Church Membership and Choosing a Church
by: Brian Schwertly
edited for this publication by: Bill Wright
The honest study of church government and discipline clearly demonstrates that the New Testament church was not a mere voluntary association, or merely a loose aggregation of individuals. The Church was created by divine institution with a definite form of church government and strict rules of discipline for its own propagation and preservation. The New Testament speaks of pastors (Eph. 4:11), shepherds of the flock (Ac. 20:28), teachers (1 Cor. 12:28), and elders, overseers or governors (1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Tim 3:2; 5:17). There are also deacons (Ac. 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:8-13) who handle the financial affairs of the church. Elders are responsible to teach (Eph. 4:11-12), exhort (1 Tim. 6:2), admonish (1 Thess. 5:12-13), “rebuke with all authority” (Tit. 2:15), and preach (2 Tim. 4:2). Church leaders receive their authority from Christ to edify the church and not to destroy it (2 Cor. 10:8). As guardians of the flock they have a responsibility (after following the necessary levels of admonition) to “reject” (Tit. 3:10), “put away from” the church (1 Cor. 5:13) and regard as “heathen” (Mt. 18:17) those who do not repent of immorality and heresy. They also must re-admit into church membership all those who repent (2 Cor. 2:6-8). Calvin writes, “We see how God, who could in a moment perfect his own, nevertheless desires them to grow up into Godly maturity solely under the education of the church. We see that all are brought under the same regulation, that with a gentle and teachable spirit they may allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed to this function.”
We live in a time in which many professing Christians regard church membership as optional. Some believe that church membership as something that men devised for pragmatic reasons; that it has nothing to do with the requirements of Scripture.
One often hears statements and questions such as:
- “Where does the Bible say ‘Go join the local church?’”
- “Church membership is legalistic. It was devised so that corrupt church officials could gain control over the people.”
- “I’m a Christian but I don’t believe in the institutional church.”
- “The institutional church is totally corrupt so I worship at home with my family.”
- "My relationship to God is a very private and special matter. It is between me and my Savior. I don’t want to impede this relationship by joining a church with all its problems.”
- “I’m part of the invisible church. Therefore, there is no need for me to join the visible local church.”
- “The local church is a good thing, but joining it is a purely voluntary affair and I am simply too busy to get involved with it right now. Maybe I’ll join when I’m not so busy.”
Is membership in a local church purely voluntary like joining the Lion’s Club or the Boy Scouts? Is it something men devised to lord it over other men and gain control over their money? The biblical evidence for church membership is abundant, overwhelming, and contrary to these beliefs as enumerated here.
Reasons for Disbelief in Active Church membership
There are reasons why so many people who claim to be Christians have such a negative, unbiblical view of church membership:
- First, many churches have not instructed people regarding this issue and many churches themselves regard membership as optional. When churches do not instruct Christians on this subject or they hold to an unscriptural view then there need be no surprise when Bible ignorance and unbiblical views abound.
- Second, our post-industrial society coupled with the American view of individualism has not contributed to the cohesiveness of our society. Adults spend most of their waking hours away from home and community at the corporation. Americans move often and thus many times cannot set down strong roots in a community or kindle long term personal relationships.
- Third, many people have had bad experiences with church officers who were heretical, arbitrary and dictatorial toward their members. Many churches today teach heresy (incorrect or wrong Doctrines) from the pulpit and are legalistic regarding ethics.
- Fourth, many people reject church membership because they don’t want to do anything that interferes with their autonomy, missing church for sinful, self-centered reasons.
The solution however is not to abandon membership in God's Church in its local expression but to join a biblical church. That is, join a church that strictly holds to Sola Scriptura (God's Holy Word alone) as the authority for our Faith and practice. A church where church officials acknowledge that they only have authority delegated by Christ and thus can only declare and command what is revealed in the Scripture. God’s word strongly condemns all the unscriptural views regarding church membership, for these constitute rebellion against God's Word and therefore rebellion against God.
