Six Evidences for Church Membership

The church is not only nice, but it’s necessary for a believer’s spiritual growth. And maybe you agree with that as many Christians do, but you’re not sure that the extra step of membership is necessary. It’s true that Scripture doesn’t command membership, but I believe the New Testament assumes it. Here are six evidences—from lesser to greater—that support the principle of church membership.

Local Churches Couldn’t Exist if All Christians Made the Choice Not to Join a Church

Just extrapolate, what would churches look like if all Christians decided not to join? A local church couldn’t conduct ministry; it couldn’t exist.

Before Covid I knew some people that were anti-vaccine for childhood diseases. In other words, they wouldn’t get their kids immunized. Their theory as I understood it was that their child was more likely to get the disease (or have a side effect) through the immunization than they were in normal life. And that was true. Because immunization has been so successful, a  child was more likely to get some childhood diseases through the immunization than through normal life. It was a very tiny percentage, but it was possible.

Don’t let the battles over Covid 19 vaccinations inform your understanding of this illustration; hang with me here. Why could some parents choose not to immunize their children against childhood diseases? Because the risks of immunizing seemed greater than the risks of not immunizing. And why did it seem that way? Only because most parents did immunize their children. If all parents made the decision not to immunize their children, then childhood diseases would come back with a vengeance. Some parents could choose not to immunize because they were presuming upon the majority of parents that did immunize.

I believe that some Christians can choose not to be members only because most Christians choose to be members. If all Christians chose not to join churches, then churches couldn’t exist. What would the church look like if everybody made the decision not to be a member? There would be no structure. Could you call a pastor, or own a building, or support missionaries, or vote on a budget? Without some members, churches couldn’t exist.

Church Membership Provides Many More Opportunities to Use Your Gifts (1 Cor 12).

Most churches have some ministries that are open to non-members, but most must be restricted to members. A church cannot have non-members working with children or teens, for example. You can’t have non-members on most committees. You cannot have non-members leading Bible studies—what guidance or authority are they submitted to? So the scope of ministries where you can use your gifts is seriously reduced if you don’t join a church, but you are supposed to use your gifts.

1 Cor 12:7 (ESV) To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

God wants you to use your gifts. I believe God wants you to have a wide range of areas where you can use your gifts. Church membership gives you more opportunities to use your spiritual gifts.

Pastors Have to Know Whom to Shepherd (1 Peter 5:2-3)

1 Peter 5:2 (ESV) shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;

Pastors have to know who’s in and who’s out in order to shepherd the flock. How can a pastor be expected to faithfully shepherd a flock when he can’t know who’s in the flock? Attendance is not enough. People float in and out of attendance pretty freely. And if non-membership is the norm, then there’s no way to know whom to shepherd. A pastor cannot be held responsible if the flock isn’t defined. But pastors are held responsible—they are commanded to shepherd the flock, so the flock must be defined somehow. The obvious way to distinguish one flock from another or one flock from wolves is through membership.

Non-Members Cannot Submit to Pastoral Leadership (Heb 13:17)

Heb 13:17 (ESV) Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Is it possible for non-members to submit to pastors? I don’t think so. A pastor isn’t watching for your soul if you haven’t committed to his flock. And you aren’t submissive to him if you’re not a member. Christians at large that walk through the doors of a church are clearly not expecting to submit to pastoral leadership, and the Bible doesn’t expect them too. All Christians shouldn’t submit to just any elder’s leadership either. So what group should submit to pastoral authority? It has to be those that are part of that specific church. Church membership makes it clear to the Christian that they need to submit to pastoral authority.

The Metaphor of the Body Implies Church Membership (Rom 12:3-5; 1 Cor 12:18–27)

1 Cor 12:27 (ESV) Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Obviously my body parts are members of my physical body. It wouldn’t make sense for my hand to be off by itself somewhere. And it wouldn’t make sense for my hand to come along with me, but not be attached to my body. If my left hand is detached from my arm but in my front shirt pocket, even though it goes everywhere with me, no one would think that my hand was a member of my body. Using this picture it used to be a part of my body, but it’s not now.

