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10 September 2023 -- The Church for You and for Me

Church Membership (part 1 of 2)

Daniel Brink


The Church for You and for Me

Church Membership series (part 1 of 2)

1. What do we mean by the church?

  • The church visible and invisible

  • The marks of the church

2. Why you should care about the church

  • Because of Christ

  • Because of the Apostles and the history of the church

  • Because it is holy

  • Because of the kingdom

3. Why you should be a member of a church (7 ways the Bible speaks to church membership)

  • The church as a defined group of people

  • Submission in the church

  • Leaders in the church

  • Shepherding of church members

  • Church Discipline

  • The church as a body

  • The church "one lanothering"

Earlier this year we launched this church plant that is called Hope Brussels, and this fall we are starting the process of having members. It is natural to ask at this point, "What do you mean by member?"

At a basic level, I mean that there is a congregation to which you belong – a church where you would say, "That is my church," and the church would say, "Yes, that person is a member of our congregation."

It's not that you need to be a member of this church, but it is important that you be a member of a faithful church. That is, a church that is obedient to Christ.

And as we think about church membership, we need to be clear about what the church is. What is a church? And what is important about it?

1. What do we mean by the church?

At the start, it's important to point out that we use the term "church" in two key ways. In fact, we make a distinction between two different understandings of the church, and it's a distinction that dates back to the early 5th century with Saint Augustine.

Visible and Invisible

We talk firstly, about the Visible Church and second, the Invisible Church. The Visible Church and the Invisible Church. These are not two separate churches, but rather two perspectives of the church.

The Invisible Church is made up of all people throughout the world and throughout history who truly believe. These are the people of faith, from the time of Adam and Eve until the point that Christ returns. In other words, these are all of the people who trust in God for their salvation.

Scripture uses several names for this same collection of believers. The Bible sometimes refers to this group as the "elect". Another name for this group is the "sheep" as in John 10. In some places these people are called the "Bride" of Christ. And Scripture also speaks about all of those whose names are "written in the Lamb's book of life".

These are all of the people who have been purchased by the blood of Christ and who are united to Him. It includes all of the believers who have died and are in heaven, all of the believers presently here on earth, and believers in the future. And we call this church invisible in that we are not able to see exactly who is included because we can't see the soul. Nor can we see across all of time and space. Only God knows exactly who is numbered among the Invisible Church.

In John 17 Jesus prayed for the Invisible Church in what is known as the High Priestly Prayer. He prayed for those the Father had given him, including his disciples and also those who will believe (future tense) in the disciples' testimony. So that's you and me!

So that's the invisible church. Invisible in that we cannot know for sure who all is in. But it's also important to think of the church as visible. It's visible in that the Church is manifested in local churches or local congregations. In other words, the visible church is the institutional church that is perceivable. We can see who is in it and who is not.

Generally the visible church is made up of all of the people throughout the whole world who are on the rolls of the local Christian church. These are the people who have made a profession of faith and who have been baptized. And in many traditions (including our own) it includes the family – that is, the visible church includes the children of those who have made a profession of faith.

One complication is that there are members of the visible church who are not true believers. This is like in Romans 9 when Paul says that not all of Israel are truly Israel. Not all of the church is the Church. And a wide range of Christian traditions would agree on this point. Just because somebody claims to be a Christian and joins a local church does not mean that they truly have faith. And just because someone has been baptized does not mean that their name is written in the Lamb's book of life. There are people who are in the church who go through the motions, who say the right things, but who do not look to Christ as their Savior. Likewise, there are children of believers who are brought up in the church yet who never embrace the faith of their parents. So there are a lot of believers in the church, but not everybody is. It's a mix.

The Three Marks of the Church

When we talk about the local church, we also have to deal with the fact that there are many expressions of the church around the world. There are churches that look and function completely different from one another. Differences in leadership structure, differences in music, different practices, etc.

There's much that can be said on this topic, but I want to mention three characteristics that since the time of the Reformation have been cited as essential to the church. It's not that Protestant Reformers invented this criteria, but rather they saw in the Bible three necessary elements that a church must have in order to be a faithful church. And these are generally known as the three marks of the church. They are: Word, Sacrament, and Discipline. –

  1. The first of those is the Word – a mark of a faithful church is that it teaches all of God's Word. It proclaims the whole gospel of Christ, and it upholds God's Word as authoritative.

  2. The second is the Sacraments (what some call the Ordinances) – In short, it means that a true church administers Christian baptism and the Lord's Supper. So a church is one where the sacraments are present.