The Truth about the Necessity of Church Membership
There is no Biblical excuse for refusing to be identified with the local (Bible-believing and teaching) visible church. While there is no explicit commandment in the Bible which says, “Go join the local church.” But, even so, the mandate for active church membership is clearly understood from other biblical doctrines.
The first area of biblical teaching that infers church membership is church government. Christ instituted the church and through his Apostles set up church officers and laws for the government of His church. The existence of ecclesiastical rulers, governors or overseers presupposes not only some sort of ecclesiastical power (right to rule) but also that there is a group of people to be governed.
Jesus, who is the Good Shepherd of His sheep (cf. John 10:7-18), has placed under-shepherds over His flock for their protection and edification. “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock."
“And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that...administrations...” (1 Cor. 12:28). “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops [literally overseers] and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). “From Miletus he [the apostle Paul] sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them...‘Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood’” (Ac. 20:17, 18, 28).
Elders are appointed by the Father (1 Cor. 12:28), given to the church by the Son (Eph. 4:11-12), and made elders of the church by the Holy Spirit (Ac. 20:28). Church elders (presbuteroi) or overseers (episkopoi) were the pastoral leaders of the various congregations.
Elders were appointed in every church (Ac. 14:23; Tit. 1:3) and were lawfully ordained by the laying on of the hands of a presbytery (1 Tim. 4:14; cf. Ac. 13:2-3; Rom. 10:14-15). The name elder denotes that a man must be a mature Christian (i.e., a man of experience and of biblical wisdom) in order to be a leader in the church. The designation overseer speaks of the type of work that elders do. They oversee the flock.
The office of elder was carried over into the church from the government of the Old Testament synagogues. Christ made some changes in it to meet the needs of the New Covenant churches.
What needs to be noted is that elders had certain specific responsibilities that presuppose a group of church members who were under their care. One of their primary responsibilities was to rule, govern or lead the church:
- “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17).
- “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thess. 5:12-13).
- “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you.... Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:7, 17).
Note that all these passages assume that a special relationship exists between church governors and the members of the churches that these men have a responsibility to shepherd. Consider, elders are not responsible to look after the affairs of Atheist, Buddhists, Hindus, and other idolaters. Nor are they responsible for unbelievers and professing Christians who are not members. Such can ask the pastor and other elders for counsel and advice but are not under the elders’ authority and cannot be subject to discipline. There are a number of statements in the above passages that presuppose a covenant of church membership. First, “brethren,” professing Christians. Unbelievers and immoral persons who like to occasionally attend a church service are excluded.
Second, established ecclesiastical authority over a specific group of people. Elders are “over you in the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:12). They “rule over you.... They watch out for your souls” (Heb. 13:7, 17).
Church elders have a rule only over a set group of people. They “labor among you” (1 Tim. 5:17). That is they labor, rule over their own congregation.
They must "give an account” before the Lord regarding their performance of oversight. A shepherd is responsible for his own flock, not for all in the forest.
Third, the brethren are commanded to “obey those who rule over you, and be submissive” (Heb. 13:17). They are “to recognize” and “highly esteem” their own elders.
Apart from the concept of a church covenant in which professing Christians place themselves under the authority of elders in a local church, and are specifically under their care, these New Testament passages make no sense and are unworkable, for Christians who do not submit to just anyone who claims to be a pastor or elder, but to their own Elders.
An ecclesiastical (church) function that presupposes church membership is church discipline. A person cannot be cast out of an organization without first joining and being a part of that group? A person who is not a member of a church cannot be disciplined by that church.
Jesus taught that the church (the Elders) when functioning a ruling body has the final determination in disciplinary matters. “ Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like an unbeliever and a corrupt official. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 18:15-18).
The intention is clear, the local church only has jurisdiction over professing Christians who are under its care. That is, professing Christians who have taken a vow of church membership.
The apostle Paul also taught the necessity of discipline. After rebuking the Corinthian church for not disciplining a man living in gross sexual immorality he wrote, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:4-5).
Paul’s explanation of the necessity of immoral persons being removed from the Body is about Professing Christians, who are immoral in behavior, can corrupt a church as leaven permeates a lump of dough (1 Cor. 5:6-7). Believers are not to keep company with anyone who professes to be a Christian yet who leads an immoral lifestyle.