Of this passage in 1 Corinthians 12, John Piper says,

Church membership is implied in the metaphor of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:12–31. The original meaning of the word member is member of a body, like hand and foot and eye and ear. That’s the imagery behind the word member in the text. Verse 12: “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.”

So the question this imagery raises for the local church that Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians 12 is: Who intends to be treated as a hand or foot or eye or ear of this body? There is a unity and organic relationship implied in the imagery of the body. There is something unnatural about a Christian attaching himself to a body of believers and not being a member of the body.[1] http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/how-important-is-church-membership, Accessed on 2/22/2011.

The metaphor of the church as a body only makes sense if church membership is the norm—if church membership exists.

You Can’t Be Dismissed from Something You’re Not in (1 Cor 5:12-13; Mt 18:15-20)

1 Cor 5:12–13 (ESV) For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

The church discipline passages in the New Testament indicate that persistently sinning Christians that refuse to repent are supposed to be dismissed from the church. According to Matthew 18 we ultimately treat the unrepentant Christian as a Gentile and tax collector (Mt 18:17). That means to treat this person as an unbeliever. Are unbelievers allowed in a local church? Of course they are. So dismissing them doesn’t mean keeping them from attending church. It must mean excluding them from the ordinances and serving in the church.

There has to be an outside if there is an inside. So some people are inside the church and some people are outside. Who are those people that are inside? It cannot be simple attendance. If a Christian shows up one Sunday with unrepentant sin, a church doesn’t have the responsibility of pursuing church discipline just because they attended. So if it’s not attendance, how do we distinguish between those inside and those outside? Membership is the obvious criteria. Without membership existing, those church discipline passages just don’t make sense.

So, are you a member of a local church? I hope so. It’s for God’s glory, your good, and even your neighbor’s good. Pursue church membership. Every believer needs it.

References

References
1 http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/how-important-is-church-membership, Accessed on 2/22/2011.

A Simple Mark of Biblical Wisdom

For five summers during and after college I worked at a Christian camp in northern Wisconsin. The staff were mainly other single college kids like me, and we had plenty of energy by the weekend. One time a friend and I came across an old mining cave in a town not far from the camp. The fact that it had a fence around it with a No Trespassing sign just made it more tempting to us. It wasn’t a huge cave; it went in probably 50 feet, but it was a neat find that had an element of danger to it that was attractive to two young men.

My friend, Will, and I came up with a plan for showing some fellow camp counselors the cave on the next weekend and making it even more exciting. We decided we’d bring four or five female staff members there and stage a hold up with some guy staff members playing the role of hoodlums. To say this was not wise is an understatement; however, at the time it seemed like a surefire, exciting experience for us.

The first indication that this wasn’t a good idea was that several of the girls didn’t like the idea of climbing a barb wire fence with a No Trespassing sign on it. We convinced them it was okay and kept going into the cave. A second indication was just inside the entrance there was a huge boulder that wasn’t there the first time we came. It fell out of the ceiling in the intervening time! But we pressed on.

Soon our friends came into the cave behind us with ski masks on and started threatening Will and me. I was further in the cave and coincidentally had my girlfriend on one side and my ex-girlfriend on the other side of me. Both grabbed my closest arm, and they were both crying. My ex was whispering, “Dear Jesus please protect us” over and over and over. My girlfriend was shaking which I mistook at the time for sobbing. This was when it finally dawned on me that this was a dumb idea. I literally had no idea up to that point that some girls’ greatest fear is being assaulted.

The “hoodlums” demanded money and pushed Will around. At that point my girlfriend grabbed the stocking cap off of one of them and said, “Is this Danny?” What I thought was my girlfriend sobbing was actually her stifling giggles.[1]That girlfriend eventually became my wife and has been for 30 years. 🙂 But she was the only one. The rest of the girls did not forgive Will and me for quite a while.

That was a foolish idea from beginning to end. It was illegal (climbing over the fence), unsafe physically, unsafe emotionally, and unkind.

You know what Will and I didn’t do? We didn’t run this idea past our Camp Director, or Program Director, or really anyone that might have told us no. Why? Well we really didn’t want to hear anyone that would push back on our idea. We didn’t want to listen. We had a week to plan this, and at no time did we ask a more mature person what they thought of this idea.

