“Members of One Another”
Our first passage today comes at the end of a rather long story about Abraham sending his servant back to the land of his family in order to secure a wife for his son Isaac.
If you’re familiar with the story, you’ll remember Abraham’s servant praying by the well and having his prayers answered with the young woman Rebekah. Her brother and father agree to send her away to be Isaac’s wife, Rebekah herself agrees, and so she goes with Abraham’s servant.
Verse 62, where we began reading this morning, picks up the story with her meeting Issac for the first time. And then verse 67 describes what happened next: “Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife.”
Note what it doesn’t say: “Then Isaac called a pastor and booked a church and they had a wedding ceremony. And after exchanging vows and rings and walking down the aisle together, he brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah.”
No. Their marriage had been settled already when Abraham’s servant agreed on things with Rebekah’s dad and brother. And so taking her into his mother’s vacant tent was all that Isaac needed to do to affirm those agreements. In that culture, that was all he needed to do to express his commitment to Rebekah, to be her husband and to take her to be his wife.
But imagine that happening today, in our cultural setting. A man sends one of his employees to another town to find a bride for his son. He meets a young lady at a restaurant and gas station, and follows her home to ask her dad and brother if she can come back with him to marry his boss’s son. They all agree to it. So she packs up her things, drives back to town, and that very night she moves in with the son and they start sharing a bedroom together.
Would we not all say, “Hey, wait a second—what’s going on here?”?
And what if they said, “We’re just being biblical. Wedding ceremonies aren’t in the Bible. This is how Isaac and Rebekah expressed their commitment to each other, and this is how we’re expressing ours”?
I think we would respond with something like this: “In the culture of the Ancient Near East, with all of the agreements that had been made, when Isaac took Rebekah into his tent that was a public statement of commitment and covenant love. That did the same job back then that a wedding ceremony does today.
“But we don’t live in that culture anymore. In our culture today, people sleep around all the time. People move in and out of each other’s places with no commitment expressed whatsoever. And so in our culture today, we need to do more than just shake hands and move in together. We need to make clear what back then would have been safely assumed. We need a wedding ceremony.
“And by the way,” we’d continue, “why wouldn’t you want that? If you’re really committed, why wouldn’t you want to make your commitment to each other as public and clear as possible?”
And it’s at this point that some of you are saying, “I thought today’s sermon was about church membership, not marriage customs in the Ancient Near East!”
You’re right. Today’s message is about church membership. And here’s the point I’m trying to make in this introduction: in the New Testament, being a part of a church was an act of commitment. People and churches had a clear sense of who was and who was not a committed member of a particular assembly.
And in the New Testament era, the way that you expressed your commitment to a church was to just show up. The same is true in many places around the world today. The place of the church in that culture means that if you start coming to their gatherings, you’re identifying as one of them, and you’re in.
But here in North America, that’s most often not the case. In many of our towns and cities, we have churches everywhere and people can move from one church to the other quite easily. And so just like we need a marriage ceremony instead of people just shaking hands and moving in together, so we also need a way to express and make clear our commitment and participation to a particular local church.
And that’s what membership is. When someone becomes a member of a church, they stand up and publicly express their intention to commit to that particular church, and the other members of that church vote to accept them as a member. That is the way that we, in our culture, make clear that we are committed to one another to be the body of Christ together. Other cultures might be able to assume that, but we can’t. And so we practice membership.
That’s basically the gist of the message today. And in the rest of the message, I just want to demonstrate these things in an even deeper way from Scripture.
And as we keep going this morning, I really have two main goals I’m trying to accomplish. The first goal is to encourage those of you who are members. I want you to see your membership as the precious and wonderful privilege that it is, and to take full advantage of its duties and privileges.
And to those of you who are not members, I want to share with you the truths that helped me understand the importance of membership. A part of my backstory is that I didn’t believe in church membership for many years. My parents were never members of a church during my lifetime, and for years I thought membership was an unbiblical way that churches controlled people.
But my perspective dramatically changed in my early 20s when some people showed me some things in Scripture that I hadn’t seen before. And so for those of you who aren’t members, I want to pass those things on to you today. I want to share with you the truths from Scripture that changed my mind about membership. And so whether you’re a member or not, I trust that this morning will be an encouragement to you to dig in even deeper with your participation in your local church.
In terms of an outline for the rest of our time here this morning, we’re going to make five big stops. First, we’re going to start by seeing where the language of membership is found in Scripture. Second, we’ll review what Scripture says about commitment to a local church. And then third, we’ll consider some aspects of church life which are absolutely impossible today without formal membership of some sort. After that we’ll consider some objections to membership, and then we’ll end by speaking about the blessing and encouragement that membership is to all of us.