Paul makes a clear distinction between the world and the church. “For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person’” (1 Cor. 5:12-13). Church discipline is not only the proper and necessary course of action toward immoral church members it also must be applied to church members who are divisive and/or heretical.
“Reject a divisive man (one follows teachings and practices that are contrary to Scripture) and after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned” (Tit. 3:10-11). Heretical teachers are divisive for they seek followers of their own perverted understand of Scripture. In this, Paul is not referring to atheists and pagans but to people who are part of the church. Such men who refuse to heed the admonition of their appointed Elders and repent are “self-condemned” (Tit. 3:11). They are to be considered sinners and wicked men (Mt. 18:17).
The apostle John wrote, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine (teaching, Biblical understand), do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (2 Jn. 10-11). “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17).
“I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars” (Rev. 2:2).
Further evidence of church membership is found in 2 Corinthians where Paul (once again) used legal terms when he urged that church to receive a repentant person back into full fellowship. “This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him” (2 Cor. 2:6-8).
Questions You Should Ask Yourself
- “Am I under the authority of church rulers? Is it possible for me to be removed from a church? Is there a group of elders that I ‘recognize,’ ‘highly esteem,’ ‘obey’ and ‘submit’ myself to?”
- If I have a problem with dangerous heresy or gross immorality is there a church court over me that will hold me accountable to God’s Holy Word?
- If I have a conflict with another confessing Christian that I cannot resolve, is there one in my church that I may appeal to (i.e.: COE)?
The New Testament assumes that every Christian (under normal circumstances) should be able to say yes to these questions. If not, then why not? If the problem is simply one of ignorance then now that you know what the Bible says, be corrected.
If you know the truth regarding this issue yet still refuse to obey clear teaching of the Scripture, then you need to seriously consider these questions:
- If a person who claims to be a Christian knows a requirement of Scripture yet continually refuses to submit himself to Christ’s word, has that person really submitted himself to Jesus as Lord?
- Does such a person have any reason to believe that he is really even a Christian at all? (1 Jn. 1:3-5). “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him”
Reference: Church Membership and Choosing a Church, Brian Schwertley; http://reformedonline.com/view/reformedonline/membership.htm. Is Church Membership Optional? By: Stephen Pribble; http://www.reformed.com/pub/church.htm.
Do you trust the LORD more than you trust your own eyes?
I believe a dangerous line of thinking has a stronghold on many Christians. You've heard the clever joke about the man who wouldn't get in the boat, or the helicopter or the car because he wanted a miracle from God, to save him from a flood. When the man drowns, he asks God why He didn't save him from the flood, once he enters heaven. God says to him, "I sent you a car, I sent you a boat ... " etc. Is it a bad story? In some respects, no, it is not. However, I hear Christians tell this story to one another as practical advice to live by.
Looking deep into the point of the story, it clearly shows itself as man-made, secular philosophy and not gospel to govern our lives by. The story would have us believe that we are perfectly capable of making our own decisions and to trust our common, man-made senses and to do otherwise is foolishness! Clearly, in the story, there is no communication with the LORD until after death and that is the furthest thing from the truth.
Like many Christians, unfortunately, the man in story didn't have enough of a relationship with the LORD to know that the LORD speaks and He speaks clearly beforehand. The LORD calls us to what He wants us to do and how He wants us to proceed. He orders our steps because we can not trust ourselves: our perception and our knowledge is limited. Not only that, but there is an Enemy who loves to twist and pervert the truth, only showing you one side without the other. The story is correct about one thing (although not by intention) : If we are not in communication with the LORD to know what He plans for us, we are sunk.
The Gospel, unlike any man-made story I have ever read, routinely says something opposite of what sounds sensible to the secular mind. We've all heard the phrase, "Who are you going to believe, me, or your lying eyes?" Once more, one of those clever, intellectual, secular sayings that has the sole purpose of making you feel you are in control; you are the decision-maker. The secular world tells you to believe it only when you see it; only trust in reason, knowledge and things you can hold in your two hands. The Word of the LORD tells differently.
