THE PRACTICE OF THE CHURCH - Church Membership
THE PRACTICE OF THE CHURCH
Message Seven: A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership
Several weeks age now; we began a study of the church. We began by examining God’s purpose for the church. The purpose of the church is detailed for us in Ephesians 3:10. What is the purpose of the church? The purpose of the church is to make known, to display the manifold wisdom of God, not just to the seen world but also to the unseen world, the world of the angels. What is the wisdom of God? The wisdom of God is the gospel! That means that we as a church must be engaged in preaching/teaching and living out the gospel.
Not only has God been gracious to us in teaching us what the purpose of the church is, He has also been gracious to us in teaching us what the power is that He has given to us to help us accomplish His purpose. What is that power? It is the power of the Holy Spirit. We learned that we must seek the fullness of the power of the Spirit of God.
From the purpose and the power of the Church God has also graciously shown us what the practice of the church is to be. The practice of the Church is to be the preaching of the Word of God. We learned that if we get that right as a church then all of the other practices or the activities of the church would/should fall into place. Along the way we have examined what the preaching of the Word of God produces – spiritual life, and what it changes – our lives as we apply the Word of God in the power of the Spirit of God to our lives. Last week we examined the subject of Biblical conversion.
This morning I want to wrap up our study of the church though there is certainly more that could be said about the church by examining the subject of church membership. I want to this morning from the Scriptures give us all an understanding membership in a local church, and its relationship to our salvation.
Let’s begin by reviewing the Biblical definition of a church. The reason I do this is, once the church is properly defined I believe it will aid our understanding in how we should relate to the church as believers.
In defining the church we drew from church history. I’d like to revisit one of those sources this morning. The Belgic Confession of 1561 defined a Biblical church a true church in these terms. “The marks by which the true church is known is these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.” Those have been the accepted identifying practices of a true church, a biblical church down through time.
A church is a group of people who have been called out of or summoned out of this world to be placed into a spiritual body and that body is called together to accomplish a very specific purpose.
Why should I as a Christian join myself to this group of people who have been summoned out of this world into the Spiritual body of Christ?
Let’s start by making clear what being a member of a church does not do for you. Being a member of a church is not a means of salvation. In other words being a member of church does not make you a Christian any more than you sleeping in the garage won’t make you a Buick! You are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, period end of story! There are going to be plenty of baptized church members in hell because they are placing their confidence in those works rather than in the finished work of Jesus Christ.
The Scriptures are clear that only those who can give a credible profession of faith in Christ, only those who give clear evidence of conversion should be encouraged to join a church. So you don’t become a part of the church in order to be saved. If not for salvation then why should you join a church?
You should join a church because it is in the context of the local church that your Christianity is worked out. You’ve heard me make reference to this in the past but I hopefully today I can put some meat on the bones and I pray that you will see the reality of this truth today.
Why should I as a Christian join a church?
1. The Church is a place in which your salvation is validated.
As we have just said, you do not become a part of the church family in order to be saved. But in joining the church can help you in making sure you are saved.
“He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” (John 14:21, NASB95)
“If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. (John 15:10, NASB95)
“You are My friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:14, NASB95)
“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (John 13:17, NASB95)
One of the identifying marks of a true Christian is their obedience to the commands of Christ. When you become a part of the church you place yourself into a position where your brothers and sisters in Christ should hold you accountable to live according to what you say with your mouth. Within the context of the local church you should be encouraged and taught to obey the Lord’s commands and you should also be challenged when you don’t obey the Lord’s commands. This is one reason why people don’t want to join a church like ours that practices biblical accountability. But their aversion to accountability speaks volumes more about them than it does about us.
Let me quote Mark Dever on this very subject. He writes “Membership is a reflection of salvation. And if there is no reflection of our salvation, how can we be sure that we are truly saved?”
Far too many who profess Christ attempt to bring the fiercely American individualism into the church. But the church is not simply a collection of individuals who still desire to do their own thing. The church is where individuals join together with others to follow Christ. It’s not about you, or even the people that you are trying to reach. It is about the collective efforts of the church to fulfill the Lord’s command to make disciples.
