Saturday, November 9, 2013

What is Church Membership?

Context:There is a discussion occurring within our church at the moment on the nature of church membership, especially in light of the current constitutional requirement that members be baptised as believers, by immersion. This is my initial contribution to that discussion. I thought I should post it here, as it might be helpful to others.


The purpose of this paper is to explain what I believe is the biblical meaning of church membership. This paper explores the importance of church membership, and how it should be considered in relation to other issues. Its relationship to baptism is specifically discussed.

In coming to the subject of church membership and then as it relates to baptism, I seek first to remind the reader of the definitions and distinctions of the invisible church, the visible church and the local church.

Membership of the Invisible Church

In the New Testament, the saints are described as members of the one body in Christ:
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Romans 12:4-5, ESV)
People from all sorts of backgrounds and social classes are baptised by the Spirit into the one body of Christ, and become members of that body:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14, ESV)
From these, and other passages, it is clear that the person that comes to Christ in faith and repentence, being born again by the Holy Spirit, and being washed by the blood of Christ – such a person becomes a member of Christ’s body, the church (or assembly, from ekklesia). Although an individual can have a great assurance of his own salvation, the membership of the assembly of Christ is known only by the Godhead:
But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:27, ESV)
This collection of all genuine believers – God knows who they are – is sometimes called the invisible church, not because its members can’t be seen, but because it’s members can’t be distinguished by any but God.

The Visible Church

Grudem writes:
On the other hand, the true church of Christ certainly has a visible aspect as well. We may use the following definition: The visible church is the church as Christians on earth see it. In this sense the visible church includes all who profess faith in Christ and give evidence of that faith in their lives. (Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem, p. 856).
The key difference between the visible and the invisible church, is that Christians don’t have perfect vision, and cannot see into hearts. There are tares among the wheat, and sheep that are straying from the fold.

The visible church across the world is called the universal church, or the catholic church.

The Local Church

The local church is the clearest and smallest manifestation of the visible church. A local church is a congregation of believers meeting together in an organised fashion, usually under the authority of its elders. Depending on the type of church government, local assemblies may be tied, strongly or loosely, to assemblies in other places, within denominations. Depending on the type of church government, people in other places may, individually or corporately, have a degree of authority over the teaching and practice in a particular assembly. Nevertheless, the local church remains the key expression of the visible church.

There is a scriptural basis for the local church, even when the congregation is very small. For example:
“The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 16:19, ESV)

Membership of the Local Church

Is it important for a local church to define, by means of a list, which individuals or households are members of it – and in so doing define those which are not a members of it (i.e. everybody else)? I would argue: yes, and that this is what church membership is, and what church membership means.
When looking to summarise the biblical evidence for a defined church membership, I could do no better than to quote verbatim the following section entitled “Five Strands of Evidence”. This is from the notes of a sermon by John Piper entitled “How Important is Church Membership?”.
While I copied the “Five Strands of Evidence” section of Piper’s sermon into the paper I’m handing around, I’d like to refer the reader of this blog-version to that sermon with this link. If you are reading this paper, please take the time to read the “Five Strands of Evidence” section at Desiring God, because it forms an important part of the flow within this document.
The entire sermon is downloadable in both video and audio formats, and is very useful on understanding this subject from a baptistic viewpoint.

Exclusion of Membership of the Local Church

Ordinarily, the decision to accept or exclude applicants from church membership would be made by the elders of a congregation. The elders would assess, as best as they are able, whether the candidate is a confessing follower of Christ, showing the signs of rebirth, and connection to the vine by bearing the fruit of the Spirit (John 15:1-8, Romans 8:5-8, Galatians 5:16-26, Ephesians 2:10, James 2:18, 1 John 3:6-8). In short, the elders look for signs of a lively faith.

When would a request for membership be refused? This will normally only happen when the elders have grave doubts about the applicant’s confession of faith, based on the lack of fruit in his or her life. This will also occur by default when applicants are excluded by means of pre-determined criteria. This is discussed in the next section.

What does exclusion from church membership mean and how serious is it (especially when the fruits of a lively faith exist)? In the same sermon notes quoted above, John Piper writes:
... if we say, “Even though you are born again and a member of Christ, you may not be a member of this church,” that seems to undermine the person’s faith and the meaning of the local church. It seems to undermine faith because from one angle, exclusion from membership is like front-end excommunication before membership has happened. When you excommunicate a member from the church, according to Matthew 18:17, you “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, you love him and try to win him as an unbeliever. That sounds really serious. Are we saying to those we exclude from membership that they are in the category of an unbeliever?
And saying no to a genuine believer who is part of the universal body of Christ seems to undermine the meaning of the local church as an expression of that universal church.
According to the meaning and purpose of church membership that I understand from scripture, and that I’ve tried to summarise here, exclusion of a person from church membership is a very serious issue and not to be taken lightly. If a genuine believer is excluded, it is especially serious, and brings to mind the partiality within the Christian synagogue condemned by James (James 2:1-13).

