We can learn a lot from warthogs. Have you ever seen what they do with mongooses? It is called a symbiotic relationship, meaning two creatures live together in a mutually beneficial relationship. A warthog will get covered in ticks which could give him diseases. So , they will walk over to a pack of mongooses and lay down and several of them will climb all over the warthog and eat the ticks. The mongoose gets a free meal, the warthog gets cleaned, everyone wins. They have a mutually beneficial relationship.
And of course, this is an obvious picture of the church, right? I see a connection here in that the church and the individuals who make up the church, have a symbiotic relationship of sorts. People in the church use their spiritual gifting to equip others to do the work of ministry and grow in Christ, and when people do the work of ministry, more people are equipped and grow in Christ, which in turn helps other people grow and be equipped and on and on it goes. The people who make up the church work together for mutual growth, for a shared benefit, like a warthog and a mongoose. You can choose which one you would like to be, I won’t assign that.
And all of this is made possible by, and held together by church membership. And this may seem like a funny topic to preach about since the vast majority of us here this morning are members of the church. But I think it is important to focus on to ensure we all have a clear understanding of what the Bible wants from us as church members. Are we as individuals fulfilling our God-given calling? More foundationally, what does it actually mean to be a member of North Leverett Baptist Church or any church for that matter? And if you are not a member, why should you bother officially joining a church?
What I pray we will take away this morning, simply put, is that biblical church membership is a formal declaration of our relationship and pledge to one another.
And through Ephesians 4, we are going to flesh out what that all means and why it is important to take that step of committing to formal church membership.
- What is the church?
But, in order to rightly grasp and practice biblical church membership, we must first understand what it is we are being members of. So, question number one should be, what is the church? What do we mean, really, when we use that word? And the Bible uses lots of interchangeable words: church, body, house, bride. What does it all mean?
I think, probably, a lot of confusion comes from the fact that we call the places that we meet “churches.” This building is North Leverett Baptist Church. So, the definition of a church becomes clouded or at worst, narrowly focused, to just mean the building. But the Bible never defines the church as a building; in fact, the early Christians, those to whom the new testament was written, didn’t have buildings. They met in the synagogues and in homes, and even in caves during times of great persecution. So, the church is not the building. The church is actually the people.
More specifically, the church is the people of God, those who are saved by faith in Christ, gathered together for a common purpose of mutual spiritual growth and service.
We, all of us as followers of Christ, are the church. The building is just a tool, a vessel, a local gathering place, for us to be the church. We, as individuals, together, are the house of God, his bride, his body. We have a common, unified salvation and a mutual goal of growing into Christlikeness as individuals, and helping one another do the same. And we do it all together.
And we see that throughout our passage. Starting in verses 11-13. Paul says that Christ has given some people, individuals within the church, spiritual gifts and a calling to serve others as equippers. They equip, teach, train, and lead the church. And they equip us to do what? To do the work of ministry. This means that ministry is not just for a select few. Its not just the preaching and teaching aspect. The work of ministry is not limited to the leaders, it is for all of us. It is for everyone as the church to serve, to help one another, and to live lives of obedience to Christ in all things.
And the purpose for that is what? The end of verse 12: for the building up of the body of Christ. For the building up, the growing of the church spiritually speaking. That is our shared purpose, calling and goal. To work together, all of us as individuals, to grow one another. We are all called to be the church together. No one is exempt from this calling. All of us are to do the work of ministry together. To build one another up; to equip and be equipped, to help one another press on towards Christlikeness. To grow in unity, to grow in our knowledge, faith and understanding of Christ, to grow in maturity in all things.
In other words, We are not called to come to the church just to be fed, as in being passive recipients where we come in, sing, listen, chat a little, then leave and next week do it all over again. No, we are called to be fed and then go and feed others. We are called to grow into Christlikeness, and actively bring others along with us. For the church to be the church it needs all of us working and growing together, as Paul says in verse 16. It takes all of us, every part, every joint working properly, everyone putting in the work and effort, to make the body grow.
Throughout his letters, Paul uses the image of a body to describe the church, and for good reason, it is a great illustration. Just as the body is made up of many different parts with many different functions and abilities, so too is the church. And all of the parts of the body have to work together or the body can’t grow, it can’t function properly.
The same is true of the church. The church is not limited to its leaders, the church is not its building, the church is all of us. And the church doesn’t work if we are not all in it together. We are a functioning church, we are a healthy body, only in so far as we all work together for our mutual benefit of spiritual growth in Christ. It takes all of us individuals that God has placed here to be the church. Without the parts functioning together properly, the body, the church, can’t truly grow.
We are all in this together, for one another in our shared growth into the image of Christ. Even if you think and feel like you don’t have much to add, God has placed you into this body for a reason, which means you are called to contribute. Perhaps you need help figuring out where that may be? Read through the many new testament passages on the church. Pray over them and ask the Lord to guide you. Ask the elders for counsel, we would love to help!
If you call this your church home, then you are called to serve here. We all need you; I need you. We are the church together.
- What is biblical church membership?
