Is Church Membership Biblical?

As Florida Coast Church begins to take steps to prepare and receive our first church members, we may have to explain and justify the idea of church membership, especially since some prominent churches have dispensed with it.  To do so, we need to review some church history and then look at the New Testament pattern.

Throughout most of church history, becoming a Christian and becoming a member of the church were the same thing. However, in the 18th Century, a movement called revivalism swept through Britain and the American Colonies, taking evangelism out of the church and into the streets. Becoming a Christian became an individual decision, and church membership became optional. Previously it was virtually impossible to become a Christian outside of the church. Now, to become a Christian and to join a church have become two separate decisions, with the first one treated as the only important one.

Some churches have done away with church membership, having only participants and even asserting that membership is not a concept found in the New Testament. Sometimes Western believers affirm that they are members of the universal church, but they do not associate with or formally commit to any local group of believers. This is similar to claiming that one is a member of Rotary International but not of any local Rotary chapter, or a high school student but not of any particular high school, or a member of the state bar association but not of any certain state, all of which are impossible situations.

In addition to this trend away from membership in the local church, the idea of commitment is waning in our culture, perhaps more markedly in casual South Florida. Therefore, Florida Coast Church may be going against the flow by having and emphasizing church membership as a valuable and necessary commitment that every Christian should make. In order to justify and describe church membership, let’s take a look at evidence in the New Testament for believers being grouped in local churches in mutual commitment to one another, with a clear recognition of who belonged to the church and who did not. In other words, evidence for what we are calling membership. Note that these verses do not refer merely to an invisible, universal church but to local, visible, identifiable, clearly delineated groups of believers.

In Act 2:41-47, we read:

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.  And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Note that a certain number of new believers were baptized, added to the number, and once added, had access to all the benefits and responsibilities of being part of the church. They did not add themselves or declare themselves to be members but were added by the public act of baptism. We will talk more about baptism later, but for now, the important point is that baptism was not merely the sign of a personal decision but the way people were added to the number of the church.

However, not all who were added could remain as members. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus gave instructions about how to deal with an obstinate sinner who was part of the church:

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.

Jesus assumed that there would be a clearly identified group called “the church,” with persons who were members of it, and others who were not. Furthermore, he taught that unrepentant sinners should be removed from the church and no longer considered Christians. In other words, there were clear boundaries that defined who was part of the church and who was not, and these were not left up to the individual to define. The church received new believers into its number and excluded those who refused to live as Christians.

In Hebrews 13:17, the author gave these instructions to the believers:

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.

The leaders had responsibility for an identifiable group of believers for whom they would have to give an account before God.

In I Timothy 5:9-11, Paul gave instructions about enrolling widows on the list of those for whom the church would especially care:

Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work. But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith.

The widows eligible for care were an identifiable subgroup of an identifiable group, the church, which recognized a mutual commitment between the widows and the rest of the church. There was even an official roll of widows on the list.

In addition, the New Testament uses metaphors to describe the church, such as body (I Corinthians 12:12-14), flock (Acts 20:28-29), household (Galatians 6:10; I Timothy 3:15), temple (I Corinthians 3:16-17), all of which have identifiable constituent members. In fact, Paul referred to the members of the church body explicitly:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (I Corinthians 12:27)

For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. (Ephesians 5:29-30)

From the preceding verses, we can conclude that membership is a biblical concept that was practiced from the first days of the church. Following the New Testament pattern, Florida Coast Church will have members, and membership is a meaningful commitment that has great privileges and solemn responsibilities.

 

 

 

Is Church Membership Biblical?2018-03-01T17:22:48+00:00

The good, the bad, and the ugly of my denomination’s birth

Out of interest and in preparation for a course I am to teach at Knox Theological Seminary in the fall, I read Sean Lucas’ For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America.  Although, as a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) minister, I knew the basic contours of our history, I learned many details about it from Lucas’ book.  I came into the Christian faith and the PCA at the same time in 1979, six years after it was formed.  At that time, it seemed to me that it had always existed, and indeed, it had become strong and stable very quickly.

