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Church Membership -What does Scripture say?
Thoughts on Church Membership and the oneness of the body of Christ
One of the many things that the Holy Spirit seems to be recovering in these, the "last" of the "last days", is the truth of the oneness of Christ’s body, the ekklesia, His church – the incredible reality that all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are one in Him, and one with one another. But as in all things with our Lord, He is not interested in just recovering truth, for truth by itself is not His end. His end is that we would, in practice and life, live and experience this amazing reality of our oneness in Him. Truth not acted upon only produces religious pride, the very opposite of God’s heart for His people. We must not only be hearers of the Word, but with a responsive heart become those who live out the truth that He reveals to us. Almost always, this is costly, for it means laying down our opinions, our habits, and sometimes even our traditions and practices of many years.
And whenever God is bringing back "lost" truth, there seem to be two results: hard opposition from His enemy, and worse, a mental acceptance of the truth without the implementation in our lives and churches of the corresponding demands of the truth.
What is written below is only a feeble attempt by one poor saint to communicate what this reality – the oneness of the body of Christ, which we are – requires of us in our lives and practice. What follows is not meant to be a "use the Bible as a hammer" argument, but the cry of a heart. May the gracious Holy Spirit help the reader where my ability to communicate what I am convinced is God’s burden, so utterly fails.
As far as I can tell, the origin of the very word "membership" is fairly recent in origin, being a word developed from the Bible word, "member". It is said that C. S. Lewis also said this. "Membership" itself – as in a group that is voluntarily joined - is a word or concept is not found in scripture.
In the English dictionary (Webster’s New World Dictionary, College Edition), the primary use and definition of "member" is precisely that which is found in the Bible (Rom. 6:13, 19; 7:5, 23; 12:4; I Corin. 12:12, 14, 18 – 20, 22, 24; Col. 3:5; James 3:6, 4:1), which refer to members of the body: i.e., a unique, but inseparable part of the whole. It is not until the third use of the word in Webster’s that the use of the word as in "membership", or "member" of an organization, is found.
We find the same use of the word in scriptures, applying to three examples of a member. One, is talking about the members of our body. A second use is as in members of a family. And the third use communicates that we just as members of our body are unique, inseparable parts of the body, so we are indeed and actually members of Christ’s body – literally. There is no indication in scripture to support the view of some that this is an analogy: it is a literal reality, just as the church is the actual body of Christ on earth and not just so analogically so. Of course, we cannot understand this fully with the mind, as we know our Lord Jesus is also, at the same time, bodily enthroned at the right hand of the Father. We take it by faith, because the Word so declares it. But we err to conclude that all the scriptures referring to us being members of Christ’s body (e.g., Rom. 12:5; I Corin. 6:15; 12:27; Eph. 3:6, 4:25; 5:30) are only giving an analogy. It is vital to our spiritual understanding and lives that we see this as a reality.
It also seems clear from scripture that believers are members of only one thing: the body of Christ – and that simply as my hand is a member of my body. We are members of nothing else in scripture. But upon establishing this point, immediately another question is raised: what is the "body of Christ" and how many "bodies" of Christ are there?
To answer this, we must first look at the word which is usually translated "church", which is ekklesia in Greek. It is actually quite unfortunate that this word was ever translated church, as this translation has resulted in a wholly incorrect understanding of what God’s ekklesia is. While spiritual believers know the ekklesia is God’s people in Christ, the word still in our minds first and foremost subtley connotates a physical place, a physical building – wholly in contradiction to the truth that God’s ekklesia is a spiritual house.
C. E. Newbold, Jr. points out that "the word ‘church’ was derived from the Old English word cirice which is related to the Norwegian/Scandinavian word kirka; which was derived from the late Greek word kurios which means "ruler", "lord", "master." In the Greek, Kuriake oika means "lord’s house." Thus, the word church came to mean "a building set apart or consecrated for public worship." And we know God only originated one building in all of history – the Hebrew Temple. All other buildings of worship prior to the third century were pagan. And it was Constantine who both built the first "church" buildings and converted all the pagan temples of his day – Parthenon, et al – from pagan temples to "churches". The deep impact of this complete change in the meaning of the word is with us today – proven by the fact that whenever any of us hear the word "church" (when not attached to a denominational name), our very first thought – invariably – is of a building, regardless of how well we know that it is in reality God’s people. Who is responsible for supporting and maintaining the worldly viewpoint that "church" means a building? Sadly, it is we who are Christians.
