Vintage Church unashamedly believes in church membership. We call it Vintage Partnership. We believe the Scriptures teach the importance of being connected and committed to a local church. As a pastor of Vintage Church, I am surprised at how many people don’t understand the significance of church membership or are actually against church membership. It’s my belief that, for the most part, people who don’t understand or are against church membership simply have not been taught about church membership. Over the next few weeks, we are going to discuss church membership. We are going to answer these four questions:
- Who is the church?
- What is church membership?
- Why is church membership important?
- How does one become a church member?
Who Is the Church?
Whenever I discuss the church, I often get one of two responses. From those who are either not affiliated or loosely affiliated with the church, the church is a building where people meet. For those who are Christians, I often hear more about the collective body of Christ rather than the local body of Christ. Sadly, both of these views are skewed, which is why I think so many have misconstrued conceptions about church membership.
In order to understand church membership, we have to have a biblical understanding of the church. So, what is the church, or more appropriately, who is the church? When the New Testament writers discuss the church, they use the Greek work ekklesia. This word was not original to the Christians. Rather, Greeks were using it long before Christians arrived. Most literally, the word means “the called-out ones.” In the Greco-Roman world, the word referred to an assembly of citizens who gathered together to conduct city business. Why is this important? Simply put, ekklesia never referred to a building; it always referred to a group of people. If this was the case for the Greco-Roman world, then it follows that the meaning of ekklesia for the early church would not have been “building.” Just as ekklesia referred to an assembly of people in Greco-Roman culture, so too the word meant an assembly of people for early Christianity. An idea that permeates all of Scripture is “the people of God.” While Israel is considered the people of God in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, the ekklesia comprises this people.
The question, however, is who comprises the people of God? Who is the church? Countless word pictures referencing the church are found in the New Testament—descriptions like “the body of Christ,” “the temple of the Spirit,” and “the household of God.” All of these descriptions, including “the people of God” refer to possession by God. All of these descriptions give us a profound sense of what it means to be the church. First, the very word ekklesia refers to being called out. Regardless of your theological persuasion, we all agree that God initiates salvation. It is his Holy Spirit that calls us unto him. We are called out by God. The body of Christ refers to our relationship to Jesus. The Bible clearly states that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone (Ephesians 2:1-10). We become identified with Jesus when we repent of our sin and trust in him for salvation. We become Jesus’s and he becomes ours. When we are saved by Jesus, the Holy Spirit dwells within us, thereby causing our bodies to become the temple of the Holy Spirit. We then collectively become the household or family of God. While it might be cliche for us today, it meant something for the early church to call one another brother and sister. All of this suggests that not just anyone can join and make up the church. Those who have been saved by Jesus and have become the people of God comprise the church. Jesus reconciles us with God and makes us a part of God’s family.
Where Is the Church?
Earlier I shared how a lot of Christians point to the significance of the universal church found throughout the world. No doubt, this is an important truth. My belief is that many of those who emphasize the importance of the universal church have a beef against the “institutional church.” When they read the New Testament, they see an organic, people-focused movement. I wholeheartedly agree! This, however, does not negate the fact that the church is a local institution.
First, what do I mean by “local?” Scripture suggests we should first understand the church as local and then universal. Why? Because of how the New Testament writers reference the church. The New Testament uses ekklesia 116 times. Two times the word refers to the Old Testament congregation, three times it is used to refer to a secular assembly, six times it is used in a general sense, thirteen times it is used with reference to the universal church, and ninety times it refers to the local church.1 Did you catch that? Only thirteen times it refers to the universal church and ninety times it refers to the local church, which describes a single church, Christians in a city, and a plurality of local churches. The idea of the universal church is not foreign to the Bible; it’s just not the primary meaning emphasized.
Second, when we say the church is “institutional,” people get this idea that "institutional" means the church can’t be people-focused. Institutional is in no way contradictory to community. If we simply read the New Testament, we would find the early church putting in structures for how they would govern and care for themselves (e.g., enlisting pastors and deacons, collecting funds for distribution, practicing church discipline). This requires the church in some form to be institutional. Jonathan Leeman puts it best:
The short answer is, it means the Christian life should be placed inside the accountability and authorizing structures of the local church both because Jesus commands it and because that’s how both the individuals and the body grows best. It means that, from the perspective of living out the Christian life, the words Christian and church member should be almost interchangeable. The individual Christian lives his or her life in and through the relationship structures that are the local church.2
So, the church is primarily local, and while it is undoubtedly community-centered, this does not take away from the institutional nature of the church. How we understand the church affects how we understand church membership. Ultimately to have a right understanding of the church helps us have a right understanding of why church membership is important as well as what it means to be a church member.
1John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2005), 31.
2Jonathan Leeman, “Introduction—Why Polity?,” in Baptist Foundations, ed. Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2015), 13.