Last week, we looked at some general patterns that help establish a Biblical case for church membership. This week, we want to begin building on that foundation, and focus on specific New Testament passages that give us a deeper understanding.
The Book of Acts
In and of itself, Acts is a fascinating book, as it gives us the history of the early church before and after its inception.
Acts 2 opens with the disciples, along with thousands of others, assembled in Jerusalem for a religious holiday, Pentecost. Following an order given by Jesus (post-resurrection), the disciples were there awaiting the arrival of the “Helper” (see John 14-16). Sure enough, the chapter opens with the coming of the Holy Spirit “as tongues of fire.” In that moment, the church was born, and the disciples would soon become the apostles, or early church leaders.
As the chapter continues, Peter, empowered by the Holy Spirit, preaches a sermon that “pierced to the heart” those who heard it. Peter continues by telling them that they must repent for the forgiveness of sins. Notice what the passage says, “So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that there were added about three thousand souls.” Did you catch it? It’s a small word: added. Peter preaches, men and women respond in faith, are baptized, and then are added. But it begs the question: added to what? The answer: they were added to the newly formed local church in Jerusalem. In other words, on Pentecost, the church in Jerusalem went from non-existent to three thousand members!
Acts 6 offers us some unique insight. The growing church in Jerusalem is experiencing a problem: a handful of widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. The apostles (think pastors) call together the congregation, or gathering, and instruct them to “select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.” While this short section is chock full of important concepts, let’s focus on just a few.
Notice, the apostles call together the congregation. It’s obvious that these were specific individuals, namely those who were a part of the church in Jerusalem. If we connect Acts 2 with Acts 6, we find that those who were “added” are now those who are “summoned.” These were individuals who had not only committed to Jesus in faith, but also committed to one another in love (see John 13:34-35; Acts 2:41-46; 1 John 3:13-24). The congregation was tasked with identifiying qualified indidividuals from within the church, who could dedicate themselves to serving the church. Those individuals would come to be known as "deacons."
Fun Bible-reading fact: the word, church, always refers to a gathering of people.; always plural, never singular. 1 Corinthians
The Corinthian church was a hot mess. In fact, Paul writes not one, but two letters of correction to the Corinthians, instructing them on various church matters. 1 Corinthians 5, in short, deals with the discipline of a church member who had intentionally been living in sin. More specifically, he was committing sexual sin and the church had overlooked it. Paul tells them, “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” This also begs the question: remove the wicked man from what? The answer: the church.
While seemingly harsh, Paul’s instructions are clear. As Christians, we have been called out from the world, and set apart for God’s purposes, which never includes living in sin. Unfortunately, the individual in the Corinthian church had resisted all calls to repentance, and went about his business as he saw fit. Paul rebukes the church for their negligence in dealing with the situation properly, and instructs them accordingly.
Simply put, a person cannot be “removed” unless they have been “added.”
1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 both deal with spiritual gifts and church leadership. While we will talk more specifically about this in the weeks ahead, it’s important for us to understand that church leaders and church members are equally important in the church. Church leaders (pastors and deacons) may have a public platform; but, that does not make them better or more spiritual than anyone else.
Church leadership exists for the edification of the church. Likewise, each church member has been uniquely gifted by the Holy Spirit to worship God and build up the church (other members). More on this in the coming weeks! 1 Timothy
At the tail end of both his ministry and life, Paul gives instructions to the young pastor, Timothy. In 1 Timothy 5:9-16, he offers a simple, easily overlooked command regarding widows. He says, “a widow is to be put on the list only if...But refuse to put younger widows on the list...” Did you catch it there? It’s a small word: list. Paul recognizes the existence of a list of individuals in Timothy’s church. In other words, individual believers were both identified and organized into a usable document! In today’s church life, we would likely refer to this as an attendance roster.
Here’s the reality of church membership: the general pattern, coupled with specific passages, offers a compelling argument in favor of its practice. Some of you may still be thinking: “Can I just attend a church every week without joining?” I’ll answer that question next week, as we look at the practical implications of church membership!