There are two questions of great importance concerning the visible church on this earth. The first question is this: Should I join a church? The second question is: What church should I join? Yet, church membership is not a rite of passage or a natural right for every person. There are terms of membership that are given in the Scripture. A person must be a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ to be qualified to unite with a true church and apply for membership as an adult. Not everyone can meet that standard and not everyone should be admitted to church membership, therefore.
There are vows that members must take in order to be members. Those vows typically require acknowledgement that one is a sinner; trust and reception of Jesus as the only hope of salvation for any sinner; a promise to live a life becoming of a Christian; a promise to support the church with one’s time, abilities, and possessions; and, a promise to submit to the government and discipline of the church. Vanguard Presbytery has one additional vow—the vow to receive the Scripture as the infallible and inerrant Word of God in all matters of faith and practice. That vow has always been required of officers in a Presbyterian church, but now Vanguard Presbyterian Church requires that of all members as well.
There are those who are dismissive of church membership because the visible church is an impure body. The Scripture tells us that the church on this earth will always be impure to some degree or another. The wheat and the tares will grow together. The church will be like a dragnet that gathers both good and bad fish. There will be both sheep and goats that compose the organized church. Those are actually arguments for membership in the organized church. The true church is composed only of true believers, but the organized church alone is composed of members that are goats, bad fish, tares, etc.
There are other people who contend that the Scripture simply does not teach a doctrine of church membership. I have heard that argument many times. The flaw in that reasoning is that they expect the Scripture to be written like a book of statutes for a civil government. Then, someone could look up the subject matter in the index and find everything required by the statutes in one place. Instead, the Bible is a book of life. All its doctrines are taught within the context of people’s lives. Thus, we have to compare Scripture with Scripture to answer almost every question that arises. It is no different with the matter of church membership. Yet, I am so thankful that the Scripture is not written like a statute book—it would be so boring if it was. The Scripture feeds the heart and slips in all the doctrines of salvation in the context of doing so.
Let me unequivocally state that the Scripture teaches both membership in the visible church on earth and membership in the invisible church in heaven. Here is what Hebrews 12:22-24 says about membership in the invisible church:
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.”
That passage says that those who come to the heavenly Jerusalem, who are born of God, are “enrolled” in heaven. That means they are on the membership rolls. Their names are found there as belonging to King of Kings and they are members of the church of the firstborn. Then, Revelation 20:15 says about the Lamb’s book of life: “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” The Lamb’s book of life has all the names of those who are true members of the heavenly Jerusalem. The rest are thrown into hell fire. So, there is most certainly membership in the church in heaven.
The question then comes is there membership in the visible church, the organized church on earth? There are weighty reasons to assert that there most certainly is such a membership and here are some of them:
First, the Bible teaches that there is a visible church on earth, which would not be possible without members.The words church or churches are used 109 times in the New Testament. The words synagogue or synagogues, the forerunner of the church, are used 67 times. Christ said, “I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18). Paul wrote letters to various churches. He met with elders from the church at Ephesus. Christ addressed the seven churches in Asia Minor. Ephesians 5:23 says, “Christ also is head of the church.” Sometimes the church was in a house; sometimes it was identified as the church in a particular city; other times the word church is used to describe the whole body of Christ which consists of all the saints on heaven and earth. The church is both visible and invisible. It is both militant and triumphant. Christ is head of the whole church and of each individual congregation. Since there is a church that is a visible body, the real question then is this: Does Scripture teach that a true believer should join the visible church?
Third, Scripture teaches that believers unite with the visible church by profession of their faith and by being baptized in the presence of many witnesses.1 Timothy 6:12 says, “you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” Such a good confession was made by the Ethiopian eunuch when he said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (Acts 8:37). The same good confession was made by those who were saved on the Day of Pentecost when they believed in Christ and were baptized. Thus, the purpose of baptism is to be a public profession of our faith in Christ before the many witnesses who are members of the visible church, the body of Christ on earth. That is why Acts 2:47 says, “And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.” He was adding to the visible church as well as to the invisible church.
