one another that will show us the way.

Conclusion

In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, "But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased" (12:18). To put it in startling terms - you are God's gift to the church! This is both a reassurance and a challenge. If we see ourselves as gifts of God one to another, we will be on our way toward recognizing the responsibility each of us carry with regard to the church of Jesus Christ.

The churches from the earliest times were demonstrations of loyalty, submission, and community. From the day of Pentecost, which represents the institution of the New Testament visible church, obedience to apostolic doctrine is coupled with partaking of the sacraments, and living in fellowship with one another (Acts 2:41-47). And while there are good reasons why we do not abolish private property in response to the example of the early Jerusalem church,6 the principle of community, both here and elsewhere in the New Testament, is nonetheless unmistakable. The church should not be seen in community only on Sunday, and have no contact the rest of the week. This simply does not echo the norms of biblical church life. The congregation is a faith family, and its members are not members of Christ only, but also of one another. The expression of that mutual membership is one of the challenges - and costs - of true Christian discipleship.

Endnotes

1 Indeed, such detachment would be "multi-versal," rather than "universal."

2 The lack of foresight in this thinking may be seen in the simple fact that if everybody adhered to such a principle, it would spell the end of every local church. The continuance of congregations is dependent upon some form of committed membership. Apart from that, there would, very quickly, be no churches to drop in on and express unity with!

3 Paul lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers; his idea of office here is not the office which all believers share, as prophets, priests, and kings before God, but rather, special ecclesiastical (church) office.

4 James 2:14ff.; 1 John 3:17.

5 For example, if the mother is hospitalized, it can be very difficult for a working man to care for his children by himself.

6 Actually, it is doubtful that private property was abolished in Jerusalem, either. Although verses 44 and 45 point to having "all things in common" and the sale of "possessions and goods," this was in view of division according to need, and suggesting that there was no longer any private property really seems to do violence to the intention of the text. In any case, the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, prophesied by Christ, provided good rationale for the sale of real estate there. The fact is, we find no indication of this sort of scenario in any of the Gentile churches.

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