Having now addressed the responsibilities and qualifications for the two offices found within the church, we now turn our attention toward the entire congregation, the church members. As with elders and deacons, we will study both the responsibilities and qualifications of being a church member. Here we will focus on church members’ three big responsibilities: doctrinal fact-checking, doing the work of the ministry, and their collective authority.
DOCTRINAL FACT-CHECKING // ACTS 17:11
Since there is no particular passage of Scripture that thoroughly covers the topic of church membership, we must, by necessity, piece together what responsibilities are expected of members from a variety of biblical texts.
Acts 17:11 is our first text in view. Acts 17 describes the continued journey of Paul and Silas as they travel through Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens. The verse in question compares Paul’s encounter with the Berean Jews to his encounter with the Thessalonian Jews: “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” The Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonians because they received Paul’s message eagerly, fact-checking it against the Scriptures (which only consisted of our Old Testament at that time).
Before we can apply this verse to church members, we must first understand that the Berean Jews being described here were not Christians (at least, not yet). We know this because verse 12 tells us that because of this practice many of them believed. As Jews, they already believed the Old Testament; therefore, they gladly received Paul’s message of Jesus being the Messiah and searched the Scriptures for validation. Because the Old Testament is primarily pointing toward God’s ultimate plan of sending Christ, it should not surprise us that many of the Berean Jews came to faith in Christ.
But the question then remains: how does this verse apply to church members? By calling the action of these Jews noble, Luke is obviously revealing to us a pattern of behavior that is worthy of imitation, especially since this action led many of them to Christ. As followers of Christ, we believe in the inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture. We believe that God revealed Himself through His Word and that we need the Bible in order to properly know Him. The Bible, therefore, is crucial to properly following Christ. We simply cannot know Christ enough to follow fully Him without the Scriptures.
In describing the Bereans here, Luke’s desire is for us to follow their example all the more. If they eagerly received the good news of Jesus and compared it to Scripture before they believed, how much more should we do the same when we already believe the gospel! Indeed, Christians should eagerly receive the Word of God when proclaimed, but we should also be diligently to always compare the message spoken to the Scriptures. No pastor or teacher is above God’s Word, and all teaching within the church must be submissive to the Word. Every Christian (and, therefore, every church member) must be devoted to the art of doctrinal fact-checking. We should each study the Scriptures, so that false teaching will never be able to find root within the church.
Behind this vision for the membership is the doctrine of the clarity of the Scriptures. Particularly throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church taught that Scripture could only properly be understood when in the hands of the clergy. Regular Christians could not be trusted to interpret the Word, so translations into the common languages were often condemned. The early church knew nothing of such a fear, and the Protestants proudly reclaimed that banner. To be clear, the clarity of Scripture does not mean that everything in the Bible is perfectly easy to comprehend. Peter himself admits that Paul’s writings are often “hard to understand” (1 Peter 3:16). Instead, the clarity of Scripture means that the overall purpose and intent of Scripture is knowable to all people. Grudem describes it as follows: “the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it, seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it” (108).
Elders have the responsibility and glorious privilege of teaching the Scriptures to the congregation, but the congregation also has the responsibility to take those teachings and compare them with the rest of Scripture.
How then can church members become more like the Bereans?
First, read, study, and know the Bible.
Second, eagerly await being taught the Word.
Third, prayerfully compare all teaching to the rest of Scriptures.
Fourth, if you think that a pastor or teacher is incorrect, ask him to clarify his teaching and then present your studies. If the pastor or teacher was incorrect, he should then humbly recant to those whom he taught.
THE WORK OF THE MINISTRY // EPHESIANS 4:11-12
A second responsibility for church members is found in Ephesians 4:11-12: “And he [Jesus] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
Follow Paul’s train of thought well: Christ gave His church leaders (apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers) for the equipping of the saints for ministry work. Church leaders are commanded to equip the saints. Who then are the saints? The word saint refers to one who is holy or, more accurately, one who is made holy. In the New Testament, all Christians are saints. The title is not reserved only for those who are super-holy; instead, our holiness is entirely dependent upon the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are God’s holy ones, “not because of works done by us in righteous, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6).
If all Christians, therefore, are saints, then we each are given the work of ministry. But what exactly is the work of ministry? The very next phrase gives us some idea. The purpose of any saint’s ministry should ultimately be “for building us the body of Christ”. Ephesians 1:22-23 explicitly tells us that the body of Christ is the church. Therefore, we are not given a ministry for personal edification alone but instead for the building and strengthening of the entire church.
Since our works of ministry are for the good of the church, we can safely link them to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Peter tells us that our individual gifts are given to serve one another “as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Paul, likewise, states that each person “is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). God gives to each Christian a gift, a work of ministry, for the good of the whole body.
The gifts of the Spirit are listed in four different texts (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:7-10; 12:28; Ephesians 4:11), and each text is different. This seems to indicate that gifts should be similar to the ones listed in these texts but not limited to these gifts. Romans 12 gives prophecy, teaching, exhorting, service, leading, giving, and mercy as gifts. The gifts of 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 are prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, utterance of wisdom, utterance of knowledge, miracles, healing, tongues, interpretation of tongues, and faith. 1 Corinthians 12:28 lists apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healing, helping, administrating, and tongues. Finally, our current verse (Ephesians 4:11) lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd-teachers.
