From: Matthew 16:13-20
On: January 26, 2014 Lord’s Day Worship
By: Sean Higgins
The sermon starts at 13:58 in the audio file.
Or, The Principles of Church Membership
We confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised Him from the dead (Romans 10:9). We announce that Christ the Lord was born in the city of David (Luke 2:11). We proclaim that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord of all (Acts 10:36), that through Him are all things and through whom we exist (1 Corinthians 8:6). We guard our teaching so that it agrees with the sounds words of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 6:3). We trust that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39). We count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord (Philippians 3:8). We wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:7). We anticipate the heavenly voices saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:5). The church is built on this foundation (Acts 4:11-12; 1 Corinthians 3:11): Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, our Lord.
Jesus told Peter just as much in Matthew 16. Jesus asked His disciples who men said He was and Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus replied that this was no ordinary acknowledgment. It took heaven to reveal this to Peter. Then Jesus said, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (verse 18). We understand that Jesus refers to Peter’s confession, to Jesus’ identity, not just to Peter himself. Jesus builds His church on recognition of who He is.
Jesus is Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3). He is the Head of the Body, the church (Colossians 1:18). He is preeminent over everything (Colossians 1:18). He is fully God, fully man, and the only mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5). He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Timothy 6:15).
We are His body on earth (1 Corinthians 12:12, 27; Ephesians 2:16; Colossians 1:18). We hold fast to Him as our Head, from whom the whole body nourished and knit together grows with a growth that is from God (Colossians 2:19). We are the sheep of His flock (John 10:15-16). We are citizens of His kingdom (Philippians 3:20), a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28).
We receive His kingdom while we live in foreign territory. The King is in heaven and the He is coming again (Philippians 3:20). The King has stationed us here to work for Him, to reflect Him, and to call others to worship Him. We are people of dual citizenship.
Jonathan Leeman, a pastor at Capital Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C., compares the church to a foreign embassy. Local churches are outposts of the heavenly kingdom all around the world. Embassies don’t make anyone a citizen, but they do recognize and affirm citizenship. They protect citizens. An embassy “declares its home nation’s interests to the host nation” (27).
This is similar to Jesus giving Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Keys work on doors. Doors open to let in and close to keep out. Jesus gave authority to Peter and the apostles to open the embassy doors or to close them, to affirm heavenly citizenship or not. In Matthew 18:15-19 the process of church discipline does the same thing, and the language of binding/loosing on earth and heaven is used. If a professing disciple of Christ stops behaving like Jesus is Lord, there are necessary steps to urge that citizen to behave like one (and that goes for church leaders, too, see 1 Timothy 5:19-20). If he refuses, then he is no longer affirmed.
John MacArthur summarizes:
[A]ny duly constituted body of believers, acting in accord with God’s word, has the authority to declare if someone is forgiven or unforgiven. The church’s authority is not to determine these things, but to declare the judgment of heaven based on the principles of the word. When they make such judgments on the basis of God’s word, they can be sure heaven is in accord. In other words, whatever they “bind” or “loose” on earth is already “bound” or “loosed” in heaven. When the church says the unrepentant person is bound in sin, the church is saying what God says about that person. When the church acknowledges that a repentant person has been loosed from that sin, God agrees. (MSB, Matthew 16:19)
Jesus says the church (not just the church’s leaders, though they have the first and most responsibility) has authority that represents heaven on earth. That authority exercises by affirming whether or not someone is a Christian, whether or not someone is truly a citizen of His kingdom, whether or not someone is a member of Christ’s church.
That leads to questions such as: What makes a meeting of people a church? What makes someone a member of a church/the church, or how does someone become a member? How does a church affirm, or deny, membership? What kind of “membership” are we talking about? Big “B” Body membership or little “b” body? What distinguishes the big “B” and little “b”? Why are we talking about all this now?
At the very first family meeting of Trinity Evangel Church on Sunday night, January 9, 2011 I said, “Church membership has yet to be finalized.” We had reasons for not working on membership at that point. We had other things to work on first.
We didn’t have affirmed elders, deacons, or an official statement of doctrine. We had a high percentage of aching, or in other cases confused, sheep. We had built-in commitment costs for many. We also had a small percentage of unfamiliar sheep.