But what does that have to do with church membership? Great question. And let me say here that a lot of people get hung up on the idea of church membership because there is no chapter and verse that says you have to become a church member. And I will admit that is true. But let’s be honest, there isn’t a chapter and verse on a lot of stuff. There are many things in the Christian life and theology that are principles derived from Scripture rather than explicit commands or statements. For example, here’s a big one: the Trinity. We believe that God has revealed himself to be triune; that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons with one nature within the Godhead. There is one God and three persons. That is not a chapter and verse quotation but is a very clear and foundational principle from Scripture. So much so that to deny the Trinity places you outside of biblical faith and historic, orthodox Christianity.
And just like the Trinity, biblical church membership is, I believe, a clear principle throughout the New Testament where people were joined to specific bodies and came under the care of that church. And we take all of the principles and teachings on the church and we pull out of it this understanding of church membership. We don’t read it into the text, we pull it out of the texts as a principle and practice of what God would have us to do and that we should follow in order to be faithful to him. So again, there is no chapter and verse but that is not a reason to deny it as a clear principle that is throughout the New Testament and the early church.
So, what then, is biblical church membership? Biblical church membership is taking this understanding of the church that we have just seen in Ephesians 4, a right understanding of the church, and turning it into a formal covenant relationship. It is a lot like baptism in that it is an outward proclamation of a spiritual reality. And like baptism, it is a two-way street, it is a proclamation and covenant from both the individual and the church body.
- the individual
Let’s start first with the individual. When someone chooses to join a church body, to become a church member, what they are doing, is saying to the church, I am entrusting myself, my spiritual growth to you. I am formally coming under the care of the body, all of the people that make up this church, I am submitting myself to the Elders as the leaders of the church, I am fully coming into the flock, and entrusting my discipleship to you, to all of you.
The church is one of the primary means by which a Christian grows, and church membership is proclaiming outwardly, formally, in a covenant relationship where it is you are going to grow. It is saying I am choosing this place, God has called me here, to this body for my growth. And God has called me here, to this body, to be a part of the whole, to help all of you grow as well. God has given me spiritual gifts and abilities that I want to put into use here to serve you all.
Church membership takes that relationship and it makes it clear, official and formal. It takes an invisible reality, God’s calling, and makes it visible by signing on the dotted line, so to speak, and committing yourself to the body. And I think we need that formal declaration as creatures. Like we have been saying in the last two messages on communion and baptism, we need physical, tangible pictures and expressions of spiritual realities. And biblical church membership is that outward declaration of an invisible calling and relationship. I can see a real list in black and white of who has pledged themselves to this place. I can see my name alongside yours and know we are in this together. I know you have made the same promise and pledge I have. I know I can come to you and you can come to me because we are one in this body together with the shared goal of growth in Christ. Biblical church membership is taking that pledge and putting pen to paper and saying I want that in this place, God has put me here for that reason.
2. the church
And as I mentioned, it is a two-way street. It is the individual making that pledge, but it is also the church, all of us, making that same proclamation to the individual. When we bring someone into our fold through church membership, we are all saying to that person, we see your faith in Christ, we see your pledge to us, we believe with you that God has called you here, and we are bringing you into our flock, under our wing. We want you here, we promise to help you, to care for you, to disciple you, to encourage you, to equip you, to serve you, to protect you, to weep with you, to rejoice with you, to grow with you, to press on towards Christlikeness together. You are now one with us as the church.
The church enters into a formal covenant relationship with that individual to make them a part of the whole and we, all of us, not just the leaders, are promising to do all we can to bring them along with us into maturity in Christ.
That is the picture of true church membership in the New Testament. That is the calling God has placed on all of our lives, for all of us to be united together in a very real, formal, tangible way as the church. With one goal of growing together into the image of Christ.
- Why is membership important?
Perhaps another question comes to mind at this point. Maybe you are thinking, why is this so important? Why does it matter if we make it formal or not? Can’t we have all of this without church membership? Doesn’t attending a church equal the same thing?
Well, I don’t think it does. Formal, biblical church membership is meant to serve as a reminder of our pledge to a church, to the people. It is a covenant relationship; it is an outward expression of the invisible commitment to the body. Again, we need to be honest about our weaknesses and limitations. When we don’t have formal commitments, we are much more apt to wander and hold lightly our responsibilities. That is just human nature.
If we say we want all of those things in a church, but we are unwilling to commit in a formal way to the church, what are we really saying? We are actually saying we want all of those things only insofar as it is convenient for me. A formal pledge and declaration is meant to act as a defining moment where we say I am fully invested, I am all in. Without that we will just stay on the fringes, unwilling to commit to the biblical plan for the church and instead act as only passive receivers, missing out on all of the richness God has for us within the body.
But, when we make that proclamation, when we say I want to formally come into the fold, there are three important things from this passage that we receive from the church and pledge to give back to it: growth, protection and love.
