Previously, we discussed the responsibilities of church members to be three things: doctrinal fact-checkers, workers of the ministry, and a congregation with collective authority. We conclude our series this week by studying the qualifications for being a church member. Since elders and deacons are offices of leadership, Paul helpfully provided a list of qualifications for each, but unfortunately, there is no such explicit text for church members. Yet by studying a few texts, I believe we can narrow membership qualifications to two requirements: gathering together and being in Christ.
GATHER WITH FELLOW MEMBERS // HEBREWS 10:24-25
As with many things throughout our study, some will view this qualification as common sense while others will view it as legalistic. I belong to the first camp. Not only do I think the necessity of gathering together is presented in Hebrews 10:24-25, but I also believe that for members to collectively be the body of Christ they must regularly gather together.
If that sounds too strict, consider secular organizations. No one is ever considered a part of basketball team without having to commit to practice times. You will promptly get kicked out of a theater production if you only attend every other practice. Employees are fired from organizations when they fail to come to their job. Of course, the church is not merely an organization, social club, or team, but that is also precisely the point. Too often, we readily accept the necessary commitment for worldly matters of lesser importance, while shirking commitment to the things of God.
As a member of Christ’s body, other church members expect and need our commitment to the church, to them. In fact, that’s the point of our text. The author of Hebrews is not commanding us to gather together simply because every Christian is morally obligated to be at church every time the doors are open. No, meeting together grants us the opportunity to love and encourage others, while also being loved and encouraged by them.
But is being encouraged really necessary? What if I’m a person who doesn’t need much encouragement? Hebrews 3:12-14 describes the importance of encouraging one another toward repentance:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
Notice that the author purposely connects exhorting one another to finishing our lives in the faith. The solution for an evil, unbelieving heart is the exhortation and encouragement of one another in Christ. We need our brothers and sisters to help expose for us the deceitfulness of sin. A Christian without a community, therefore, is an unbiblical concept.
Of course, everything hinges upon the heart. Certainly, physical attendance can be hindered by disabilities, and vacations, visits to family, and other such things are normal aspects of life. We cannot be legalists about how frequent attendance ought to be, but we must also refuse to compromise on what the Bible clearly commands. Both extremes are equally damaging to the church.
Since the heart is what truly matters, take time to prayerfully answer these questions (which can also be found in the book Go Therefore), considering and evaluating how you view gathering together as Christ’s church.
Do you delight in meeting together with your brothers and sisters, or is going to church more of an obligation?
Here is the BIG question to ask because this gets to the root of the matter. We can attend church every week, but still fail to biblically meet together. If church is not a time of revitalization and encouragement, then we likely have an incorrect view of the church.
How many times did you miss church over the past three months? What were your reasons for missing those Sundays?
Sometimes we simply do not take the time to consider how often we might be missing church. Reflecting upon our number of absences may help reveal any unhealthy patterns.
Do you regularly attend church? What is regular attendance for you? Would your fellow members agree with your definition?
What would you consider valid reasons for missing church? Why?
Everyone has a line in the sand on this issue. Where is yours? Is hospitalization the only thing that keeps you away? Is catching up on laundry a sufficient reason for not meeting together? What about sporting events? Extra-curricular activities of our children? Exhaustion?
How would attending church during vacation make you feel? Why?
Like the previous question, this one hits the heart of the issue. Reluctance to attend church on vacation probably indicates that we view church as life-draining, not life-giving.
BE IN CHRIST // EPHESIANS 2:11-22
For the second and final qualification for being a church member, I could have chosen from plenty of texts. If membership really is about affirming one another’s salvation, the primary requirement for being a member must be being a Christian, and the New Testament has no shortage of passages reminding us of our salvation in Christ. Ephesians is a unique book, though, because of how marvelously Paul expresses the gospel and how significantly he promotes the church’s importance. This passage melds together the two seamlessly; in particular, it describes how being in Christ unites us to one another as the church.
Like most passages that replay the gospel, Paul begins in verses 11-12 by describing our lives before Christ. The people of Ephesus were predominately Gentiles (that is, non-Jews), so Paul speaks to them specifically. Since most of us are also Gentiles, these words are true for us as well.
In verse 12, he reminds us of three truths. First, we were separated from Christ. Second, we were alienated from Israel, making us strangers to God’s covenants. Third, we had no hope and were without God. These truths are meant to remind us of Ephesians 2:1-3. Those verses describe our condition before salvation as being dead in our sins, following the world, following Satan, and living for our passions and flesh. The climax is reached when Paul says that we “were children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Because of our sinful state, we deserved nothing but God’s wrath. We were cut off from God Himself and separated from His people.
Verse 13, however, turns the narrative: but now. Mercifully, God did not leave us in our sin, but now we who are in Christ have been brought near by Christ’s blood. Although we deserved the full wrath of God, He saved us by His grace. We were dead in sin, but God made us alive in Christ. This transformation happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Jesus both lived the life we were required to live and died the death we were sentenced to die. Because of His obedience to the Father, Jesus simultaneously absorbs the consequences of our sin and gives to us His righteousness. This is the gospel, the good news that we are now justified before God.
But notice that personal salvation is not the only outcome of the gospel: verses 14-16 describe how Jesus also breaks down the wall of division between Jew and Gentile. The interaction of Jews and Gentiles is not much considered today, but it was of primary concern in the first century. Christianity is, after all, the continuation and fulfillment of Judaism. Jews, especially in Paul’s day, thought very poorly of Gentiles. In fact, a common rabbinical saying was that all the nations (or Gentiles) were dogs. Many commentators have also pointed out that Jesus’ command for His disciples to shake the dust off their feet when leaving an unwelcoming town comes from a Jewish practice when leaving Gentile cities. The thought is that the Jews did not even want to bring Gentile dust back with them, so they would shake the dust off their feet. Nevertheless, the point is that Jews and Gentiles seemed permanently divided. Their differences were irreconcilable, until Jesus killed the hostility by the cross.
Verses 17-22 continue to further elaborate on this glorious truth. The message of the gospel did not simply go to the Jews (those who were near) but also to the Gentiles (those who were far off). Now both have the Holy Spirit, which is our guarantee of eternity (1:14). Jews and Gentiles in Christ are no longer strangers and aliens but fellow citizens of God’s kingdom. We are saints and members of God’s household, established upon the writings of the prophets and apostles. Joined together we are growing into a holy temple in the Lord. Like an architect, God is building us together as a dwelling place for God. Practically, this means that God is uniting His people together as His church for His glory. Racism and similar sins, therefore, have no place among God’s people because they run contrary to the gospel. Nor can we simply decide to neglect being in a church. Christ saved us as individuals in order to unite us together in community.
Of course, being joined together is contingent upon being in Christ Jesus (v. 13). Unfortunately, many churches are broken into disunity because many of their members are not true followers of Christ. There is no serious commitment by members to the church. There is no commitment to affirm one another’s salvation. There is no commitment to exhort each other to repent of sin. Therefore, many non-Christians are called church members, and churches eventually stop looking like churches. Salvation, then, must be the primary qualification for becoming a church member.
How then can we, as church members, grow in this qualification?
First, we continue to walk out our own faith in Jesus Christ. We cannot faithfully love, encourage, and serve one another unless we are loving and serving Christ. During times when your faith is weak, when doubts take hold, when you feel like you are losing your battle against sin, have your brothers and sisters encourage and pray for you.
Second, rehearse the gospel to yourself often. Meditate on Ephesians 2:1-10 to remember the miracle of your salvation.