Church Membership 101

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

What is the church? Who can be in the church? Is the church merely a collection of people with shared interest in spiritual things, like a social club or a hobby group? Is it a group of people who couldn’t make it on their own, and so they collectively pool their strengths and resources to cope with life in this world? And is membership in a local church an optional benefit, or a necessity? Can you be a faithful Christian and not be connected to Christ’s body?

The text to which I’d like to turn your attention this morning is found in the 12th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Please turn with me to Romans chapter 12.

We have been working our way slowly through 1st Corinthians, and I thought it prudent to take a brief pause from that study, to preach a doctrinal and practical sermon on the topic of church membership.

And there are a couple of reasons that I, and the elders, thought it wise to examine again the biblical doctrine of church membership. First of all, it was because we are at a point in our study of 1st Corinthians that assumes a robust understanding of membership. In chapter 5 of 1st Corinthians, where we will head next in our study, Lord willing, Paul tackles head-on an issue of church discipline. That is, a member of the Corinthian church is in public and terrible sin, and is even proud of it, and so Paul directs the Corinthian church to put that man out, to hand him over to Satan, Paul says, which means to excommunicate him.

But to do such a thing, to put a man out, assumes some something significant. To be out, assumes that there was first a way to be in. To be put outside of a box, assumes that there was first a box to begin with. To be removed, implies that you were first brought in. Thus, Paul’s whole argument in chapter 5 of first Corinthians assumes an understanding of church membership, and therefore I thought it prudent to discuss what the bible says about the body of Christ and how Christians in local churches are to relate to one another.

But there’s another reason why I thought it wise to remind ourselves of what it means to be a member of a local body of Christ, and that reason is the global pandemic that we just endured. Many people and many churches had a very malleable understanding of church, indeed, a very minimalistic understanding of church membership, and they and their churches are not faring well after a year of quarantine.

People that had a thin view of church membership, that didn’t prioritize relationships and connections, are coming out of COVID asking themselves why they even need to attend church at all. If church membership is merely about access to preaching, then why do we even need to gather at all? We can just pull up a sermon on the tv and watch in our pajamas from the comfort of our couch.

Both the biblical understanding of church membership and the immediate relevance of our past global experience, both press upon us the importance of these questions. What is the church of Christ, and how are believers to relate to it, and thus to one another?

I hope this morning to give us a little overview of what the New Testament teaches us, a brief doctrinal overview, so that we can have right in our minds what the bible teaches, what Christ expects of us, and what we owe to one another, having first been given life in Christ.

Let’s begin by reading in Romans 12, which is one of the texts in the New Testament that describes the church in language of a body with many members. Hear the word of our Lord:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith;if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

My thesis, my goal this morning is to show you that the New Testament expectation is for church members be converted, be consecrated, and be connected. Converted, consecrated and connected.

Let’s start with the first one, Church members are to be converted. Or, the assumption of the New Testament is that all members of the church be genuine converts, genuine believers in Jesus Christ. This may seem like a no-brainer to you, and in one sense it ought to be. That’s why I called this sermon Church Membership 101, not 102.

But as simple as this sounds, not everyone would agree with it. Some say that we baptize people into the church, and then later they come to faith. They say that the church is necessarily and by design a corpus mixtum, a “mixed body”, full of believers and unbelievers. But I don’t believe the bible teaches this, and Baptists have never believed this to be the case.

Let’s look at a few reasons why the church should have a membership of regenerated believers, or a regenerate church membership.

A first reason is found in the very name, church, which in Greek is ekklesia. It means assembly, or more literally, those that have been called out. The very notion of the church as those who have been called out presupposes that those members first have responded to God’s gospel call.[1] The imagery that we will study later today about the church as the household of God assumes that the members of the church are actually part of God’s family.

Further, the language of the New Testament assumes that the churches are full of believers. Think back to the beginning of our study in 1st Corinthians. Paul addresses his letter to “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together.” Paul assumes that when he writes to the church in Corinth, that he is writing to a gathering of believers.

Secondly, we should conclude that churches are to be made up of only converts because of what we see in the New Testament about church discipline. IF the church was intentionally designed to be a collection of believers and unbelievers, then church discipline makes no sense at all? Why would you possess a mechanism for removing unbelievers if unbelievers were permitted to be in membership? It makes no logical sense.

