Church Membership and Covenanting - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonArticles on Puritan Worship and the Regulative Principle
It is saddening to me that the church is in such disarray today. Theologically speaking, the church is as intellectually competent to sound Gospel teaching and preaching, as a newborn is to disclose a lecture on Quantum Physics. This is not an understatement. In such a quandary, one may tend to think that Jesus’ words referring to his mission to “build His church” are coming to nought. If people cannot articulate important Gospel doctrines, and believe them by faith, how is the church of Jesus Christ going to be built?
There are a great number of doctrines that comprise systematic theology. The church should know them all. They should be able to define and propagate them faithfully to the glory of God. However, since theological obtuseness has set in, this task is easier left undone than disseminated. One of those systematic doctrines that is more easily left undone is the doctrine surrounding church covenanting otherwise known as church membership. Not only is it a bear to cover through the entire Bible, but it seen today as something that detracts from the attractiveness of the church. In this detraction, the church growth movement has quickly cultivated a memberless church and has appealed and marketed to the “individual Christian.” Individualism in and of itself is not necessarily an evil thing depending upon the overall context of the discussion. For instance, each person is made individually. God creates people as individuals. Each individual is one person, not two or three or eight. But individualism can become sinful very quickly. The sin of individualism is always “evolving” to cope with society’s current trends and attempts to market the church and the Gospel to a fallen world. One of the ways in which the sin of individualism is continually breaking down the church of Jesus Christ is the manner in which Christians wield it as a sword or license to dictate how they may or may not live; both in the context of their own lives and also within the local church. There is a proper use of individualism, but oftentimes it is one of the sins that Christians must take captive, and mortify.
One of the forms of individualism which manifests itself as sinful is the current trend in Evangelical churches to “do away” with church membership; as if this is simply something the church has “made up” and placed under the guise of “Christian Prudence” to be cast aside when inconvenient. The propagation of a “memberless” church is often at the heart of the “seeker” churches, or church growth movement, where, 100 years ago, there would be no question as to whether membership in the visible local body of Christ was important. Or to take a step back to the Reformation, there was a need to help people understand church covenanting rightly since the Roman Catholic Church had used membership as a license to sin and turned it into a warrant to oppress those ignorant of the Bible. In hiding the Gospel from people, they created a superstitious authority structure wherein they had absolute power over the life of a communicant. This is the opposite of individualism in the manner we are currently discussion, but worthy of note. Even in the Reformation of the church, the visible outward profession of faith, and the consequent Baptism of a neophyte, or the children of covenanted members, lead to the inclusion of that person in the local body as something which needed to be done, not something which was automatically done. This important point is secondary, though in the overall scheme of the issue at hand. Whether or not God commands us to covenant with a local church is the heart of the issue.
The first step in understanding membership is to make the distinction between the local church visibly manifested, and the “invisible” church of all elected believers both here and in heaven. The true universal church could be defined as follows: “the entire remnant of the redeemed elect from all ages; both on earth and in heaven.” The universal church has 7 characteristics to it, but only one is important for this article: it has no geographic location. The universal church currently has no complete, visible manifestation of all elect believers for all time. This will only be the case when the consummation of the ages occurs and the entire remnant of the redeemed shall be with Christ in heaven. On the other hand, the visible manifestation of the invisible church is the local meetinghouse, or local church. Where the invisible church is wrapped up in a theological proposition, something to be fully realized and consummated in the future, the visible local church is manifested and expressed in individual geographical bodies now.
The following thoughts concerning covenanted membership in the church are notations from Scriptural examples found throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament.