Each of these gifts is for the building up of the body, not primarily for personal edification. Teachers, found in all four texts, are called to instruct the Word of God. Prophets, mentioned in all four texts, are meant to give specific wisdom and application from the Bible to others. Giving, serving, helping, leading, and healing also cannot be conducted alone.
Between 1 Corinthians 12’s two lists of gifts, Paul gives a discussion on church membership: “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… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (12:12-13, 27). As members of the church, we must seek what gift God has given to us and then use it to serve the body.
How then can a church member know and exercise his or her gifting and ministry?
First, read over the four biblical lists of spiritual gifts and pray for God to reveal which one(s) He has given to you.
Second, ask your elders and other members what gifts they have witnessed in you.
Third, serve first and assess second. Churches always have plenty of areas to serve, so if you don’t know where you fit, serve where needs are and assess whether any of those areas fit your gifting. Furthermore, even if your area of ministry does not yet exist, through serving faithfully now you will undoubtedly gain a better idea for how the best serve the church with your particular ministry.
COLLECTIVE AUTHORITY // MATTHEW 18:15-20
We will end with a third and final responsibility for church members: our collective authority. I have branched several thoughts under this category because I think they each display the special authority that Christ has given to the entire membership. In fact, these beliefs contribute significantly to why we are a congregational church. As we studied with elders, God has given them authority to lead, oversee, and shepherd the church, and the church is called to both obey and submit to them (Hebrews 13:17). Yet in certain areas, God has placed authority within the entire congregation. This collective authority is our present discussion.
The first area of collective authority that is given to the entire membership body is the excommunication of another member. If that seems like a heavy idea, it certainly is. Nearly every New Testament author speaks on church discipline of some kind, but Jesus Himself gives us the clearest procedures to follow in Matthew 18:15-20:
Matthew 18:15–20 | If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
Notice that the process only begins with being sinned against, but the person is not told to tell one of the pastors, deacons, or someone else. No, Jesus explicitly says to approach that person alone. If everything is then resolved, brotherhood is preserved. If he refuses to repent, bring a third party along. Finally, if he still refused to listen, bring him before the church. If he refuses to listen to the entire church, he is to no longer be considered a member and a follower of Christ. Notice then that the final stage of authority is not the board of elders but the church as a whole. Why is this authority upon the congregation?
Ephesians 5:21 tells us that as the body of Christ we submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This idea of submission is the same idea Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians 12. We are members of one another, together forming the body of Christ. Therefore, we are each responsible for each other. As members of the same body, we testify that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. Membership is an affirmation of salvation. That is the point of verses 18-20. Together we affirm one another’s salvation, and if needed to urge repentance, we may collectively remove that affirmation.
This is why church membership is so vital. The church falters when membership is not upheld well. Becoming a church member is not like joining a social club. We are not together merely for the community. We are together to affirm, encourage, equip, and build one another up so that we can each finish our race well. If the affirmation of a member is the expression of belief in their salvation, the revoking of membership is expressing the doubt of someone’s salvation. Of course, only Jesus holds the final judgment in His hands, but in this text, He is describing a real and significant authority to proclaim that judgment being given to the collective church.
Another realm of the members’ collective authority is the affirming of church leaders. While discussing the responsibilities of deacons, we read the apostles’ appointment of the first deacons in Acts 6:1-7. Choosing the deacons themselves would have been easy and fitting for the apostles, but instead they told the congregation to choose seven men of good repute and full of the Spirit and of wisdom. The apostles validated their choice by the laying on of hands, but they gave the congregation the authority to choose their deacons.
Only two texts give us an idea of how elders were appointed. In Titus 1:5, Paul commanded Titus to appoint elders in the churches of Crete. Acts 14:23 tells us that in establishing churches Paul and Barnabas would appoint “elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting…” From these texts, elders appear to have been chosen by apostles (Paul and Barnabas) or other elders (Titus). While the texts tell us nothing about the congregation approving the elders, I think it wise to do so. In short then, deacons are both chosen and confirmed by the congregation, while elders are chosen by other elders and confirmed by the congregation.
How then does a church member wisely exercise their collective authority?
First, always take decisions seriously. Often when many people make decisions, some will inevitably relax in their vigilance to be prepared and informed. Do not fall for that trap.
Second, whether choosing or confirming leadership, affirming new members, or calling for a member to repent, immerse each decision in prayer. Each of these actions has real and eternal consequences, and therefore, should be made with much prayer.
While guarding membership and affirming leadership are the biblically explicit examples of the collective authority of church members, it also seems wise to provide for other uses of corporate affirmation or voting. The approval of the church budget and other large financial decisions stand out as the most obvious. If nothing else, such presentations before the church should serve to maintain transparency in financial dealings before the congregation, which should be the desire of all leadership. Although potential matters do not stand out to me, I believe that it is proper for elders to be able to bring any subject before the membership for approval if that seems to be the wisest path forward. Once again, these are not biblically outlined concepts, so we should hold them with an open hand. I do, however, believe them to be a prudent use of the membership’s collective authority.
THE END OF THE MATTER
If, therefore, you are a church member, consider the responsibilities before you. You are part of the church collective and so your personal health will impact the health of the entire body. Are you bearing your weight? Are you fulfilling your role? Are you gathering each week to receive the Word eagerly and to verify the sermon according to the rest of the Scriptures? Are you actively serving in the church and doing the work of the ministry? Do you take your responsibility for your fellow members seriously? How are you stirring them up toward love and good works?