Josh, a podcast listener from Evansville, Indiana writes in. “Pastor John, I have a question about the local church. I have seen a lot of people my age, college age, go to different churches (what’s known as church hopping). I continue to tell them about covenanting with one particular local church and why it’s beneficial for their growth. They continue to say that we are all the body of Christ, and we as believers are free to go wherever we want. What would you tell my friends?”
Well, I would ask them a question, first of all. I would ask: How do you know those two things that you said we all belong to the body of Christ and we are free to go wherever we want? I would say: How do you know that? And if they say: Because the Bible teaches that, then I would ask: So you are saying you want to submit your will to what the Bible teaches about church membership. Is that right? Are you saying that you will do what the Bible says about church membership? And if they say no, because maybe they are feeling trapped, like, whoa, where is this going... if they say no then we have got a bigger issue to deal with. Right? We have got to talk about the folly of presuming to create your own reality out of your own head when God is the one who creates reality and tells us what it is. But if they say yes, which I hope they would, then I would try to say: Ok, if you want to live your life in submission to the Bible then let’s go to the Bible and see what it says about church membership. And I would point them to at least five passages of Scripture. So I will just mention then and give a little trajectory here and people can head off and study that. But I would say: Have you considered the implications of Matthew 18:15 -17 where Jesus is making the Church, the body of believers called the church the final appeal when considering the case of unrepentant sin. Remember, if your brother sins against you, tell it to him privately and if he doesn’t listen take two or three people and then tell it to the church. And how would that church make any judgments if there weren’t a number of people who regarded themselves as the Church? Because at a meeting like that with such sensitivity you can’t just walk in off the street and say: I am a Christian, so I belong to this group that can determine the membership here of whether this person stays in or out.
So it seems to me that calling the church to make that kind of sensitive rendering assumes there is some kind of definable group that can be counted on to do that. That is number one.
Number two is 1 Corinthians 5:12 where Paul deals with the necessity of putting someone out of the church. What do I have to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the Church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you. And so it is... I see at least two implications there. One is that there is an in the church group and an outside the church group that he referred to. Being in the church is definable. So how is it definable if there is no such thing as membership. And the other implication is that a person can be removed from being in the church. So I would ask Josh’s friends: Are you part of a body of believers so that it would be meaningful for them to remove you if you walked into open sin and wouldn’t repent? Are you accountable to a group where that could happen? Because if you are just jumping around, I don’t know how that could happen, how exclusion from an accountable group would make any sense.
Third would be Hebrews 13:17 where it says: Obey your leaders. Submit to them for they are keeping watch over your souls. If you downplay the importance of membership it is hard for me to see how you could take these commands to submit to leaders seriously. We have to know who are leaders are if we are going to submit to them. But if we are jumping from church to church we are not likely, it seems to me, to come under that kind of leadership and give ourselves to that kind of submission.
And the fourth one, it seems to me even more significant is how will leaders know whom they are accountable for, because the Bible is pretty serious to us pastors when it says in Acts 20:28: Be careful and pay attention to the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers to care for the Church of God which he obtained with his own blood. How in the world... I mean this is one of the biggest struggles for me all the years at Bethlehem is: To whom am I accountable to at the last day when the Lord says to me: Did you keep watch over your flock? You will give an account for their souls. So who are they and covenant membership became really crucial to us because lots of people came through the doors at Bethlehem and there is no way I could fulfill this command for the thousands of people who rotated through those doors. But I think there was a body who said: We are here. We belong. You are our shepherd. We are your people. We expect you to hold us accountable. We are going to hold you accountable to be a faithful shepherd. That kind of relationship, then becomes definable and I can be held accountable for whether I have cared for those people as I ought.
And the last one I would point to is 1 Corinthians 12 where the members of the body are described as members of a local body. And if the person says: Yeah, but in Ephesians one and Ephesians four Christ is the head of the universal body, that’s the body I am a part of. I would say: Right, right, yes you are. But it is different and more specific in 1 Corinthians 12 because the head, we know this, the heads in verse 21 of 1 Corinthians 12 is not Christ. It says: They eye cannot say to the hand: I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet: I have no need of you. Which means that we are all part of a local body and we are functioning as a foot or a hand or an eye or an ear. And in that body we are called to fulfill that gifting and that responsibility.
So I don’t think Jesus died to create unattached, free-floating Christians. I think he died to create the Church where the real true individuality if every believer comes into its own. The more disconnected we are from a local church, the more confused we will be about who we are, who God made us to be. We find our true individual selves in relationship to others.
Well said, thank you Pastor John. … Well, we are putting the final touches on our preparations for the Desiring God National Conference which begins here in Minneapolis next week at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The conference is titled: “Look at the Book: Reading the Bible for Yourself.” It will be our 12th national conference, and it will be our final national conference. Bittersweet. And I know we’re going to see a lot of you there. As this final National Conference approaches, we return next week to address some of the most common questions we face in trying to read the Bible for ourselves. … I’m your host Tony Reinke. Have a wonderful weekend!