This month our church is celebrating one year anniversary. In light of this I gave two part addresses entitled “Commit Yourself to a Local Church for the Glory of God.” The following is my sermon transcript.
As you know we celebrate our first anniversary as Sovereign GraceBibleChurch this month. Hence this evening, I want to preach on a subject that is so dear to my heart. And it is on the church. But more specifically, it is on the biblical command to be committed to a local church. In this day and age when word such as commitment is something people are afraid of or see it as something optional, I want all of us to have a clear understanding that commitment to a local church is not optional, but a biblical duty (a delightful duty I may add). It is too common to see people today that are “dating” a church out of selfish convenience and in some instances it’s not uncommon to see people who are “two-timing” with another church or another ministry. For example, I know of many people who may attend Church A for spiritual feeding while attending Church B for ministry. I know many professing Christians who neglect attending their own church’s Bible study to attend another church’s Bible study or a Bible study with a para-church organization.
If that’s not bad enough for the pastors and leadership of local churches to struggle with, there are further related issues. For instance, while some people are members of Church A, they are more concerned about Church B down the street. While some people are members of Church A, they listened to what pastor so-and-so and/or leadership of Church B says more. What’s even worse, while some people are members of Church A, they are part of an ecumenical “Bible study” group that stands theological opposition to where they are a member of. I’ve met ladies that are more interested in what Beth Moore has to say than their own pastors. Or, college students that listen to what their campus ministry leaders say than their own pastors and leadership of their home church. I can give you example after example how a local church gets undermined by her own members but due to time I must refrain myself. This is why it is critical for us to have a healthy view of a local church if we don’t already, if not, be reminded of this time to time. To understand the biblical command to be committed to a local church, I want to raise four simple questions as a way of our outline: 1) what is a church, 2) why should I become a member, 3) how to become a member, and 4) what are my biblical duties as a church member? Due to time, I’m going to only address on the first two questions this evening, and next Lord’s day I will address on the last two questions.
One of the reasons why I am addressing this particular message is because I firmly believe along with many pastors that the average churchgoers in America do not adequately understand and/or cannot give adequate biblical answers to those four questions. With that in mind, I would like to begin this evening with an historical understanding on church membership before answering the first question.
HISTORICAL UNDERSTANDING OF CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
Historically, church membership was always taught and implemented amongst biblical churches; that is, churches that operate their ministry according to Scripture and sound doctrine. This was more common as a result of the Protestant Reformation, especially, during the era of the Puritan churches in which the purity of the church was a great concern for many Christians.
However, over the past few decades many churches have drifted from such concern. Some of the reasons for this are due to neglecting doctrinal purity and biblical authority, embracing worldliness, capitulating to democratic system of doing church than theocratic system, and so on. Today, “church membership” is not taught and practiced in many churches. And even if the pastors and leadership say they believe in church membership they don’t practice it with care and caution biblically.
If I am looking for a church to be my “home church,” one of the major criteria that I would look for is whether the church teaches and practices church-discipline according to Matthew 18. In other words, is this church willing to exclude me or force me out of its fellowship? Because the answer to that question truly reveals whether such church genuinely loves and cares for their members for the glory of God. To say it negatively, a church that does not teach and practice church-discipline does not genuinely love and care for the members of Christ’s church for God’s glory. In fact a church that fails to teach and practice church discipline fails to be defined as a church because historically the marks of a true church have been defined as: 1) the true expositional preaching of God’s Word, 2) the practice of church ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and 3) the practice of church discipline. Moreover, churches that do not teach and practice church membership cannot really obey our Lord’s command to exercise church discipline because how can a church practice church discipline if they do not know who their members are when they don’t practice church membership?
I cannot emphasize enough how serious this subject is and how important it is for us to take heed. In his book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark Dever writes: “I’m convinced that getting this concept of membership right is a key step in revitalizing our churches, evangelizing our nation, furthering the cause of Christ around the world, and so bringing glory to God.” With that in mind, let’s begin with our first question: what is a church?
I. What is a Church?
Before we answer what church is, I think it helps to begin with what church is not. First of all, church is not a physical building. When my wife and I drive around and see a beautiful steeple with a cross, she’ll say, “Look, how beautiful that church is.” And then, after few seconds, she’ll quickly correct herself by saying, “I mean a beautiful building.” She does that because she knows that church is not a physical building. When Jesus Christ comes back for the church as the Bible teaches, He is not coming back for the church building. The building is simply where the church meets corporately and weekly, but it is not a church in a biblical sense. In fact, you realize that the Bible hardly address its readers to “go to church”? Rather, the Bible overwhelmingly emphasizes being a church and doing a church than going to a church.
