Good morning! My name is Stephen & I’m a member here at Refuge City Church. For those who’ve been with us for a while, you know we’ve been plugging away in the book of 1 Corinthians. Every fall we like to take a brief break & do a short sermon series on what our core values are here at RCC. This is the time of the year that students are returning to school & people are checking out churches, so we like to do this as a way for you to get to know us as a church. This week I’ve been given the opportunity to cover church membership. I want to address something beforehand though. This is the sermon that always fills our “hate mail” quota for the year. For some reason, people are always upset by this one. Sure, nobody bats an eye when we spend a month talking about the ways between a man & woman, but church membership? I’mma bust out the laptop now. The 1-star internet reviews are coming, folks.
I don’t throw that out there to say that this is a controversial sermon in any way. Rather, I wanted to address the pattern we’ve seen over the years. So when you guys come back next week & our attendance has dropped by half, it’s probably my fault.
So, let’s begin. If there’s one thing that you get out of today, let it be this. That:
Theme: Christians are most effective in their calling within the context of the local church
Before we address biblical membership & how that looks here at RCC, I want to spend some time first addressing what the church even is. I am afraid this may feel like a lecture as we get started, so for those of you who have recently started back at college: I’m sorry.
As many of you know, Christianity is a historical faith. We didn’t all wake up one day doing this, but instead it was passed down from generation to generation. In well over 2000 years we are not the first christians to address who we are & we certainly won’t be the last. A long, long time ago in a turkish country far, far away there were a bunch of guys with epic beards. These were a diverse group of christians representing all of the early church. They had assembled for what was known as the First Council of Constantinople. There were a number of times these large representative gatherings happened, always for various reasons. Sometimes there was a theological issue they wanted to be unified on. Sometimes there were some really deep pastoral questions. Sometimes there were just guys being theological punks that needed to be shown what’s up. Case in point: that one time where Saint Nicholas punched a guy in the face. I promise you guys, church history is exciting.
So at this council there were a number of issues on the itinerary. What we want to focus on though are what’s known as the Four Marks of the Church. So at this council, these guys addressed scripture, condensed what they saw & came out with four adjectives that describe the Christian Church. These are that the church is One, Holy, Catholic & Apostolic. Keeping 1 Peter 2:9-10 in mind, let’s take a look at these adjectives.
In Galatians 3:28, Paul says “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” When we say that, we literally mean there is only “One Church”. If you’ve ever driven around downtown in the city that is likely confusing as there is a “first church of whatever” on every single street corner. What we are defining though is something much bigger than a bunch of buildings. We believe that all Christians, that is all who profess faith in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, are part of a single organization. This contains every Christian, regardless of their earthly race, nationality & so on. It’s not an organization with a physical location but is spiritual by its very nature. It transcends every boundary that man creates, containing every christian who was & is & is to come. So although there are buildings everywhere, there’s actually only one spiritual body called the church. Every true christian in every church on every street corner in every city in every nation is a part of one universal church. We are a people who are a chosen race, a holy nation.
In Matthew 16, Jesus says “Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. Second of all, Holy. The church is set apart by God. Though it’s an organization made up of men, it is not made by man. Instead it has been created by God through Christ & is set apart for the purposes of God. So the church is both unified by one faith in God & also set apart by this same God. Seated at its head & in charge is Christ Himself. Not the Pope or the president of a denomination or seminary but Christ Himself, the one who brought about our faith. We are a people chosen for His own possession.
Now catholic is a fun one. We don’t mean catholic as in the roman catholic church. What we mean is that it is a “universal” church. That every true church possesses the fullness of the christian faith. The great commission that Christ gave the church is to “go & make them my disciples: baptize them & teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Meaning the church has the wholeness of the faith given to us by Christ & that it is proclaimed to everyone. Remember what Paul said earlier about no distinctions in the oneness of the church? We mean it. The christian faith is proclaimed to all people without excluding any class, race or people group. We are a people who are to be a royal priesthood.
And lastly Apostolic. Like the believers in Acts 2:42, we as a church hold the teachings of Christ & His followers through His very word. If you have a bible, congratulations, that’s apostolic teaching. What the apostles taught, we hold in our hands & on our bookshelves. If we practice it, that’s the apostolic faith.
So we know that the church is big, believes in Jesus & was started by Jesus. How then did He start this organization that we are members of?