There’s one chief characteristic of the wise person over the foolish person in the Book of Proverbs, and it’s simply this: wise people listen. Foolish people don’t listen. You can really summarize Proverbs that way. A wise son or daughter listens. That is taught by how often Solomon tells his sons to hear him. [2]All passages from the ESV.

Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching…. Prov 1:8
My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Prov 4:20  (cf. 4:1, 10; 5:1; 5:7; 7:24; 23:19)

We’re taught this when wisdom is personified in chapter eight and tells the naive to hear her.

Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right, Prov 8:6
Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. Prov 8:34  

We’re taught this truth generally.

The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. Prov 15:31 
Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to my knowledge, Prov 22:17 (cf. 23:9; 25:12)

But most clearly it’s taught when fools and wise people are contrasted.

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. Prov 12:15  
A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke. Prov 13:1  

There are other marks of wisdom in Proverbs—the fear of the Lord is the foundation of wisdom for example (Prov 1:7). But the primary mark is a wise person listens.

It’s easy for us forget this simple lesson. Give me a little ministry success, a little success in my family, maybe some actual spiritual growth over a besetting sin, and I start to think that I don’t have to listen. I can become less teachable. Not really unteachable, but I’m less teachable. I start to pick and choose whom I hear. Those that I think are spiritually less than me I ignore. I think “What could they teach me?” I become more defensive. I don’t hear rebukes (Prov 13:1) because I don’t think I could need them.

Are you in a spiritual place where you can listen to others? The foolish son doesn’t listen. Neither does the foolish parent. He’s condescending to those that share truth with him. Heed the Book of Proverbs. You must be a person that hears wisdom, that seeks for wisdom. Be a listener; be teachable, and you will also be wise.

My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding…. Prov 2:1–6

References

References
1 That girlfriend eventually became my wife and has been for 30 years. 🙂
2 All passages from the ESV.

Five Solid Reasons to Trust God

When you are battling doubt, when you’re anxious, when you question God’s ways, when you cannot see God in your circumstances (Job 23:8-10), you need reasons to trust God. Here are five from Scripture that have ministered to my soul. I’ve listed them mostly without additional explanation.

“Behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold. Job 23:8–10; cf. 9:11 (ESV)

1. Because We Are Commanded to Trust God (Ps 37:3; cf. Prov 16:20; Jer 17:7)

Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Ps 37:3 (ESV)

Trusting in God isn’t just a command to be obeyed with drudgery. Trusting God leads to happiness. The doubting, anxious, fretful Christian is not happy. That’s a miserable way to live. I know. I live there too often.

2. Because God Is Trustworthy (Ps 27:1-3; 1 Cor 10:13; cf. Dt 33:26-28; 1 Sam 12:11)

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident. Ps 27:1–3 (ESV)
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful…. 1 Cor 10:13 (ESV)

Every other place we put our trust is not worthy of our trust. God is sovereign and all-powerful, He is loving and good, and He is all-wise (Trust Triangle). He is trustworthy.

3. Because Anything Else Is Not Trustworthy[1]Gleason Archer, R. Laird Harris, and Bruce Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Revised. (Moody Publishers, 2003).

Look at some of the places we put our trust.

Man (Ps 118:8; Jer 17:5; cf. Ps 146:3; Prov 25:19)

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. Ps 118:8 (ESV)
Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. Jer 17:5 (ESV)

Riches (Prov 11:28; cf. Ps 52:5-7)

Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf. Prov 11:28 (ESV)

Idols (Isa 42:17; Hab 2:18; cf. Ps 31:6; 115:8)

They are turned back and utterly put to shame, who trust in carved idols, who say to metal images, “You are our gods.” Isa 42:17 (ESV)
“What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Hab 2:18 (ESV)

Military Power (Isa 31:1; cf. Dt 28:52; Ps 44:5-6; Jer 5:17; Hos 10:13)

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord! Isa 31:1 (ESV)

Your own righteousness (Ezek 33:13)

Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die. Ezek 33:13 (ESV)

Your own understanding (Prov 3:5)

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. Prov 3:5 (ESV)

Where else can you go? These and any other place you put your trust are unworthy of it. They will fail and disappoint. God cannot.