Third, we should conclude that churches are made up of only converts because of the example of the early church, especially what we see in the book of Acts. After Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, we see that those who were added to the church were those who explicitly accepted Peter’s message, his word, his sermon of gospel truth, and we see that in Acts 2:41. Then in verse 47 we see those who were being saved were being added to their number. The church was growing BECAUSE more people were being converted, not because more unbelievers were added to their number.

Likewise, in Acts 11, we see that the church of God at Antioch was growing, and verse 21 says, “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.” Belief precedes baptism and precedes membership. That was Paul’s ordinary methodology: enter a city, preach the gospel, take those who responded to the gospel preaching with faith and organize them into a church. It happened again in chapter 14, and it happened in Philippi in chapter 16. And all of this work by Paul, all of his efforts and all of his tactics operate with the assumption of a regenerate church membership, with the assumption that the church will be full of converts, not pagans.

But you may be asking yourself, is this really such a big deal? Do we really need to put so much effort in examining someone’s testimony and investigating the credibility of his or her confession? Absolutely. Let’s think about some of the dangers if we ignore the bible’s teaching and example when it comes to having a regenerate church membership.

One danger of having an unbelievers in the church’s membership is that the name of Christ is tarnished. The name of Christ, the reputation of our savior is sullied whenever we have unbelievers representing Christ to the world. We have a hard enough time as believers trying to live in a manner worthy of the name of Christ, but when you have unregenerate church members living in the world in ungodly ways, all the while outwardly representing the name of Christ, then we are preaching a confusing and damnable message.

We’re telling the world that you can act like a complete pagan and still be OK with God. You can remain in unbelief and yet be at peace with God. We’re preaching a message that says peace with God and peace with the world are both attainable. Which is an absolute lie. God cares about how we behave. God cares about our works being either righteous or sinful. God cares about how his people represent him to the world. And when we fill the church with unbelievers, then we will inevitably profane the name of Christ to a watching world.

But that’s not the only danger. Another danger of having an unregenerate church membership is that the church goes completely haywire. The orderliness of the church goes out the window. Let me explain what I mean. I’m assuming here that the bible teaches a congregational form of church order, which means that the congregation is the highest earthly authority in the church. Not the pope, not the bishop, not the pastors, not the deacons. The congregation. That’s why when Jesus gets to the final step of church discipline in Matthew 18 he says, “tell it to the church.” When the Apostles institute deacons in Acts 6, they tell the church to “choose from among you, men of good repute.” The church handles final matters of membership, discipline, and of leadership.

But, the danger comes in when you have a congregation full of unbelievers voting and ruling the church. Churches tear themselves apart all the time because they fail to disciple, fail to instruct, and fail to discipline out the unbelievers. And then when some controversy comes, they are shocked to find that their church full of people acting like worldly pagans.

If you have a church that’s operating properly, you have a congregation full of the Holy Spirit, full of people operating out of love and humility, and there is a peace and unity about the voting matters of the church. But if you have unbelievers in the church membership, then don’t be shocked when the ship gets sideways. You are asking unbelievers, who necessarily lack the Holy Spirit, to vote on spiritual matters. It won’t work, it doesn’t make sense.

Paul assumes, and the New Testament makes clear that the church is to be made up of converts, made up of believers. People who have heard the gospel, responded in faith, and submitted themselves to baptism.

And that leads to my second point: Church members are consecrated. The New Testament expectation is that Church members are consecrated.

This consecration takes place both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, it happens at the moment of conversion. God so works in the heart of his chosen people to give them the gift of life. He grants them the ability to hear his call, turn from their sins, and trust in Christ as the only means of salvation. And once they respond, Christ seals them with His Holy Spirit, sets them apart, and makes them one with himself, and with his bride.

And all of this precedes the outward expression of this consecration, which is baptism. Baptism is an outward picture of our being consecrated, being set apart for service unto Christ. Let’s remember back to the book of Acts. In Acts 2, God in his good providence has thousands of Jews from every nation gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is poured out, and men begin preaching, and preaching in all the various native tongues of all these gathered Jews.

One of those men is Peter, who boldly preaches to the crowd, so boldly that he says at one point, “God made this Jesus, whom you all crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). But rather than seeking to kill Peter for such an inflammatory statement, the next verse says that they were “cut to the heart.” They even ask Peter what they need to do. And he says in verse 38: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

Peter tells them that they should turn from their sins, trust in this crucified Messiah, and publicly identify themselves with the people of God through baptism. And how did they respond? Verse 41: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” The church, from the beginning, was full of people that were consecrated internally by the Holy Spirit and Faith, and externally through baptism.