Why is this an issue in a discussion on "church membership"? For the very reason that our misapplication of the term "member" has at its root a misunderstanding of both the bible words ekklesia and "body of Christ". We hope to establish that our understanding and use of these two terms come not from the Word of God, but from about a millennium of practice and tradition that was unknown to the church in its first two or three hundred years. We have grown up all of our lives with the world’s accepted viewpoints on these terms, and as a result developed a bias of their meaning that has radically affected interpretation of scripture and thus our beliefs and practices.
As we know, the Greek word ekklesia means "called out ones". While the word "church" is a solely religious term, the word ekklesia was a common Greek word of the first century with no religious connotation whatsoever. It is, in fact, used, as it was in those days, in scripture itself for non-religious gatherings (Acts 19: 32,39, 41). [Actually, while we have many religious words in Christianity today, there are none used – that I know of – in the whole of the New Testament].
We will not take the time or space to do a full study of the word ekklesia in the scripture, but we must address the issue because a proper understanding of this word relates directly to our conclusions about the issue of "church membership". Generally, ekklesia (translated church) as used in the Word refers to God’s saints in Christ – from both the whole to only in a very small group: totally (the "universal" church, of all believers), regionally (all the various individual gatherings of saints in a region); locally (all the saints in a city or geographically designated area); or those gathered in an individual home.
Another term is used to refer to the saints in Christ Jesus: the body of Christ. Many scriptures establish is that there is but one body of Christ (Rom. 12:5; I Corin. 12:12; Eph. 4:4, 12, 16; 5:23, 30; Col. 1:24, 2:19)). Many conservative bible scholars are strongly convinced that this is proper exegesis of scripture. While it is common today to refer to a local assembly as "the body", this use of the word is actually quite foreign to scripture, and a misuse of the word – at least according to how scripture uses it. This misuse is a serious matter, for its effect is to create an exclusive mindset amongst saints, subconsciously causing them to draw a line between/around themselves from other believers – to cause a particular gathering of saints to draw a line of distinction between themselves and other believers, even if they are in a same neighborhood. What is wrong with this? It causes partiality to be practiced among saints, separating those within one assembly from those not in the same assembly. This will be addressed in more detail later in this piece.
The viewpoint that every local assembly of believers is, in and of itself, the body of Christ usually is an interpretation of I Corin. 12:27 where Paul tells the saints in Corinth, "you are Christ’s body…" But we must maintain here as always the principle of bible exegesis which we normally insist upon - most simply stated, that you cannot build a doctrine on one verse, or even just two verses. All truths in scripture are repeated many times, in many places. While most students of scripture accept this principle, many also violate it in interpreting this passage as proving that one church constitutes a "body" of Christ. It is true there are a few other verses that could have an interpretation of referring to a local assembly, but this one is apparently the most often used. However, no one can dogmatically prove that this is absolutely and only referring to the saints in Corinth. It could just as easily be interpreted, in alignment with all the other scriptures indicating there is but one body, that the Corinthians were the expression of that one body in Corinth. In this sense, any gathering of saints, truly gathered "by/in His Name", could be referred to as an expression of that body, but never considered that "One Body" that so clearly is emphasized in scripture.
It also must be pointed out that Corinth was a large city, and the "church of God which is in Corinth" was most likely not referring to any particular group of saints, but to all the saints in the city. They may have assembled together in one large meeting, in many small meetings, or most likely, both.
So what is wrong with a definition of the "ekklesia" or "body of Christ" that makes it a unique (as apart from other believers), separate entity? The answer is many things. First, it causes partiality to be practiced among saints, separating those within one assembly from those not in the same assembly, always based upon some difference or preference of beliefs. It could be only a difference in focus, or it could be a difference in peripheral doctrines (church government, ecclesiology, water baptism), or it could be a difference in preferred leadership.
If it is a proper interpretation of scripture that there is only one body, then we cannot use the term member in relation to a local group of believers…..we are ONLY members of Christ, members of Christ’s body, and nothing else according to the Word of God.