Consider the early Hebrews on the exodus from Egypt. The LORD clearly (and repeatedly) spoke to the Hebrews and promised to free them from bondage and deliver them into another land ( Exodus 6:6-8, 32:13, 33:1 ). More than that, He promised if they obeyed His commands, they would live free of illness, free of still births and miscarriages ( Exodus 23:25,26 ). If you get right down to it, His promise to the Hebrews was awesome ... almost unbelievable: in many ways, a heaven on earth.
Contrary to the story I mentioned earlier, the LORD told the Hebrews the land they were going to was already inhabited by other nations, whom the LORD had rejected and planned to throw out ( Exodus 23:27-29 33:2 34:11, ). Israel didn't have to have a meeting about it, or plan it, or even debate it. It was told to them beforehand and the LORD promised He would drive out the Amorites, Canaanites, Perrizities, Hittites, Jebusites and Hivites. The LORD promised the Hebrews victory long before they ever set foot in the promised land.
Like so many of us today, like the story and the cliché suggests, the Hebrews were far too sure of their own intelligence to trust the LORD. They led their lives and their faith based on what they could see and feel; how it looked and how it seemed. They were, in a word, "reasonable" people.
What was the result of all that reasoning? When the end of the journey came, the LORD instructed Moses to send twelve men to survey the promised land. (Number 13:1,2) Of those twelve, ten of the men came back fearful and afraid. "Who are you going to believe, Me, or your lying eyes?" For those Hebrews, they chose to believe their lying eyes. (Number 13:27-29, 13:31-33)
The saw that they were outnumbered and the people were physically taller and stronger than they. They saw all the reasonable things secular philosophy tells us is important and intelligent to consider, before acting upon. When the spies told the rest of the Hebrews, the entire camp was ready to give up and go back to being slaves in Egypt. As a matter of fact, they complained against the LORD and Moses for even bringing them out there! (Number 14:1-4)
Only two men, Joshua, the Son of Nun and Caleb, the son of Jephunnah trusted the LORD more than they trusted their eyes. More than that, they saw what the LORD saw: the good and plentiful land ahead of them. And the giants? They gave no thought to it ... they were completely confident the LORD would give the Hebrews victory as He had promised. (Numbers 14:6-10)
Two men out of twelve.
Two men out of twelve.
If you like statistics, that's 17% of men who would identify themselves as a "godly person".
Can we, presently, as Christians, say our average is any more impressive, when cling to man-made stories about a guy and a boat, rather than cling to the gospel?
And what did all that reasoning and knowledge earn the camp of Israel? They were kept out of the promised land entirely. The LORD commanded all of them to die in wilderness, as they had been complaining that they would the entire trip. (Numbers 14:20-23) All of them, except Joshua and Caleb.
So here is another statistic for you: It's estimated that close to 2 million men, women and children left Egypt on the journey to the promised land. Out of those two million people, only two obtained and enjoyed the promise the LORD set aside from them.
Two out of two million.
Present day religion has most of us fooled into thinking that we can perpetually and intentionally ignore the LORD without repercussions and that is the furthest thing from the truth as well. Our standard is not what we see with our two eyes; it's not what we guess; it's not what sounds reasonable or sounds intelligent. Our standard is what He has personally spoken to us. If you don't know what the LORD has to say about it, then your first priority is to find out.
Even Christ confirms this in the New Testament (since many think it's not applicable unless it's in the NT). Christ said that if your eye causes you to stumble, then pluck it out. It's better to enter in having only one eye, than having the entire body thrown into hell. (Matt 5:29, 18:9, Mark 9:47)
Isn't that what happened with the Hebrews? Their eyes lied to them; it caused them fear because of how it "looked" and most importantly, their eyes told them something opposite of what the the LORD had spoken to them. That alone should prove that your eyes can and will lie to you.
Because they kept that lying eye, they were kept out of the promised land entirely ... wondering around the desert for the next forty years until each of them died off.
I write on this because I have been there. This isn't just a nice, feel good thing to say, but something I've had to recently battle.