And as Baptists, we of all people should make sure we understand the fullness of what is being pictured in this outward consecration, this outward ceremony of washing that pictures an inward reality of washing.

Most evidently, baptism is a picture of us being washed of the guilt of our sins. “Come and be baptized for the remission of your sins,” Peter preached. Not as if the water has anything magical about it, but the ordinance of baptism is a glorious picture of what happens when we come to faith. Christ’s death on the cross and his burial in the grave is pictured by our going under the water. We are united to him in his death, scripture says, so that our sin is carried to the grave. All the guilt, all the penalty, all the liability that we had incurred because of our sin, that’s all been buried in the grave.

Likewise, when we rise from the baptismal waters, we’re picturing that we’ve been united to Christ in his resurrection. His new life, is ours in the spirit. His physical resurrection with a glorified body, will likewise be ours to experience one day as well. His purity and righteousness, is likewise robed around us because of the work of the Holy Spirit.

But lest we think that this salvation being pictured is merely an individual reality, baptism also reminds us that God is concerned with more than just me and you individually. Christ is concerned with his bride, collectively. Have you ever considered this, the communal aspect of your baptism?

Ask yourself this: why do you think of all the possible ceremonies that God could have instituted for his church to observe, why do you think he chose baptism? I think one wonderful reason is that no single Christian can baptize himself. It takes another. Even Jesus needed John the Baptist to baptize him. We need one another person, even to perform the VERY FIRST act of the Christian life, which is a beautiful reminder of the reality being pictured in the baptism itself: we need someone else to save us.

Just like we can’t lift ourselves out of the waters of baptism, so too were we powerless to save ourselves from the sentence of death, which sin had earned for us. That is the very heart of the gospel.

All of mankind has been plunged into a world of death and sin and curse because of rebellion against God and against his holy law. We think in our pride that we are pretty good, that we haven’t killed anybody, that we’re not that bad. But God’s law leaves us with the inescapable conclusion that we are indeed condemned sinners.

Yes, we may not have murdered someone with our hands, but we certainly have murdered them with our hateful words. Sure, we may not have committed actual adultery, but we’ve looked longingly at someone other than our spouse. And we may not have stolen somebody’s car, but we surely have all coveted what belonged to someone else and been discontent with what we have been given.

Regardless of the seeming severity of the transgressions, each of us is nonetheless a transgressor. And the penalty of sin is death, even of the slightest sin. That’s what we’ve all earned apart from Christ. But the good news of God is that death no longer has dominion. Another has come and has defeated sin and death. And that other is Jesus.

Jesus is the one who was born, under the law, scripture says, fully bearing the weight of God’s moral standard. And yet he didn’t buckle. He never murdered or spoke murderously. In fact, he himself is so far from murderous hatred, that he describes himself as the very source and fountain of life, and all those who unite with him become partakers of his very divine life.

Further, Jesus never lusted, not even once. In fact, he was the most faithful bridegroom to every live. He did everything necessary for the purity and protection of His bride. He even gave up his life for her so that she might have life instead.

And Jesus never once coveted, nor was he even ever discontent. Even though he was put through terrible injustice, and suffered much affliction at the hands of sinful men, Christ continued trusting himself to the God who judges justly, scriptures, and rested contently in the providential plan of his father, never coveting the path of another man, but remaining faithfully committed to the path his father had made for him.

And this righteousness could be yours too. All you must do is believe in this simple message, that Christ died in the place of sinners. Believe in this Christ, and repent of your sins. Turn from them and to Christ, and he will unite with you, grant you the strength you need, show you the path of righteousness, and unite you with other believers as part of the church, his very bride.

Entrance into the church is astonishingly simple, and yet powerfully encompassing. There is no part of your life that will not be changed, once you embrace the gospel by faith and have your life consecrated to service unto Christ.

Have you trusted in this Jesus? Are you converted and consecrated? If you are, then rejoice in all that is pictured in your baptism. Remember afresh how you are buried with Christ in his death, no longer fearful of punishment because of your sins. Christ has carried the consequences and buried the burden of your sin. You no longer have to live in fear of being found out as a sinner. You no longer have to dread the punishment, or live in the anxiety of not measuring up. Christ has done it for you, and his work is enough.