Early on, I picked up on three of four distinctives that Lucas identified as reasons for the birth of the new denomination: the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible, the truth of the Reformed faith as expressed in the documents of the Westminster Assembly, and the urgency of revitalizing the United States (perceived as a once but slipping Christian nation) through evangelization and conservative political action.  I was surprised to read that another formative factor was racial in nature, the idea that the races should maintain their essential “integrity” by not intermarrying.  Charitably viewed, this idea was meant to be respectful of both races in view, black and white.  However, the logical outworking was that the races should be kept separate in order to prevent tramadol.

One of the reasons that I didn’t detect any of this racial rationale for the new denomination was because the pastor of my first church, James Kennedy, had actively rejected it.  Lucas reported that Kennedy had told his mentor, Kennedy Smart, “I want to be sure that you are not creating a racist or sectional church.  If you are, count me out, but if you are not, and if you do not name it, ‘the Southern Presbyterian Church,’ then I will be with you.  Not immediately, but you have my word, Coral Ridge will come” (307).  Kennedy was also concerned about the viability of the denomination, especially in the light of the large mortgage the church was carrying on its shining new building.  As it turned out, in 1977, Coral Ridge joined the PCA.

In recent years, the PCA has recognized and tried to make amends for racism in its past, and it is slowly becoming less homogeneous.  Also, some younger ministers and members are less happy to have their denomination identified with conservative political movements.  The PCA still stands for the complete truthfulness and entire reliability of the Bible and continues to hold to historic Reformed theology as expressed in its confessional documents.  I’m not sure that we are as strong evangelistically as we once were, although the PCA continues to start new churches, even as some of its older churches have struggled.  It is heartening to see the PCA retain eternal truths and jettison passing and mistaken ideas.  May God keep us close to his eternal word and protect us from following ephemeral trends.  I’m all for a continuing church.

 

The good, the bad, and the ugly of my denomination’s birth2017-06-11T20:20:39+00:00

Manalive!

Poor Innocent Smith.  He was charged with murder, burglary, desertion, and polygamy.  My favorite is the murder charge.  You see, Smith was so troubled by Dr. Eames’ university lecture about the meaninglessness of life and the preferential option of death that he went to visit the professor at night to see if what he said was really true.  After hours of depressing discussion, the conversation reached this climax:

“A puppy with hydrophobia would probably struggle for life while we killed it; but if we are kind we would kill it.  So an omniscient god would put us out of our pain.  He would strike us dead.”

“Why doesn’t he strike us dead?” asked the undergraduate dejectedly, plunging his hands in his pockets.

“He is dead himself,” said the philosopher; “that is where he is really enviable.”

It was then that Smith decided to extend the ultimate kindness to his professor and help him out of his troubles by drawing his revolver and pointing it at Dr. Eames’ head.

“I’ll help you out of your hole, old man,” said Smith, with rough tenderness.  “I’ll put the puppy out of his pain.”

Emerson Eames retreated towards the window.  “Do you mean to kill me?” he cried.

“It’s not a thing I’d do for everyone,” said Smith, with emotion.  “But you and I seem to have got so intimate to-night somehow.  I know all your troubles now, and the the only cure, old chap.”

At the risk of spoiling the ending for you, I will reveal that Smith did not end up blowing Eames’ brains out, but he did fire a few shots around his head, which so enlightened the professor that he decided to give Smith an A+ in the philosophy course.  When the incident was over, Smith was badly shaken, telling Dr. Eames, “I must ask you to realize that I have just had an escape from death.”  [. . .].  “I had to do it, Eames.  I had to prove you wrong or die.”  [. . .].  “Don’t you see that I had to prove you didn’t really mean it?  Or else drown myself in the canal?”

Then there was the question of what to do with the rest of the bullets.  Dr. Eames calmly asked Smith not to fire any more around his head but to “keep them [. . .] for the next man you meet who talks as we were talking.”  Smith took his professor’s advice and concluded, “I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man.  But I shall not use it to kill him.  Only to bring him to life.”

G. K. Chesteron’s Manalive. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2000, pp. 68-74, (originally published in 1912)

(This account is fictional and allegorical, so please don’t try this at home.)

Manalive!2017-03-25T06:52:54+00:00

Singing Together

It is always hard to know when to launch a first public worship service, and we went ahead without having some important pieces in place beforehand, such as a settled group of musicians to lead our congregational singing. We also have people of different backgrounds who know different church music, and some who know very little. For the first few weeks, we bumped along, happy to be together but struggling to sing together. That is, until last Sunday. God provided three musicians who come from different musical backgrounds, who came together with our diverse little congregation, and we sang together, not for the first time, but better than during our first weeks.

