Thursday, March 29, 2007

Church Membership Series

To bring some of the readers of this blog up to speed…I’m going to start a series of posts on Church Membership. This is really an extension of a post I did a while ago here, and two different comments I wrote at Justin Taylor’s blog: Between Two Worlds here and here. My hope is to have a clear line of thought regarding this issue.

In an effort to work through some of these issues I figured I would do a series on it to directly focus on some of the questions and arguments some people have for and against church membership. I’m doing this to think through “church membership” particularly to figure it out a little more for myself. These are my questions…and it’s my hope that I can discuss a bunch of them:
(1) What is the Church?

(2) What is the difference between the “visible” and “invisible” church?

(3) Can [or should] we attempt to practice the realities of the “invisible” church in the “visible” church?

(4) Is church membership biblical? [the concept…not the word (although the word “members” of the body of Christ is used in the Bible, particularly regarding the “invisible” church).]

(5) What are the biblical requirements for church membership?

(6) What is a “regenerate” church membership?

(7) What are the pros of practicing a “regenerate” church membership?

(8) What are the cons of practicing a “regenerate” church membership?

(9) Is it wrong to practice a “regenerate” or a “non-regenerate” church membership?

(10) How do a few different churches practice church membership? Are some practices extra-biblical? (I.e. can churches require baptism by immersion, require a certain % for a tithe, affirming certain doctrinal positions such as no drinking of alcohol/predestination/perseverance/etc.), etc. for consideration for church membership]

(11) What role has church membership played in the different types of church governments? [Episcopacy, Presbyterian, and Congregational]

(12) Can a church affirm covenantal aspects of the body of Christ while attempting to practice a “regenerate church membership”?

(13) Do the malpractice, misuse, and abuse of church membership negate its practice?

(14) Has pragmatism replaced biblical faithfulness in regard to “church membership”?

(15) Does any of this matter? Why?

I am not a theologian. I am a husband, student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I work full time at an insurance company in Des Moines…so between marriage, school, and work I’ll try to post thoughts as much as possible. I may not have answers for all of these questions, but hopefully someday (Lord willing) I’ll have more clarity.

Lastly, if you have any other questions that you think a discussion about "church membership" should address please let me know…maybe we can discuss a few of those too.

I hope you will join the discussion!

In Christ


PSzalapski said...

Questions 5 and later will be moot if the answer to #4 is "no", so I would look at 1-4 first. Please stand by...

PSzalapski said...

The answers to questions 4 and later will depend a lot on the answers to questions 1-3, so let's start there. I'm treating this comment perhaps as a first draft of a essay.

(1) What is the Church?

The church is the body of all believers, or to use mathematical terms, the set of all people who have been regenerated/saved. Numerous times the authors of the New Testament call the church "a body" or "the body of Christ", and the people in it "members". Thus we know the Church is body comprised of members--people. But which people? 1 Cor 12:13-14 implies that the members are those who "in one Spirit were baptized" into the body, those who "drank of the Spirit." It can be argued here whether the baptism here is the act of immersing in water or a spiritual baptism--being immersed in the Spirit, which we know from other verses happens at salvation. If it be the latter, it becomes clearer that the members of the church are the saved ones, those born again. I hold this position because of the context clues: those who are "in one Spirit" and those who "drank" of that one Spirit can only be the saved ones. How absurd would it have been for Paul to intend to include false converts as those who have drunk of the Spirit and experienced such a deep spiritual event! The phrase, "all were made to drink of one Spirit" also tells me that the drinking here is something that was caused to happen, rather than something a person chose to undertake. This matches up with my understanding of regeneration as something that happens to me without my influence--God caused it to happen and just made me aware and desirous of it. I would say that adult baptism would be something that I consciously choose as an act of obedience. (Certainly, one could argue that God caused my desire to be baptized just like he caused my salvation, but that is another discussion.)

If however I am wrong and Paul refers to physical water immersion, it should still be linked to salvation because of the intimate relationship between salvation and physical baptism that Paul assumes throughout his epistles. Even in this case, those who are "in one Spirit" and those who "drank" of that one Spirit can only be the saved ones.

Matthew 6:18 is generally understood to mean that the confession of Jesus as the Christ is the rock upon which the church is built. Would we count as members those who don't have this foundation?

There are many other verses about the church, and many verses that explain aspects of what the church is, but I seeks only to answer the question "who are the members of the church"--my answer is all the saved ones and no one else.

(2) What is the difference between the “visible” and “invisible” church?

I am not a fan of those terms, mostly because the Bible doesn't use them and many don't understand them. However, I will use them and explain them at the same time. The "invisible church" is what the Bible calls simply "the church"--all believers everywhere. It is said to be invisible because only God knows exactly all those in it. So we also have the so-called "visible church", which the Bible never directly addresses. It is visible because you and I can see it--that is, whoever appears to be a believer is a member of the visible church. We then acknowledge that many in this "visible church" are not true believers and thus not members of the true church, and we acknowledge that we don't always know the difference, that there will be "wheat and tares" (Matthew 13:24-30) until Christ returns and burns up the remaining tares.