All throughout the Old Testament we see God making covenants with people He has chosen. These were unbreakable promises, where He would always uphold His end of the deal. Adam, Moses & Noah each have covenants with their name because of the promise God gives to them & their offspring. For instance to Abraham, God says that He will make of him a great nation & will bless those that bless the nation & curse those that curse it. These covenants continue progressively all throughout scripture up until the New Covenant, which is instituted by Christ. This is the covenant that created the universal church that we now all belong to. It’s only because of that covenant that our sins are forgiven. Refuge wouldn’t even exist without that covenant, nor would any other church out there. That covenant is what has established us as a chosen race, a royal priesthood & a holy nation.
When we look to church history we’re seeing not only the creation of the church through the years, but we’re seeing the establishing of a holy family. This family includes every believer, even past & future. Remember those old dead guys with epic beards at the council? Those are our brothers in the faith. We care about what they’ve said, because it’s like listening to a relative who has left us years earlier with an inheritance. Though you may have never met your great-grandfather, it’s a big deal when you read letters he wrote or learn about his history. The reason we started off talking about the “Four Marks of the Church” is because our family has wrestled with this issue before, and they’ve given us helpful ways to think through it now.
This is helpful right now as we try to define what the church even is. We’ve discussed that there is a universal church, but not why there are church buildings on each street corner. Well, those are churches too. Confused yet? Although the church is universal, it is also local. Where Christians gather to worship, study the word & rightly practice the ordinances that Christ commanded us to, that is a local church. Each is a little community, doing it’s best to follow Jesus.
Imagine that each of these churches is like a little window on a massive building. There are many windows, each of which are different sizes, shapes & colors. They’re drastically different. Yet looking through them you can ultimately see the same thing inside this building. Each with a different perspective. Every local church is a single window on the massive building that we call the universal church. They are a visible expression of something much larger.
So we see then that the church is an organization brought about by God through Jesus Christ. Let’s begin to talk about membership in this organization. We defined earlier that Christians are unified in the universal church. Because of our shared beliefs, there are also qualities that all christians possess. These come out in the functions of how a church operates. So the first thing I want us to see then is that:
Where once we were not, the Church is where we are called to be God’s People
We are more than just members in a country club. We are a part of a spiritual family. In John 1:12-13, “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” We’re not just card-carrying Christians. We are related to every single christian there is. What else does it say? We were given the “right to become children of God.” We weren’t born into it, but we were earned by our savior that God might adopt us. This is huge. We’re a part of an enormous family that spreads over the entire globe. I heard a pastor once remark on this truth that because he has family everywhere, this means he has a vacation home in every part of the world. Theologically correct, and very optimistic.
Do you all remember what Paul said earlier in Galatians about being united? We see that elsewhere in scripture too. Jude tells us in Jude 1:3 that we have a common salvation. We share the same faith, which makes us all adopted sons and daughters of God. We entered the Abrahamic covenant the same way Abraham did. As a family we’re all adopted in the exact same way. It is this common faith that we are called to contend for, that it might be delivered to everyone else who is a part of this family. This means that you can go to any gospel-believing church in any part of the world & you’ll always have at least one thing in common. No matter the culture shock, you can always break the ice by talking about Jesus.
We are a spiritual family. The only way to truly act in a christian family though is to be a part of a local church. The local church is a smaller expression of that family. Remember the illustration about the windows on the building? We cannot see the church universal, except by being a part of the church local. It’s impossible. The only way to physically take part in a unified faith is to join into that unity.
So christians are brought into the church by Christ & are done so as a family. Each member of that family has a common goal when it comes to the faith. There is a certain way we go about that. Specifically, I want to talk about Ephesians 4:1-6. What Paul is getting at is that it’s not enough to just say we’re bros, we’ve got to live like it. Church members live in light of what was done for us by the head of the church. Because Christ was humble & gentle, we too must be humble & gentle with one another. We must be patient in our screwups. We must look not to our own interests, but instead bear with one another in love. Notice that we are “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”. I’m going to confess something here guys: I get irritated by a lot of stupid stuff. If you say something unintentionally rude to me? I get mad. Cut me off in traffic? Mad. Don’t reply to my email? Mad. Reply to my email with only two words? Mad. Offer me Taco Bell but forget? Definitely mad. & so on. Though I’m confident you’re all much more put together than me, I’ll hazard the guess that we all have things that drive us nuts, especially about other christians. Sometimes they’re even things we cloak in worldly wisdom. We have guidelines we hold each other to that are not found anywhere in scripture & yet we’re so eager to cut one another away for not being how we want one another to be. Obviously I get very irritated, but that does not mean I can just choose to never commit to all those people who irritate me. For instance, if I lived like that in my family & marriage, both things would be torn apart very quickly. Covenanting together is choosing to do life with someone even when they irritate us. One of the marks of a true christian is that we have such a desire for peace that we look past these things out of love. It is our desire to have unity & we are eager to pursue it.
