Here we step into our first part of what is a multi-part series on the importance of church membership, biblically considered and practically implemented. There isn’t much middle ground for interest in this topic, which incites in readers either deep interest or boredom. If you find yourself–now 48 words into this post–disinterested, then I urge you to read the introduction I posted last week or, at the very least, consider my thesis for this week’s post, that Christians in the New Testament recognized that they were a part of local churches, not just that they were Christians in a particular city. You may make the rather obvious point that we have nowhere in the Bible anything that approaches an official membership process but you must also admit that those Christians who composed individual churches knew the clear lines of demarcation that designated who was in the church and who was not. And so, it isn’t as easy to say, “Membership isn’t in the Bible, so it doesn’t matter,” when you should be asking, “How do we practically draw those same lines of demarcation in the church today?” To make my point I want to consider two scenarios that fall under the one general theme of how Paul addressed local churches in his letters.
In the first scenario, we have Paul’s opening addresses in his Corinthian and Thessalonian epistles which go something like, “To the churches at…” This greeting is different than Paul’s greetings in his epistle to Rome, Ephesus, and Colossae in which he begins with some iteration of, “To the saints who live in…” What this shows is that Paul had a dual designation in his mind. There were Christians who lived in a particular city and then there were the individual churches in which those Christians gathered Sunday to Sunday. If there were not this dual-identity, then all of Paul’s greeting would be the same.
Our second scenario is in Paul’s address to a church discipline case in Corinth. This situation involved a man who was guilty of persistent sexual sin without being disciplined by his church (1 Cor 5) and then after being disciplined by his church he wasn't readmitted to church membership after his repentance (2 Cor 2:5-11). In both situations—not kicking him out and not letting him back in—Paul had to instruct the congregation to make proper and public designations of this man’s exclusion or inclusion in their local church. The details are interesting but not germane to our discussion. What is germane is that Paul had taught and expected the church at Corinth, the church that he planted, to have a public membership roll that was contingent on faith in Christ and ongoing repentance for sin.
From these brief glimpses into the early church through the window of Paul’s epistles we find that New Testament Christians did not believe that a local church was synonymous with simply all the Christians in a given city. Rather, local churches were groups of Christians that knew themselves to be members of particular churches, with a membership that could be gained or lost. That given, and before our next post, take a minute to consider where you stand in reference to a local church or our local church.
Do you take church membership as seriously as the Christians in the New Testament did?