Yes, the quality was improved, but I’m mainly referring to the spirit of the singing. We felt the difference, no longer thinking about how well or poorly we were singing, but simply singing to the Lord together and moved by the content of our sung prayers (for that’s what congregational singing is). We also read Scripture more in unison and had a meaningful prayer time. I think I also preached better, because the time of congregational singing, praying, and reading prepared both the congregation and the preacher to hear God’s word. The time of greeting was more exuberant, and people stayed around a long time afterwards to enjoy each other, commenting about how wonderful it was to worship together.

In a timely way, a friend sent me this helpful article, which outlines some of the obstacles to robust congregational singing, ones that we are working to avoid from the beginning.  The article is written in the negative, but it would be easy to turn each obstacle into its opposite and write a positive article called “Nine Reasons People Are Singing In Worship.”

Singing Together2017-03-22T08:10:12+00:00

Putting It All Together

At least since the time of Ezra the scribe about 2450 years ago, a standard way to preach has been to read a section of the Bible, explain it, read the next section, explain it, and so on. Nehemiah 8:8 reports, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” This is how they did it in the synagogues, in the early church, and in the churches of the Reformation. This way of preaching has different names but is often called sequential expository preaching or just expository preaching. It’s what I did for 20 years in Guadalajara. Guess what happened? The people there learned the Bible well, some of them so well, in fact, that I decided to leave and start over.

It’s how I am now preaching in Florida Coast Church. We are currently in I Thessalonians, planning to cover 4:1-12 this coming Sunday. All well and good, but there is a major challenge that expository preachers face – some people are absent each Sunday. This means that they get part of chapter 1, all of chapter 2, none of chapter 3, half of chapter 4, etc. This is not the way to read a book if you want to understand its message. (I still have not seen the second of the six Star Wars movies, so I’m missing some essential pieces.)

One solution is to do “one off” sermons every week, which are self-contained and do not build on previous sermons. While this approach helps hearers in the moment, it teaches them to treat the Bible atomistically, that is, as a bunch of unconnected parts. The hearers end up with knowledge of pieces of the Bible, but struggle to put them together.

If church members follow the planned texts in their private or family Bible reading, they can better follow the series. Also, technology offers another solution for churches that do expository preaching, since most record their sermons and publish them online. It’s not the same as being there and takes some extra effort to listen to them later, but really not much. (Ours are here.) For those who attend any church, I recommend that you listen to all the sermons you miss, not because they are the best sermons you can find on the Internet, but so that you can derive maximum benefit from all the ones you do hear live.

Putting It All Together2017-03-09T12:55:41+00:00

You want a great pastor?

In last Sunday’s sermon text, I Thessalonians 2:1-12, Paul and his companions gave us five marks of a faithful minister of the gospel:

The faithful minister preaches the gospel boldly even if he has to suffer for doing so (verses 1-2).

The faithful minister preaches with the goal of pleasing God (verses 3-6).

The faithful minister preaches the gospel with tenderness (verses 7-9).

The faithful minister preaches the gospel with hard work (verse 10).

The faithful minister preached the gospel with personal integrity (verses 11-12).

You want a great pastor?  Then pray for these things for yours!  (Full sermon here.)

You want a great pastor?2017-02-23T19:08:20+00:00

Get Real

As we have moved back to the US, I have tried to apply the same cross-cultural skills I developed in Mexico in order to understanding my new culture and preach the gospel effectively here.  John Leonard’s 2013 book, Get Real, published by New Growth Press, is full of helpful insights and tips about, as the subtitle says, “sharing your everyday faith every day.”

For example,

On Western Evangelicalism:

“Western individualism has turned the church into an event that I may or may not participate in, depending on what I get out of it.”

“We need to change our vocabulary when we describe a Christian.  Jesus didn’t command us to go out and make believers, he commissioned us to go and make disciples.  We need to move away from a ‘big decision’ definition because all the emphasis is on making the decision, praying the prayer, or walking down the aisle.  is that all Christ asks of us?  Once we’ve made the ‘big decision’ and gotten it over with, we can go on with our lives.  Western evangelicalism has infected the world with this heresy–that if you have made the ‘big decision’ you’re OK; everything between you and God is fine.”

