What is a church?
A church is an assembly of Christians in a given place; see here.
What is a church member?
A church member is someone:
- who confesses faith in Jesus Christ,
- who confesses a desire to live in accordance with God’s commands,
- who has been baptized,
- who expresses agreement with the confessions of that church, and
- who is willing to submit to the instruction and discipline of that church’s leadership.
Church Membership in the Bible
Why should Christians become members of a church? Does God command it?
There is no explicit command in Scripture to become a member of a church. There are several things, however, which when put together, have led Christians to conclude that churches should keep membership rolls.
What are these?
Consider that the New Testament church retained many of the practices of the Jewish synagogue. The polity of elder rule, for instance, was largely carried over into the early Christian churches from the synagogue. Another such practice, was what we are considering here, i.e. the keeping of membership rolls.
How can we know that the synagogues kept membership rolls?
Because we read in several places that under certain circumstances, people were cut off or were not allowed to participate in the community. Consider the teaching in Deuteronomy 23 where we are told of several kind of people who were not allowed to “enter the assembly of YHWH.”
“Assembly of the LORD,” like the more common “assembly of Israel,” is a technical term for all those adult males who are enfranchised to make decisions, participate in cultic activities and serve in the military of Israel (Micah 2:5). IVP Bible Background Commentary on this text
Second, consider those references in the New Testament to being excommunicated from the synagogue. In John 9:22 (also John 12:42; 16:2), we read that anyone who became a Christian, was “put out of the synagogue” which means they were struck from the membership rolls of that synagogue and no longer entitled to all the rights and privileges of being a member in that synagogue. The word used here is ἀποσυνάγωγος on which see Cremer (p64).
What leads us to believe that the New Testament churches carried over this practice into their own communities?
Because we see a similar practice in 1 Corinthians 5:2 where Paul tells the Corinthian church to remove someone from their midst. This removal is the equivalent of the Jewish practice of excommunication given above. Olshausen says (p253) that “the phrase αἴρειν ἐκ μέσου can here only signify exclusion from ecclesiastical communion.”
Start with the first requirement for church membership which you gave above; what is it to confess faith in Jesus?
Faith is a sincere trust in Jesus for salvation; see here. Christian churches require that any person who desires to join their membership must confess that they have this faith in Jesus.
Where does Scripture teach that a person must confess faith in Christ in order to be a member of the church?
Consider what Paul says in the opening of his letter to the Corinthians:
“…to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours“
Note that Paul addresses the church here as those who:
- have been sanctified in Christ Jesus;
- are saints by calling;
- in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ adding here that Jesus is both “their Lord and ours.”
Clearly, Paul assumes that anyone on the membership rolls of a church is someone who is trusting in Jesus for their salvation.
The second requirement is that such a person confess a resolve to keep all of God’s commands.
Yes, the person must be someone who shows their gratitude to God for the salvation they received by understanding and doing all that God expects of His people.
Where does the Bible require church members to be baptized?
There is no place where the Bible explicitly requires church members to be baptized. The Bible is abundantly clear, however, that Christians should be baptized into the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19) Furthermore, the consistent practice of the apostles was to baptize people immediately after they believed in Jesus. (Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12, 36; 9:18; 10:47; 16:16, 33; 18:8) Since every church member must be a Christian, it follows that they must also be baptized.
What is the fourth requirement for anyone who is thinking of joining a church’s membership?
He must understand this church’s teaching and state his agreement with it. Furthermore, he must make this decision freely and not be under any kind of compulsion from family or church or state.
What is the last prerequisite for joining a church?
He must freely place himself under the authority of that church’s leadership.
What is the church’s leadership?
These are the elders of the church; see here.
Where does the Bible say we must submit to the leadership of a church in order to be a member of the church?
The author of the letter to the Hebrews teaches this:
Obey your leaders, and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:17)
Here the leaders are the elders of the church since they are the ones who watch over our souls as stated here and in Acts 20:28 “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” (cf. Isaiah 62:6; Ezekiel 3:17)
Is this submission to the church’s leadership absolute?
It is not. The church’s leadership are not infallible and can make decisions that are not consistent with the Bible. In this case, the church leadership must be disobeyed as Peter and the rest of the apostles. (Acts 5:29)
The Church’s Responsibility
Who makes the decision about whether to allow a certain person into the church’s membership?
This decision is made by the elders.
Where does the Bible teach this?
This is not explicitly taught in Scripture but is implied from the general principle that it is the elders who have the responsibility to protect the church of God.
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. (Acts 20:28; cf 1 Timothy 4:16; 5:17)
How can the elders know who is really a Christian and how isn’t?
This is not even possible; neither is it what God expects from the elders. The elders are simply to receive a person’s profession of faith and to ensure that he makes it intelligently. More than this, they cannot do and are not allowed to do.
What does it mean to make an intelligent profession of faith?
This means that a person claims to trust in Jesus for his salvation and that he has a basic understanding of what this means.
Why did you say previously that the elders are not allowed to try and determine whether a given applicant is really a Christian?
Because Jesus forbid this in the parable of the wheat and weeds.
What did Jesus teach in this parable?