Exclusion from Membership by Membership Criteria

In many congregations, as it is in our congregation, a list of requirements for church membership is created, approved and published by the congregation or its leadership. These requirements, where they exist, pre-judge whether those seeking membership can even be considered by the elders for suitability. The requirements act as a kind of elimination criteria, preventing the need for the elders to assess the suitability of the most obviously unsuitable candidates. Such requirements may be clearly reasonable and just, such as insisting that members confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Such requirements may be just as clearly unreasonable and unjust, such as insisting that members have white skin. Nevertheless, the documented requirements for membership represent the absolute minimum criteria of acceptability for membership candidates.

The congregation as a whole – consisting of its members – is responsible for these criteria, or whether they even exist. If the criteria are such that the doors into the local congregation are narrower than the doors into the kingdom of heaven, then the local church will have a more closed, exclusive group of members than the universal church.

Such exclusivity systematises the serious and difficult issue of exclusion from church membership.

Baptism as a Membership Criterion

Baptism is very important. It is also more than a little controversial. There are diverse views on the meanings, the modes and the appropriate recipients of baptism. These views are held with a similarly diverse range of passions, from ambivalence to dogmatism.

The most common ground on baptism is that all believers must be baptised. I agree that baptism is a reasonable and biblical criterion for church membership: those entering into the New Covenant must be baptised.

Nevertheless, restricting the definition of baptism as a criterion for church membership to the baptistic definition of believers’ baptism only, by immersion only, makes the door into the local church far narrower than the door into the universal church, or indeed the invisible church: the true body of Christ. Such a limited definition of baptism is not explicit in scripture and is certainly not the historic practice of the Christian church.

Should baptism be a criterion of church membership at all? I believe that it should. Nevertheless, I would be comfortable to be a member of a church that made an allowance for unbaptised people to become members, if they provided the elders with a robust and satisfactory defence from scripture of their refusal to be baptised, alongside the usual evidences of a lively personal faith, and that it was not just the case of some personal fancy or church tradition taking priority over scripture.

Re-Baptism to Satisfy Baptism as a Membership Criterion

I am a believer, and I am baptised. I was baptised as a baby, by the mode of sprinkling. By some, my baptism is not considered to be baptism. That is, the sign and seal of the covenant applied to me is considered wrong enough to be no sign or seal at all. It’s certainly considered wrong enough to exclude me from church membership based on baptistic criteria.

I have been asked, more than once, if I would consider re-baptism. It was a question I asked myself long before anyone ever asked me. I have given the matter no small amount of thought and prayer. I have concluded that to accept re-baptism would be a lie, by:
  1. Declaring my baptism to be invalid, while I know it to be valid.
  2. Declaring baptism of the infants of believers to be invalid, while I believe it to be commanded, and have been obedient to that command.
  3. Declaring baptism by sprinkling or pouring or other non-immersive modes to be invalid, while I believe all of these modes to have at least as much scriptural warrant as immersion.
To accept re-baptism would be a grave hypocrisy, making a mockery of the sacrament. Ironically, it would make me a serious candidate for excommunication. I would rather die.

Concluding Thoughts

I have sought to explain in this paper what I see as the biblical view of church membership: what it means, and specifically what exclusion from church membership means and why it is a serious matter. If the reader disagrees with what I’ve put forward, the questions then remain:
  • What is church membership and what does it mean?
  • What does it mean to exclude someone from church membership?
If church membership and exclusion from it mean roughly what I’ve written, then the following question must be considered:
Is conformance to a view and practice of the appropriate meaning, mode and recipients of baptism more important than excluding from church membership those who otherwise appear to be genuine believers?
On the subject of infant baptism: I intend to soon write a brief explanation and defence of covenantal infant baptism, to help others less familiar with the practice better understand its meaning and its scriptural basis. For now, I would ask that the following points be prayerfully pondered:
  • What is the position of the children of believers within the church? In the New Covenant? Before God? Are they inside or outside? What do the scriptures tell us about children and the church?
  • If the New Covenant is better, and has better promises (Hebrews 8:6), and if the scope of inclusion in the New Covenant is greater, by bringing in the Gentiles (Ephesians 2:11-22), then why – according to the baptistic view – has the scope also been narrowed in the transition from the old to the new, by the exclusion of the children of believers? And if they were excluded in the transition of covenants, why was this change not more explicitly stated and expounded in scripture, the way the inclusion of the Gentiles was?

Edit (20/11/2013): Fixed paragraph breaks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...