On How to Treat People:

“Instead of trying to lead people to Christ, let Christ lead people to you.”

“Most of the people Jesus taught found him.  How do people find you?  Ask your heavenly Father to send them, and keep your eyes out for everyone who comes along as the possible answer to your prayers.”

“What makes an absolute stranger a confidant?  It happens when you’re desperate for someone to speak to, and no one else is available.  These are not rare occurrences, if we’re willing to listen more than we speak.”

“We listen more than we speak not only to communicate real care and concern, but because listening will help us know what the Lord wants us to say to the person that he has brought across our path.  In traditional evangelism you already know what you’re going to say.”

“As they speak about the immediate problems they’re facing or questions they have, we should be listening and praying, asking our Lord to help us gather together everything we have heard, read, or understood from the Scriptures in order to respond to their problems or questions.”

“It isn’t about putting more people into your life; it’s about genuinely seeing more of the people that are part of your everyday routine–who are, for most of us, no more than scenery and sometimes intrusions into our daily lives.”

“Instead of being ‘efficient,’ do exactly the opposite.  Go out of your way to interact with people.”

To flesh out his advice, John included many examples from his own colorfully evangelistic life.  I especially liked the way he engages servers in restaurants by saying, “We are about to thank God for the food.  Is there anything we can pray for you?”  As I have offered to pray for servers, we have entered into some great conversations, like when the young lady immediately answered, “Yes, pray that I can stay sober,” and another asked for prayer for her brothers, whom she described as lost.  A third wanted prayer for her daughter who just got married, and she proceeded to show us many pictures of the wedding and the honeymoon.  We are finding (surprise, surprise) that people do indeed want to talk if someone is willing to listen.  They are often also willing to hear good news.

Get Real2017-02-15T14:43:55+00:00

Mere Christianity Reprise

Recently a young person asked me to recommend a book to give to a friend who has no church background but is concerned about mortality. Of course, the Bible is the best recommendation, especially one of the gospels like Mark or John. Having been working mostly in Spanish for the last three decades, I asked some friends for nominations in English, one of which was C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. As a fairly new Christian, I read this book in college and decided to read it again and offer a brief review.

Book I is the best of the four as it exposes humans as inevitably attached to the concepts of right and wrong and largely coinciding on a moral code. In the light of this attachment, Lewis introduced the idea of law and postulated a Lawgiver. Essentially his argument is the classical moral argument for the existence of God, developed with keen insights about humans and in a compelling manner. However, unlike in some presentations of the moral argument, he did not try to bootstrap himself up to the Christian doctrine of God. He went to the Bible and the creeds for that.

Book II presents Christian beliefs in a slightly quirky form. In post-war England, many people respected Jesus as a great moral teacher, whose teaching, if followed would help produce better societies and avoid future wars. Of course it would, but that’s not the main point of his ministry. Here Lewis presented his now famous trichotomy, trying to force people to label Jesus as a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. Striving to be non-partisan, he avoided siding with a particular view of the atonement, but he did emphasize some vicarious aspects of Jesus’ work, particularly his active obedience to God’s law in our place. By not being so clear on the nature of the atonement, he was fuzzy on the doctrine of justification and the role of faith as the “alone instrument of justification” (as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it in chapter XI).

Book III is about Christian ethics and is both dated and prescient. He assumed a general knowledge and acceptance of Christian morality, a consensus that is not so reliable today. However, his defense of biblical sexual norms is more necessary today than it was in his. Lewis organized around the seven virtues, dividing them into four cardinal and three theological virtues. Without soft-pedaling it, he presented Christian behavior as the most attractive and ultimately the happiest option available.

In Book IV, Lewis delved into theology, especially the doctrine of the Trinity. He began with a defense of theology as the tried and true road map to reality, which goes beyond personal religious experience. The Trinity is not only difficult conceptually but necessary for it to be true that God always is love. Also, the Trinity is what believers intuitively experience as we pray to God (the Father) and perceive that God (the Son) is with us in our humanity and that God (the Holy Spirit) is in us.

