Last week, we kicked off a new series on church membership. I answered the question, “who is the church?” In particular, we looked at how the church is first and foremost the people of God saved by Jesus Christ. We also saw how more often than not, the Bible’s understanding of the church is local before universal. Finally, we mentioned how institutional and community are not at odds with one another. The church should be both institutional as well as people-focused. If you missed that post, you can find it HERE.
After laying that foundation last week, we can now ask this question—“What is church membership?”
Church Membership’s Connection to Jesus
Last week we laid the foundation that only those who have been saved by Jesus comprise the church. If the church, as we discussed last week, is considered the ekklesia or “called-out ones,” then its members must be called out by Jesus. To be a member of a local church, an individual has to have a relationship with Jesus. Theologians describe someone who has a relationship with Jesus as “regenerate,” meaning they have been changed by Jesus. Paul speaks of regeneration when he says that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Upon salvation, the Holy Spirit indwells the individual and makes them new. They become a Christian.
But how can the church guarantee that anyone is really a Christian? The simple answer is that they can’t. However, according to Scripture individual’s must respond to the gospel. Romans 10:9-10 says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Therefore there is an element of faith—believing that Jesus died and rose from the grave for the forgiveness of sin. Simultaneously, there is a confession. One must publicly confess Jesus Christ as Lord. How do we confess? In one sense, we do it with our words, literally confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior. In another way, we confess through baptism—being immersed under water. In the early church “all believers this side of Pentecost were baptized, and, so far as it was possible for the church to discern, only believers were baptized.”1 It was unheard of in the early church for a believer not to be baptized. While the church can't guarantee full-proof that someone is a believer, their confession through baptism at least a sign to the church and world of their faith.
In the New Testament, one of the key elements related to baptism is that it is done “in Christ.” In passages like Romans 6:3-4, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, Galatians 3:27, and Colossians 2:12 emphasis is placed on being baptized into Christ. If you remember, last week, we discussed how Christians are a part of the body of Christ. When theologians discuss Christians’ relationship to Jesus, they often focus on “union with Christ.” At salvation, through the Holy Spirit the believer becomes united with Christ and thereby a part of his body. Hence the benefits of salvation that we experience from Jesus come from our union with him. Similarly, in being united to Jesus we are united to his body and therefore are united to his church. To put it simply, the terms Christian and church member should be synonymous.
Church Membership’s Connection to the Church
In Acts 2, Peter stands up and preaches at Pentecost, people respond to the gospel, and “there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). Added to what? In Jerusalem, a church of Jesus’s earliest followers was in existence and 3,000 souls were added to the church. Some might think I’m reading into Scripture a bit there; however, this is not the only example of individuals belonging to a local church. In Romans 16, and at the conclusion of almost every one of Paul’s letters is a greeting of church members. Why would Paul greet members of a local church if they were not part of that local church? In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Paul discusses the care of widows. In verse 9, he says, “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age . . .” To enroll a widow in the church, they must be a known member of that local church. What about church discipline? In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul writes to the church at Corinth, directing them on how they should handle a particular individual within their congregation. Clearly this man was a known member of the church at Corinth. Hebrews 13:17 states, “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” How can you do that if you are not a part of a local church with leaders? Each of these examples demonstrate that in “the earliest of times, local Christian churches were congregations of specific, identifiable people. Certain people would be known to make up (or belong to) a particular assembly, while everyone else would be known to be outside of (or not belong to) the assembly.”2 D. A. Carson says it well when he writes, “In the pages of the NT, to be converted, to be baptized, and to join the local community of believers are all part of the same thing.”3
From Scripture, how should we define church membership? Simply, we could say that church membership meant that someone who had confessed Jesus as Lord and Savior was both connected and committed to a local church. No doubt, some of the commitments would have been very similar; however, each city was diverse and different and therefore the needs of the church would probably have been diverse as well. In future posts, we’ll discuss what church membership looks like for Vintage Church.
1D. A. Carson, “Why the Local Church Is More Important Than TGC, White Horse Inn, 9Marks, and Maybe Even ETS,” Themelios 40, no. 1 (April 2015), http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/editorial-why-the-local-church-is-more-important-than-tgc-white-horse.
2Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2012), 40.