If this is true, then to be a "member" of any other delineation of believers as related to the ekklesia of God cannot be considered. This would not apply to specific ministry or work, as such do not take the stand that they are the church. Later in this paper, we will see how being a "member" of any other definition of the body of Christ also contradicts other scriptural principles.
Additionally, nowhere in scripture do we find anyone either voluntarily "joining" (or refusing to join) any group of believers, nor are there any scriptures admonishing any believers to "join" any group of believers, let alone the body of Christ. One is only born into the body of Christ, and if one is not born into it, he/she cannot – by choice – join. Neither can one born into the body of Christ un-join. Only in man-made organizations can one decide by their will whether to join or not join the group. E.g., if a saint lives in Raleigh, N.C., he is in the church in Raleigh, and cannot join or un-join it. However, if he/she is one who meets with the ekklesia in the house of Priscilla and Aquila, he/she can voluntarily decide to not meet with them. This does not change the fact that he/she is still a member of the ekklesia in that locality.
Later in this article we will address the term "local church", its real meaning and its misuse.
Not long after the multiplication of Adam and Eve’s prodigy, it became clear that man’s flesh had two strong drives which were contradictory and which were actually in conflict. One is a strong desire to belong, to not be alone, to be affirmed by others, to be supported by others, and to part of a group. The opposing strong desire is a drive to be independent, unique, apart from the masses and in some way superior to others, and individually important. (Our Lord Jesus was affected by neither. His only reference was His relationship with His Father, which guided, ruled, and directed His relationships with all others).
As a natural means to satisfy these drives, man has long developed unique groups and associations to which he can belong and still be unique and independent. It is in these diverse and disparate groups that man finds satisfaction to his two conflicting drives. He can have importance or position without competing with the masses of the world at large, as well as security, comfort and support.
Initially such groups had little formality, but they did have in common the following traits:
1. Individuals associate based on a commonality of personal preferences;
2. The larger group, or its leaders, would ultimately determine whether any individual was acceptable to them as a whole. Upon seeking to be part of such an association, if the individual was found to meet whatever unique requirements common to that group, and if the group was willing, the individual was welcomed into this smaller community.
3. The group almost always proudly and publicly proclaimed its uniqueness, its "specialness", and often its power and influence in the larger community.
4. The individual had opportunity to further his position within the group, obtaining prominence, position, and or power and influence over others in the group.
At some point in fairly recent history – perhaps the last 500 years – such groups adopted the concept of "membership", which included all of the elements listed above, but added formality, structure, and an "officialness" to the organization. Individuals who solicit "membership" in the association generally have to meet some list of requirements, and often must be voted on by present membership in order to be accepted into the whole.
Membership to any association has many benefits. Special rights, privileges, and opportunities are offered to "members" that are denied non-members. Groups establish rules for rising to positions of power, influence and authority, and that authority is used not only to keep the group true to its unique purpose, but sometimes abused for the personal benefit of those in authority. (Today, there is a group to join for just about every preference, whim, and interest conceivable to man.)
None of these characteristics are spiritual in nature, but they rather are common to fallen man, and meet the many of his needs, drives and desires – quite apart from Christ. And, sadly, these above four characteristics are the very basis for most of what are called "churches" today.
In the last ten or twenty years, more spiritual men have become familiar with the statement "the church is not an organization, but an organism". I am fairly certain that the phrase originated with the one of the ministers of the "brethren" movement in England in the early nineteenth century, but was later made more familiar through the ministries of Oswald Chambers and Watchman Nee in the early 20th century. While it is used fairly commonly today, many who use it, in practice contradict its truth by their continuing to maintain all the attributes and characteristics of a worldly organization.