I'd written previously that the LORD laid a belief on my heart that hasn't shaken since. For at least a year, I wasn't even sure if it was the LORD or the desire of my own heart, but as I have grown in my relationship with Him, it's become unquestionable that this is from the LORD. There's no doubt at all.
But, the Enemy really hates that and so, as one should expect, I had to face a situation today where ultimately it came down to, "Who are you going to believe, Me, or your lying eyes?". I know how tempting it is to indulge; to whine and complain as the Hebrews did; to forget all the miracles that have happened up to this day and say "It can't be the LORD, this is too hard."
I know how hard it can be to stand up and say, " I don't care how it looks to myself, my friends, my feelings or anything else. I know what the LORD has said and it is Him that I trust." If I have to close my eyes completely and stop looking at it, I will not let my focus be moved from Him.
That's improvement, for me.
Someone ought to re-write that stupid joke, in a way that matches the truth shown in His Word:
In this new story, the man loves the LORD and knows Him. It is the LORD who tells the man He will deliver him from flood if he waits patiently. When the car comes by, the LORD tells him to ignore it. Later down the road, outside the man's awareness, the same car that seemed like a solution at the time, breaks down and it's occupants never make it out of town.
Soon a raft comes by and after prayerful communication, the man knows that is not the LORD's deliverance either, so he waits. More time passes and a power boat and helicopter go by, but the man waits for the LORD to tell him which to choose. The LORD knows that, although they look like a solution in the moment, the end of all those vehicles are destruction.
The waters continue to rise, up to the man's waist, then his chest, even up to his neck ---- all with no sign from the LORD but his spoken promise for safe deliverance. And just when the water threatens to drown the man, deliverance comes by the LORD's personal hand. In the end, he is the only one to survive.
That is how the story should go, if you ask me.
What's in an Evenagelical Label
I just read an article about Evangelicals in The Christian Post by Audrey Barrick, Christian Post Reporter, dated Wed, Jan. 17 2007 10:30 AM ET. According to this survey based on a random sample of 4,014 adults conducted in January, April, August and October of 2006: "Most 'Evangelicals' Do Not Meet Criteria," and so goes its title. A substantial number of people label themselves as evangelicals. But new research found a much smaller number of people actually fit the criteria. For two decades, The Barna Group has been measuring the characteristics of evangelicals based on a 9-question set of criteria; and labels them "9-point evangelicals." The 9-point evangelical criteria are derived from the belief statement of the National Association of Evangelicals and are as follows:
- Have made a personal commitment to Jesus.
- Believe they will go to heaven because they confessed their sins and accepted Jesus.
- Believe their faith is very important in their life.
- Believe they have a personal responsibility to share their beliefs with non-Christians.
- Believe that Satan exists.
- Believe that salvation is available only through grace, not good works.
- Believe that Jesus lived a sinless life on earth.
- Must assert the Bible’s accuracy.
- Must describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful perfect deity that created the universe and still rules it.
Reminder, 8-point evangelical is still not 9-point evangelical; we are talking about the latter.
About 38% of US population accepting this label "Evangelical" are
the folks the media refer to when reporting on their political and
social influence, but when measured using these nine questions to
categorize evangelicals, only eight percent of the adult population fit the criteria.
The difference is "staggering," the report stated. Self-proclaimed
evangelicals would number 84 million versus 18 million 9-point
Differences are apparent in their beliefs. Those who claim to be evangelicals (not the 9-point variety) are less likely to believe that Satan is real; less likely to believe that salvation is based on grace, not works; less likely to say they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others; less likely to list their faith in God as the top priority in their life; less likely to believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; less likely to contend that the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings; and less likely to say that their life has been greatly transformed by their faith.
On another note, the study found that 27 percent of those who say they are evangelicals are not born again and they are also less likely to read their Bible and attend church during a typical week. "Over time, people have become sloppy in the measurement process, as evidenced by the fact that one out of every four self-proclaimed evangelicals has not even accepted Christ as their savior." Said the researcher.
If you consider yourself a 9-point Evangelical by the criteria listed above, then you are one person in every 16 people in a population of 300,000,000, the current USA population.