The Bible uses many images to describe the church. Last week we saw the church as a spiritual house (1 Pet 2:5). Given the audience of the letter (1:1) this is describing the universal church: all Christians joined together in one building.
But Paul uses the same image in 1 Cor 3:16, where the audience is a local church. The church (the people, not the building) are God’s temple, where God dwells.
Another image in 1 Cor 12:12 is the body. While we often think of the body of Christ as an image of the universal church (as Eph 4:12, 16), here Paul speaks of the local church. It was in the local church of Corinth that believers were either envious of gifts or dismissive of those without particular gifts. It was the local church joined together as the Christ’s body.
Yet another image is the flock. Jesus speaks of having one flock in John 10:16. Those who believe in Jesus are part of the universal church, his flock. Yet the image is also found in 1 Pet 5:2, speaking to elders of local churches.
Notice that each local church is not just part of the temple, body, and flock. We are the temple, body and flock. Yet there aren’t many temples, bodies and flocks, but one. What a mystery! Each church is distinct, yet wonderfully united.
So how do we join the church? It depends which church you mean. We join the universal church through faith in Christ and repenting of sin. But each local church has its own way of determining whether someone is part of them or not.
Here, we join through church membership. We’re overjoyed if you feel like this is your home and family, but if you haven’t already, we hope you’ll really join us through church membership.
A number of people have asked what we’re signing up to when we become members. When the Session is satisfied that the applicant is qualified to be a member (e.g. are baptised and professed faith in Christ, understand the core beliefs of Christianity and the Presbyterian Church’s understanding of the sacraments, and that there is a consistency between their profession and life), they are asked these questions before the congregation:
- Do you believe in one God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
- Do you repent of your sin, and with a humble and grateful heart put your trust in the mercy and grace of God and in Jesus Christ whose sacrifice on the cross takes away your sin?
- Do you promise to share regularly with your fellow Christians in worship on the Lord’s Day?
- Do you promise to be faithful in reading the Bible, and in prayer?
- Do you promise to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength and to give a God-honouring proportion of your time, talents and money for the Church’s work in the world?
- Do you promise to confess Christ before others, to serve him in your daily work, and to walk in his ways all the days of your life?
- Do you acknowledge your dependence upon the Holy Spirit to equip you and to enable you to be faithful to this your confession?
- Do you promise to submit to the authority of the Session as the exercise pastoral oversight of the congregation?
Why not join the membership classes? Once they’re complete you can decide if you want to take the next step and formally join us.
Today, church discipline is as rare as membership. That’s not surprising, because you can’t have discipline without membership. Last week we saw that membership clarified leadership and submission. Discipline is the ultimate, and sadly needed, expression of that leadership. And as uncomfortable as it makes us, it’s thoroughly biblical.
Jesus institutes church discipline in Matt 18 (v17 “and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”). He’s not talking about the Global Church, but the local church. This must be a defined group – one that has formally joined together in love, taking unrepentant sin seriously.
Paul calls for discipline in 1 Cor 5 where a man in the church was having sex with his father’s wife (v2, “let him who has done this be removed from among you”). How could he be removed unless it was a defined group? Even if becoming part of this group was less formal than our way, the concept is there.
Notice the purpose: v5, “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” He’s cast out so he’d see the severity of his sin and the hopelessness of being outside the church. They want him back. And this seems to happen in 2 Cor 2:6-7 (“this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him”). Again, for a majority you need a defined group.
Yes, sadly leaders sometimes abuse church discipline. They could be harsh, unfair. But abuse of a biblical concept is no reason to reject it. If you don’t trust the leaders, then certainly don’t become a member – but if you can trust the leaders, what’s stopping you?
‘Submit’ is an unpopular word in our culture. It’s an attitude that has infected the church, making the word ‘dirty’ and controversial. But it’s in the Bible, so we need to listen. It’s also relevant to our exploration of church membership.
The New Testament raises the issue of submission to church leaders several times, such as Hebrews 13:17 (“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account”), 1 Peter 5:2 (“Shepherd the flock of God that is among you”) and Acts 20:28 (“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers”). How should they be understood?
This is helpful both for the flock and the leaders. Are leaders responsible for every Christian they meet, or only for a specific group? Should the flock listen to every leader of every church, or just of their own local church?
This is where formal membership is important. How do the leaders know who the flock are? Does it include someone who attends the church twice in a row? The person who attends but makes no real contact with them? What’s a reasonable answer? Our way of solving this dilemma is church membership.
One thing Christians do in becoming members of a church is voluntarily submit to the leadership of that church. Relationships of responsibility and submission are made clear. Plus, members are given particular rights, including the ability to choose new leaders when there is the opportunity (Acts 6:1-6).
Last week we saw that membership helped identify who were genuine believers. Now we see it clarifies who is in a flock under particular shepherds. Are you willing to submit yourself to Christ’s under-shepherds?
Church membership classes are coming soon. Church membership isn’t often thought about today. You might wonder why it’s necessary. “What benefits come from being a church member?” “I’m already a Christian, why do this extra thing?” “Is it even in the Bible?”
It’s the last question which is key, as I’m sure you agree. You might be suspicious of the concept because the term ‘church member’ isn’t in the Bible. But over the next few weeks I’m hoping to show that the concept is there, even if the term isn’t. You might not agree with every argument made, but my hope is that the weight of all the verses and arguments will convince you, not only to become a member if you’re not, but to see the goodness in it.
This week, consider the reality of verses like Acts 2:41 (“And there were added that day about three thousand souls.”) and Acts 4:4 (“The number of men came to about five thousand.”)
They were keeping count of those who joined the church. Two things had to happen to do that: 1 – a person had to present themselves as a believer (no doubt by being baptised as they are converted); 2 – the leadership had to accept them as genuine believers (they wouldn’t let those they didn’t think genuine in).
The method for how this was done isn’t prescribed, but a form of church membership in this new movement is implied. It even shows up in Acts 5:13, where the people were scared to “join” the church (a word that is more than just “showing up”, but “sticking to”, “uniting with”).
Are you willing to both join the church and be recognised as a member? We’ll build on this topic in the next few weeks.