Where once we did not receive mercy, the Church is where we now receive Mercy
In last week’s sermon Dave talked about a specific role in the church known as the deacon. If you recall, a deacon is a member of the church who is exemplary in their care of others. They’re the kind of people who see a need & are already working out a way to fill it. Whether it’s through providing meals, giving people rides or anything else, they’re the first ones to arrive when something comes up. But you notice, they’re described as “Exemplary”. That doesn’t mean it’s only a deacon’s job to care for the church. No, it’s everyone’s job. A deacon is exemplary because we all aspire to be like them. They are an active example of God’s love for us. And we all see that & think “Man, I want to do that too.” And that’s important because what do families do? They care for each other. They look out for one another.
As Christians, we are called to see to one another’s needs. If you are a member of the family of a local church, you should be cared for. Sometimes that is expressed simply through the gift of the holy casserole. For the mom’s here, I’m sure you know what I mean. The second you have a baby, people are lining up to make sure your family has enough food to last for months. It’s like the old testament manna, only you’re allowed to freeze it this time. It’s one of those things where you’re going to be cared for, whether you like it or not. You will be fed.
The thing is, you can only be cared for in the local church. The universal church isn’t going to do that for you. The christians in Europe are not going to send you airdrops of food after a pregnancy. They have no idea who you are. And it’s not their job to know, that’s the job of your church family.
Now In any issue it’s possible to err to extremes. Some are tempted by an unbiblical perspective that they do not need spiritual family. Much of what I’ve said so far has been to address this. Some though ride the pendulum to where they expect an unbiblical level of care from their spiritual family. I want it to be said that I am not arguing that the church will fulfill all our familial needs. If you’ve spent any time amongst church people you know this is not the case. The church is called to be a spiritual family. This is what we strive for. But we are not true family. Because of our sin, it is impossible. Earthly families are broken. Church families are broken. The level of relationship that some of us strive for is only found in Christ. It will only be accomplished in Heaven. When the church cares for us, it is an undeserved grace. Like Christ’s redemptive work for us was also undeserved. It is good to want something more, because that thing is found in Christ. But keep watch over your expectations, that they may align with what is biblical. Do not place unnecessary rules on your spiritual family.
The church is where we now receive mercy. But also:
The Church is where we Proclaim the Excellencies of God
Past the physical care, we also have the need for spiritual care & exhortation. To proclaim the excellencies of God. As Christians, we believe that we are also unified in helping one another grow in our affections for Jesus. Hebrews 3:13 says that we are to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today”, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
As the church we’re all in this together, guys. Earlier in the same book of Hebrews it says
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source.
So guess what? We’re being sanctified, or “made more like Christ”. Christ brought us into His glory, calling us brothers. Christ is making us more like Himself. Because Christ is the source of all christians, we are even sanctifying one another. So even when we disagree over petty things, we eagerly pursue peace & it all happens to make us more like Christ. Romans 8:29 says “For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers.” We’re being made more like Christ friends & the church helps us do that.
Have you heard the phrase “do life together”? As trite as it has become, being around other christians in the day-to-day is truly a big part of sanctification. It’s only in the everyday stuff of life that we get to witness what it means to be a follower of Jesus & see how that is lived out. We’re not just christians who sing together on Sundays. We’re also christians who take our children to school. We’re christians who pay our taxes, or who fix our cars or who work the 9-5. Personally, I have been sanctified much more by sitting around playing cards with other believers than I have through sitting in a classroom. What we truly believe is present in everything we do. You will know us not only by our love, but by our actions that flow out of that love. We exhort one another daily, preaching the gospel to one another that we might not be led into sin. You can’t grow as a christian in community if you’re not a part of a community. It’s not just you & Jesus. It’s you, Jesus, your uncountable number of brothers & sisters in the faith and by the way, Jesus says to be a christian you need them too.
There is another role in the church that helps us to proclaim the excellencies of Christ. Last week Dave did a great job of instructing us on what biblical eldership is. If you go to our website you’ll also see a letter on our blog or social media further detailing what that looks like. As some of you know, we here at RCC are examining several men as potential elder’s for the near future. As we spent last week in 1 Peter 1:1-5, I don’t want to make us dive back in there. But the crux of what’s going on is that when we call men as elders, we are calling them to act as under-shepherds below Christ. They are to care for the people here at this church. Like how deacons are exemplary in care, elders are exemplary as shepherds. As a church member, you are being shepherded by Christ through the men He has placed to safeguard the church.
