On Sunday we talked about the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” laws found in the Old Testament. I tried to make the point that these laws are set aside by Jesus not because they were bad, but because they are no longer needed now that the New Covenant has arrived.
In the Old Covenant, the covenant community—the people of Israel—contained some who had faith, and some who did not. Some who knew the Lord, and some who didn’t. Some who had soft hearts, and some who heart hearts. And so laws like “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” (just like the laws about oaths and divorce) were needed in order to limit the effects of human sin within the community.
But the New Covenant, inaugurated by Jesus, is much different—and so much better:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.Jeremiah 31:31–34
In the Old Covenant, people would have to say “know the Lord!” to their neighbours and brothers, because so many people didn’t know the Lord. But the New Covenant community (i.e. the Church) is different. It is made up of those who have been born again and who do know the Lord.
And this is why we practice church membership the way that we do.
Let me explain: our Sunday morning gatherings are not private meetings. We don’t have “members only” signs on the doors. This is on purpose. We want our gatherings to attract many people who are curious about Jesus and who want to know more about Him. This is in keeping with 1 Corinthians 14:23-25, which assumes that a normal church will have “outsiders or unbelievers” in attendance at their gatherings.
We want to be welcoming to “outsiders or unbelievers,” to use the Apostle Paul’s phrase again. But it’s just as important, long-term, that we be able to identify them as such. We don’t want to make the mistake of assuming that an “outsider or unbeliever” is a member of the New Covenant community simply because they’ve been attending for a few Sundays in a row.
This becomes especially important when it comes to deciding who should hold leadership positions or have a voice on the church’s decisions. It would be unwise, to say the least, to allow those who don’t know the Lord to have a controlling interest in the direction of our church.
This distinction is also crucial when it comes to the kind of situation described by 1 Corinthians 5, in which the church needed to remove someone from their midst who was living in gross sin.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I 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.“1 Corinthians 5:9–13
In order for a church to obey this command, they need to have a clear understanding of who is “outside” and who is “inside.” It would be wrong to discipline an “outsider,” and it would be equally as wrong to not discipline an “insider.”
I know that those words “insider” and “outsider” can make us cringe. So please understand: this does not mean a church will be unfriendly. A church should be incredibly friendly and hospitable to outsiders. But the long-term health of a church depends on its ability to discern between who is an outsider and who is not.
And so a church needs a process in order to tell the difference between those who might happen to attend on a Sunday, and those who are actually members of the New Covenant—who have actually been born again, who personally know the Lord, and thus who should be included in the church’s decisions and discipline.
At EBC, we call that process “church membership.” That’s the process we’ve agreed upon together, in which we examine candidates to discern their profession of faith in the Lord, acknowledge their commitment to us, and invite them to participate as a decision-maker in this local New Covenant community called Emmanuel Baptist Church.
See, church membership isn’t all about politics or having different “tiers” of Christianity. Church membership is about the New Covenant. Becoming a member is about standing and being counted as someone who knows the Lord and who has decided to join this particular congregation.
I often get a question at this point. It goes something like, “What about people who have been born again, have been baptized, and are—in some sense—committed to our local church, but they haven’t become members? Where do they stand?” My answer? “If that’s all true of them, then they should be a member. I’ll get them an application today!”
I hope you can hear my heart on this. When I talk about how important membership is, I’m not trying to exclude people. It’s the opposite: we need church membership because we are (hopefully) welcoming and attracting many unbelievers, who gather with us out of their desire to learn more about this Jesus whose love has transformed our lives and community.
And I’m certainly not trying to exclude those among us who are believers but are not yet members. Again, it’s the opposite: I’m trying to encourage us to get to the place where if someone is a baptized disciple of Jesus, if they’ve decided that EBC is going to be their church, and if they don’t have any issues with our doctrine, then they just become a member. It’s just the most normal and natural thing for them to do.
If you’re reading this, and that’s you—you’ve been saved by Jesus, and you’ve decided this is your church—then I encourage you to stand and be counted. Send me an email (my address is below) and I’ll get you a membership application today.