First, the church is unified (of one mind) in the Spirit by way of covenanting. Covenanting is all but lost. In the “good ‘ol days” of Scottish Presbyterianism, about 350 years ago, covenanting was at a zenith. Even the Westminster Confession of Faith adopted the Solemn League and Covenant (1644). Covenanting is something extended out of and from the covenant signs placed on anyone who receives the terms of the covenant in a body of believers. How can the signs and seals of the covenant be administered except by the minister of a covenanted local church? As the Belgic Confession states in Article 30 and 31, “We believe that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in His Word; namely, that there must be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church; that by these means the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated…therefore every one must take heed not to intrude himself by improper means, but is bound to wait till it shall please God to call him; that he may have testimony of his calling, and be certain and assured that it is of the Lord.” The Westminster Confession in Article 27:2, “There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.” In The Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 169 it states, “How hath Christ appointed bread and wine to be given and received in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper? Answer 169: Christ hath appointed the ministers of his word, in the administration of this sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, to set apart the bread and wine from common use, by the word of institution, thanksgiving, and prayer; to take and break the bread, and to give both the bread and the wine to the communicants: who are, by the same appointment, to take and eat the bread, and to drink the wine, in thankful remembrance that the body of Christ was broken and given, and his blood shed, for them (I Cor. 11:23-24; Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20).” If the minister, then, is the one appropriated to dispense the sacraments, that, in and of itself alone, is enough to demonstrate that the visible local body of believers is a covenanted group of specific members in doctrinal unity. Scriptures that attest to this are Psalm 133:1, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” There is no doubt that the organized brethren who dwell together in unity are blessed. Amos 3:3 further says, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” Rhetorically answered, “of course they cannot!” Acts 4:32 also demonstrates this unity in the New Testament, “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul.” In Col. 2:2 there is a further statement about the manner in which they are knit together, “That their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love.” This unity is not at the expense of doctrine, practical love, and organization. Paul even exhorts us in Ephesians 4:3 that we should be “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Might I interject his: if there were no identifiable body then we would never know who is doctrinally like-minded and who is not. Doctrinal like-mindedness is impossible without a visibly organized church and some form of membership to oversee that gathering. We would never know who are like-minded brethren and who are dissenters if this were not the case. We would have no way to know who the covenanted members of the church are unless we simply guessed. Consistent like-mindedness would be impossible, practically speaking.
Another often-misunderstood aspect of church covenanting or membership is that entrance into the local church is by consent of the church. Acts 9:26 says, “And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple.” The disciples needed to see fruit before they would accept Saul, later to be Paul the Apostle, though Saul wanted to be part of them and wanted to identify with them. Men do not give themselves to the church. God makes them a part of the local body by providence and spiritual giftedness, and men offer themselves to the church. When men give themselves to the church, the church officers loose their “keys” of “binding and loosing men” in and out of the fellowship. The sin of individualism causes men to include or exclude themselves as they see it necessary. They become, as the Latin “vagor” states, vagabonds, or wanderers in the assembly as they deem fit and as they see fit. Authority is then not placed on the Officers of the church and the covenant of the body, but rather upon the individual who deems when they should stay and when they should move on. This awards sin a license, and immorality a greater reign; for when men sin, tempt excommunication, and are caught, they simply move on to the next body of believers to include themselves there; and so on, and so on, and so on.
Saved and baptized members of the universal church, and their children, are not immediately part of the local church upon being saved or baptized in certain instances. Acts 8:38 says, “And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.” Also, we should consider Acts 9:26, the action of Paul after he was baptized in Acts 9:18. Both Paul and the Ethiopian eunuch were not part of the local body when they were saved, or even after they were baptized. Paul appealed to the disciples having a greater sense of what it means to be part of a covenanted body (since Paul was quite familiar with the law.) We do not know what happened with the eunuch (the Scriptures are silent on this because the point of the passage was not whether the eunuch joined the Jerusalem church or not.)
Some churches include baptism as a privilege of membership. The Scriptures teach that membership in a church does not necessarily include baptism, as is with the case with Paul and the Ethiopian eunuch. However, other cases of mass conversion (3000 and 5000) demonstrate that those baptized were added to the church. In those instances careful record-keeping was done by Luke (the Spirit carried historian). Luke is meticulous in his account of gathering information about the early church. The early church knew exactly how many people professed to be saved. They knew the included number of the local visible church. You may want to check on your own the Scriptures in Acts 1:15; Acts 2:41; Acts 2:47; Acts 4:4; Acts 5:14. The inclusion of men in the church in these instances was not the invisible number of the elect redeemed for all ages, but in the visible manifestation of the local body at Jerusalem. Possibly, knowing the manner in which the covenant is established and propagated, this is a record of men as federal heads of their families, which would have made the covenanted members of the church quite larger, excluding Acts 5:14 since it specifically mentions both men and women. (It is wise to note that Luke is explicit and careful in each instance of recording events in the early church.)
The Scriptures make a distinction of those who belong to different churches, and who are associated in each location. They were publicly known to be visibly connected with a particular local body. Rom. 16:1 says, “I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea.” Phil. 4:3 says, “And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life.” Col. 4:9 states, “With Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” In these instances Pheobe, Clement and Onesimus are singled out as those who are particularly involved and associated with the church at Rome, in Phillipi and Colossae. In Colossians 4:9, Paul is emphatic, “With Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” Onesimus is not singled out as one of the elect of all ages, but on of those brethren at Colossae. The word Paul uses here is “ek” which is a primary preposition denoting origin (the point where action or motion proceeds). Onesimus’ origin, the place where he is out of or where he proceeds from is the unique relationship he has with the church at Colossae. If someone were to point you out, what church would you be associated with as a covenanted member?