A second reason you should become a member of a local church is the need that exists within the church. What is the need that exists within the church? The formation of the church by the Holy Spirit is just the beginning of the work that needs to be done. Those who are brought into the church by God need to be built up! Guess who has been given the assignment of building up the believers? To answer that question simply look around you. The assignment to build up the individual members of the church has been given to each one of us. Don’t fall into this trap of thinking that’s the Pastor’s job. Wrong. You have a responsibility and I have a responsibility of building each other up. One of the casualties of the American spirit is that in the church we have lost and therefore we totally neglect the corporate nature of the church. It is within the corporate nature of the church that our Christianity is exposed and validated. Within the context of the local church the reality of our salvation is revealed. The Scriptures repeatedly teach us and encourage us to examine our claim to conversion. The question you need to be continually examining your life by is “Do you have a vital relationship with Christ that changes your life and the lives of those around you?”
How can you tell if you do? “One of the ways you can discover the truth about your own life is to ask this question: Do you understand you’re following Christ fundamentally to involve how you treat other people, especially other people who are the members of your church? Have you covenanted together to love them and do you give yourself to that?”
I remember the time that this became a reality in my life. The light bulb went off in my head that Christianity is all about relationships. First and foremost our relationship to the Heavenly Father through the Lord Jesus Christ; but it also impacts every other one of our relationships. Many people profess Christ but they treat other Christians like dirt. They demonstrate no love to those they say are a part of their family. Something is seriously wrong. But those attitudes many times are tolerated in the church and many time encouraged in churches.
Mark Dever writes: “Have you claimed that you know a love from God in Christ and yet live in a way that gives lie to that claim? Do you claim that you know this kind of love that knows no bounds, and yet in your loving others you have set bounds, saying in effect, ‘I’ll go this far but no farther.’”
To lay hold of the claim that you possess the love of God but you do not live a life that backs it up should be a flashing red warning light, but too many it’s not anything to worry about. I and I believe the Scriptures have a real problem with those who claim to know Christ but they can rip the heart out of their fellow church members and not even blink an eye.
Commitment to a local church is a commitment to a group of people who will help you work through your problems. If you for instance have a problem with a sharp tongue you need to be shown by the church from the Scriptures that not only are you hurting others with your words, but also you are sinning against God. The church is to be a problem-solving place. For instance if you struggle with trust, the church is the place that should once again open up the Scriptures to you and help you see that lack of trust calls into question the character of God and is the opposite of faith. They need to be shown that without faith it is impossible to please God and that whatever is not done in faith is what? Sin!
Even as Christians we struggle with self-centeredness. Where should that tendency be confronted and corrected? In the church! God is concerned with our time spent with him but he is also concerned with how we treat each other. If your life is one string of broken relationships with churches and or individuals yet you claim to be a Christian then you my friend need to do some serious soul-searching! Each one of us should be investing our lives in others! There should be a real concern for others that leads us to action. Why do you think God gave you a spiritual gift?
“So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:12, NASB95)
God gave you your spiritual gifts not to use on yourself, but for the building up of others! Never forget that discipleship is both an individual project and a corporate activity. I’m not for any form of discipleship that isolates people from the church.
A third reason to become a part of a local church is to…
3. To glorify God
How do we as Christians bring glory to God? According to the Scriptures we do that by the lives that we lead. Peter wrote
“Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:12, NASB95)
What is it in our life that brings glory to God? Our good deeds; let’s apply the multiplying factor that happens when we join together as a church and perform good deeds. Now it is not simply and individual bringing glory to God but a whole group of people who display unity and love things the world knows little about and as a result God is glorified.
God has always intended that the way that we live our lives to be a source of identification for us that we are followers of Christ.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, NASB95)
Remember that a disciple as it is used in the New Testament is synonymous with salvation, not a second level Christian. The way you treat others identifies you as a true Christian or not.
WHAT DOES BEING A MEMBER OF A CHURCH MEAN?
In other words what are my responsibilities to the local church that I am a part of?
First of all it begins with our salvation. It means that we have been humbled and brought to a place of repentance and faith. We display that working of God’s grace in our lives through two actions.
The Scriptures present baptism as the first step for a Christian. It is not optional, it is a command from the Lord to the believer, and the key word is believer.
2. By agreeing to and signing a statement of faith/church covenant
What does our church covenant contain?
Let me point out four primary responsibilities that are required by the church covenant and of course all of these are based on the Scriptures.
