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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

The Joy of Local Commitment

Membership can be a thorny subject in our modern times. We are used to our autonomy, and the ties that membership in a local church inevitably bring, can feel stifling. That feeling coupled with negative past experiences of membership, and what appears to be a lack of biblical support for the idea, can lead brothers and sisters to hold a low view of a church mechanism that until recently was normative in Reformed Evangelicalism.

Like the term 'Trinity' the term 'Membership' is not in the bible - although the word is probably based on a KJV translation of the NIV phrase 'part of' found in 1 Corinthians 12. The analogy there, is that, as each part (or member) of the body cares for the other parts (members), so Christians who belong to the local body should care for the other Christians who belong to it. Thus, those christians belonging to a local body became known as members of that local body.

I'd like to suggest five things that membership of a local church is and five things that it isn't, with a view to creating clarity on the subject ahead of our call to Membership at Riverside Baptist Church in two week's time.

The essence of what membership in a local church is, is commitment. There are at least five things the new testament letters and record of practice assume those who belong to a local church are committed to:

Local Church Membership is a Commitment to Spiritual Care.

All christians need care and nurture, not just from each other, but from shepherds who are equipped to help and guide a flock of God's sheep. The local church is the main place where God has designed for that care to be received and enjoyed (2 Cor 1:24):

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

In God's wisdom, he has seen fit to leave Christian sheep under the spiritual oversight of elders who exercise their care for the sheep within the context of a local church. That means that where those shepherds know who they have oversight of, they are required by God Almighty to keep watch over the sheep in their charge, and they will have to give an account for that oversight when they meet the Lord (Heb 13:17).

Local Church Membership is a Commitment to A Vision.

The parable of the talents (bags of gold in the NIV) is a clear declaration from Jesus that there will be an account to be given to the Master when he returns, for the way in which we have each exercised the gift God has given us. And Revelation chapters 2 & 3 make it clear that the church is being held accountable for the way it conducts itself in this dark world. The church is to be a lamp and it will need to mobilise to reach out into the world with the light of the gospel.

The way it does that is by pursuing a vision which it can only accomplish with the commitment of its parts as they exercise their gifts. Here's how that looks in 1 Peter 2:9, 'But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light'.

The church - God's chosen people - is to declare the praises of Christ, and when it does that then others see that light and give glory to God by coming into the light themselves (Matt 5:16).

Each local church should have a vision for the community they are seeking to declare the excellencies of Jesus to. And the parts that belong to that local church with their unique giftings, need to be committed to that vision in order for it to be accomplished.

Local Church Membership is a Commitment to Sound Doctrine.

Interpretations of the bible abound, but true doctrine is something that every local church must strive to uphold. According to 1 Timothy 3:15, the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth. And according to Titus 1:9, the elders in the local church, 'must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that [they] can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it'. Members of local churches, by being members, are declaring their commitment to help protect the doctrines that the church recognises are true.

Membership is therefore a commitment to the distinctive doctrines that that local body affirms as true and biblical. It's often the case that where Christians are doctrinally fluid, the doctrinal narrowness of church membership is less appealing (Acts 15:1 & 24).

Local Church Membership is a Commitment to being Led.

Leaders in the church are meant to live lives that are imitable (Heb 13:7) and the church is commanded to have confidence in its leaders and to submit to their authority. That means that Membership is a commitment to submit to the leading of qualified elders (1 Tim 3:1-7) who are able to set an example to follow and engender confidence in the church. As long as those leaders don't lord it over the flock (1 Peter 5:3), then members should find themselves in biblical submission.

Necessarily, the elders have authority over the members where their leadership is in accord with the word of God and is not motivated by sinful desires. In Acts 15, the believers who had taken it upon themselves to go to Antioch and tell the believers there that they needed to be circumcised, were acting out of line. They were there without the 'authorisation' (v.24) of the elders in their local church and that wasn't right. The elders in Jerusalem wrote to the believers in Antioch to distance themselves from those who had taken it upon themselves to spread false doctrine at Antioch (Acts 15:23-29).

Local Church Membership is a Commitment to One-another-ness.

Whilst meaningful love and care for others can happen outside of membership in the local church, Membership is a covenant promise and commitment to this group of people, to be there for them through thick and thin. The commitment of membership goes beyond a loose affiliation, and cements deep and meaningful bonds that are meant to stand the test of time. Here's how it's put in Pauls first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 26: 'If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it'.

So membership of a local church means commitments in all the ways listed above. Those commitments concern the glory of God, the nurture of faith in believers, and the reaching of the lost. But it's often helpful to explain things not only in terms of what they are, but also in terms of what they aren't. So here are five things membership is not:

Local Church Membership isn't Obedience to a set of Human Rules.

Any church constitution worth its salt must have mechanisms in it that allow for those in authority to be held accountable should their teaching become merely human commands and teachings (Col 2:22). Paul instructs Timothy, in the most serious terms, to ensure that any elder who is sinning is restrained: 'Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favouritism' (1 Tim 5:21).

There should be no expectation made of any local church member that they blindly follow human rules and false teaching. The New Testament is at pains to release people from the shackles of falsehood.

Local Church Membership isn't Submitting to Coercive Control.

Leaders are specifically instructed not to overstep their role by lording it over their flock (2 Cor 1:24); rather they are to lead by example. If a church constitution fails to demonstrate how it will protect against the abuse of authority in the church, then christians should rightly be wary of becoming a member there.

Local Church Membership isn't a Gagging Order.

True church membership helps christians exercise their gifts and express their God given spiritual voices, it doesn't remove their voices. Church membership isn't a commitment to robotic, lifeless existence in a local church. It's the opposite. The church constitution should have provision for regular gatherings of the members where they can bring their concerns before the whole church.

And it should have provision for the exercise of the will of the collective membership. Even though the elders are tasked with leadership and are granted authority for the day-to-day direction of the church, the membership have final authority (1 Cor 5:4) and the church constitution must seek to protect that authority.

Local Church Membership isn't an Irreversible Step.

The church is not a cult and it does not hold people against their will. Members must be free to tender their resignation at any time. Indeed, if a situation arose in the church where an individual believer could no longer endorse the position of the whole church on a matter, then the right thing to do would be for that Christian to tender their resignation and look for a local body where they could, in good conscience, belong.

After all, there might be many reasons, not least geographical ones, that demand a member of a local body resign and re-commit elsewhere.

Local Church Membership isn't a Commitment to Joylessness.

Members of a church, where membership and eldership are established according to scripture, should expect to be joyful, not downcast. According to Hebrews 13:17, where members have confidence in their leaders they should expect spiritual benefit in their lives. And where elders are caring for the flock properly, members should see them working together with them for their joy through the building up of their faith (2 Cor 1:24), even when the elders have to admonish the flock ( 1 Thess 5:12).

So, at Riverside, we endorse 'membership' where that means a biblical commitment beyond a loose connection with the local body, and where that commitment establishes and upholds the biblical requirements made of the local church by God. My hope is that we will feel the benefits of biblical membership in a local church, and that the joy of that commitment might be ours at Riverside.


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