The elders–again, those who were not officially affirmed yet–didn’t have much time to die for life, to invest in the trust account. Since many of the sheep were coming out from under submission-demanding shepherds, we needed time to lead differently, to earn submission. There was only as much definition as we could give week by week and our gravitational pull was not that strong.
Things are different now. Some ground-level trellis has been in place for a while. We also have had real-life opportunities to consider how to unite new families into the vine.
In terms of opportunities, there are some attenders who eagerly desire to be formally recognized and affirmed. There are other types of opportunities as well, since we have some members who eagerly desire not to be formally recognized and affirmed.
I haven’t lived at any other time in church history so my ability to compare is limited. But my observation and, to some extent, my experience, tells me that people don’t always appreciate authority and accountability, whether that is in the home, in government, and even in the church. In our particular milieu, the religion that the citizens of Washington state most identify with is “None.” While there are a variety of church goers, not many of them seem to be committed to local bodies.
Why is that? Maybe they had a bad experience. Maybe they were treated harshly by pastors or by fellow friends. Guns don’t hurt church people, church people hurt church people. Rather than subject themselves to that sort of treatment again, they keep their distance.
Maybe they think that submission is inappropriate in any situation, or submission is alright as long as no one talks about it. Maybe they have a strong dislike for authority. Maybe a previous authority overextended his reach. Maybe they have a case of spiritual FOMO, afraid to commit to anything or anyone for fear that something or someone better will come along.
Some view membership as legalistic, exclusive, divisive, even unbiblical. People bring all sorts of ingredients to the discussion, from ignorance, to hesitancy, to skepticism, to resistance, up to probably the worst, apathy. Many mindsets in our culture are individualistic, anti-authoritarian, or anti-exclusivism (which in the church looks like a doctrinal version of egalitarianism). People don’t want to be left out but they don’t want to sign up.
But a discussion on church membership is, like almost everything else, an opportunity for personal care and patience with those who hate it or just have questions about it. There’s no hurry.
Before we go any further, this is also an important place to say Thank you! Many of you could not be more committed and bring joy to the entire body. Many of you have given up friendships and reputation and more to worship here. Many of you are growing, desire to grow more and love more and die more and enculturate for Christ. This is an opportunity in our local, anti-join, anti-organization context to make a statement, an opportunity to stand out by stepping in.
We will deal with the universal constants (things that apply to all churches everywhere) before the cultural particulars (things that may be different in a given circumstance), the principles and privileges of membership before recommending a process for it.
First, all Christians are identified as part of the church (universal), Christ’s Body. That happens by (spiritual and confirmed by physical) baptism. Colossians 1:18 and 24 are two verses (among many) that reveal this identification. Christ “is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18). A few verses later Paul said “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (1:24).
The “Body” of Christ is also called the “church” of Christ. He is the Head and all the members are not the head but make up various parts. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).
Every Christian is identified as a member of the church, Christ’s Body. Every true believer is a citizen of this kingdom.
Second, the church is identified by local expressions of the Body. Theologians speak about the “universal” or “invisible” church compared to local, visible churches. Every genuine believer across all nations and generations is part of the universal church. While the New Testament does occasionally reference this sense of “church,” the Bible usually features local expressions as the way we see Christ’s Body on the ground.
Think all the geographical identifications of the Epistles: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians. Those are places where the church exists. Churches are not identified by families, let alone individuals. That’s why houses churches where every dad is a pastor are troublesome. While father’s have spiritual responsibilities for their families, and while pastors may be fathers, not every father is a pastor. Paul instructed Titus to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5). A church is also not identified by ministry, meaning a church ought not be defined by any other common interest (stage of life, marital status, hobbies, entertainment preferences) than Christ.
Every Christian is identified as part of the church, Christ’s Body. The church is recognized in local expressions as the universal church is incarnated, in-bodied in neighborhoods.
Therefore, all Christians should be identified with a local body. The only New Testament Christians not immediately identified with one local body were apostles. Apostles were planting local churches. Modern day evangelists and missionaries ought to be sent by a local body, or perhaps by a group of local bodies partnering together, trying to create more local bodies as they go.