The central point of this parable is the fact that there will be true and false Christians in the kingdom of God until the end of time. This is the reason for the distinction between the visible and invisible church. The Second Helvetic Confession (middle of p874), for instance, states:
…not all that are reckoned in the number of the Church are saints, and living and true members of the Church. For there are many hypocrites, who outwardly hear the Word of God, and publicly receive the sacraments, and seem to pray to God through Christ alone, to confess Christ to be their only righteousness, and to worship God, and to exercise the duties of charity, and for a time to endure with patience in misfortune. And yet they are inwardly destitute of true illumination of the Spirit, of faith and sincerity of heart, and of perseverance to the end. But eventually the character of these men, for the most part, will be disclosed. For the apostle John says: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would indeed have continued with us” (1 John 2:19). And although while they simulate piety they are not of the Church, yet they are considered to be in the Church, just as traitors in a state are numbered among its citizens before they are discovered; and as the tares or darnel and chaff are found among the wheat, and as swellings and tumors are found in a sound body, And therefore the Church of God is rightly compared to a net which catches fish of all kinds, and to a field, in which both wheat and tares are found (Matthew 13:24, 47).
Where does this parable teach that there will be true and false Christians in the kingdom of God until the end of time?
Jesus states: “The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:41-42)
Where does Jesus give the command that elders are not to try and determine who really is a Christian and who isn’t?
This we find in the request of the servants of the man who owned the field. Upon discovering the weeds among the wheat, they asked the owner if he would like them to tear out the weeds? The owner responds “No, for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest;” (Matthew 13:29-30) The meaning of this is that the elders of the church, represented by the servants, should not try to tear out the weeds which represent hypocrites in the church.
Public Profession of Faith
Why do Reformed churches require members to first make a public profession of their faith?
For two reasons, first because of the Bible’s teaching regarding the duty of Christians to confess their faith publicly; and second, because of the practice of the first Christians.
What does the Bible teach about confessing our faith?
The word “confess” in the Bible often has the meaning of a confession made publicly. Here is a list of all the occurrences of the word “confess” in the writings of John:
- And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” (John 1:20)
- His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone confessed Him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue. (John 9:22)
- Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; (John 12:42)
- If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
- Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also. (1 John 2:23)
- By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. … (15) Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. (1 John 4:2-3, 15)
#1, 2, 3, and 6 are public confessions. #4 is not necessarily public. In context, #5 is probably a public confession. Furthermore, consider Paul’s teaching:
But what does it say? “THE WORD IS NEAR YOU, IN YOUR MOUTH AND IN YOUR HEART”–that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, “WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.” (Romans 10:8-11)
Is the confessing in Romans 10 a public confession?
Note that in these verses, Paul talks about believing with the heart which is certainly a personal, private action but he also mentions confessing with the mouth which is a more public action. From these verses, we conclude that publicly confessing one’s faith is a Christian duty.
When should a person make a public confession of their faith?
Again, we have no explicit Scripture teaching on this question. The book of Acts leads us to believe that a person should confess the Name of Christ publicly as soon as they become a Christian which is consistent with what Paul said in Romans 10 and the verses above from John. In the first Christian communities, people heard the apostolic preaching, were convicted of their sin, believed in Christ, were baptized, and joined the church. In this sequence, their baptism would have been their public profession of faith.
Does not Jesus command His people to confess His Name before men?
Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 10:32-33)
Here, it is clear that Jesus is not referring to any specific time in which we are called to confess His Name. Rather, He is calling us to confess Him on an any occasion where the need for it might arise. We are never to be ashamed of bearing the Name of Christ.
We say “confession of faith” but from the above, it would seem that “profession of faith” is the more accurate term.
Yes, this is true. The English word “profess” has a stronger nuance of doing something openly and in view of others. As stated previously, Reformed churches require members to confess their faith before the entire church. This ritual is called making public profession of faith where the word “profess” is used intentionally.
Duties of Church Members
Once a person has become a member of a church, what duties are expected of them?
The primary duty of a church member is to submit to the instruction and discipling of the church. This means gathering with the other believers for their regular worship services.
Why is this gathering so necessary?
The obligation to gather is inherent in the term “church” itself.
The word for “church” or ecclesia (εκκλησια) was a common term in the Greco-Roman world used to refer to any kind of a gathering.
Is there any place in the Bible where this word is used but it does not refer to a gathering of Christians?
Yes, recall that when Paul was in Ephesus, his ministry provoked a riot because it threatened the trade of the silversmiths. (Acts 19:25) The mob which formed on this occasion was called an ecclesia.
(32) So then, some were shouting one thing and some another, for the assembly [ecclesia or “church”] was in confusion and the majority did not know for what reason they had come together. … (39) “But if you want anything beyond this, it shall be settled in the lawful assembly [ecclesia]. … (41) After saying this he dismissed the assembly [ecclesia]. (Acts 19:32, 39, 41)
Why are these texts important?
Because they show us that the central idea behind the word “church” is a gathering of some kind. In Acts 19:32, the gathering is an unruly mob; in Acts 19:39, the gathering is an organized political body. In both cases, however, the word is used to refer to some kind of gathering. This is likely why the apostles chose to use this word to refer to the followers of Christ (see Robertson (p115) for a long list of words which Christians adapted from Greco-Roman society for their own use). Where as the kingdom of God is something invisible (Luke 17:20), the church is something visible and constitutes a visible gathering of believers.