Separating Insiders and Outsiders
Have you ever found this church-growth advertisement in your church mailbox? «How to Build a Healthy Church Today: Make a List of Members!» Probably not.
Every day my church’s mailbox is stuffed with flashy pamphlets and postcards advocating a seminar, a book, or a conference that I, as the pastor, must attend if I want my congregation to succeed. Usually a glossy headshot of a middle-aged man smiles broadly at me and promises astounding growth if our church will only heed the secret that he has discovered for ____ (insert topic: evangelism, a greeting ministry, marketing your church, etc).
But I have yet to receive any glitzy promotional literature on church membership: «Tell those non-commitment types to join either your church or someone else’s! Watch your harvest double!» No, I have not yet received that one.
Well, call this my mailing campaign—a series of articles on church membership, of which this is the first. You want a healthy church? Tell those casual attendees to join!
I will admit that I have learned to keep a trashcan near the mailbox. The sheer volume of unsolicited opinions has made me skeptical of anyone who claims to diagnose what’s wrong with the local church. With all these voices, how should we evaluate different prescriptions for a successful church? How can we tell what’s good advice and what’s worthy of the so-called circular file?
First, we should ask whether a concept is consistent with what the Bible teaches. The Bible is the infallible guide to both our faith and our practice (2 Tim. 3:16-17, 1 Thes. 2:13). If a teaching is not found in Scripture, we are not bound to heed it. If it is expressly contradicted in Scripture, we are obligated to oppose it.
Second, we should ask whether any proposal for the church corresponds with what God intends for his people throughout the course of redemption history.
By these two standards, we find that the modern practice of church membership, though nowhere explicitly commanded in the New Testament, best achieves the commitment and identification with himself that God intends for his people throughout the Bible and in the New Testament church.
In this article and the next, therefore, I will seek to show that formal church membership—that is, the congregation’s recognition of an individual Christian’s commitment to and participation in the life and discipline of that local church—is biblical. And since it’s biblical, we will find that a healthy practice of membership makes for a better advertising campaign than anything you might receive in the mail.
WHO’S IN AND WHO’S OUT? — MEMBERSHIP IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
There are a number of ways we could characterize the story of the Bible, but one is to say that it is the story of God’s wrath against his enemies and of his love for his people. Given the starkness of that contrast, God makes a clear line of distinction throughout this grand story between those who are his people and those who are not. The Bible traces this kind of «membership» from creation to consummation.
In the Garden of Eden, God’s people lived in communion with him. After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, he dissolved their fellowship and expelled them from the Garden. He established a perimeter around the Garden and charged an angelic guard to keep the humans out. God excluded the sinner. While they remained righteous, they were in. When they sinned, they were out.
God then appeared to Abraham in Genesis 12 with a gracious promise to create from his descendents a new people that belonged to the Lord. He reaffirmed this promise in chapter 17: «I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you….and I will be their God» (Gen. 17:7-8). A relationship would abide between Abraham’s descendants and the Lord that was distinct from his relationship with all other human beings. There would be two kinds of people: those who are «God’s people» and those who are not.
In order to make this spiritual reality physically apparent, God gave Abraham the sign of circumcision as a rite of initiation and inclusion—an entryway to signify membership among God’s people. So significant was this marker that individuals from foreign nations could be included among God’s people upon circumcision (Genesis 17:27), and physical descendants of Abraham could be cut off from God’s people for refusing circumcision (Genesis 17:14). There was a clear line of distinction: the circumcised were in; all others were out.
The Levitical law further established and codified this line of distinction. It set apart the sons of Israel from the rest of the world. God wanted his people to be pure and holy, distinct in everything from their clothes, to their food, to their worship. Those who kept the law were in; all others were out.
Moses and then Joshua repeatedly told the nation of Israel to remain separate and pure as they took possession of the land of Canaan. Just as they were to live within the physical boundaries of the land, they were to live within the spiritual boundaries of the Levitical law and holiness code. Joshua warned,
Be very careful, therefore, to love the LORD your God. For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the LORD your God has given you (Jos. 23:11-13).