The local meeting house (or local church) is the visible expression of a defined group of believers and their children in a given geographic location. (cf. Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14.) The geographic location defined the group of believers at that location. The church which is at Laodicea, Ephesus, etc. The letter sent by John to the seven churches was not written to believers in heaven. It was circulated among a specific geographic location in Asia Minor. This letter was not written to a structure or building, but a group of believers which made up the 7 churches in those geographic areas.
The Scriptures identify a visible organization within a given geographic location. This would not be possible if the sin of individuality was given permission. How could the church appoint anyone to a given office within a local church in a geographic position if they did not know the person, or, could not visibly identify their commitment to the body of believers? How could a minister be appointed over a specific group of people, and oversee a specific flock, if the sin of individuality was given license? It would be impossible. The hierarchy of the church becomes immediately irrelevant and chaos would reign if individuality were the norm. Preachers and deacons could then be self-appointed. However, the structure of the church necessitates the organization of the church. The basic structure of the church is Christ > Elders > Deacons > Congregation. (Where Elders are grouped based on geographic local for purposes of oversight for a number of given churches.) Without a formal structure, any man, or woman for that matter, could appoint himself or herself. If they could appoint themselves what rights do the congregation have? How could they have any visible rights at all (such as electing officers in the church)? It would be impossible to exclude anyone from coming into the church and voting since there would be no definable fellowship.
Even upon the practical level, preaching would be exceedingly difficult since the Minister would not know who is “the flock” and who is not. Preaching any kind of practical considerations and meeting the congregation’s specific needs would be unfeasible (which is also an important consideration on the size of the church and the number of elders needed to guide any given local body.).
It is also very important to note that privileges of the local church are for the local body not the invisible universal church. For instance, gathering together to hear preaching is a privilege of covenanted members; Acts 2:42 states, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Who did this? The church at Jerusalem did this. The privileges of the local church are not for the vagabond who wanders in off the street. Communion, pastoral oversight, fellowship among the brethren, and the like, are privileges of those who are members of a visible community of believers and their children, not for those who appoint themselves to membership or inclusion in a church. They are for covenanters – those who make a public profession based on faith and like-mindedness in doctrinal matter concerning unity.
Accountability would be beyond the bounds of possibility. Who would be accountable to whom? The sin of individuality would determine this instead of the body of Christ who is given the entreaty to look out for those in the flock, and bear one another’s burdens. “You are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it.” This statement is not referring to the invisible church, but the visible body expressly commanded to be a part of one another as Paul explains spiritual gifts among the people at Corinth. Paul says in 12:25 that there should be no schism in the body, which proves he is speaking about the local church since the universal invisible church cannot have schism by definition.
Spiritual gifts are only used in the local body. Who is the local body? In Acts 6:1-6, they had to know who was part of the body and who was not to feasibly discern those who were “full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom.” Even professional sports has a “team” where they know who is on the team and what position they play. Men cannot waltz into the Miami Dolphins’ sports complex and decide on their own that they will be part of the team. In the same manner, will Christ’s church not be a church of order? In the extreme opposite view, the church growth movement, any man, woman or child should be able to waltz into their next voting meeting and vote for or against whoever is up for election simply because they are a Christian. (Even the apostle Paul did not receive such a privilege.)
Another important privilege of church membership is pastoral oversight. The Elders were given oversight of specific people, not all people, or all Christians —it would be impossible for the church growth movement to apply the principles of pastoral oversight to their own schematic and utilize it by any effective means. The transient element alone would disrupt any possibility of real in-depth submission of a Christian to their authority. (cf. Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17) How could church officers watch over the souls of the congregation if they did not know whom they were watching over?
The shunning of biblical Pastoral oversight and church membership also includes the impossible problem of explaining church discipline without membership (the elder’s authority over you). You cannot have exclusion from nothing – the excommunicated person has to be excluded from the identifiable body of believers. Church discipline itself is a privilege. 1 Cor. 5 tells us more than once that the man is to be cast away, and handed over to the devil, and the church (the local body of members) is to shun the excommunicated person from fellowship unless he repents. Christ gave the apostles keys of authority to bind and loose. The Greek words themselves mean to “forbid or allow.” They connote the authority of the elders to remove men from the church in disciplinary action if needed. This would be wholly useless if the sin of individuality was given reign. People often say, “But I gladly submit myself under their authority.” Where does the Bible say that you are the one allowed to submit yourself at your own convenience? The apostle Paul did not have that privilege and neither does anyone else. Titus was exhorted by Paul in Titus 3:10-11 that the church is required to “reject the heretic” after being admonished twice. The word “reject” means to “not allow the professor to be among you.” Thus, excommunication in an individualistic church scheme becomes meaningless. The excommunicated would still be a member of the “invisible” church any way a person looks at it. Also, it is a conditional act to be restored which is immediately relevant to be accepted again by the body of existing covenanted members. 2 Thess. 3:6 says, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.” This Scripture, and others like it, would be meaningless. Who are they?