Third, the Scripture teaches that people may be put out of the visible church. In Matthew 18:15-18, Christ gave the most fundamental teaching on resolving personal problems. It consists of these steps: go to the person in private to convince him of his sin; if he refuses to repent, take one or two others with you; if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; if he refuses to listen to the church, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). That is, the governing officers of the visible church are to put him out of their visible body and to treat him as a Gentile or tax collector. That disciplinary action has the effect of treating him as though he is not a Christian. The same truth is taught in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul advises the church what to do concerning a member of their body who was guilty of gross immorality. Paul wrote: “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5). He advised the church to do the same and then to no longer even have association with such people (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). In 3 John 10, the beloved disciple John writes against a man troubling the church named Diotrephes. Diotrephes was troubling the church in a different direction. He was putting people out of the church who objected to the false accusations he was making against John. Yet, even that action proves the point of all these verses. There is a visible church of which we can be members and from which our membership can be removed.
Fourth, the Scripture exhorts Christians to be subject to those who lead them. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them. For they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.” This would be an admonition without teeth if obedience to the leaders of the church was optional. That would mean that the leaders have no real spiritual authority over the members of the church. Without members who have united with a visible branch of the church, how will pastors, elders, and deacons be elected and ordained. By what authority will any person assume the office of a pastor if there is no visible church with members? By what authority would those officers ever be entitled to put someone out of the visible church?
Fifth, Christ has given the binding and loosing authority to the elders of the church. Binding means taking in members. Loosing means releasing members. In Matthew 16:19, Jesus said, “I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” In John 20:23, Jesus also said, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” Those passages were spoken to the disciples who were appointed by Christ to establish the church. Every true church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus being the chief cornerstone. Thus, the apostles first had the authority to establish the church and the government of such. We do not believe in apostolic succession, but we do believe in churches organized according to the apostle’s teaching—Cf. Acts 2:42. Here is one of those great principles of apostolic church government: There are elders elected by the church members who govern the church according to Scripture. They receive members and dismiss members of the visible branch of the church over which they rule. If the church members do not elect their leaders in His visible church, then why does Paul in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 give the church the qualifications of elders and deacons? How will they ever be elected without members in the visible church?
So, we believe that it is Scriptural to have church members because pastors, elders, and deacons cannot be self-appointed. We believe church membership is indicated by these facts: believers are to make the good confession before many witnesses; duly elected pastors perform the public baptism of believers in a visible branch of the church; officers have both binding and losing responsibilities in the visible church; the leaders of the visible church are to be obeyed; and, Christ established His church on this earth for the purpose of having members.
Joining a church is like getting married to Christ. Paul wrote: “For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you a pure virgin” (2 Corinthians 11:2). A believer is betrothed to Christ even as men and women become betrothed to one another. In human relations, marriage between a man and a woman is their public declaration that they are fully committed to one another and are forsaking all others until death does them part. The marriage license does not cause a man and a woman to love each other, but it declares it. They loved each other before the marriage was consummated or else they would not have exchanged their vows. Here are two questions that some people ask. First, “we love each other so why do we have to get married to prove it?” Second, “I am already a Christian, so why do I need to join a church?” They are essentially the same question. The questions amount to this: “Why do we need to exchange our vows in order to prove the reality of our love?” Imagine a young man pursuing a young lady and he tells her: “Honey, I love you with all my heart and I want to spend the rest of my days with you, but we do not have to get married to love each other.” If she is wise, she will respond: “If you truly love me, then put a ring on my left hand and exchange vows with me before witnesses.” That is the import of the Scriptural teaching about membership in the visible church. There are certainly exceptional instances which prove the general rule, but laziness is not an acceptable exception. Neither is unwillingness to be accountable to a true branch of the visible church an exception to the general rule. If Jesus did not want you to be a member of His visible church, He would not have gone to so much trouble to establish and to give the rules for it.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL
Please send donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540