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What is Church Membership? Part 1

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

Sam’s Club or Costco?

The automatic door slid open as the sensor detected my straddling presence. My eyes feathered suddenly as a gust of wind temporarily knocked me off course. The clamor of shoppers uninvitedly charred my ears, and a host of employees scanned my appearance in search of an appropriate form of identification. “Are you a member with us?” said the smiling middle age woman with an employee-branded-vest that covered her civilian clothes. Her hair was tied in a ponytail and her beige-colored-glasses sat across the brim of her nose. I gave her a slight smile not realizing that a mask covered my face. Regardless, I entered. The items seemed endless and the hoarding unfettered. I had, finally, infiltrated into the marvelous land of Sam’s Club![1]


In our modern times, membership affiliation can be identified in a myriad of places; ranging from fitness centers to gas stations to grocery stores. Membership carries with it a consumeristic notion. It assumes a vast degree of advantages that are monetarily tied to contractional elements of corporal institutions. These same assumptions have been associated with the Hmong Christian church. Funeral rites and wedding services are selling points as well as conversional schemes. Though these inquiries have brought rapid numerical growth, the long-lasting effects have been questionable; that is, these methods used to fill the pews have been ineffective to transform the broken, depraved hearts of men. Thus, the discrepancies found within next generation leadership and a lack of healthy congregations are tied to the church’s atheological notion of membership (for further examination click here). As the saying goes, “what you win them with, you win them to.”


Demarcation of Church Membership:


To this point, membership must be given a definition that is beyond the cultural mores of consumeristic individualism. A reformation of terms need biblical transformation and theological reconstruction. Thus, the deconstruction of membership from the fitness arenas and shopping centers play an enormous role in traversing the faulty premises that haunt modern evangelicalism. The etymology of the Greek term ekklesia, which means “gathering,” has as its root a verbal form from kaleo, or “to call.” Consequently, the church can be rendered as “the called-out ones.” Yet, if the community of saints are “called-out,” how would membership in a local church convey such a distinction from a broken world? Four D’s will assist in answering the theological formation of covenantal membership within a local context. For the sake of space, I will cover two of the four D's in this initial article.


Distinguishing the People of God. The Lord Jesus Christ was adamant when He said, “I will build My church” (Matt. 16:18). His disciples, then, would do well to assure that church membership be marked upon the same profession of faith affirmed by the Apostle Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). It is this Spirit-wrought, effectually marred proclamation which allows dead men to enter the kingdom of the Living God. Through this dominion-transfer the people of God are distinguished and set apart from the people of the world (cf. Col. 1:13-14). “To become a Christian is to be given institutional identity and office of kingdom citizen,” writes Jonathan Leeman, “a word that communicates the idea of being ruled while sharing in rule.”[2] There is no longer enslavement to sin, but rather enslavement to the righteousness of God (cf. Rom. 6:15-23). As the Reformers themselves conveyed, “the Word creates the church.” Thus, the local church is the outworking of the universal church (for greater emphasis upon this topic click here). As Mark Dever assures, “Membership in a local church is not an antiquated, outdated, unnecessary add-on to true membership in the universal body of Christ; membership in a local church is intended to be a testimony to our membership in the universal church.”[3] Membership, then, identifies those who are regenerate believers and, in turn, those who belong to the covenantal Lord Himself.


Consequently, church membership affirms and discerns genuine professions of faith and, simultaneously, identifies believers as distinct or "called out ones" from the world. Membership is not merely social inclusion, but, foundationally, a divinely orchestrated call to commune with/as the people of God. John Hammett rightly comments in saying, “Membership is essential to the church because recognizing members is what the church has been authorized to do; it is not all the church is called to do and be, but it is specifically what the church as church is authorized to do.”[4] To this end, the stewardship of the church to evangelize/recognize a fellow believer cuts two ways. The first, as was stated before, is receiving, affirming, and equipping the child of God into the fold of God. Secondly, it is meant to distinguish believers from unbelievers in order to faithfully reach the lost through the proclamation of the Gospel. False conversion breeds false inclusion which, in turn, produces hell-bound church members which is contrary to the love of the Gospel.[5] Faithful stewarding of regenerate church members, then, is of the upmost importance!


Thus, the local church is her members; that is, believers who gather and administer the ordinances in affirmation of one another’s profession of faith make up the physical expression of a local church. The church is the called-out ones who are called to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Dever helpfully states, “No one gets saved and then wanders around by him or herself, thinking about whether to join a church. People repent and are then baptized into the fellowship of a church. Looking to Christ as Lord means being united to Christ’s people.”[6] Church membership, then, embodies a saint’s belonging into the church and, in turn, distinguishes her from the world.