1. Attend the services regularly.
If you desire to come once a week but no more then you can certainly attend but you can’t be a member. When I use the term services I mean that to include our small groups. They are an important means to your ongoing spiritual growth and they should not be considered an optional service.
2. Attend Communion
I marvel at people who never take communion, won’t adjust their schedule if we have it at night or whatever. But if you are going to be a member of the church you need to understand that you are expected to participate in the Lord’s Supper as often as we offer as a church.
3. Practice the Spiritual Disciplines on a consistent basis.
What are Spiritual Disciplines? Prayer, reading the Scriptures, memorizing the Scriptures, meditating on the Scriptures, evangelism, giving and there are others that we could include but I think you get the picture.
4. Giving regularly to the church
If you have attended here any length of time at all you know we don’t bring up the subject of money each week. But that does not mean that it is not an important part your spiritual life. The Scriptures are full of commands to give. Giving just like attendance, communion, spiritual disciplines is to be part of the normal part of your relationship to the church.
Honor the Lord from your wealth And from the first of all your produce;
(Proverbs 3:9, NASB95)
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.
(Malachi 3:10, NASB95)
“Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.” (Luke 6:38, NASB95)
Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.
(1 Corinthians 16:1-2, NASB95)
Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7, NASB95)
It is clear from the Scriptures that God commands us to give. The benchmark, the starting point is 10% of our gross income. You say tithing belonged to the law, fine, you are under grace and grace always gives more than the law. So for us who are under grace we should be giving more than 10%.
Let me give you some help about giving. First of all you should develop consistent giving habits. You should have a disciplined plan for giving. Don’t wait until you get here to decide to give or what to give. Prepare your giving as soon as you get your paycheck. Honor the Lord first with your paycheck. Dad and Mom let your children know that you give to the church let them see you write out your check.
By the way if you miss a week God expects you to make it up. Just because you forget your check book doesn’t mean you’re off the hook that week. If you go on vacation don’t spend God’s money. The church has expenses just like your family does and it cannot survive without the obedient giving of those who are a part of the church. Your giving to the church is an investment in eternity. God has promised to bless those who give sacrificially.
Church membership must be a reflection of a living commitment or it is worthless. This is something that many do not understand; they probably don’t understand it because they have never considered it in these terms.
Church membership has become virtually meaningless in many churches. Do you know who is responsible for this sad state of affairs? The churches are! If the church treats membership is meaningless then why should church members treat it any differently?
How do churches treat membership in such a way that it becomes meaningless?
1. By emphasizing membership over discipleship.
For many churches their goal for your life is to simply make you a member, but God’s goal for you life is to make you a disciple. I believe before you become a member you must demonstrate your commitment to discipleship. If you aren’t concerned about being a disciple then why would you want to part of an organization that has one of it’s stated goals to be the making of disciples?
2. By having little or few expectations for its members.
If a church has little expectations of its members guess what it’s going to get? NOTHING! In fact the church growth experts tell pastors to not even mention church membership because it will turn people off. Expect nothing and that is exactly what you will get.
3. By neglecting church discipline
What point is there in belonging to something that has no expectations, no required commitments and anything goes? Not much! The exercise of church discipline demonstrates that membership in the church means something. Everyone who becomes a member is supposed to sign a membership covenant. To some unfortunately that covenant is worth the paper they signed. But for many others take their commitment to the church very seriously as we should. So what should we do with those will not live up to their commitment? Should we just ignore them, or should be use biblical means to help them honor their commitment. When people will not honor their commitment to their church in order to protect the integrity, the value of church membership for the faithful committed members you have to remove them from membership; I believe this must be done if membership in the church is to have any value.
Remember we said that it is within the context of the church that your salvation is validated. If a person never attends then their salvation cannot be validated. I believe it is unloving and unkind to leave a person on the membership roles of the church leading them to believe that everything is okay between them and God because they are a member of the church. When the church takes the action to remove from the membership of the church those who fail to honor their commitment to the church their must be a warning to that person that their actions are not validating their salvation, in fact it is giving evidence that they in fact have not been born again. That is why it is more loving and shows more concern for their soul for that person when we loving carryout church discipline.
Let me close with a final quote from Pastor Dever: “Finally, joining a particular local church is an outward reflection of an inward love – for Christ and for His people. And, as we see so often in this life, the greatest love is rarely merely spontaneous; it is more often planned, premeditated, and characterized by commitment.”