Walk in his strength, in the power of his might, Paul says in Ephesians 6, as you walk with his people, who also have been consecrated to the same path.

But if you have not trusted in Christ, if you are not converted and trusting in the gospel, then know that what is pictured in the gospel is also a visible reminder for you, but of a very different reality. You too will enter the grave, but you will be alone in it. You have no substitute to take death from you.

And you too will be raised one day, but it will not be in Christ’s strength, and it will not be with Christ as your advocate. You will rise on the final day to face the final judgment. You will stand before God with all of your sin and your pride, and you will be judged for rejecting the offer of salvation presented to you in scripture and presented to you today. Don’t let that be your fate. Trust in Christ this day, be converted through the good news, be consecrated inwardly by the holy spirit and then externally through baptism, and then you too can experience true communion. Communion with Christ, and then communion with his bride.

And that communion with Christ’s bride leads to my final point. We’ve seen that church members are converted, and consecrated, let’s look lastly and see that Church members are connected. The New testament expectation is that church members are connected.

We can look at this topic through a number of angles from the bible. For example, let’s look at just some of the imagery used to describe the people of God in the New Testament.

Most recently, in our study in first Corinthians, we have examined the theme of the church as a building. The church as a building or structure. In chapter 3 Paul speaks of the church as having the foundation of Christ and Christ alone, and then on that foundation Paul had labored to build a faithful structure, according to the plan of the master architect, who is God himself.

He even sharpens the metaphor by calling the church the very temple of God. Each of us is being placed as living stones into a heavenly temple, a dwelling place as fit for the presence of God himself.

A second metaphor that God uses in scripture to describe his people is that of a Family or a household. A family or a household. For example, in 1 Timothy 3:14 Paul says, “I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”

Similarly, when Paul speaks of qualification for church leaders, one of the qualifications is that the candidate manages his own household well. And his rationale is significant, for Paul says, “if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church.” The implication is that these two spheres are sufficiently similar in their ordering and in their structure that competency in one area ought to produce competency in the other. A man that can manage his earthly household well, ought to be competent to manage well the spiritual household which is the church. Thus, the New Testament speaks of the church as a family.

Thirdly, the New Testament not only speaks of the church in terms of a building and a household, but also in terms of the church as a Body. The church as a body. This is what we read earlier from Romans 12:4 “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

This is similar to what Paul writes in Ephesians 4, “ And [God] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds[c] and teachers,[d] 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

The church is described as a building, as a family, and as a body. And these metaphors are instructive for us in several ways.

First, each of these metaphors imply connection, not isolation. They imply connection, not isolation. In the same way that a stone is not a building, and a single man is not a father, and an arm is not a body, so too is an isolated, disconnected Christian less than the biblical ideal. Now of course I am not talking about people providentially hindered from connection, like those who are homebound or on the foreign mission field. But for those of us who like our privacy, like our independence, like our distance, these metaphors ought to challenge us.

I heard an analogy years ago about a pastor who was working the grill at a church picnic. He had a church member join him at the grill, and that church member had been drifting in his attendance for a good while. And as that church member began talking about how he was struggling and how he felt disconnected and couldn’t plug in, the pastor removed a piece of charcoal from the grill and set it off by itself. The member was confused, but kept talking. And when he finally finished talking to the pastor, he asked him why he set that piece of charcoal off by itself.

The pastor pointed out to the man that while the piece of charcoal was in the fire, it was glowing red hot, but when you place it off by itself, it slowly cools, until it is no longer useful for its intended purpose. That pastor was reminding the man, and is reminding all of us, that Christians are called to be a part of a body that is connected, that is united, rather than being distant and cold. And we need to be reminded of that.

None of us drifts into deeper church commitment. If we drift anywhere, we drift into further isolation and away from meaningful spiritual connections. These metaphors in the New testament imply for us deep connection, rather than isolation.

But, secondly, these metaphors imply order and structure. They imply order and structure. You can’t build a building without a plan and without a team, and without a leader. Likewise, you don’t have a household without a specific family. I can’t just pull my car up to the playground and take with me the first four kids that hop into my car. Well, I can’t do that without getting arrested anyway.