4. Because Those That Have Trusted God Have Not Been Disappointed (Ps 22:4-5; cf. Isa 28:16; Rom 9:33; 10:11; 1 Peter 2:6)

In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. Ps 22:4–5 (ESV)

God has a track record. Many Christians have trusted God, and they have not regretted it. They weren’t shamed or embarrassed that they trusted God. No Christian ultimately regrets trusting God. It’s always the right way to relate to God—with trust.

5. Because of the Results of Trusting in God (Ps 40:4; 84:12)[2]Gleason Archer, R. Laird Harris, and Bruce Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Revised. (Moody Publishers, 2003).

Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust, who does not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after a lie! Ps 40:4 (ESV)
O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you! Ps 84:12 (ESV)

Trusting God leads to the blessed life. It’s more than happiness, but it’s not less than that. The truly blessed believer trusts in God.

There are certainly more reasons to trust God, but meditating on these five alone should strengthen your soul and encourage your heart in the dark times when doubt and fear seem so much easier than trust.

References

References
1, 2 Gleason Archer, R. Laird Harris, and Bruce Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Revised. (Moody Publishers, 2003).

One Reason Christians Don’t Trust God

I taught all four of my kids to ride their bikes, but the most interesting one was my oldest daughter. My rule was when the training wheels came off, they never went back on again. This was, of course, before balance bikes existed, which frankly, is a genius idea. But when I was teaching my kids they had to learn how to balance, pedal, brake, and steer all at the same time—it’s amazing that any kids learned how to ride a bike in those days.

My oldest daughter didn’t like trying new things, and she certainly wasn’t interested in learning to ride without training wheels. But I insisted so we went over to the greentop—a former tennis court in our neighborhood. As I pushed her and she tried to practice everything I taught her, she let out a steady stream of “whoa, whoooaaa, whoa”s. It was an entertaining and unbroken string of “whoas” as long as she was on the bike. It’s hard to learn to ride without falling over, and my daughter did. Unfortunately she hit her front teeth on the greentop. When she got up she had green on her teeth! I felt terrible. One of her front baby teeth actually died because of this. Her dead tooth gave her a redneck smile for a few years.

Her definition of good was keeping the training wheels on forever. My definition of good was her learning to ride her bike. She didn’t like my definition. She didn’t trust that I really knew what was good for her. She especially questioned my judgment when she fell off and hit her teeth.

Suffering is like that. It can tempt us with distrust.

Years ago the president of my college defined the fear of God as “a conscious awareness of God’s presence.” What I love about that definition is it highlights that fearing God is not accomplished on a lone Sunday morning. A relationship with God involves Sunday church attendance, but it’s more than that. God intends that we relate to him 24-7 and not just one morning a week. In the Bible God has given us words that define our relationship with Him, that describe what we do in our relationship with God. These are the verbs that command us to do something towards God like fear, hope, obey, worship, serve, trust, and others. If we understand those words, we quickly realize that God intends us to relate to him all the time. All of us can go hours with no thought of God, but He’s there all the time and is calling us to find refuge in Him, hope in Him, trust in Him, etc. The Christian life is God-relational.

One of the primary verbs describing our relationship with God is trust. That’s not something that is accomplished by reading one book or attending one small group—it really is something that we do every day. In every circumstance we are supposed to trust in God and not ourselves.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. Prov 3:5 (ESV)

But often we don’t trust God. When God changes my schedule—and he does almost every day—I find it difficult to agree with God that his change is better than my original plans. While my relationship with God should mean that I trust him, I sometimes am disappointed with his providential intrusion into my carefully planned calendar, maybe even frustrated with God.

One reason that Christians don’t trust God is because they believe that he has failed them before, and therefore, they cannot trust him now. He didn’t do what they wanted him to do in their lives, so they believe that he has thwarted them. And if you think that, you are going to have a hard time trusting God going forward.

So how does this dynamic happen? How does a Christian end up thinking that God failed him? This sad progression happens in four steps.

First, I’m Surprised by Suffering. A trial comes into my life. It’s unexpected, and it causes me alarm. Unfortunately, I don’t have biblical categories for handling a Christian life that has suffering.