1. The Use of “Membership” Language in Scripture
So let’s dive in, shall we? Let’s begin by considering where the language of “membership” comes from in Scripture. There’s two passages in particular we’ll survey. The first is Romans 12:4-5: “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
When we speak about church membership, this is most fundamentally what we mean. It’s not like becoming a member of a club or an organization. It’s about being a member of a body. Membership is an acknowledgement that in Christ we are members of one another.
Identical language is used in 1 Corinthians 12. Verses 12-14 say, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.”
Similarly, we read in verse 24, “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about membership. Participation in the body of Christ. And not just the global body of Christ. Like we saw last week, each of us was designed by God to participate as members of a local body, a local church, where we commit to one another to be the body of Christ together.
That’s what membership is about, and that’s where the language comes from.
2. Church Requires Commitment
Our next stop is to review a few passages which speak about this commitment to a local church. And we can really start with those passages we just read about the body. Thinking about our own body, we recognize that our body parts are committed to our body. They can’t just walk off. They can only be removed through painful surgical process.
We also saw commitment last week in Acts 2:42-47, which speaks about the early Christians sharing their life, including their possessions, with each other. This shows that being the church meant far more than just attending a weekly service. They were committed to doing life with each other.
And then perhaps one of the best passages which speaks about the commitment involved in joining a church is found in Acts 5. Verse 12 speaks about the church all gathered together in Solomon’s Portico, and then verse 13 says, “None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.”
No one dared join them, because at that stage, just walking over and joining that group would publicly identify you as a member of that group. And you didn’t just do that unless you actually were one of them. Because that would mean that you were going to share life with these people and accept the persecution that would also come as a result of that.
So we see that from the very beginning, being a part of a church was not like being a part of a book club. Being a part of a church meant being committed.
We also see that from the church’s perspective, they knew who was a committed member of their body. They had a very clear sense as to who was in and who was not. Think of Acts 4:32: “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.”
How do you write a sentence like that unless the church knew who their “full number” was? If the church didn’t really know who was and who was not a part of their fellowship, Luke would have had to write, “The Christians in Jerusalem were generally of one heart and soul, so far as we could tell.” But instead he can write about “the full number of those who believed.” The church knew who their members were. They had counted them. (See also Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14.)
Think also of Acts 6:2: “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said…” Again we see that they knew who that full number was. They were able to say, “the disciples are gathering, and here are the people who need to be there. These people aren’t here yet, so don’t start the meeting.” They knew who made up the church.
So when I talk about church membership, that’s what I’m talking about. A church having a very clear sense of who is, and who is not, a committed member of their body.
And my question to you is “How are we supposed to tell that? In 2020, with over a dozen churches in the town of Nipawin, how do we know who is a committed member of our church, or who is just a visitor, or someone who is just checking things out?” The only way to answer that question is to give those who are committed a way to publicly express that commitment.
In the past, I might have objected to this and said, “Can’t I just hang around long enough, and then after a while people will assume that I’m committed?” But today I realize that this isn’t good enough. How long to people need to be around before we make that assumption? When is the cut-off date? What about the people who want to make their commitment clear before that time? What about people who might love attending our services but are unable to commit to be a member of our church because they have theological differences?
These are the reflections that make me conclude that we need a clear way for people to publicly identify with our church and express their commitment to it. And that is what membership is.
3. Aspects of Church Life Which Are Impossible Without Membership
So we’ve made two stops already this morning. We’ve seen that the language of membership comes from the Bible, and that being a part of a church implies publicly identifying with that church. In other words, it implies commitment.
Now our third stop is to consider aspects of church life which are impossible for us today without formal membership. And we’re going to consider three: church discipline, spiritual leadership, and the definition of a church itself.
1) The first one is church discipline or church restoration. We considered this a few weeks ago in Matthew 18:15 and following. We heard there in verse 17 that if a sinning member refuses to listen to the group of two or three, then it was to be told to the church.
When we talked about that passage in our small group that week, someone had some struggles with that process. They just couldn’t imagine us standing up on a Sunday morning in front of everybody gathered here to hang out someone else’s dirty laundry.
And my response to them is that we would not do that in a Sunday morning service. Our Sunday service is a time where we expect that all kinds of people are gathered with us who are not necessarily a part of our church. We expect visitors and family from out of town and others who are not committed members of our church. We’re aware of them and we welcome them, just like 1 Corinthians 14:23 encourages us to be.
