Introduction: Why Christ Local?
In the past 3 weeks we have been talking about the church. Whenever we do a series on the local church it will come with some mixed feelings. Some people have had good experiences and others not so good. But we quickly looked at what the great English preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “…imperfect as [the church] is, it is the dearest place on earth to us.” And why did he say that? Well, because Spurgeon if we ever found a perfect church it would cease to be that way once we got there.
The church is NOT a building, but a people. The local church is placed in a community by God to embody Christ to that community. We are a community within a community that is fueled by the grace of God. We are a covenantal community and not a contractual one. This means we do not enter our church relationships with a “works-based” mentality, but with a mentality of grace. Works-based says, “Here’s a list of rules I expect you to keep, and if you break them I’m voiding the contract.” But the covenantal relationship says, “I am freely giving myself to this relationship no matter what.” When churches are not fueled by grace then they quickly become ugly and nasty places.
Now that we have hopefully seen what begins to form a church community it will be important to grasp a basic understanding of how God wants to structure that community. Some of you will be tempted to see “structure” as something at war with organic relationships. Any good relationship will have boundaries and structures to the relationship. People who don’t live like that we call “negligent” or “criminals”. Put yourself in another context, another part of the world where there is little to no boundaries and structure, then come back and tell me if you think it is awesome.
The basic structure we are going to look at today is “membership.” Leadership is another important structure, and in many ways we cannot understand membership without it. But we cannot forget that source of our structures should be rooted Scripture. If our structures are not from the Word of God then we have no ground to stand on. Therefore, the primary question becomes, “Is church membership biblical?”
Let me try be clear from the outset, there is not an explicit text that says, “be a member of a local church.” But there is also not an explicit text that says, “the God of the Bible is Triune.” But like the Trinity, there are enough biblical commands in the Bible for us to say without a shadow of a doubt that God wants us to be members of churches. And our view of membership is much more robust than just attending a church on the weekend.
With all that said here is what I want to explore with you today…
Theme: Membership is God’s way to structure protection and care for His church.
1. God wants leaders to help protect & care for His church.
One cannot deny that the Bible encourages us to submit to our leaders—READ Hebrews 13.17. Now let’s be real here, when most of us are considering a church we are not saying, “I can’t wait to submit my life to this leadership. It will be awesome to obey them as they obey Christ.” Most of us are usually thinking about personal comfort. We are thinking about the commute, music, preaching style, kids ministry, and etc.
Now there are many leaders in churches, so which leaders are we called to submit to? We cannot be expected to submit to all of them. My wife is a married woman, and she cannot be expected to submit every husband. That would be impractical and unjust. She is called to submit to the husband she chose to be in covenant with. I believe the same principle applies come when think about church membership. When we know who our leaders are then we know who we have been called to submit to. As I said in marriage this is a covenantal decision, which means we can freely give ourselves to a leadership we can submit ourselves to. No one makes you chose who you will submit yourselves to, but you. God asks us all to do it, but we can chose who we want to do that with. So once someone has made that choice they should work hard to not break their covenantal vow. Do we love other people who are not a part of our immediate families? Yes, absolutely! But we do not love them the same we love our spouse or children.
As one of these leaders of this church let me address one thing from our perspective when we consider the seriousness of leadership in God’s church. God said in Hebrews 13.17, “…for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” I can’t speak for elders at other churches, but I can tell you the elders of this church take this statement from God VERY seriously. God has entrusted something dear to Him to the elders. Matt Chandler has a wonderful quote when consider the application of this statement:
“If we ever had a babysitter, and we kind of laid out, ‘We want the kids in bed at 8:30. Please don't give them a lot of sugar. If you could just clean up a little bit the mess the kids make before we get home, that would be awesome.’ If I got home, and the television was gone, and a kid was missing, and there was icing all over the ground, and it was evident that things were in chaos… I would have a major problem there, because I would have trusted someone with something that is most precious to me.”—Matt Chandler
The elders here take seriously that God has entrusted some thing very dear to us. Therefore, we push each other hard to not being domineering or negligent. Much like men in a marriage, elders can struggle with both of these temptations. The Bible gives you clear ground to confront us if we are being domineering, negligent, or any other sinful habits that are consistent with the Gospel. Next week we will talk more on elders as a part of the structure of the church.
2. God wants us to help protect & care for each other.
Many times shepherding or care can be outsourced to the elders of the church, but I don’t think that is what God intended. The elders lead in a exemplary way in that, but as they lead those who are not called to be elders are called to follow in that. What this means is the second argument for church membership is we are called to help hold each other accountable, so that we maintain purity in the local church.
Let’s examine one text that addressees this issue—READ I Corinthians 5.1-2. There are several Scriptures that use this type of language (Matt 18.15-20; Titus 3.9-11), but this is one of those texts that is far more aggressive than some others. Paul clearly believes that one of the roles of the local church is to help maintain the purity of the Gospel—READ I Corinthians 5.12-13. But coupled with that is Paul’s desire to see true repentance and reconciliation—READ I Corinthians 5.5. Paul understands this man is NOT living for the LORD, but sees no problem with what he is doing. Therefore, he wants to lovingly help this man understand his relationships with God is fractured and he is living like a unbeliever. Paul sees layers of reconciliation here. First, this man needs to reconcile his relationships with God. Second, he needs to reconcile with all the horizontal relationships he has wronged.
Therefore, in many ways church discipline is the embodiment of Proverbs 27.6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” If you have a brain tumor, then when you go into the hospital the doctor is going to have to cut you open to cut out the brain tumor. They will have to hurt you to heal you. No eldership or church ever wants to get to a point where they have to remove someone from membership. In the 5 years I have been with this church we have done this 1 time so far. There were plenty of times it was close, but it is always a last resort for us because it is a painful, terrible process.
Now don’t get me wrong the first few steps in the redemptive process in Matthew 18 should be happening all the time. Why? Because we care about the purity of Christ’s bride and we care about each other—“Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” But as Paul says in I Corinthians 5 if we are lax on sin then that ruins our witness to the outside world and harms Jesus’ bride. If I left my bride in your care, and you repeatedly and needlessly harm my bride, then I would have a problem with you and the one harming her. Elders deal with this kind of stuff on a regular basis, and you do not want elders who are soft on sin. Of course you want them to be loving, gracious, merciful, but not unjust or to have warped view of what is righteous.
So what we see here is membership is meant to help us shepherd and care for one another. Membership is meant to hold each accountable to the Word of God. So we believe that membership should have a formal process for when you come into a church, because it has one for when you are removed. Some churches do not practice formal church membership and that is ok. If you show up they will practice church discipline on any body. Personally we believe that is a bit unfair because you didn’t freely submit yourself to their leadership. But if you have done that then we have the right and obligation to shepherd and care for you in a way that honors Christ and helps you persevere in your faith. This is why we have these things called “connection groups.” These are 6-week discipleship groups that help us lay all our cards on the table, so you are not thrown off guard on anything we believe and what we practice. No one who goes through a “connection group” is guaranteed membership, nor do they have to pursue membership with us. But it is simply the first step in the process of exploring a covenantal relationship with us.