Perhaps the lists below will help:
|• Members choose to join or not, using personal preferences||• Members have no choice belonging – they are born into their function|
|• Group chooses it members||• Organism has no choice selecting its members|
|• Members choose to separate, or can be separated by choice of whole.||• Members cannot separate themselves from whole nor be rejected by whole (unless a member is sick and is damaging the whole organism)|
|• Chooses its purpose and goals||• Has no choice on its purpose, goals|
|• Members choose function or position, and maneuver to obtain same position or place in whole||• Members have no choice on their function|
|• Special rights, privileges bestowed on members that non-members cannot have||• No special rights or privileges to any, other than those of function|
|• Is inanimate, non-living||• Is alive, possesses an internal life|
|• Driven by self-interests of members||• Is driven and motivated internally|
|• Reproduces by cloning itself; passing on to others interested in establishing another group its rules and regulations.||• Reproduces itself by the process of birth|
|• Doesn't need any internal source of life to continue; external rules and regulations are sufficient to maintain organization as long as some individuals maintain interest. Rarely dies as there are almost always some with sufficient self-interest to justify groups continued existence.||• Without internal LIFE, dies.|
This list could be developed in much greater detail and length, but the above contrasts should clearly show that an organism and an organization have little in common, and much that differentiates them.
What basis do we have to say that the church, the ekklesia, the body of Christ - is an organism, and that it is not an organization? The truth is in the scripture emphasis itself that we are Christ’s body.
Some think that the scripture term, "body of Christ" when it is used in reference to the church, is an analogy. In fact, there is no basis for such an interpretation, for all the scriptures use the term as a spiritual reality and not as an analogy (see "The Body of Christ – A Reality" by Watchman Nee). When New Testament scripture is using an analogy, it clearly states so by using words such as "like", or "as". When it is stating a spiritual truth, it simply uses verbs such as "is." There is not one scripture referring to the body of Christ that can be used to prove an analogy rather than a spiritual truth. A similar one is that the church is the bride of Christ – a spiritual reality and truth, not an analogy. Another is our Lord saying "I am the Vine…" In reality, all earthly vines are the analogies! Scripture does not say we are "like" the body of Christ, it says that we are the body of Christ.
We who believe, here on earth, are literally and actually Christ’s body. We are His arms, His legs, His voice, and His life and His testimony on earth, while He uniquely is our Head. We do not have time or space here to substantiate this, but many well-known, now-with-the-Lord servants of God have had this understanding. The great error of treating the term "body of Christ" as an analogy is that it virtually destroys all the spiritual power in the truth of the fact, and gives us an escape from the many and broad requirements of this truth.
Using the above incomplete and partial list, and looking at the ekklesia in the Bible, one clearly can see that the ekklesia of God meets all the criteria of being an organism, and has none of the traits of being an organization. At least not while it continues to be led by the Holy Spirit. While it is true that every organism has an evidence of being "organized", it is clear that the organization is the result of some source of life rather than an external force that was imposed from the outside. Whenever the traits of the left-hand column are evidenced or addressed in scripture, they are generally and indication of sin, carnality, and flesh coming into the church life and practice.
Which column most accurately identifies the way that most "churches" function today? Perhaps the most essential item on the list for the continued existence of an organization is "membership" – the willful choice by individuals to join the group and the willful agreement of existing members to accept new members into the group. Neither of which are found in scripture. This characteristic is not a spiritual one found in scripture as practiced by the church, but rather a characteristic of every man-made, man-controlled organization.
Man can create and maintain an organization. An organization does not need God, His guidance, or His presence to be created or continue in existence. The church of God is wholly otherwise. It is a miracle that can only be enlivened by the reality and presence of the Holy Spirit.
God’s purpose for the church is that it would be wholly unlike anything in the world, anything that man can do or duplicate – and wholly spiritual with no evidence of being a thing originated by MAN – and all of the evidence proving that it is born of God. Every scripture of the New Testament supports this, from our Lord’s statements about the church (Matt. 16; 18), to the historical book of Acts, to Paul’s letters to the churches, to John’s record of Christ’s letters to the seven churches in Revelation.
The true church of God will only begin to have the fruit that God desires, and scripture requires, when it begins to practice the reality of the oneness of Christ’s body.
Those who believe in "membership" of the local church can offer many important benefits to the practice, and yet can offer few negatives to the lack of same.
It is clear that the lack of having membership has some unpopular results: it diminishes the power and control that leaders have; it eliminates the ability to judge "success" by numbers, either in counting heads or counting dollars; it appears to diminish the ability to raise funds, (but this is in fact not true as God is always faithful to provide true needs and abundance for praying saints a la George Mueller); it sometimes deceives people into thinking they are saved (and deceives their pastors as well);
Here are just a few of the scripture principles that church "membership" contradicts:
A. Just WHO IS and WHO ISN’T in the Lamb’s Book of Life?
1. No pastor and no group of believers knows who truly is saved and who is not. Only God knows – and as someone once humorously said, "and He ain’t tellin’ ! " While we can judge someone’s life, in actuality it takes years to see "what’s beneath the covers", and sometimes even then we do not know. Only God does.
