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Three Perspectives on Church Membership (Part 1): An Introduction

NOTE: This blog series was developed in parallel with a 3-part podcast series, “Why Church Membership?” Listen via embed below or click here.

Matt Gilleskie

This series of posts is an invitation. I have not lived up to the ideals that I will soon present. If you know me, then you know that I succumb to cynicism, bitterness, and selfishness, all of which affect my relationships in the church. If you do not know me, that simple fact is proof of my weakness. If I have not yet met you, then I have not fully pursued the convictions that I will soon introduce. So, with these posts I don’t intend to elevate my own character or to propagate human teaching. Instead, I hope that the Chapel Hill Bible Church would gather together around the Scriptures to learn from God Himself the importance and the role of church membership in the Christian life.

It is difficult to read Scripture and dismiss the motif of community. For instance, Scripture teaches that God is one and yet three. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have eternally coexisted in community. The motif continues in Eden. Though God deemed his creation good, he noted that “it is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18, emphasis mine). So, God created Eve to be a wife to Adam. Furthermore, God covenanted with Abraham, and over the course of generations God’s people became a mighty nation. In the climax of God’s steadfast love to Israel, Jesus Christ died to redeem the Church, and he extended the family of God to include Gentiles from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people. Finally, God’s word teaches that after Christ’s return, we will exist as “a great multitude that no one could number,” singing praises to God forever (Rev. 7:9). At every juncture in redemptive history, God has his family in mind.

I think there is general agreement that the family of God is a necessary part of the individual Christian’s life. However, from various conversations I have noticed that the mode of engaging in this community is debated. Disagreement arises from various understandings of the concept of “the church.” For some, this word refers exclusively to the Church universal – the group of regenerate Christians across time and space that will be ultimately and fully united to Christ as his bride. Whatever “the church” is, it is certainly not less than this. However, with this series of posts I want to propose a richer understanding of the church that, I think, reflects the church as God’s word understands it. I pray that these reflections on the nature of the church will not only animate the communal life of the Chapel Hill Bible Church but enliven your relationship with Christ as well.

Let me state my conviction outright: Scripture teaches that in addition to the church’s universal nature, it has local, definable, particular instantiations. These “local churches” are communities of believers who formally submit to the authority of God’s word and the derivative authority of elders (overseers, shepherds, or pastors). This particular group lives together, encourages one another, loves one another, worships together, and corrects one another when necessary. In short, the individuals that constitute this group are members of one another. And it is on this idea, church membership, that I wish to focus these posts.

I’ll cite four pieces of evidence that I believe support these convictions regarding the church and church membership. This evidence is by no means exhaustive, but these four points address key themes that lead to the convictions stated above.

  1. Universal and local. A vast majority of the letters of the New Testament are addressed to local churches or local church leaders. These letters have lasting import and ultimate authority over our lives today. Thus, they communicate something to us about church universal. But, God in his wisdom also highlights the importance of the local church by implication through the organization of Scripture. As the Christian religion organized and proliferated in the ancient world, God transmitted his divine instruction to local, particular groups of believers (e.g. the Roman church, the Corinthian church, the Colossian church), or the men in charge of such groups (e.g. Timothy or Titus). Even the table of contents of Scripture testifies to the central role of the local church in the Christian life.
  2. Life in the local church. Consider these verses from the book of Acts: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:42-44). I want to call attention to three points: 1) the body was devoted to their leaders’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers. There was some form of loving commitment amongst the body to one another; 2) awe was upon every soul and wonders and signs were being done. Therefore, the characteristics of the fellowship (regular teaching, communion, prayer) were good for both Christians and those who did not yet believe but resided in the same community; and, 3) all who believed were together. This verse implies physical proximity, a tight-knit community, indeed, a family.
  3. Church members’ commitment to one another. The author of the Hebrews addresses a problem that plagues the American church much like it plagued the church in Jerusalem. This problem is inconsistent church attendance. The author writes, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25, emphasis mine). There is much to draw out here, but I want to focus our attention on the italicized text. Meeting with our brothers and sisters in a committed, regular fashion is essential – we are told to not neglect it. Other passages of Scripture deal with church members’ commitments. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he condemns one among them who had “his father’s wife” (1 Cor. 5:1). He instructs the church, saying “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Cor. 5:2). This instruction presupposes a definable community from which one might be removed. Furthermore, later verses assume that the church gathers regularly and knows one another. For instance, verse 4 begins, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” (emphasis mine), and verse 6 says, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” Paul assumes regular assembly and frequent society in this early church. The community is in fact so formative, that one man’s sin may cause sin in other parts of the body. Most importantly, Paul shows that it is the responsibility of the Corinthian church members to correct their wayward brother. These texts highlight the loving commitment that church members are expected to have for one another.
  4. Church members’ submission to leadership. The author to the Hebrews writes, “Obey your leaders and submit to them” (Heb. 13:17). These leaders are church leaders in particular, as we will discuss in detail in the next post. The author presents an expectation that church members obey their leaders and submit to them in a formal and committed fashion.

These are just a few cases of God’s instruction to the church on how to live together. God has in mind our good as his children. He instructs us on the institution of the church, its regular fellowship, and its members’ commitment to one another for the good of the Body.

In the next two posts, I will focus on two Biblical reasons for church membership. In the forthcoming post, I explain the position that church membership is not about the individual member, but is an expression of love for and submission to one’s church leaders. In the final post, I explain that church membership is for the good of the member and through it a fuller obedience to Christ can be realized. I hope that these posts serve as an encouragement to you.

If you have questions about membership at the Chapel Hill Bible Church, please contact Ryan McKee, our Community Pastor.

While the core event of our life as a church community is the Sunday morning gathering, we are a large church, and the Sunday morning gathering does not foster relationships in the same way that a small group setting can. As such, life groups constitute much of the church’s community life. These are ten-to-twenty person groups that meet regularly outside of the Sunday morning gathering. If you have not joined a life group, I encourage you to do so.

Finally, I want to discuss this topic with you and by doing so get to know you better. Please email me at gilleskiematt@gmail.com or call/text at 919-428-4891. My wife and I would be happy to have you over for a meal or coffee. We live just two minutes from the church, so you won’t have to travel far!