Monday, January 26, 2009

What God Has Joined Together, Let Not Man Separate

Okay, I'm taking that out of context. But, I think the thought is warranted in discussions of church membership as well. I posted this over at 9Marks where there is a good interview series with Steve Timmis about some of these issues.

But last night I began reading through John Stott's The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor. A dear member of the church gave me an autographed copy after a visit to London and All Souls where Stott served for so many years.

After reading the preface and the first chapter, I'm a little saddened that I've left this book unread for so long. It's vintage Stott--relentlessly clear and biblically centered. In the opening chapter, he spelled out a couple assumptions undergirding the book, assumptions pertinent for recent discussions here on the blog.

Stott writes:

First, I am assuming that we are all committed to the church. We are not only Christian people; we are also church people. We are not only committed to Christ, we are also committed to the body of Christ. At least I hope so. I trust that none of my readers is that grotesque anomaly, an unchurched Christian. The New Testament knows nothing of such a person. For the church lies at the very centre of the eternal purpose of God. It is not a divine afterthought. It is not an accident of history. On the contrary, the church is God's new community. For his purpose, conceived in a past eternity, being worked out in history, and to be perfected in a future eternity, is not just to save isolated individuals and so perpetuate our loneliness, but rather to build his church, that is, to call out of the world a people for his own glory. ... So then, the reason we are committed to the church is that God is so committed.

A little later, Stott meditates on Acts 2:47 and the hints there of the early church's commitment to evangelism. Acts 2:47 reads, "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." One of the truths Stott directs us to is:

The Lord did two things together. He 'added to their number... those who were being saved.' He didn't add them to the church without saving them, and he didn't save them without adding them to the church. Salvation and church membership went together; they still do.

In our day, we unfortunately have broken apart what the early church seemed to view as a natural, necessary, and seamless chain of events: gospel preaching and evangelism, leading to conversion and baptism, leading to church membership and communion. It's difficult to imagine that Paul or Peter or John could conceive of something called a 'Christian' that was not a baptized, communing member of the church. I think Stott is absolute correct when he refers to such creatures as a "grotesque anomaly." Part of what is critical to healthy community in the church is the conceptual and temporal tightening of the events in this chain. The clearer these things are (the gospel, conversion, the practice and meaning of baptism, church membership and the privilege of communion) and the more joined together they are in practice the stronger will be the ties that bind the church. Loosen these and you unravel the church.


Stephen Ley said...

Excellent! I'm adding this to my 2009 reading list. Stott's The Cross of Christ is another must read.

Arthur Sido said...

That idea of "church membership" is where the leap comes in from what the text says to how we operate today. There is no evidence of formal church membership of the kind we see in local churches today anywhere in the NT. When one becomes a Christian, they become part of the church, the Body of Christ. We assemble and fellowship together. But being a "member" of a local church organization? That doesn't appear anywhere in the Bible. It can only be inferred by reading church traditions back into the text.

FellowElder said...


Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I think your comments are too sweeping. At least one could argue in sweeping terms just the opposite: the idea of church membership is all over the Bible.

For my money, I'd have to say that vast tracts of the NT make little to no sense if membership isn't implied in many places and the implications of membership explicitly worked out in others. Even what you describe ("becomes a Christian, they become part of the church, the Body of Christ") is simply a definition of membership. You have to know that someone has "become a Christian" and that their is something distinctive called "the church" for them to belong to. In fact, you're really articulating a view of regenerate church membership, for only the regenerate can be a Christian and only the regenerate can actually be a part of the Body of Christ, so only the regerate can therefore be members of the church.

The reality of membership is simply inescapable. We can only practice it loosely or tightly, poorly or well. But we'll always be giving expression to the reality itself.

Grace and peace,

FellowElder said...

Dear Arthur,

I think you're just re-asserting your first point, which, humbly, I would suggest is an overstatement. There are definitive marks of organized membership to the NT local church.

1. You have defined leaders and followers (Heb. 13:7, 17), with specific qualifications for leadership positions (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). These were to be established in every church.

2. You have counsel and procedures that outline normative responses to members in various cases (1 Cor. 5; Titus 3:10; 2 Cor. 2:6). So there is some standards for resolving membership issues.

3. You have the keeping of an official list of widows from among the membership (1 Tim. 5:9), and the "majority" taken action in cases of removal from membership (2 Cor. 2:6).

We could go on; but you see the point. All of these are markings of an organized local church with an identifiable and mutually accountable membership. These things are practically impossible without membership.

Now there is not chapter and verse for "have a 6-week membership class," but those kinds of mechanics are prudential applications of what the NT makes very clear in broader princpial terms (i.e., shepherd the flock of God under your care; teach sound doctrine; care for each member of the body; etc.).

I hope that's helpful. I really think the concept and some practice implications are far clearer and prevalent than you make them out to be. Praying our love for the Savior is deepened as we discuss these things.

Grace and peace,