Professing Christians who are not identified with a local body should stop dating and get married (to a church) already (hence Josh Harris’ book, Stop Dating the Church, now under the title Why Church Matters). Too many seem to want the privileges of the universal body without the hassles (and there are multiple messes) of the local body. Others seem to want the privileges of the local body without the hassles (and there can be some) of membership.
Here is our opportunity to consider our responsibilities and our privileges together regardless of if or how we format a membership database.
This still isn’t what I want to talk about most, but I know enough to know about the objections that church “membership” isn’t in the Bible. We want things to be in the Bible. Here are four observations from the New Testament for seeing membership as something normal, good, and prudent.
The church counted “three thousand souls” in Acts 2:41 and “five thousand souls” in 4:4. In 2:47, 5:14, and 11:24 believers were added by the Lord and “to the Lord,” and according to 16:5, “so the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.” I don’t know what spreadsheet software they used, but they kept track of who was in and who wasn’t. Numbers were counted, numbers were added, those numbers were totaled. They paid attention to who professed faith in Christ.
Hebrews 13:17, though exhorting sheep to obey and submit, assumes that the sheep know who their leaders are.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Let’s assume for a moment that everyone wants to obey what the passage commands. Who are the characters? Which leaders are you called to obey and submit? Any elder at any church?
I think it’s also fair to assume that the leaders knew what sheep they were assigned and for whom they would give an account (the same is true in Acts 20:2). This dance of leading and following requires that the partners can identify one another. Imagine leading, feeding, and protecting sheep without knowing which were yours and which weren’t. To give a good account of souls, shepherds need to know the souls that they can affirm and those who are not ready to be affirmed.
1 Timothy 5:9-16 provides instructions to the (local) church for taking care of widows. Only a certain kind of widow is to be “enrolled” in order that the “church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows.” Households and relatives bear the first responsibility (verses 3-8) and the church bears the next level of responsibility. That requires that there is an identifiable church that “enrolls” and “care(s)” for her own widows. It doesn’t mean that unbelieving widows are valueless, but it does mean that those recognized as in the church are cared for by the church as of first priority.
These passages are clear and crucial: Matthew 18:15-20, especially verse 17 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, especially verses 2, 12-13.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)
That sounds like a particular group of people. We don’t put an add in the newspaper or tweet it out to the universal church.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (vv.1-2)
How can you “remove from among” if you don’t know the “among” to remove from are?
You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (v.5) I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with the sexually immoral people–not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not eve to eat with such a one. For what I have to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the even person from among you.” (vv.9-13)
Obedience requires knowing who the church is so we know who were are supposed to discipline (only those in the church). It also requires that the leaders know who is a part and who isn’t so they know who to tell it to. In order to “tell it to the church,” the church must be identifiable. In order to have someone “removed from among you” and “purge the evil person from among you,” from “those inside the church,” there must be a way to identify who’s in and who’s out. In order for the protection to work, the disciplinee should know, the other members should know, and those outside the church should know.
We don’t need a stack of signatures and initials like filling out mortgage loan paperwork before disciplining, but does that mean we should have nothing formal at all?
Leeman offers this definition in his book, Church Membership:
Church membership…is a declaration of citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. [It] is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church. (64)
Yes, there is freedom on how to formalize membership but, somehow, membership should be recognized. That will look different in different places. A church of 20 in a Muslim country that meets to the risk of their lives won’t have the same process as a church of 200 or 2000 in a more culturally acceptant city drawing members from a 30 minute driving radius.
How should we (all of us, not just the elders) recognize and affirm our members? How loose is too vague to be clear and meaningful? How formal is too tight to be appropriate and rewarding? How can we unite new members to the body? How can we encourage members of the body by attendance to be fully committed to their responsibilities to one another?
We have a common confession: Jesus is Lord. We believe it. We base our lives on it. We gather to worship around it. We tell it to our neighbors.
Jesus said He would build His church. He also gave the church responsibility to represent Him on earth and affirm the heavenly citizenship of her members in local outposts.
There are so many reasons to be discouraged. Many fathers and mothers kill their children, or just hate them. Christians hurt one another, fight against one another, and resist identifying with one another; these are not biblical “one anothers.” How are we going to give something better to the next generation? How will we represent the King and find unity as His people? How are we going to be a church that Christ is glad to receive as His Bride? We are going to believe God whose power out-powers our wildest imaginations. He will build His church.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20–21, ESV)