There are some blemishes in the book. In addition to the lack of clarity about justification by faith alone, another way in which Lewis muddied the water was by granting some level of Christianity to the noble pagans of ancient Greece and to sincere adherents other world religions. (Remember the Calormene warrior who found himself in the real Narnia in The Last Battle.) He also occasionally stooped to the level of abuse in his arguments, calling ideas “silly” and questioning opponent’s intelligence or maturity. Lewis also had a tendency to refer to the Bible too little and too much, too little by building his arguments more on the creeds than on biblical texts, and too much by referring to (without clearly identifying) biblical texts that he assumed everyone would already know. Occasionally his Briticisms are puzzling but can usually be understood in context.

On the positive side, Lewis was a master of the simile, taking abstruse ideas and showing how they are very much like concepts that we already have and readily affirm. He wove astute observations about history, psychology, society, and theology into a devastating critique of secularism and a compelling defense of the Christian faith. His forthright call to faith in Christ and commitment to following him is refreshing.

Therefore, in answer to the person who asked me for a recommended book for a friend, while I need to learn more about more recent offerings, Mere Christianity is still a very good option. You might want to read it for the first time or again. I’m glad I did.

Mere Christianity Reprise2017-01-12T14:54:13+00:00

“Read your Bibles, boys.”

Recently I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with a dear friend from seminary days, who reminded me of a conversation that remained clearer in his mind than it had in mine.  Occasionally some of us seminarians would visit the home of Dr. Cornelius Van Til, the great theologian and apologist, then retired, in his upper 80s, and not entirely lucid.  He delighted to give us copies of his many books, which he  signed with his own shaky hand.  We would provoke him to tell stories from the past, which were still fresh in his mind, like the time he met Karl Barth (whose works Van Til had devoured and criticized sharply in some of his writings).  We also waited for pearls of great theological insight or counsel for aspiring pastors.  He was content to give us one brilliant piece of advice: “Read your Bibles, boys.”

As we end one year and begin another, we face a good time to recover or start good habits, like Bible reading.  There are many excellent programs out there to guide us, but I particularly like the plans on bible.com and its corresponding YouVersion Bible mobile app , especially the following:

Discipleship Journal’s 5x5x5 Reading Plan, which covers the New Testament in one year at the pace of one chapter per day with weekends to catch up.

Old Testament, which covers the Old Testament in one year at the pace of three chapters per day from three different books of the Bible.

M’Cheyne One Year Reading Plan, which covers the Old Testament once and the New Testament and Psalms twice at the pace of four chapters per day from four different books of the Bible.  One can read all four privately or two chapters in private and two chapters as a family.

There are many other plans at the website, of shorter or longer duration, all available for mobile devices, and some Bible versions with audio components to enable one to listen instead of reading.  I sometimes choose to listen on a commute or simply for variety’s sake.  Whatever else you do this new year, please remember Dr. Van Til’s tremendous advice.  Read your Bibles, girls and boys.

“Read your Bibles, boys.”2016-12-30T08:17:08+00:00

He Takes Hold Of Us

Hebrews 2:16 reads:

“For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants” (NIV) OR “For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham” (KJV) OR “For assuredly He does not take hold of angels, but He takes hold of the seed of Abraham” (NASB footnote).

The different translations result from different possible meanings to the main verb.  Its basic meaning is to take hold of, but the context determines in what sense this taking hold of.  It can mean to take hold of someone in order to harm or to help, or it can be figurative language as in taking hold of eternal life (I Tim 6:12).

Before the 17th century, most scholars understood this verse to mean that God did not take hold of angelic nature to assume it to himself or take it on himself but of human nature.  More recent translations take the verb to mean to help, to lend a hand. (See Philip Edgecumb Hughes’ excellent Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, pp 115-6.)

In the context, the older translation fits well, since verse 14 graphically says that the Son of God shared in our “blood and flesh,” and verse 17 says he was made like us in every way.  Nestled in between these two strong affirmations of God’s becoming fully human, it fits well to say that he took on or assumed humanity.  We lose nothing by adopting the more modern versions’ translations, since verses 14 and 17 easily carry the load of the incarnation, but the older translations likely make this section the clearest and strongest affirmation of the full humanity of the Son of God: He shared our flesh and blood, he took on our nature, and he had to be made like us in every way.

Clear enough!  Merry Christmas!

 

He Takes Hold Of Us2016-12-24T12:08:07+00:00