These two questions started my search for a biblical understanding of the local church, and they began around the ideas of authority and submission.
Regarding the first question, the Scriptures clearly command Christians to submit to and honor an elder body (Heb. 13:17, 1 Tim. 5:17). If there is no understanding of local church membership, then who are we to submit to and obey? Is it anyone with the title “elder” from any church? Should you as a Christian obey and submit to those loons at Westboro Baptist? In order to obey Scripture, must you picket soldiers’ funerals, as the pastor of Westboro seems to imply?
Regarding the second question, the Scriptures clearly command an elder body to care for specific people (1 Pet. 5:1-5; also, Acts 20:29-30). Will I as a pastor be held accountable for all the Christians in the Dallas Metroplex? There are many churches in Dallas that I have strong theological and philosophical differences with. Will I give account for what they teach in their small group, how they spend their money and what they do concerning international missions?
WHAT ABOUT CHURCH DISCIPLINE?
After considering questions of authority and submission, the second issue that came up in my study of the local church was the biblical teaching on church discipline.
You see it in several places, but none so clearly as 1 Corinthians 5:1-12. In this text, Paul confronts the church in Corinth for approving of a man walking in blatant, unrepentant sexual immorality. The Corinthians are celebrating this as God’s grace, but Paul warns them that this type of wickedness shouldn’t make them boast, but rather mourn. He calls them arrogant and tells them to remove this man for the destruction of his flesh and the hopeful salvation of his soul. In verses 11-12, he pulls no punches: “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 even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”
It has been my sad experience that very few churches still practice church discipline, but that’s another article for another day. My question out of this text is simple: How can you kick someone “out” if there isn’t an “in”? If there is no local commitment to a covenant community of faith, then how do you remove someone from that community of faith? Church discipline won’t work if local church membership doesn’t exist.
LOTS OF OTHER EVIDENCE FOR MEMBERSHIP
There are other evidences to support local church membership in the Scriptures.
We see in Acts 2:37-47 that there is a numerical record of those who have professed Christ and been filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 41) and an acknowledgement that the church was tracking the growth (v. 47).
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, and in verses 9-13, we read this:
Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than 60 years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work. But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.
In this text, we see criteria for who would or would not qualify for Ephesus’ widow care program. The local church in Ephesus is organized, and they are working out a plan.
We could go on and on here, asking questions about how we could be obedient to the commands of God in 1 Corinthians 12 or Romans 12 if we aren’t connected to a local covenant community of faith. But to unpack all the possible texts would require longer than I have for this article.
GOD’S PLAN IS THAT WE WOULD BELONG TO LOCAL CHURCHES
When you begin to look at these texts, it becomes clear that God’s plan for his church is that we would belong to a local covenant community of faith. This is for our own protection and maturation and for the good of others.
If you view church as some sort of ecclesiological buffet, then you severely limit the likelihood of your growing into maturity. Growth into godliness can hurt. For instance, as I interact with others in my own local body, my own slothfulness in zeal is exposed, as is my lack of patience, my prayerlessness and my hesitancy to associate with the lowly (Rom. 12:11-16). Yet this interaction also gives me the opportunity to be lovingly confronted by brothers and sisters who are in the trenches with me, as well as a safe place to confess and repent. But when church is just a place you attend without ever joining, like an ecclesiological buffet, you just might consider whether you’re always leaving whenever your heart begins to be exposed by the Spirit and the real work is beginning to happen.
What’s the bottom line? Local church membership is a question of biblical obedience, not personal preference.
This post originally appeared on 9Marks.org. Used by permission.