  3. And the third is Discipline – We attribute a lot of negativity to the word discipline. But discipline, when done in a godly way, benefits the church. Some church discipline is formative, which is very positive. Discipline is after all closely tied to discipleship, and it is aimed at growing in Christlikeness. It includes teaching and nurture, and it is done within the context of a body where there is accountability. So discipline can be formative. Church discipline can also be corrective, and this too is aimed at health within the church. The New Testament has a lot to say about church discipline, but its goal is never power, nor is it to push people away. Rather, the goal is to draw people close and point them to the gospel. Corrective discipline is aimed at unity, purity, and restitution within the church community. Discipline should always be practiced in a loving way according to the Bible. To not discipline would be unloving. Imagine a husband and father in the church who abandons his family to pursue selfish pleasures. What should the church do? The loving thing for the church to do in that situation is to pursue the man and lovingly seek to draw him to repentance. Imagine also a young woman in the church who gives herself over to sinful addiction. What should the church do? The loving thing for the church to do is to pursue her and lovingly walk with her towards recovery. That's what church discipline looks like. It would be unloving for a church to passively watch the sheep wander away from the fold of God. That would be the opposite of shepherding; the opposite of caring for one another.

Word, Sacrament, and Discipline. These are the priorities for the church. Before doing anything else a church needs to get these three right. Mercy ministries, vibrant music, robust youth programs – these can be really good things, but they are secondary to Word, Sacrament, and Discipline.

So that's what makes a church a church. Those are the marks of a church.

It doesn't mean that a church that does all three of those things is a perfect church. Actually, the church is very much imperfect, and that's because everyone in the church is a sinner. Without exception. We're all sinners.

I don't have to convince any of you about the church's imperfections. Some of you probably know first-hand how the church can be a place where people are hurt, offended, and neglected. And many ask, "why should I care about the church? Why on earth should I be involved in something that is so flawed?"

2. Why the church should be important to you

Despite all of the church's imperfections and despite the fact that it is made up of sinners, the church is a beautiful thing. It's an important thing. There are many reasons why the church should be important to you, but here are four:

First, the church should be important to you because it is important to Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 16:18 Jesus says that he is going to build his church. He is building it upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20). He's building the church that is made of "living stones" (1 Peter 2:4-5), that is, a church built out of the people who belong to Christ, and he himself is the cornerstone.

In John 10 Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, and he expresses how much he loves his sheep, so much that he lays down his life for them. Ephesians 1:23 describes the church as the body of Christ, and it goes so far as to say that the church is "the fullness of Him (Jesus) who fills all in all." And Ephesians 4:11-12 describes Jesus giving officers to the church in order to equip and build up the body of Christ. The church is very important to Jesus, and he is still building it out of living stones like you and me.

Second, the church should be important to you because it was important to the apostles and has been important to Christians for 2000 years.

The apostle Peter talked about the church. James talked about the church, Paul talked about the church (a lot!), and the author of Hebrews talked about the church. In the New Testament the word for church appears over 100 times. And there are many more places in the epistles where the church is talked about even if the actual word is not used. We are given lots of instructions for how to organize the church, how to have order in the church, how to serve in the church, how to relate to others in the church. Hebrews 10:25 even instructs us not to neglect going to the church assembly.

Simply stated the apostles did not have a category for someone who is a follower of Christ yet who is drifting through life in solitude and disconnected from a local congregation. According to the apostles, to be a follower of Christ means being in the community of the church.

Julian recently preached on Acts 2 where we see in verse 42 the early church regularly meeting for corporate worship. They were gathering for teaching, sacraments, fellowship, and prayer, and God produced growth in the church through his Spirit. And since the 1st century the church has continued to grow. Yes, with failures along the way. But also with incredible faithfulness, and with a devotion to God's Word.

Third, you should care about the church because it is holy. In other words, the church is important by nature of what it is.

One of the ancient creeds of the Christian church is called the Nicene Creed. And that creed says "I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." Each of those four descriptors is packed with significance, and the one that I want to focus on is holy. The church is holy. Not holy in that it is pure and perfect in its present state. But Christ is turning the church into something pure. Christ is at work building his church and preparing her into a lovely bride for himself. A holy bride. The word holy means set apart, and in this world the church is indeed set apart. It is set apart from every club, every institution, every organization, every empire, every nation, and every kingdom on earth. Nothing else is like it. Only the church is called the body of Christ. That means that the church is intimately and inseparably joined with the King of Kings. Every great nation and institution that has risen up eventually falls. But not so with the church. The church is promised to endure.

Fourth, it's where you go to find a concentration of the kingdom of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said the local congregation is the means by which the body of Christ becomes visible to the world. If you want to see what the body of Christ looks like, plug into a faithful church. When the church is obedient to Christ, it demonstrates to each other and to the world what Christ's kingdom is like. It reflects the kingdom here on earth, so it's where kingdom members are found.

There's a pastor in the US who has said that the church is your home base. It's your home base. The church is where you go for reminders of the gospel of the kingdom. It's where you go for reminders of who you are and who you belong to. It's where you go to find spiritual nourishment through the Word and the sacraments. It's where you find joy and fellowship with your brothers and sisters in Christ. It's where you are discipled. And when the church comes together on the Lord's Day, it is, in a way, doing what the people of God are most intended to do – worshiping the Lord with his people.