If we had to go to that third or fourth step of church discipline, that would happen in another gathering where only the members of Emmanuel Baptist Church would be welcome. Because those members are the group of believers who have committed to one another to be the body of Christ together here. They are the people who have agreed to this process of church discipline. And they are the ones whom that sinning member needs to listen to.
Can you imagine those final steps of church discipline if we didn’t have formal membership? If we just told it here to everybody, and people who were visiting us for the first time were being encouraged to go talk to that person and call them back to repentance?
Or if we had to put someone out of our church, like Jesus described, and visitors or family from out of town were being asked to vote on whether we should do that? Church discipline is impossible without a clear sense of who is a member of the church and who is not.
Now for some people, at this point, it might sound like I’m arguing against church membership. “If I don’t become am member, then I don’t have to get involved in this unpleasant business.”
But that’s where I’d remind us that Jesus loves His church. If you remember Matthew 18, church discipline or church restoration is one of the ways that Jesus shepherds His church.
And that’s why it was so meaningful for me to become a member here at EBC. In our bylaws, it was a separate step after being hired as a pastor, and I’m actually really glad for that. It was so significant to stand up here at the front and pledge my commitment to this church and invite the rest of you members to be the hands and feet of Jesus and to come and find me if I ever started to wander away from the Shepherd. And I was pledging to do the same for you.
Church discipline is a gift from Jesus to His church. He knows what’s best for us, and we should want the safety and the blessing that comes from it. And that means treasuring the gift of membership.
2) The second aspect of church life which doesn’t work without membership is the issue of spiritual leadership.
When we need to select spiritual leaders here at EBC, whether that’s for a board position or any other position of ministry influence, how do we know that someone is in agreement with our doctrinal beliefs and our understanding of Scripture? How do we know that someone is going to honour our identity as a church and submit to the authority of this congregation? How do we protect our church, long-term, against false teachers or division?
These questions are the reason our bylaws say that many ministry positions are only open to members. Before we trust someone with significant spiritual influence, we need to know that they are on-side and have agreed to play ball as a part of this team. Without membership it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to have consistent spiritual leadership and to protect the identity of our church into the future.
Membership and spiritual leadership also intersect in other ways. Just think of Hebrews 13:17, which says “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Here’s the question we all need to ask from that passage: who are my leaders? There’s over a dozen churches in Nipawin. Which group of leaders are the ones who are keeping watch over your soul and whom God calls you to submit to? We need to be able to say “Those are my leaders. Those are the people keeping watch over my soul.” And that requires committing to one church.
This doesn’t mean we shun other churches or can’t have good relationships with them. In my experience, it’s actually the opposite. Good fences make good neighbours, and I’ve seen that Christians are actually able to better work together the more clearly they know which church they’ve committed to.
3) So church discipline and spiritual leadership don’t work without membership. There’s a third facet of church life which is impossible without church membership, and it is nothing less than the church itself.
We saw last week that a church is more than just a group of Christians hanging out together regularly. What makes a church a church is those Christians agreeing and committing to one another to be the body of Christ together.
And that is membership. Members of EBC, you are the ones who have agreed together and committed to one another to be the body of Christ together. You are what makes Emmanuel Baptist Church a church. You are this church.
I’ve been a part of two churches in the past who did not practice formal membership at all. And not surprisingly, things were chaos. The church literally didn’t know who it was. It had no identity.
Think positively about this church. When that group of people met in 1966 to start a new Baptist work in this town, could that have happened without membership, without people like Wilf Hopfe saying “I’m in. I’m a part of this church”? I don’t think so. And based on everything we’ve seen in Scripture, I’d suggest that you can’t move from a random group of Christians to a church without a clear understanding of who the agreeing, committed people are who make up that church. And so you need a way to identify those agreeing, committed people. In other words, you need membership.
4. Some Emotional Struggles
We’ve made three big stops so far. And my intention has been to show us that formal church membership is natural and necessary.
In my experience, however, even after surveying the Biblical material, there can still be some big questions remaining. We might have emotional struggles that remain. I’ve heard people share that kind of thing in recent weeks as we’ve talked about church discipline or even baptism. “I see it there in Scripture, but actually doing it just seems really, really hard.”
And I think church membership falls in that category. It’s there, we can see it, but actually taking the step itself can feel quite scary.
So what I want to do here in these next few minutes is address three emotional struggles that people might have with membership. And I want us to see that on the other side of these emotional struggles is actually a whole lot of joy just waiting for us to experience.
1) The first struggle we might have is with commitment. Commitment of any sort is scary. And I just want to acknowledge that I get that. I’m a Millennial, and trust me, I know how scary commitment feels.
When I take off my wedding ring, and read the engraving on the inside of the band, I can still remember the terror I felt when I first held this ring in my hand a few weeks before my wedding and read those letters for the first time. I shook in my boots at the thought of making this commitment to another person.
