A few days ago, I discussed the link between baptism and membership. I noted that baptism has historically, across all mainline denominations, been understood to mark your entrance to the visible church. I argued that your faith-union with Christ marks your entrance to the universal, invisible church while your water baptism marks your entry to the visible, local church. From this, I suggested it was inappropriate to baptise those who were not prepared to come into membership. Both biblically and historically, baptism was your entrance to membership of the local church. So those who wish to be baptised but not members are, in effect, denying the very purpose of baptism which is to identify with Christ and his people.
Having made the case for baptism as entry to the church, I now want to take a look at membership. Specifically, I want to consider whether church membership is biblical. In a follow up to this post, I will then examine what church membership ought to look like in practice.
It is a relatively recent phenomenon for churches to separate baptism from membership. They want to permit baptism apart from membership or vice versa. There are groups who do not administer baptism or communion at all who may feel they escape the question altogether. Others would venture that not undertaking the two ordinances given to the church by Jesus calls into question whether they are even operating as a church at all.
John Calvin argued, ‘wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there it is not to be doubted a church of God exists’ [Institutes]. Luther similarly argued that a church was ‘a congregation of saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered’ [Augsburg Confession, 1530]. As Bruce Milne has noted:
The existence of Christian groups (e.g. the Salvation Army and the Society of Friends) who have no sacraments makes us hesitate before declaring sacraments essential to a true church. Nonetheless our Lord clearly saw baptism bound up most closely with the church’s message and human response to it (Mt. 28:19f) and sharing in the Supper as fundamental to its continuing life (Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24f). [Know the Truth]
Historically and biblically, the ordinances given to the church by Christ have marked out the existence of a true church. The question before us is not whether these things ought to be administered, but how they are linked. I will argue here that the link should be properly understood as church membership.
Jonathan Leeman has rightly said, ‘baptism and the Lord’s Supper are just signs of the thing. Church membership is the thing itself’. Baptism marks our entrance to church membership whilst communion (or, the Lord’s Supper) marks our ongoing membership with the church. Both speak to the same reality of church membership in a local body.
At this point, some might want to argue that baptism marks our entrance to the universal church invisible and communion is our ongoing identification with the universal church. There are several reasons why this idea is faulty.
First, it ignores the reality of how we come into the universal church. We are brought into the universal, invisible church the moment we are united by faith with Christ. The Holy Spirit then acts as a seal of our inclusion into the covenant (cf. 2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:13-14, 4:30). Just as in the Old Covenant the sign and seal was physical circumcision, so now in the New Covenant the sign and seal of our membership is receipt of the Spirit. All those who have received the Holy Spirit by their faith in Jesus Christ and consequent union with him are members of the New Covenant and thus members of the universal, invisible church. If we are already members of the universal church by faith in Christ and receipt of the Spirit, which have already taken place before our water baptism, how can water baptism mark our entrance to a church we have already entered?
Second, this view ignores the New Testament implications of local church membership. John Piper at Desiring God outlines five pieces of biblical data that demand local church membership:
- The church is to discipline its members (cf. Matthew 18:15-17). Jesus states, having outlined steps to discipline, ‘if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church’. If there is no membership, to whom do we tell it? This cannot mean the matter must be brought up before every single Christian the world over.
- Excommunication exists (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:12-13). Paul is quite clear there are times when we must put people out of the church. The question is how do we formally put people ‘out’ when there is no formal ‘in’? Paul also seems clear there is an ‘in church’ group and an ‘out of church’ group.
- Christians are required to submit to their leaders (cf. Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 5:17). To which leaders must we submit? If there is only the universal church, must I submit to anybody with the title ‘elder’? Does that force me to submit to the Westboro Baptist Church and picket funerals because their elders say I must? How do I submit to the contradictory demands of different sets of elders? Apart from local church membership, these things are impossible.
- Leaders are required to care for their members (cf. Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Here we have the same issue as #3 in reverse. For whom are the elders responsible? Am I, as a pastor in Oldham, accountable for the spiritual welfare of all Christians in Oldham, G. Manchester, Britain, the world? Apart from local church membership, it is impossible to know precisely who leaders have responsibilities toward. For whom will I give account before God? The biblical phrase ‘those in your charge’ imply a specified group.
- The analogy of a body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). As Piper notes, ‘the question this imagery raises for the local church that Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians 12 is: Who intends to be treated as a hand or foot or eye or ear of this body? There is a unity and organic relationship implied in the imagery of the body. There is something unnatural about a Christian attaching himself to a body of believers and not being a member of the body’.
Beyond this, there is the example of the early church. It is quite clear in Acts 2:41 that those who became believers and were baptised were counted. Later in 2:47, the phrase used is that those being saved were ‘added to their number’. Whatever else we might want to say about this, there was clearly a counting of figures. More than that, there was clearly a counting of figures that deemed them ‘added to their number’. It is clear that this is the local church when we read 2:42-46 which tells us precisely what they were doing having been added to their number. They met as a church, focused on the Word and took part in the sacraments.
Matt Chandler further notes:
In Acts 6:1-6, we see elections take place in order to address a specific problem and accusation.
In Romans 16:1-16, we see what appears to be an awareness of who is a church member.
In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, we see a clear teaching on how to handle widows in the church… In this text we see criteria for who would or would not qualify for Ephesus’s widow care program. The local church in Ephesus is organized, and they are working out a plan.
Scripture gives us a combination of example and imperative that suggest the existence of local church membership in the early church and the requirement for local church membership today. Not only did it exist in the early church, scripture commands and instructs us to do things that cannot be done apart from local church membership.
In the next post, we will consider what church membership ought to look like in practice.
You can read the previous post in this series by clicking the link – Why we shouldn’t baptise those who won’t join in membership