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On Membership: How Do We Define “Church?” (Part 2)

A worth-while place to start any conversation that is going to be of some length is to clearly define the terms being used. When describing the church, there are many who use different traits or marks. What I am seeking to do is argue that a church can not be less than two essential things expressed in one phrase: a gathering of members. Let’s start by defining the local church.

DEFINITION OF A LOCAL CHURCH: A local church is a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and his kingdom through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances.

So:

  • A group of Christians
  • A regular gathering
  • A congregation-wide exercise of affirmation and oversight
  • A purpose: to officially represent Christ and his rule on earth
  • A banner: the name of Jesus
  • A particular means: preaching and ordinances (we’ll cover gospel ordinances in a future blog)

Scripture is our highest authority as Christians, and Jesus is the head of the Church; therefore, the primary place for our discipleship is in the framework of a local church! Though the words church and membership never appear side by side in the Bible, the clear thrust of the Bible displays membership of a local church as the result of Christians treasuring the Bible, submitting to Christ as the head of the church, entrusting their discipleship to the local church, and embracing the mission of God (Ephesians 4:11-16, 25-32, Hebrews 13:7, 17; Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2; 1 Corinthians 5; John 14:15; 1 John 2:19; Matthew 5:13; Matthew 28:18-19).

In short, there can be no church if there is no church membership. If Christians are not covenanted together, bound by the higher calling of God in the Great Commission to a local context, in agreement that God means to grow us through other people, then what results is something less than a church. You may have a group of friends that believe the same thing, or you may have a para-church ministry (like CRU or CO or InterVarsity), but you don’t have a church. The Bible tells us Christ died for the church, refers to it as his bride, and is jealous for its holiness. We are not antiquated or regressive by having a high view of the church. We are very much Christ-like.

So, if that’s how we define a church, how should we define church membership?

DEFINITION OF CHURCH MEMBERSHIP: Church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s agreement to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.

  • A church body formally affirms an individual’s profession of faith and baptism as credible.
  • It promises to give responsibility to that individual’s discipleship.
  • The individual formally gives his or her discipleship to the service and care of this body and its leaders.

Church membership, in other words, is all about a church taking specific responsibility for you AND you for a church. It’s incomplete discipleship to disciple people outside of the local church. It’s like building a fire on the floor in the bathroom of your home. Sure, it might work for a while; sure, you may be warm; however, in the long run you will do lasting harm and not see flourishing the same way as if you built and used the fire in the context it was intended. The local church is the fire-place that properly channels the flames of discipleship and protects the disciple from the flames of life.

No doubt there are probably others who define church and church membership differently, but the case laid out here is rooted in Scripture and patterned after a historical understanding of what local churches are and what church membership is. Stay tuned as we continue our series on the church, church membership, and many of the common aspects of the church. Much of what we are covering is birthed out of our series called “Whatever it Takes: a Study on the Book of Acts,” and is also taught in our  membership class called First Street.