So, when we take "members" into a group, it is inevitable that eventually, usually sooner rather than later (any group over 10? 20?), that group will take in someone who is not truly saved….one who is not truly "in Christ", and thus not truly "in the church".
At this moment of taking in the first unbeliever, we have done two things: we have established a group with our understanding and perception (and thus new definition) of who is in the church and who isn’t, and we have a definition of church contrary to that of scripture. We have a group that includes both believer and unbeliever. The only difference between different groups that have church "membership" is that some have very few unsaved, and some are almost all unsaved! But each, in choosing to determine itself, as a group, who is saved, inevitably ends up with a group different from God’s ekklesia. And the larger the ‘church’ which defines its "membership", the more certain it is that we have made the unsaved "members", and the more of them there are.
Perhaps the worst part of this practice is that it leaves some unsaved people with the conviction (deception) that they are saved – just because they are church members.
The practice of "moving one’s membership ‘by letter’ " is probably the worst source of this error, and is found nowhere in scripture. It allows groups with membership to ignorantly take into their midst those who are not saved, who are not in God’s church.
2. A subset of this error – of our deciding who is saved – is that we now, as a group, have joined ourselves with unbelievers – a practice which is clearly forbidden by the Word. (II Corin. 6:14)
Our church, if it have any size to it, will invariably include some unsaved, with which we have joined ourselves. By our having membership, we have created a circle or delineation that must include what God excludes. Thus, a truly scriptural church cannot allow itself to do this, and leaves the "members" in God’s hands, knowing He alone knows who is and who isn’t His – II Tim. 2:19.
3. A lesser problem, but very real and actual, is that unbelievers have some input and say in a churches decisions. This can be from minimal, to disastrous, as where a church has a large number of members, of which 80 to 90% are "inactive". Then, when a major decision is to be made, the inactive members appear out of the realm of the unknown to take control of a major decision by vote. (Voting by "membership" is another wholly unscriptural practice for decision-making that causes its own set of errors, but that is not the purpose of this paper).
The following graphic should display how today’s divisions of God’s ekklesia both divide believers, and include those who are not in God’s ekklesia, and how the lines drawn by man so radically differ from the one drawn by God, and which is known only by Him:
B. We divide God’s people
The first chapter of I Corinthians must be taken seriously. After his salutation, Paul dives right into his number one concern regarding these saints (who had many evidences of their carnality): "Now I plead with you, brethren, BY THE NAME OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, that you all speak the same thing and that there BE NO DIVISIONS AMONG YOU, but rather that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment." Only when Paul is making the strongest of appeals, the strongest of his statements, does he use, "by the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
1. While it appears that the saints in Corinth were dividing based upon their preference for leaders, it is unknown whether they were drawn astray by different strong personalities, the styles of the ministries, or, the difference in what these men taught. It was probably a combination of all three, with different criteria influencing different people. It is significant that there were some who insisted, "I am of Christ"; i.e., I am pure, I am unaffected, I am not getting into this because I am standing for Christ Himself". The problem was they had the same sectarian spirit as the others: they drew a line between themselves and the other saints.
There are two kinds of division. One is good, and is of God. One is bad, is from the flesh and the enemy.
The division which is from God divides flesh and spirit: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" Jn. 3:6; "For the Word of God is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit….", it is the cross working in our life to help bring death to self and life to God and others. In Ezekiel 44:23, it speaks of how the priest of God shall "teach the difference between the holy and profane, to cause God’s people to discern between the unclean and the clean." This division continues throughout the life of the believer to separate his natural life from its control over his/her life that the Holy Spirit may rather control the life. The same separation should continue to work in us corporately. This is the process of maturing.
Then there is the division that is the nature of the flesh, the fruit of the flesh. It originates in pride and the desire to elevate self. Whenever we consciously delineate ourselves relating to the church from other believers, we are saying to others, sometimes subtly, sometimes loudly, "the Lord is with us (more than with you); we have the true vision; we see, but you don’t; God is using us more than He is using you. We compare ourselves with others – other churches.
Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of church "membership" as it is practiced today is that it divides believers who live even in the same neighborhood. It is quite typical today that even if the square block of a city contains four or five families of believers, they rarely know each other, or even more rarely have serious fellowship with one another. The four or five may even drive 15 or 20 minutes away from where they live to "fellowship" with believers of like viewpoint or persuasion, or because they like a certain preacher, or a style of worship. Our practice of church membership creates an artificial community based upon our preferred (man-made, man-determined)criteria, including some believers and excluding others – a wholly unscriptural action. How foreign this is to the early church where they met "house to house", and where the only criteria for fellowship was being "in Christ"?
The evidence of scripture is that saints moved from group to group, "house to house", city to city, as the Lord led them, and they were received and treated just the same as in the city from whence they came – solely because they were "in Christ." Is it being idealistic to suggest that this should exist today? Hardly - it is only holding to a scripture standard. Membership in a group delineated in any way smaller than "in Christ" indeed separates believers who should otherwise be in real and practical fellowship with one another.
It allows us to limit the application of the requirements regarding our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ – love, submission, forbearance, patience, etc. – only to a limited group of believers of our own choice and selection – while disregarding these requirements to the rest of Christ’s body with whom we do not meet, but perhaps live next door to, or work with every day.
Perhaps here is a good place to address the use of the term, "local church." What is a "local church"? We must ask this question, as the term is so commonly used today – especially as it is related to the emphasis that we must become a member of "a local church".
First of all, the term itself is not found anywhere in scripture. But we do find the concept in scripture - "local" gatherings of God’s people. We must then ask, what are these local gatherings? They are profoundly simple: just believers who gather because they are in proximity to one another, and for no other reason. That makes sense. We should be in fellowship with, love, and lay our lives down for believers with whom we have proximity. But is this what is meant today when "local church" is used?
No. Today, what is meant when the term is used is a gathering of believers who choose solely by their own will and preference(s) to gather with a select group of believers who believe like they do, or they like - which invariably EXCLUDES other believers in the same local area who have different beliefs or practices. In other words, the delineation of the group is 1. determined not by God, but by man’s choice; 2. the delineation is based upon a preference of the individual that includes some of God’s people, but excludes others; 3. the criteria for the delineation is not God’s criteria, nor recognized by the Lord or scripture; and 4. the criteria of delineation (Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Charismatic, etc.) is earthly and not eternal. (We will not even pursue how this practice allows a believer to choose to leave one gathering of his/her chosen sect because he/she doesn’t get along with those in their "local" church, so they leave to become members at a different location of the same sect perhaps in the neighborhood a few miles away…e.g., they leave First Baptist and then go to Second Baptist.)
Scripture is very clear - "the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you." And yet this is exactly what we do when we choose to meet with saints on any other criteria than that of local proximity. We say to the believers next door to us – if they be not of our doctrinal or practice preferences, "We don’t need you." In the ekklesia of God, we have no choice on which members to have fellowship with, and choosing some to not have fellowship with, any more than my hand can choose to not fellowship with the wrist to which it is connected.
This means that when any group of believers to gather on any other basis other than being in Christ, and in proximity to one another – and then to refer to themselves as a "local church", it is at best a contradiction, at worst a deception, and certainly not a reality. And the whole concept of a group based upon preferences being God’s idea of a local church is foreign to and contrary to scripture and the oneness of all believers.
Now some may reply, "But you are being unrealistic! Things have been this way for hundreds of years, and you cannot change it!" No, we are refuse to accept any practice – or use of a term – that contradicts the Word of God. Can we be honest with ourselves and ask, what if we applied this rule of practice – acceptance of the status quo – to all the other areas where God is calling the church to repent and return to His ways? We could never call God’s people to change in any area if this attitude is acceptable.
Rather, here – as in all other areas - we must accept the Word of God alone as our standard, and continually ask our Lord to use it to convict us and conform us to its standards and requirements.
Looking back at our list delineating the differences between an organization and an organism, we must admit that most of the descriptions of organization apply to what many call "the local church" in its function and practice.