Ligon Duncan has said that true church members have “A willing submission to the authority of Christ as it is expressed in the local assembly of Christians.” Based on the feedback/angry emails we’ve received in the past, as well as a lot of the misunderstandings often attributed to covenant church membership, I want to take a moment now & address the concept of submission in the church. Submission is an integral part of proclaiming the excellencies of Christ.
Are you ready for a controversial statement? Submission to a church body doesn’t mean we determine who you marry, where you work or whether you’re allowed to leave the church. Weird, right? Yet as I listen to people & research the opposing arguments, apparently that’s what we’ve been doing all this time. If you’re anything like me, you’ve grown up in a “Church culture” where membership doesn’t mean anything. At its best, it’s just a way for churches to know how many attend their Sunday service. In some southern states, it’s even a way of determining who gets to be buried in the church cemetery.
So when we first tell people that we practice covenant church membership, most people react as if we’re a bunch of cultists giving invites to our bi-weekly goat sacrifice. I had a friend preach at a wedding a few years back & overheard one of the groomsmen remark “Yeah, he knows scripture incredibly well. It’s amazing. But he’s got some weird views on church membership.” Let the irony of that statement sink in for a moment.
Ligon Duncan summed it all up well when he says
“In any setting where you’re going to have the authoritative preaching of the Word & the authoritative administration of the discipline of the church, you have to have an embrace of that on the part of the people who are being shepherded”.
We practice membership because it’s biblical. Not because we think it’s hip or cool.
Sometimes the only way to help people grow in their affections for Christ is through the hard conversations. The times where it’s difficult to proclaim the excellencies of God. The things you’re afraid to say to someone, because it means you have to confront them about something hard. Maybe you’ve hurt them, they’ve hurt you or even they’ve hurt someone else. The thing about sin though is it’s an affront to a Perfect & Just God. To ignore or gloss over it, you are in effect saying “I don’t care about you.” We are all sinners in need of the forgiveness we find in Christ. Sometimes, we are given the difficult but immense joy of needing to have that conversation. “Hey dude, you screwed up. That wasn’t ok. But Jesus is greater.” What did it say in Hebrews? Sometimes holiness only comes through suffering. But when someone comes to repentance, there is immense joy there. Christ is excellent, & we must proclaim that to one another at all times.
You cannot care for someone unless they want to be cared for. This is why we practice covenant church membership here at Refuge. It simply means that we make a promise to practice what we see in scripture. That because Christ has cared for us & instructed us to do the same, we’ll commit to do that for one another. You cannot get that apart from being in a local church. Once again, no one in Europe is going to fly over & talk to you about that sin struggle you just can’t shake. Your elder cannot shepherd you, unless you’re willing to be shepherded. A deacon cannot care for you, unless you’re willing to be cared for. Therefore, in this mutually agreed upon care we are proclaiming the excellencies of Christ to one another.
If you just move between churches, it’s impossible for you to even be cared for. I had a friend like that years ago. She was always moving, never staying at any church for longer than 6 months. Her facebook always made it obvious when she’d found somewhere new. She’d be extolling its virtues each Sunday. The music is so great here. The preaching is so great here. A few months down the road she might even join a small group or a bible study. But the second people might start to press in to get to know her, she was off to a different pasture. Her church “family” lasted as long as she was infatuated with them. As soon as she moved past the first date stage, the church had nothing more to offer her that she wanted. If I’m frank, she was someone who was willing to take but was never willing to give back. It was no family to her. There are many churches nowadays that functionally act the same way. People are always moving through to take, but no one is ever giving back. Yet every church in the new testament couldn’t function apart from having membership. Without committed people in those local bodies of believers, we would have no book of Ephesians, or Colossians or any of the letters to the Corinthians.
So then, how does membership function here at RCC? If you’ve gotten anything thus far, it’s that we take family seriously. We want membership to be an easy process, but we want people to know what they’re getting involved in. If you don’t have the same values as us, we don’t want you to become a member here. We love you & we’re glad to have you with us. But if we’re not working toward the same vision, it makes it hard for you to carry out the mission that God has given you. Instead, we want to see you become a part of a church that does have the same values.