Second, I Analyze the Cause. I wonder why this trial has happened. I assume it must be punishment for sin; Christians tend to believe that trials are always or most likely God’s punishment for sin. However, in this case I can’t think of any obvious rebellion against God. Yes I fail like all others, but no specific failure seems to deserve this, and I’m not presently defying God’s authority.

Third, I Evaluate My Service: Then I remember all the things I’ve done for God. I give, attend church, read my Bible, and bring my kids to Sunday school and youth group. This evaluation will be very external—it will be things that can be measured like I am more into my Bible this year than last. Therefore, I kind of believe God owes me better than this. How could God let this happen to me?

Fourth I Condemn God’s Work. I’ve kept my end of the bargain. It doesn’t seem God has kept His. Ultimately I believe I’ve done good, and God has done bad. God has failed me.

That’s a common progression that leads to disappointment with God, and past disappointment is a reason that Christians don’t trust God today. We become skeptical of God. We doubt his goodness, control, and wisdom. But we’re disappointed because we think that God owes us better. He should endorse our plans, not change them in such difficult ways.

A wrong belief that makes this progression possible is that being a Christian means that we have God in our back pocket to make sure our plans come to pass. God is our lucky charm that makes sure our dreams come true. Unbelievers don’t have that assurance we think. We believe that trusting God means that I trust Him to make my plans come to pass because I can’t make them happen myself (I’ve talked about this elsewhere). But that’s not trust. The truth is, God’s not very good at getting us what we want if what we want is anything other than His glory. And I want a lot of things other than seeing God glorified. And when I don’t get those things, I get disappointed with God.

The mature believer knows that trials are not alien intruders into our lives. God uses trials; you should expect trials. Suffering is God’s plan for you. Remember what Peter wrote to persecuted believers in Asia Minor?

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 1 Peter 4:12–13 (ESV)

Suffering is not surprising. It’s the normal Christian life. Christians talk all the time about having a relationship with God; well, trust is indispensable to that relationship.

My daughter eventually learned how to ride a bike. And while I didn’t plan it to cost her a tooth, I did expect that she would crash her bike a few times. It was necessary for her to learn something valuable. And God intends suffering for your good as well.

Does this progression make sense to you? Does it maybe explain your present difficulty in trusting God’s work in your life? You can trust God. He is worthy of your trust.

When My Sin Is the Worst…

One of my goals in 2022 is to review my devotional journal from 10 years ago so I’m reminded of God’s sanctifying work in my life. I came across this today…

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Last night I was reminded of God’s grace again. I sinned against my wife and son, and God graciously forgave me. Because of my sin against my wife, I made a poor decision with my son. My sin against his mother affected him. I was wrong. God’s grace is all over my life. I have a son that I don’t deserve. He obeyed me when it was extraordinarily difficult to do so. He’s a much better son to me than I ever was to my father. In part I know God’s grace because of my son. I don’t deserve a son like him.

When my sin embarrasses me, I grow in humility—even if only temporarily. And it embarrasses me now to think about last night. The Gospel is precious because it’s not by works that I’m saved. When my sin embarrasses me, I’m especially sensitive to the message of the Gospel. God’s grace becomes a rich treasure and my only hope. When my sin is the worst, the Gospel is so much more precious.

Thank You Father for Your saving and sanctifying grace.

This is how the gospel becomes more precious to us—as we see our sin with more clarity and accuracy we realize how blessed we are that God would save us. Knowing our sin is an unusual blessing; it helps humble us, and humility draws us closer to God.

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. James 4:8-10 (ESV)

In Luke 6:36-50 right after a woman who was a great sinner washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, Jesus told the parable of the two debtors to Simon, the self-righteous Pharisee who was his host. One debtor owed a lot and his debt was cancelled; one owed a little and also had his debt cancelled. So Jesus asks Simon,

Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Luke 7:42b–43 (ESV)

I don’t appreciate the gospel when I don’t think I’m a very big sinner. When I have more in common with Simon the Pharisee’s self-righteousness than the immoral woman’s sorrow and repentance, the gospel won’t be that precious.

So, today, are you amazed by God’s grace? If not, could it be that you don’t think sin is that significant in your life? When your sin is the worst, the Gospel is so much more precious.