Secondly, church is not a denomination or sect. In other words, true church is not determined by whether it belongs to a certain denomination or doesn’t belong to a denomination. In other words, a true church does not mean it has to be a Baptist denomination, a Presbyterian denomination, a Lutheran, a non-denomination, etc. Now, having said that, there are people (including myself), who believe that certain church denominations are guilty of moving away from the Bible. And this is clearly evident in their rejection of the inerrancy of Scripture, embracing egalitarian view of women, and ordaining the openly gay people into the ministry. Although church is not a denomination, certain denominations do clearly stand out and prove themselves to be in direct opposition to what a church is. I believe church gives a powerful testimony by who you associate with and who you disassociate with.
Thirdly, church is not a social club. This is not a place where you spread the latest gossips about so-and-so or a place where you bring attention to yourself. This is not to say that it’s OK to do those things as long as we do it outside of the church, but more caution and care should be taken in the church. I still recall how we had to discipline some kids who were playing with phones during worship service in California. They thought they were so cool with the latest phones in the church but got confiscated.
Fourthly, church is not a platform for politics. Historically, Baptist churches are the proponents for local church autonomy. That is why, individual local Baptist churches do not “answer” to a certain headquarter or ruling body, especially, Baptists don’t like the idea of government interfering with churches. Because self-governance and independence are some of the Baptist distinctions, that is why historically Baptists are the proponents for the separation of the church and state. The Baptists always have been the strong defenders of the idea that the church ultimately serves and answers to only one king, who is the head of the church.
And lastly, church is not a corporate stock. Just because you and I contribute financially to a local church does not mean that you and I own a share or portion of a church. It’s amazing how some people think like this, but they do. In some churches people who make the biggest financial contributions have the biggest voices. And some have the attitude that because pastors get paid by the church, somehow people can tell pastors what to do as if pastors are mere hirelings. Some churches have the mentality that just as they “hired” the pastor, they can also “fire” the pastor. It’s truly heartbreaking to see and hear about pastors who walk into a church gets chewed-up and spit-out by many churches in relatively short period of time. It is truly discouraging to hear that this is becoming all too common. And you know what? Although being a pastor has many heartbreaking and discouraging moments, a man who is certain of God’s calling still loves the church of Jesus Christ. And he can never be divorced from the church because no matter where he goes he still will be part of a local church since he is a Christian! To be divorced from a church is to denounce one’s faith. And do you know what keeps me going every week? It is the biblical reality that no one can claim the ultimate ownership of a church than Jesus. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” No one can truly use such personal pronoun “my church” as in personal possessive sense than Jesus. Furthermore, I take comfort in the fact that ultimately Jesus will sovereignly take care of churches that truly belong to him. That’s why I can go to sleep at night and not worry.
So, there you have it. I’ve given you five things that church is not. We have heard that church is not a physical building; it is not a denomination or sect; it is not a social club; it is not a platform for politics; and church is not a corporate stock. Those are what church is not. Now, let’s look at what church is.
According to Scripture church is a group of people who profess and give evidence that they have been saved or regenerated by God’s saving grace. Although the NT does give a universal sense of the church, the majority of biblical references are to local churches. This is clearly evident by noticing how Paul wrote his letters not only to one church, but to various local churches in various locations (e.g., church of Corinth, church of Galatia, Ephesus, and so on). According to The Baptist Faith and Message:
A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is a local body of baptized believers who are associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel, observing the two ordinances of Christ, committed to His teachings, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth.
According to the London Baptist Confession of Faith:
The members of these churches are saints by calling, visibly manifesting and evidencing (in and by their profession and walking) their obedience unto that call of Christ; and do willingly consent to walk together, according to the appointment of Christ; giving up themselves to the Lord, and one to another, by the will of God, in professed subjection to the ordinances of the Gospel (26.6).
Now, I’ve given you some of the best theological definitions of what church is. Let’s now move toward our second question: why should I become a member?
[This will continue next time]
 Herschel H. Hobbs, The Baptist Faith and Message, revised edition (Nashville, Ten.: Convention Press, 1994), 64.