Private acts of worship are important too – Time spent in private prayer, meditating on God's Word, and singing praises to Him in the quiet of your daily life – that is time well spent! But there's something extra special about doing those things with the Church. We are a people. We are a body. We are bound together as members of a kingdom.

3. Why you should be a member of a church

I heard a theologian summarize church membership as a "willing submission to the authority of Christ as it is expressed in the local assembly of Christians." Ultimately, we are submitting to Christ, and we do that by committing ourselves and submitting to his body of believers that make up the local church. But why should you be a member of a church?

The short answer is that the Bible instructs us to be church members. The Bible doesn't use the term "church membership," but it does have a lot to say about it. The Bible assumes church membership and gives clear instruction about it.

I'm going to give seven ways that Scripture speaks to church membership.

First, we see passages that speak about the church as a defined group of people. Some examples:

  • Acts 11:26 – Paul and Barnabas meet with the church in Antioch. Who all was included? We don't know exactly, but it was clear that there was a set group of people who make up "the church" and the text says it was a large number.

  • Acts 12:1 – We see Herod arresting those who "belonged to the church" – in what way did they belong? Well, these were not people who occasionally attended gatherings. Rather, these were people who were identified as belonging (i.e. being committed to) a defined congregation of believers.

  • Acts 14:27 – It says Paul and Barnabas "gathered the church together" in Antioch – This was clearly a group that understood who belonged to the church and who did not.

  • 1 Cor. 11:18 – Paul says "when you come together as a church" – clearly he's referring to an assembly of people who belong to that body. In other words, when "the church" of Corinth comes together, they're not surprised by who shows up.

  • So in these examples we see the church functioning as a collective with a defined number of people who are identified with it.

Second, we see Submission in the church

  • Hebrews 13:17 – Christians are told to "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account."

  • This passage assumes that you know who your leaders are. It assumes you know those who are providing spiritual care for you.

  • Submission is something that the Christian needs. All of us need it. We all (according to Hebrews 13) need to be in submission to leaders who keep watch over our souls.

Third category, we see instruction about leaders in the church.

  • Titus 1:5-9 – We see qualifications for elders

  • 1 Tim 3:1-13 – We see qualifications for elders and deacons

  • These passages help give structure for how churches made up of members are to be organized.

Fourth, we find in the New Testament instructions related to shepherding.

  • Acts 20:28 – Paul tells the elders in the church of Ephesus to care for the flock that they oversee.

  • 1 Pet 5:2 – Peter says to "shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly"

  • These passages assume that the elders know who is in their flock, and the members of the flock know who are their elders.

  • The Apostles Paul and Peter don't have a category for Christians who are not in a flock.

  • We all need to be shepherded.

Fifth, we see discipline in the New Testament (this was one of the marks of the church)

  • Matt 18:15-17 – we see a step-by-step approach for how to deal with a fellow believer who is in sin, and if the person doesn't repent, that process eventually is handled by the church. In other words, the fellow believer is accountable to a church.

    • Christians need to be held accountable.

  • 1 Cor 5:13 – We see instructions about expelling someone (excommunication) from the congregation. Which assumes that the person was (up until that point) a member.

  • 2 Cor 2:6 – We see someone being dismissed from the church community through some form of voting by those in the church.

  • Again, there is a clear distinction between who is in the church and who is not.

Sixth category, we see again and again the metaphor of "the body"

  • 1 Cor 12:21-26 – this is the most vivid picture. By nature of being in Christ, you are a member of the body. That is you are connected to the other members.

    • The Bible doesn't allow for a believer to be on their own.

    • Christians are by definition joined to the body.

Seventh, we see a lot of examples of "one-anothering" in the context of the church. There are a lot of these, but I'll list a few:

  • Eph 4:1-16 – Paul says to build up the body in love and growth

  • Heb 10:24-25 – says, "let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together"

    • This is a clear instruction to care for one another by stirring each other up within the context of the church

  • 1 Cor 12:25-26 – instructs the church to care for one another

  • Gal 6:2 – the church is instructed to bear one another's burdens.

  • You and I need to be cared for by others, built up by others in the church. And we need to do likewise for our fellow believers.

Jesus and the Apostles have a lot to say about being in the church. They see the church as essential, and it has been instituted for our good. We need it. Christ is at work in the church, building it with living stones who are being sanctified through his Holy Spirit and within the context of the body.

If you are a believer in salvation through Christ alone, then you are by definition a member of his body, and how glorious it is to be united to Him and also to each other. Next week we are going to look more closely at the implications of being a member of Christ's body. It's not always easy, but it is where we grow and where we find nourishment, so invest deeply.


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