Defending the Gospel. The assignment given to Adam in the garden was to “work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15); that is, he was given dominion over the land—Eden—to safeguard its development and propel its expansion (Gen. 1:26).[7] Similar language was attributed to the priestly order of the temple/sanctuary in which the priestly task was given to “work” and “watch over” it (Num. 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6). Furthermore, the priests were commissioned to render worshipful items as “clean” or “unclean” (e.g., Lev. 13:13, 17, 23, 28, 34, 37, 59). Retrospectively, Adam is seen as a priest/king within the garden borders whose vice-regency was in concert with the covenantal Lord Himself. This priestly role, then, according to Leeman, originated with Adam and “passed along to Abraham, then Israel, then David, and is eventually fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ, to whom the church is united.”[8]


To this end, the Apostle Peter renders the church as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9, italics mine). As Leeman rightly configures, the mantle of church membership is an office, respectively.[9] Church members function under the mantle of priest/king and, thus, must upkeep the standard of righteousness that is found in Christ Jesus alone. Leeman goes on to say, “To speak then of the democratization of priestly rule that comes with the new covenant is to say that every individual member has been deputized to speak and act as an authorized and named ambassador for God. . . . And if each is a priest-king, each has an obligation to ‘work’ and to ‘watch over’ the dwelling place of God, to work for the expansion of the garden or temple, and to guard the inside.”[10] Church membership, then, not only has the responsibility to belong to the body but, also, to protect her.


Members protect the church and, furthermore, the Gospel in three central ways. First, by receiving and accepting members. As was stated earlier, to affirm one’s faith and, hence, embrace new persons into the local church is to affirm their understanding and expression of the Gospel of Christ. To receive anyone into membership contrary to an orthodox confession of faith would be to threaten the church and her witness. Secondly, members are responsible for the up-keeping of sound, biblical preaching/teaching. Congregations are not meant to passively engage in the public proclamation of the Word. Quite the contrary, they are to employ themselves to the faithful rendering of the Gospel. Similarly, as the Judaizers tampered with the Gospel of Christ, Paul does not address the elders nor leaders of the churches of Galatia. Rather, he charges the members themselves and calls them back to the true Gospel through repentance (Gal. 1:6; 11; 3:1-6). Third and lastly, church discipline upholds the standard for godly living. By living covenantally together, members of the church are to keep one another accountable through word and deed to the proclamation of the Gospel (e.g., 1 Cor. 5:1-13). Church discipline, then, should not be seen as a promptly-induced-organizational-purge. Rather, a steady obligated charge to live intently with one another. Notice that the first step in church discipline, according to Jesus, is to “tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matt. 18:15; italics mine; cf. 18:15-20). This, in turn, is a member-to-member accountability; that is, before church discipline is taken to the elders and leaders of the congregation, the members are to give oversight each to one another. Simply put, members of the church are to defend the Gospel proclamation amid one another. How and why? Because of their local covenantal membership to each other.


Expressing God’s Covenantal Marker:


Church membership is not an arbitrary construct for western sensibilities, nor is it mere organizational zeal for organic entities. Rather, membership within the church is fundamentally covenantal; that is, it is an expression girded in God’s redemptive plan in propagating forth His Gospel to the ends of the earth. It is the outworking of His covenantal inclusion of His people through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. As Gregg R. Allison rightly contends, “This new covenant relationship between God and Christ-followers is initial, prior to, foundational for, and generative of the covenantal relationship that exists between church members.”[11] Meaning, there are familial significance for the outworking of membership as well as emblematic ties to the office of priest/king. Thus, to engage in church membership is to align oneself through the power of the Spirit to God’s economical charge in redeeming His elect. The church, then, is not merely a social construct built upon anthropological intent. Rather, the church is divinely designed to call out the elect from a dark and broken world.


Thus, to neglect church membership is to deprive ourselves of the covenantal expression found within the gathered people of God, the church. In doing so, we circumvent one of the primary means given by God to build and sanctify His bride. To this end, church membership not only serves the self for further development, but, simultaneously, provides an individual a tool to sharpen others within the fold of Christ. All of which is done to the fame, honor, and glory of God. Soli Deo Gloria!

 

***footnotes***

[1] This is dedicated to the families of Kenny Yang and Shelia Yang Thao. Wal-Mart rules!

[2] Jonathan Leeman, “Introduction—Why Polity?” Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age, ed. Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015), 15.

[3] Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 9Marks (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 164.

[4] John Hammett, “The Why and Who of Church Membership,” Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age, ed. Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015), 172.

[5] See Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline, 9Marks (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 229-270.

[6] Mark Dever, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, 9Marks (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 46.

[7] See G. K. Beal. The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. ed. D. A. Carson, NSBT. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004. See also G. K. Beale and Mitchell Kim. God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014.

[8] Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 36.

[9] Ibid., 33-59.

[10] Ibid., 48.

[11] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, FOET (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 128.

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the husband to Debbie and the father to McCayden (12), McCoy (11), McColsen (9), and DeYoung (5). He is a Teaching Pastor at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN and a homeschool dad to his four children. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.

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