Recently, a lot of discussion has come up in our church and among friends regarding the nature of church membership. Is it biblical? Isn’t it just a little bit “fundamental”? Why should I let anyone else control my life?
Mark Dever’s 9Marks ministry has a lot to say on this topic; it’s been a helpful aid for me in my understanding of church membership. I will highlight a few of their points that were key for me as I began to wrestle with this issue.
A biblical understanding of “church”
What is the church? I think simply responding “a group of Christians” or “everyone who believes in God” may be a bit naive. Throughout history God has interacted with a covenant group of people, starting with two in the garden, then Israel, now the church. To these people he has revealed himself with revelation, prophecy, and spectacular theophanies. He guided them, corrected them, provided for them, and taught them his rules. Then, he sent his Son to die for them. This death was immensely important for bringing other people into the fold (John 10:14–16).
This concept of a covenant group has many implications of being “in or out.” When discussing the questions “is church membership biblical,” the 9Marks crew writes this:
- The garden of Eden had an inside and an outside (Gen. 2:8, 3:24).
- Noah’s ark had an inside and an outside (Gen. 7:16).
- The people of God in the wilderness had to be ceremonially clean to remain inside the camp and not to be cast outside (Lev. 13:46, Num. 5:3).
- The nation of Israel was to have an inside and an outside, as represented by food laws, festivals, political boundaries, places of worship, and even strong provisions against inter-marriage (Lev. 11, Lev. 23, Josh. 14-21, 1 Kings 8, Deut. 7:3).
- In the New Testament, the ethnic and cultural boundary markers of the Old Testament are exploded. But a clear, bright line remains between those who are God’s people and those who are not, as indicated by their profession of faith and the visible fruit of their lives, as well as by the practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Rom. 6:3-4, 1 Cor. 11:17-34, Gal. 3:27). Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are what give substance and shape to a church’s membership. There is an inside (those who have been baptized and are welcomed to the Lord’s table) and an outside (those who are not).
- In 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 Paul challenges the Corinthian church to judge those who are inside the church and leave judging outsiders to God. How did the Corinthians know who was in and who was out? They knew whom Paul was talking about because some people had formally, publicly identified themselves with the church in Corinth while the rest of the city had not. Those who had were inside the church. They were the church’s members. Those who hadn’t were not.
More thoughts on this topic will come—for further reading, see the following links.