Yet again and again the Israelites failed to maintain this distinction. Beginning with the book of Judges, the Old Testament histories chronicle how idolatry and intermarriage made the Israelites indistinguishable from their neighbors. Relative to these neighbors, being an Israelite meant less and less. By the time of Israel’s exile, only a remnant remained faithful. Since Israel lived and worshipped like a pagan nation, God sent them off to live among the pagan nations. Since the spiritual borders had vanished, he did away with the physical borders of the land. It was no longer clear who was in and who was out.
THE SHEPHERD’S SHEEP — MEMBERSHIP IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
When we turn to the New Testament, we find that God sent his Son to create a new people for himself, the church. Now, both Jews and Gentiles, because of Christ’s work, are invited to be God’s people through faith. Those who were once not a people are now the people of God (1 Pet. 2:10). They were out; now they are in.
Instead of physical circumcision or ethnicity, followers of Christ are identified with the people of God through baptism (Acts 2:41). This baptism symbolizes their identification with the crucified and risen Christ. As Paul wrote,
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4).
As a Baptist, I must point out that the coming of Christ and his finished work on the cross created certain discontinuities between the Old Testament and the New Testament people of God. Old Testament Israel was a mixed community, comprised of both physical and spiritual descendants of Abraham (Rom. 9:6-8). Yet the Lord promised through the prophet Jeremiah a new covenant «not like the covenant that I made with their fathers,» but a covenant in which «all know me, from the least of them to the greatest» (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The body of Christ is then comprised exclusively of those who, by faith, have been united to him. In the words of the prophecy, they all know the Lord.
This element of discontinuity from Old Testament to New will become significant when we consider exactly who is in and who is out among the New Testament people of God. For now, we should observe the continuity between the people of God in both Testaments: God continues to make a distinction between those on the inside and those on the outside. There are sheep, and there are goats. There are those who have been baptized into Jesus, and there is everyone else.
Jesus even compared the church to a sheep pen of which he is door (John 10:7). And a sheep pen has a fence. Jesus also said that he knows his sheep and that his sheep know him (John 10:14).
This pattern of inclusion and exclusion is brought to a head at the consummation of history. At the end of time, God will make a final and clear separation. All mankind will clearly see on that solemn day who dwells among God’s people and who does not. The sheep will be separated from the goats (Matt. 25:31-33). Those whose names are found written in the Lamb’s book of life will be ushered into glory, while those whose names are not written in his book will be cast out (Rev. 21:27).
In our present day, we live in between the inauguration of Christ’s kingdom and its consummation. Because the powers of darkness continue to work, it is not yet apparent to our eyes who belongs to the people of God and who does not. Yet the practice of church membership helps to make that distinction clearer. When a local church accepts a believer into membership by virtue of his baptism and profession of faith, the church proclaims to the world, «This person gives evidence of being a Christian. Consider him a part of God’s people.» When an individual Christian joins a church, he proclaims to the world, «This body of believers is the body of Christ, the people of God.»
The people of God are not called the people of God for their own sake. They exist as the people of God to please and glorify God. In other words, the distinction between them and the world is not simply ontological (though it is not less than that), it is also ethical and teleological. Christ calls the church to be salt and light in a dark and decaying world (Matt 5:13). He tells Christians not to conform to the evil desires they had when they were not God’s people, but to be holy as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:14-16). And he has saved the church so that it might display the eternal glory and wisdom of God to the universe (Eph. 3:10). As such, a clear line of membership helps to make these ethical and teleological goals a reality in the life of the church. It marks out these people as a display of his mercy and kindness to the surrounding world—all to his glory.
Throughout Scripture, we see a pattern of God making his people visibly distinct from the world. When the local church practices meaningful church membership, it simply participates in what God has been doing all along.
One day, the Lamb’s book of life will be the only membership roll, and the reading of that roll will be dreadful and awesome. Until that day, churches, by keeping lists, show love for those on the inside and those on the outside (cf. 1 Cor. 5:12-13). However imperfect these earthly lists might be, they prepare everyone for the final reading of the list that bears no mistakes.
In my next article, I will consider more closely some of the specific texts of the New Testament that seem to require local church membership, as well as some texts that seem to imply that local church membership was practiced in New Testament churches.