I think the question should properly include a third variant, the "local church", which is simply a group of (apparent) believers who regularly meet together. The local church is clearly a God-ordained institution in the New Testament--in fact, over half the uses of the word "church" refer to a local body of those who are assumed to be believers. Many verses declare the importance of local fellowship with other believers, as well as many other spiritually important practices that are done in the local church. The apostles devoted their lives to serving God primarily in the context of the local churches. Clearly, the local church is a highly Biblical concept.

I don't like to speak of the "visible" church because it is a theoretical and not an actual thing. Also, is it not a Biblical concept. Paul and the other authors of the New Testament wrote exclusively of either the true church or of one or more local churches; the set of all those everywhere who claim to be or seem to be believers is not addressed, except in the context of a local church.

(3) Can [or should] we attempt to practice the realities of the “invisible” church in the “visible” church?

I assume this really means 'Can [or should] we attempt to practice the realities of the "invisible church" in the local churches?' The question could be expounded as, "should our local churches be attempts at the practical expression of the true church, or does God call us to a less ambitious reality of merely forming a human organization with good leadership from Christian people as led by God's Providence?" I have always assumed that the local church should indeed be a manifestation of the true church, but I am not so sure. Please allow me to explore this as I think with my typing.

So I would claim then that EITHER the local church is the practical expression of the true church, OR it isn't. Is this a valid "either-or" proposition?

We know something of what God is accomplishing in the true church--building the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the household of God, the warrior of God, the kingdom of God, the one new man (no longer "Israel" nor "the Nations"), God’s workmanship, and the vast multitudes around the throne giving glory to God.

We know the local church is very important to God, because it was important to Jesus and the Apostles. It obviously a human organization, and God obviously wants to accomplish something through it. What different things is he accomplishing in the local churches? One might expect that evangelism would flow out of the local churches; also, practices such as the breaking of bread, church discipline, teaching, service of the saints, prophecy, and mutual edification are accomplished in and by the local churches.

So we see that perhaps the local church is for things that build up the saints, the practices that God has directed the saints to do together for their sanctification. The true church is all believers, accomplishing the fulfillment of all the deep spiritual truths regarding it as revealed in the Bible. How then do we link these two together? Let us work backward. The chief purpose of God in creating the world is to gain ultimate glory for Himself in fellowship with his creation forever, This glory comes in a large way from the true Church in all of its deep spiritual aspects. We have seen that the true church is comprised of all believers everywhere. We know that, for God to gain the church he desires (Eph 5:7), the believers therein must be sanctified and glorified (Rom 8:30). Much of this sanctification must happen by God's divine work after we die, but some of it God has ordained to occur in this world, through the events in a Christian's life. How does this happen? Here we could dive into the study of means of grace, but for now I assert it is primarily by three means: study and meditation of the Bible, prayer, and fellowship in a local church and with other believers. Could it be that the local church is not merely one of God's means by which he will gain his true church, but rather an intimate part of it? Is it possible that the God-ordained entity we call our church could be an important component of the true church, after undergoing God's refining fire in this world and the world to come?

Why would the authors of the New Testament use the same word (Greek "ekklesia", most literally "the assembly") to stand for the group of all believers everywhere, and then also for much smaller groups of mixed believers and non-believers? If the two groups are not initmately related, why confuse it so much?

If the two groups are not related, we would expect to see that separation in the Bible. Indeed, in most cases, it can be clearly distinguished whether Paul, Peter, John, or Jesus is speaking in regard to the universal, true church or one or more local churches. However, several verses seem to blend the two, indicating the author is thinking of the two (the true church and the local churches) together. 1 Tim 5:16, James 5:14, Phil 3:6, and Gal 1:3 come to mind, but here are some stronger examples:

In 1 Tim 3:15, Paul is speaking of the true, universal church, as we see from the deep spiritual roles he attributes to it. However, he is speaking to Timothy about "how one ought to behave" in this church, which can only mean a local church. Thus the two are equated.

In 2Cor 1:1, Paul co-identifies "all the saints in Achaia" (a portion of the true church) with "the Corinth" (a local church). Seems to me the church at Corinth (a city) is just a part of all the saints in Achaia (a region)--the two sets of people are not distinguished.

In 1Cor 11:22, Paul writes of his audience "despising the church of God", seemingly referring to universal (true) church, by behaving improperly in their local "church at Corinth" (1:2). The two are not distinguished.

Acts 20:28 has Paul speaking of the "church of God, which he obtained with his own blood," clearly a reference to the true church--yet the flock he refers to can only be a local church.

Another interesting fact here is that the true church is made exclusively of believers. Therefore, God through the local church is not sanctifying false converts (the tares) for the true church, because they are not in the true church (unless of course He is preparing them for salvation soon.) God also provides mechanisms for those harming the church to be ejected (church discipline), and for false converts to leave of their own accord (1 John 2:19).

This is very interesting. There doesn't seem to be a hard-and-fast verse that states that the local church is or should be an expression of the true church, but I think the arguments above make a pretty good case for it.