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.

How to Know If a Sin Characterizes a Professing Believer

The New Testament has several passages that claim certain sins cannot characterize genuine believers (Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:3-5; etc.). These passages mean that some people that claim salvation don’t actually possess it.

That begs the question, what does it mean to be characterized by a sin? If believers can commit any or all of those sins (and they can), but they cannot be characterized by them, then what constitutes being characterized by these sins?

I think another of the Apostle Paul’s epistles helps us.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Cor 6:9–11 (ESV)

This occurs in a section forbidding lawsuits among believers, and it seems like a rough segue by Paul. He prefaces this paragraph by saying don’t be deceived. Apparently, what Paul is about to say is controversial. He knew that it’s easy to get it wrong even though what he says is very plain. It’s important that you get this right because your eternal destiny could be in danger. Going astray from the truth (being deceived) in this context means believing that these sins could characterize a genuine believer. No. Believers don’t habitually commit these sins. Don’t be deceived. Don’t let your sin tell you otherwise.

Paul then lists ten sins in verses 9 and 10.

  • sexual immorality
  • idolatry
  • adultery
  • passive homosexuals
  • active homosexuals
  • thievery
  • covetousness
  • drunkenness
  • slander
  • swindling

The passage says that none of these sins can characterize believers. Unbelievers will not inherit salvation, and these sins are characteristic of unbelievers. So what does it mean that these sins characterize you?

Here’s how I’ve thought through this.

No One Sin Is Worse than Another—Any Is Evidence that You Are Unregenerate

That’s not how we look at this list, is it? There’s one sin reflected in two words that we think is worse than any other sin on the list.

The two words for homosexual conduct have some controversy, but only because it’s not culturally acceptable to say that engaging in homosexuality is sin. It’s hard to deny the plain understanding of condemning homosexuality in these two words unless you have a bias or an agenda. There is no linguistic controversy here.

So homosexual behavior is clearly condemned, but it’s no worse than any other sin on the list. Any of these sins is evidence that you are unregenerate—that you’ve not truly been saved.

It’s just our culture that singles out homosexuality. Corinthian culture might have said that covetousness was the worst sin on the list. Corinth was a sex-drenched city, so the sexual sins on the list probably didn’t seem so bad to them. But covetousness might have been frowned upon.

Both the Corinthians and us are wrong if we try to single out a sin and say that one is worse than the others. It’s not. Any sin on this list is evidence that you are unregenerate. Greed is just as likely to keep you out of the kingdom as homosexuality.

No One-Off Is Condemning—It’s the Inability to Say No to Your Sin that Condemns

Paul is not telling us that the single slip makes your salvation questionable. It’s the persistent unrestrained practice of these sins that prove your salvation was never genuine. 

These behaviors cannot characterize genuine Christians. Persisting in such sins is the problem. It’s the habitual practice of them. When you quit fighting the good fight against these sins, your profession of salvation is questionable.

This is again where we get it wrong. It’s not having homosexual temptations that proves you are unregenerate. It’s consistently giving in to them that proves you’re unregenerate. Just like it’s not having adulterous temptations that proves you’re unregenerate. It’s refusing to fight them and giving in that puts your salvation in danger.

As long as you are fighting the good fight against these sins, then you are not the one Paul is talking about. It’s when we give in and become characterized by them that we are in danger. The occasional slip-up is not what Paul is talking about here. It’s the habitual practice of these sins that puts your salvation in jeopardy.

What About Homosexuals (and Others) that Still Claim Christ?

Sometimes homosexuals that claim Christ and their sin will say essentially, “Nothing is different. I still love Christ. I’m just being true to who I am.” You could have this discussion about many of the sins on the list. A drunkard can say that he’s being true to who he is. So could the fornicator. And then they go a step further and say it hasn’t affected their relationship with God. “My prayer life is just as good—maybe better—than it ever has been.” Is it possible that nothing is different?

Do we believe God’s Word or do we believe their experience? One likely answer to this dilemma is this. Their Christianity has always been external. They may have grown up in church and served in so many ways, but they’ve never known a real relationship with God, so nothing is different. It was all works righteousness before, and it’s still works righteousness. God was absent from their religious experience before, and He’s still absent. They never were genuinely saved, that’s why they don’t notice a difference.

Remember how Paul starts verse 9? Don’t be deceived. They are deceived.

What About Addictions?

If someone is addicted to alcohol—they’re a drunkard, does drunkenness characterize their life? Or if a young man is addicted to pornography, does that characterize his life?

I think the key with addictions is whether the person is fighting it or giving in. A believer will fight sin. He might have lots of failures and only a few successes, but he won’t give up. He will keep fighting until sin is eradicated in his life.

What does progress for a believer mired in an addiction look like? You should see incremental steps in the right direction. Ed Welch developed some guidelines, and I like them.[1]Edward T. Welch, “Breaking Pornography Addiction,” CCEF, https://www.ccef.org/resources/blog/breaking-pornography-addiction-part-1, Accessed on August 10, 2022.

  • A decrease in the frequency of a sin is a true good. It’s not good that you are still indulging in pornography, but if you are doing it less, you are going in the right direction.
  • A change in the actual nature of the sin is progress. If you are no longer having an affair or premarital sex, and now you are battling pornographic fantasy, it’s good that your struggle has changed from your actions to your imagination.
  • A change in the battleground is progress. When your battle has moved from purchasing materials or going onto explicit internet sites to battling the old fantasy tapes that are still in your mind, that’s movement in the right direction.
  • An increase in honesty and accountability is progress. You are moving forward when you are willing to be truly candid and accountable to a trusted friend, spouse, or pastor and say, “Here’s where I’m struggling.” An appropriate openness to others is a very significant step towards change.
  • Not always responding to difficult circumstances by indulging in sin is progress. If your life gets hard and instead of going straight to your fantasy life, you pray for help and ask others to pray for you, then God is at work.
  • Repenting more quickly is progress. Learning to go more quickly to the Lord of life, instead of wallowing for days, weeks, and months in the gloom of “I failed again,” is a sign that God is at work in your life.
  • Learning to love and consider the interest of real people is progress. Your immoral fantasies use other people in an imaginary world. Caring for others, even in small ways, means that Jesus is changing you

So a believer can be addicted to, but cannot be characterized by sin.

God’s Saving Grace Will Change Your Behavior

“And such were some of you.” What a great verse! The Corinthian church was full of ex-drunks, ex-fornicators, ex-idolaters, ex-swindlers, ex-adulterers, and ex-homosexuals. They were washed, sanctified, and justified.

If what I’ve said about the list of sins in 1 Cor 6:9-10 is true, and it is, then it’s possible that your fellow Christian that struggles with homosexual temptations is the genuine Christian, and you are the so-called one. They’re fighting against their temptations, but you’ve given in to yours. You don’t fight your slandering tongue. You don’t fight your covetous heart. Even though they’re tempted by a sin you find appalling, you’re the one in danger of hellfire because you love your sin. You don’t hate it. You covet all the time and don’t fight it. That’s not characteristic of a Christian.

Salvation changes people. They cannot habitually do the same sins they used to. You cannot experience God’s grace and have behavior that contradicts that grace.

Fight the good fight. The fact that I want to fight against these sins is evidence that my salvation is genuine. Real Christians hate these sins—even the ones that come naturally to them, like adultery. Fight them in the power of the Holy Spirit. Don’t give in.

References[+]

References
1 Edward T. Welch, “Breaking Pornography Addiction,” CCEF, https://www.ccef.org/resources/blog/breaking-pornography-addiction-part-1, Accessed on August 10, 2022.
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