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.