I knew in my head it was the right thing to do. And I wanted to do it. I wanted to be married to Aimee. But right alongside of that desire was a real fear of making a mistake. Fear of making a commitment.
Do you know when that fear subsided? It wasn’t on my wedding day, like I’ve heard some people describe. I felt fear and uncertainly, alongside of my joy, most of my wedding day. It took about three months before all of my emotions finally caught up with reality and my fears finally rolled over and died.
And from that point on, my commitment to Aimee—rather than being something scary—is one of the most joyful and stabilizing forces in my life.
So my experience—and the experience of many others, I think—is that commitment can be scary until you actually do it. And then, if we’ve made the right commitment, it becomes something wonderful.
So here’s what I’m saying: if we wait for the fear to go away before we commit, it might never happen. The commitment itself is what kills the fear. We get baptized, even if it feels scary. We join a church, even if it feels scary. And we’ll find that the fear turns into celebration pretty quickly.
Not only will you experience joy when you join a church, but so will the others. Those of you who are members know the joy that comes when someone else choses to stand in solidarity and unity with us. It’s so encouraging and is such a celebration of our unity together.
So that’s one encouragement I’d have for you who are not members. Take a step of obedience, because there’s a bunch of joy that’s waiting for you and others on the other side.
2) There’s a second struggle that is common with church membership, and it’s the “What if?” question. What if the church goes off in a wrong direction? What if some bad situation arises? What if? And this is connected to the commitment question, because we may struggle to commit until we’re certain that everything is going to turn out ok.
And here’s my response to those questions: I can’t guarantee that none of those things will happen. I don’t know the future and what’s in store for us.
But when you become a member, you are agreeing to be a part of the solution, regardless of what the future holds. You become a decision-maker with influence and a role in directing things in the future. You get to vote.
You have a say in what happens in this church, because you become a part of this church itself.
So if the unknowns of the future are a concern to you, I’d invite you to do more than simply hope things stay good here at EBC. Become a member and you get to actually help make sure that things do stay good here at EBC.
3) Now there’s a third emotional struggle we might have with all of this, and it’s simply how exclusive this all feels. Churches are supposed to be open and welcoming, aren’t they? Isn’t everybody supposed to feel connected and included, like they all matter?
And membership can feel so exclusive, like members are more important or something. Like non-members don’t matter as much.
But please hear my heart this morning, and the heart of the other four men on the board, who all had in put on this message this morning: the point of this message is not to make non-members feel excluded or less important.
It’s actually the opposite. We are saying, “We want you to become a member here. If you love this church, and if you are a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, and if you agree with our statement of faith, then we want you to be a member here. Consider yourself invited to the team.”
That’s why we have our membership applications there in the foyer right at the top of the display. I’ve also added them to the login page on our website. The front door is open. You matter, and because you matter we want to invite you to really be a part of our church.
5. An Encouragement to Us All
So if you’re not a member this morning, I hope I’ve given you a lot to think about. And I understand that you might need some time to process the things you’ve heard. But as you process, I encourage you to do something. Just take a step. Maybe that step is reading our statement of faith on our website to see if you agree with it. Maybe it’s picking up a membership application, or downloading one from the website, so that you can read through it and think about how we operate as a church. Maybe it’s meeting with me or one of the board members to ask some questions.
I encourage you to at least do something. Take a step, even if it’s a small step.
To those of you who are members, I hope that this message has encouraged you to see your important role as a member, and to view that membership seriously. You are what makes Emmanuel Baptist Church a church. Not this building, not the leaders, but you as members. You are this church. So treasure your membership and see it as the high and holy privilege that it is.
When’s the last time you’ve read your membership covenant? It’s there in our church bylaws. It would be good to remember your pledges to pursue Jesus together, to hold one another accountable, to respond with humility when others hold you accountable, to support and pray for each other.
Members, I urge you to play your part when we meet as members to make decisions and vote on things. Those meetings happen at least four times a year, and it should take a team of horses to keep you away from those times when we use the keys of the kingdom and exercise our authority as a congregation as representatives of the risen Lord Jesus Himself. It should take a team of horses to keep you away from our Sunday gatherings, our outreach events, and from each other as we do life together.
I hope you’ve heard again this morning that this church is not just some organization that we’re associated with. We are this organization. We are this church.
So here’s my closing question: what would Emmanuel Baptist Church look like if every person who could be a member was, and every person who was a member was fully engaged in living out their membership together?
That question excites me. And you get to be the answer that question. Let’s ask the Lord for His help as we do that.