- growth, v.11-13
First, biblical church membership is entrusting our growth to the church and in turn saying we will help the church grow too. We see this in verses 11-13. Church membership is a formal pledge to come under the equipping ministry of the church. The church exists to provide its people opportunities to be equipped, to grow in their relationship with Christ. And through membership I am saying out loud, officially, that I will be equipped by those who do the equipping, the pastors and teachers, of this church. I will take advantage of the resources and times of equipping like Sunday morning, Sunday school and Wednesday nights and whatever else, so that I can grow in my walk with Christ. We should be prioritizing those times, seeing them as a blessing and opportunity to grow in our walk with Christ. Not as optional meetings limited to a select few super Christians who can devote more time to church. They are chances to grow in Christ together. What could be more important?
And then we are to use our growth to help others grow too. Yes, we can grow outside of church, in fact we should, we are all called to do that through things like personal devotions, prayer, listening to other biblical pastors and teachers, reading good books. But that is never to be done in a vacuum. It is all done so that when we come together, we would be able to help others grow. We grow here and outside of here so that we would all grow together.
Church membership is officially declaring that we are fully invested, we are buying into the goal of seeing all of us growing up into the image of Christ. We want to grow here through the ministries of the church, we promise to grow personally, to be equipped, in order to help others grow here too.
2. protection, v.14
Biblical church membership is about growth and it is also about protection as we see in verse 14. When we commit ourselves to a church, to a body, we come under its protection. This is similar to when you are a citizen of a country, you are under its protection no matter where you are in the world. When I have gone to Cuba, I feel protected by being an American citizen even though I am not in America and in a nation that is in many ways hostile to ours. I know that my citizenship means that my country will help me if there is a problem. And the Cuban government knows that and will not treat me poorly for fear of retribution. But if I am not a citizen of a country, I can’t count on it to help me. The country of Brazil has not pledged to protect me, I am not a citizen. There has been no formal declaration of intent from me to Brazil or Brazil to me.
The same holds true when we are citizens, members of a church. We are protected, spiritually speaking, by the church when we come into the flock. We pledge to protect you from false doctrine, from the world’s way of thinking, by sharing with you the truth of God’s word. That is one of the main roles of an Elder. We work hard to give you a respite from the world when we gather together in this place. We as a church, promise to be a place of protection, help and care for all of its parts, all of its people. All of us, through church membership, are saying we promise that for each other. We are saying to one another, you are safe here. You are safe with me; you are safe with us.
We have pledged to spur one another on to growth in Christlikeness to protect one another from the world’s way of thinking so that it would not be tempting, so that it would not be alluring, so that it would not carry any of us away. And we promise that when we see someone being tossed about by the world, carried away by dangerous and false teachings, we promise we will swim out to meet you no matter what the cost. We will protect you by bringing you to Christ.
We can all rest in the assurance of that protection when we have entered into the covenant relationship of church membership; when we have made that relationship to one another official.
3. love, v.15-16
So, in church membership we are pledging to grow and help one another grow. We have the promise of receiving and giving protection. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, through formal church membership we have the bond of love.
Did you notice that verses 15 and 16 are connected by the word “love”? Verse 15, we, the church, speak the truth in love to one another. This is in contrast to the way the world speaks to one another, through craftiness and deceit, verse 14. We speak the truth in love. And in verse 16, the body, the church, grows and builds itself up in love. The church, we as individuals, grow into the image of Christ as each member does its part. As we serve one another, equip one another, do the work of ministry together, the church grows up into Christ. And it is all done in love. Love for Christ and love for one another. Love is the glue that holds it all together, love is the fuel that drives the engine, love is the motivation behind all of the actions.
Through formal, biblical church membership we reflect God’s heart to one another. This, I think, is the key to truly understanding church membership so let me say that again. Through formal, biblical church membership we reflect God’s heart to one another. What do I mean by that?
Well what did God do for us? What did God do when He looked at us dead, broken, blind, pitiful, imperfect sinners? He set his love on us. He turned his heart of love and grace and mercy on us and he said I choose them. I want them to be my people. They are mine and I will give myself fully to them. And he didn’t just leave it at a vague commitment. He didn’t say “my words of affirmation are good enough, right?” He took clear, decisive and overwhelming action. He gave of himself fully by sending his own Son to die in our place in order to bring us back to life with him. He chose us and he bought us with his Son. His love drove him to rescue us, it motivated him to bring us back to him and make us alive together with him. His heart made us one together forever as his people. And even when we continue to sin and fall short His love continually covers all of our sins from yesterday, today and for the rest of our lives. Nothing can separate us from his love. He entered into a real covenant relationship with us that cannot be broken.
And in church membership we have the awesome privilege of reflecting his heart to one another. We choose one another. We look upon one another, in all of our sin, in all of our short-comings, in all of our quirkiness, in all of our messiness and we say I choose to set my love upon you. I choose to love you even when it hurts me. I choose to keep loving you even when you fail, even in your sin, I choose to set my heart on you in all the ups and downs and I promise that I will let God’s love work through me to build you up, to build me up and to build us all up, always.
Church membership is making that invisible heart attitude a visible reality. It is taking our love for one another public. It is reflecting the love of God in a visible, tangible, abundant way for everyone to see just as he did in sending us his Son. It is entering into a marriage covenant with one another to promise that we will be here for each other for our growth, for our protection, in love.
And we promise to do that for each other until we reach the fullness of the image of Christ and are presented to him as his bride to be with him together, all of us with Christ, forever.