Also realize that Paul and James would not have had the ability to exhort the body concerning orphans or widows if there were not some visible discerning list and discernable members of the body. James 1:27 and 1 Tim. 5
Non-members do not have the privilege of discerning the Lord’s body since they are not part of the body of the local church; they would not know who they are. There are a variety of problems that arise concerning the Lord’s Supper when the sin of individualism dictates how 1 Cor. 11 is to be interpreted. Who is the body at that point? How can we discern the Lord’s Body? What is the act of discerning? Can we discern a disjointed body which is really not a body but a transient gathering of vagabonds?
Monetary support of the church would be a nightmare; who is required to give, what should they give, when and to what church? No one would be able to state, with any degree of emphasis, that a person did not have the right to disperse his or her tithe among 8 churches instead of your one church. Possibly part of the tithe goes here to this church, then some goes to another church in another geographic location, and so on. If this were the case, the church would never be supported, and the elders would not be paid (though they are worthy of their wages).
Formal missions would be a nightmare. Who sends who? Who are the pastors sent out accountable to? Why are they accountable to one body and not another except for monetary support?
These are some biblical and practical considerations that cannot be answered by the church growth movement in any logical or biblical way. There is no such thing as a Lone Ranger Christian. If there is no membership, then the only other choice is to have autonomous Christians with no deemed authority except what they deem acceptable. All logic falls apart as well. The very idea of a local church assumes membership in it. The outworking of those who openly profess their faith to one another, not just those who claim to be Christians and attend, are part of a local church. This profession of faith culminates in their desire to be lead and guided by their brothers and sisters in a covenant, and a submission under the officers of the church. There is a necessary distinction that must be made, as much as is humanly possibly, being lead by the Word of God, between infidels and the church. Without some kind of membership process, the local church would cease and its mandate to be visibly expressive in the world as a definable community of believers and their children in any given geographic locale would be impossible. Is the local church more organized than a sports team? And yet many do not think so.
On a practical note, if, for an extended amount of time, you are not a covenanted member of a local body of believers, you are in rebellion against God. God requires that His people covenant together in local assemblies of like-minded doctrinal unity for the sake of edification and the propagation of the Gospel.
I would also like to say a very brief word on Baptistic churches that see themselves as individually separated from other baptistic churches. The logic of like-mindedness alone, and the reality of the covenant signs alone, demand unity, not separatism, or schism. The examples of the New Testament (esp. Acts 15 and 21) do to regulate the church Baptistically, but corporately, as one full body extended into the world. They are based on like-mindedness and the authority of the Apostles and elders, sending out missionaries around the world to plant churches that are like-minded, covenanted and of the same doctrine of the Apostles.
The Bible does not give us the exact formal outline of how the church should conduct new membership classes or how to structure membership, perse. It does give us hints, and leads us in certain directions though. It furnishes us with some very clear guidelines (such as with choosing elders and deacons – see Acts 6, 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1.) Prudence dictates that the officers of the church, session, or General Assembly of elders should come up with a workable and formal membership criteria for the church. If they do not, then they will simply be teaching, by their non-action, that the sin of individualism is something Christians should accept and cultivate.
As a final note acting like an “appendix”, it also must be remembered that proper hermeneutics should be applied to every text of Scripture. I say this in light of the often-fallacious manner in which Christians apply the historical narrative of the book of Acts to the present day church. The early church and the contemporary church are quite different in many respects. The historical narrative of Acts and the early church ought not to be followed as a manual for church order, perse. Otherwise those who believe in prophecy, tongues and the like, have some support in dealing with the text in this way. To use an illustration, the Genesis account of Abraham details the historical narrative of his son Isaac and the duty Abraham had in sacrificing his son. Though Abraham, in that historical narrative, followed a certain course of action, does not mean that every father should tie up his firstborn son to sacrifice him on an altar before God, hoping God will speak to him as He spoke to Abraham. The historical context will teach us principles, but the course of action must be hermeneutically studied to glean these principles. The same may be said of the early church account for Acts. It is not a blueprint for the contemporary churches, but a guide where we may glean specific principles. Certainly, it houses a number of exceedingly important principles on many issues – there is no mistake. But to take it as it stands, and use it as a blind blueprint, would due injustice to the book itself, and cause havoc in the church today on a number of important and controversial fronts. It would be exegetically fallacious to do so. We should, though, use all diligence to conform the church to the sound guides of the bible in every area, including the need to know who is part of the local body we are covenanted in.