But if you’re considering membership & you’d like to learn more about us, the first thing we do is ask that you take part in a connection group. These are small groups of about 3-4 people that meet for 6 weeks to hangout, drink coffee & talk theology. We want to give you the opportunity to learn more about christianity and also to get to know some other people at the church. They are groups that start up whenever we have enough interested people, rather than on a set date. So if a person wants to get involved, they either go to our website & sign up on our discipleship page, or they fill out a connection card & drop it off to let us know they’re interested. Once enough people are interested, a group leader will reach out & get things going.
After 6 weeks there’s no obligation to become a member. If you just want discipleship, a connection group is where we recommend you go. But if you want to still pursue membership, that’s when you setup a time for an interview with one of our elders. An interview sounds formal, but it’s not. Really it’s just a time for you to talk with an elder so they can hear your testimony & answer any questions you might have about the church. At this point, you’re still not obligated to become a member. If you want to interview & later change your mind, that’s totally cool.
If you’re all in after the interview, that’s when we’ll call the last church you were a member of. Generally we’re just wanting to let them know “hey, so-and-so is pursuing membership over here. We want you guys to know & also hear any good things you’d like to share about them.” There’s also the care aspect of this where we’re making sure there wasn’t any church discipline going on that you might be running from.
If I’m honest with you, this call is probably the most difficult thing the leadership here has to do. Not because of hard conversations, but just because it’s hard to find anyone with an answer. We’ll generally reach a pastor who has no idea who you are. I once spent weeks playing phone tag with different church campuses before they stopped returning my calls. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes we’ve been able to reach a small group leader or a pastor who knows & wants to talk. “Yeah, so-and-so was great. We loved them. We’re excited to hear they’re joining another church. Here’s the ways we saw them grow when they were with us. Here are encouragements we’d love to give them.”
After this an elder will present your name to the church for us to vote on a few weeks later. The last step is what we call a “Covenant affirmation service”. Many of you have probably even seen one of these. During a Sunday service, we like to take a moment to announce the names of every person who’s becoming a member, then offer the graces of God we have seen through them and that their last church has seen in them. As a church we promised to care for one another. After that, you’re a member!
How then does a person leave? Just let an elder know. Because we believe the church is to care for people, we generally ask that you don’t make the decision by yourself, but instead talk to those who you’re close to first. Maybe talk to some people at your refuge community group. For example, some of you might remember Karissa. I asked her permission to share this. She was a dearly loved part of the East side group last year. Well, when a job opportunity opened up in Texas she asked around the group for their thoughts. She wanted to see if it was wise. They said yeah, it sounds like a great idea. Go for it. Here’s some counsel on how to live in Texas. Here are some churches in that area of Texas that we think you’d really like. Let us know when you become a member at one so we know you’re being cared for, and we’ll gladly tell them how awesome you were.
It’s all pretty simple, really guys. No gauntlet. No goat sacrifices.
So if there’s anything you’ve gotten out of today, it’s that the universal church is one big family that the local church allows us to see. That is one reason why we here at Refuge place such value on covenant church membership. We want everyone here to witness family with us, but what we really want is to know who is willing to experience it. If church at RCC is just about waking up on a Sunday morning in order to drink great coffee, sing some non-standard worship songs & listen to sermons by a pastor who occasionally makes socially awkward remarks, then we’re missing the point.
We don’t do any of these things because it’s a cultural necessity. There’s no “Church 101” section of scripture that says do this & that to have a church service or small group. These are things we do out of an overflow of what has been done for us by Christ. Because we are a family of Christians, we gather together each week to worship as a family. Not only that, but we make it open so that even non-family members can come in & experience this with us. Whether you’re a christian or not, we want you to worship alongside us because our God is worthy of worship.
With that said, the band is going to make their way back up here to continue to lead us in worship.
The point today was also not to say that if you don’t become a church member, you’re a horrible sinner. That’s not what we’re getting at here. You don’t have to become a member of RCC. There are tons of Gospel-centered churches out there. We’d even be happy to point you on to another church if we’re not your thing. What I want you to see though is that to be apart of the church universal, you have to take part in the church local. If you’re going to grow to better love & treasure Jesus Christ, you need a spiritual family. Whether that’s here or somewhere else, I want to encourage you all to pursue that. Let us pray.
God, thank you that we can call you Father. Thank you for your daily mercies & grace. Thank you for adopting us as Your own. That Christ is called the first among many brothers. Thank you for the church. May Your hands continue to shape & guide the Church. May You also continue to be merciful to this institution here. Amen.