Likewise, I can’t have a body that is not ordered and without a proper structure. In fact, when a body isn’t in proper working order and out of its proper structure, we’d say it was broken, or malfunctioning. If you took my arm and put it on my desk in my office, no matter how wonderful that arm is, you would not say that my body is operating according to its intended design and function. It was designed to operate with particular order and structure.

That’s exactly what we see in the church. God has designed the church to be ordered in accordance with his plans. Men have their roles and women have their roles. Pastors have their jobs, deacons have their jobs, and each church member has their job. It is defined, orderly, and structured.

And these structures are something that the world is working against at the moment. Everything in the current moment is seeking to undermine institutions and bring the demise of any authority structures. Don’t trust politicians, they are all dishonest; don’t trust the clergy, they are all abusive; don’t trust history books, they have all been redacted; and don’t trust your parents, they’re just out to keep you from being who you really are.

But God’s word confronts all of that, and says that Godly order and Godly structure is a good thing. When the church is operating according to God’s purposes, you will have flourishing because the building is being built according to the plans, the house is operating according to its proper form, and the body is operating according to is intended design. The metaphors used of the church in the new testament imply order and structure.

Third, each of these metaphors imply commitment. Each of these biblical metaphors imply commitment. God’s design is that we would commit to one another. That we would know one another. That’s we would be in relationship with one another. That’s partly what’s behind verse 5 of Romans 12: “so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” We are members of one another.

To go back to the metaphors, two stones near to one another is not a building. A pile of bricks is not a house. You need a mortar to bind it together. Similarly, two people living together doesn’t make a marriage, you must have commitment to make a marriage. You need a covenant. Likewise, a pile of bones doesn’t make a body. You need connections, muscles and tendons, to tie things together to make a body.

I don’t think we’re stretching the metaphor too far to say that an uncommitted Christian does not make a church member, nor does a gathering of Christians make a church. They are not a local church until they have committed to one another. We are not designed to operate independently.

I’ve had conversations with people that affirm almost everything about this sermon and about what the New Testament says about the church, yet they don’t see church membership in the new testament. I’m sympathetic to their position in a real way; they want to be doggedly scriptural in their Christian life.

But I pose them this question, “If you’re called to submit to your biblical elders (which this person agrees is taught in Hebrews 13:17 and other places), if you’re called to submit to them, how are you in any way obeying that text if you will not submit to the first thing they ask you to do, which is follow through with a basic membership process? In what way are you honoring that commandment and submitting to your elders, if you’re unwilling to submit to covenanting with a local congregation?” They can’t answer that question, not in a consistent way.

I mention that story only to illustrate that commitment is necessary. It will look different at different churches. Some have membership classes, some have public baptism services, some have printed membership rosters, and so on. But the necessary point is commitment.

Without commitment, church discipline is meaningless. Without commitment, the biblical imperatives of how we are to treat one another become thin. Without commitment, each of us will be tempted to just pack up our bags and head out each time we don’t like some decision.

We each need people committed to helping us in the Christian life. We need people committed to the hard work of loving well, serving well, rebuking if necessary, whenever each of us gets out of sorts, like we all do. We are each members of one another, Paul says.

Do you have this kind of commitment to the people of God? Are you committed to the growth and health of your fellow church members, even when things might get hard, or something unpleasant happens? Or are you tempted to drift, to pack up and move on, whenever something hard or unpleasant happens, or a decision is made you don’t like?

Praise be to God that Christ’s commitment to us is not like our commitment to others. Christ is faithful in the good times and the bad. Christ never flees when hard work is necessary. Christ doesn’t neglect his duties or fail to love those who are hard to love, like me and you.

I’ll close with this exhortation: If you’re trusting in Christ, then warm your heart again by reminding yourself of His commitment to you. How he will never leave you nor forsake you. How he has forever bound himself in a covenantal relationship with you, and he has promised your good, even at the cost of his very own life.

And if you have not come to Christ, then come to him this day, and you too can taste of true communion with him, and with his people. The church is certainly not a perfect place. In fact, its full of sinners. But unlike any worldly group, we admit that we’re sinners, and that status of being a sinner is the thing that makes us candidates of Christ’s glorious grace.

May each of us trust in Christ, be converted, be consecrated by the holy spirit and in baptism, and be connected to his body, which is the church.


[1] John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005), 83. Some of what follows in this point is adapted from Hammett.


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