What about "churches" that meet just "as Christians"? Does this solve all these problems? Unfortunately, no. Just because we are not outwardly in a sect does not prevent us from having a sectarian spirit – the real source of almost all division among God’s people (not "doctrine" as most proclaim). Many groups who steadfastly proclaim their gathering "just as Christians", or "only in Jesus Name" have, either at inception or later in time an attitude that "we are right and all Christians in denominations are wrong."
But the attitude reflected is one of pride and superiority, not unlike those in I Corinthians 1:12 who said, right alongside those aligning with Paul, Apollos, or Cephas, "I am of Christ. They felt they were on the right ground, but their attitude was every bit as sectarian as the others.
In actuality, having a sectarian spirit is far worse than being in a sect, for it is possible to be in a sect, but not have a sectarian spirit; but having a sectarian spirit always separates us from other believers. If our "christian" practice in actuality hinders our fellowship with other saints in our own neighborhood, should we not question the practice?
2. How important is the issue of the oneness of Christ’s body? Again, there is not time or space to fully address this most serious of issues. Suffice it to say that it is a major emphasis of the New Testament, and our Lord Jesus Himself. It also seems to be a focus of the Holy Spirit’s move in God’s people today. Our only recorded prayer of any length of our Lord Jesus had this matter as a major focus in His last major prayer with His disciples before the cross. It is throughout both Paul’s and John’s writings. As Guy Holloway so well pointed out in a ministry, after laying the groundwork of all that God has done in Christ Jesus for the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul pivots his "therefore" in Ch. 4 with this first and central thought: walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called . . . . being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit. How? "with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love." (It would be wholly worthy of serious study that in many scriptures as this one, the first and most important means to preserving our unity is through humility – probably the most rare of Christian virtues.)
It is important here to note that in Ephesians 4, there are two different unities discussed, and it is one of the great errors of believers today to first not understand these two unities" and second to violate the instructions given regarding these two unities.
The first mentioned is "the unity of the Spirit". What is this? It is the unity that God has accomplished by placing all believers in Christ, and Christ in all believers. We have nothing to do with establishing this unity, because it already exists and is something that God has done in Christ Jesus. What is the command regarding this unity? That we "preserve" it. We fight for it, we stand on it, we act on it, we live by the reality of it in everything we say and do. We cannot create it, because it already is a fact, created by God in Christ Jesus - but we can destroy it’s effect (I would propose we cannot actually destroy it because it is of God.) by our divisive attitudes, behavior and practices. It is by standing on this fact by faith (as we stand by faith on all other Bible facts) and practice that our practical unity is worked out, and only by doing so. We err if we pray for it, ask for it, or try to work toward it - because in doing so, we deny that it is a fact and reality.
On the other hand, there is a unity that we work toward, strive for, and seek to attain. It is the second unity mentioned in vs. 13, "the unity of the faith." What is this? It is the unity that is the result of the unity of the spirit, and is the outward unity of belief which we have not yet attained, but toward which we work, which is our goal. It is that unity where we all see things the same, we believe the same things, where we lay down all of our personal viewpoints, beliefs, teachings and doctrines which are not God’s. None of us sees perfectly, understands perfectly, or has perfect teaching and doctrine: we are all OFF somewhere. But as we grow in Christ, and "preserve the unity of the Spirit", we will learn from our Head (first) and each other (second – the order is important) and eventually reach that day – when we see His face – where we "attain the unity of the faith"……then, and only then, will we all agree……not because we agree with each other, but because we agree with Him! This unity we do not have now, but we will be working towards if we are practicing Eph. 4:1-12.
Now, the great error of Christians, especially leaders, is that they have switched these unities in the commands that are attached to each: we try to preserve the unity of the faith (which does not yet exist, thereby making our efforts to preserve it futile), and we try to attain (work toward) the unity of the Spirit (ecumenical works) – which already exists! We have had it totally backwards! And that is why our efforts are fruitless and in vain. We cannot create in our efforts what God has already created, and we cannot preserve that which we do not yet possess – the unity of the faith. Every denomination and sect of Christianity is a result of an attempt to "preserve" the unity of the faith (a mis-application of I Tim. 6:12), i.e., insistence on standing for our doctrine, our practices, our beliefs, and such, which in actuality separate us from those who believe differently because in doing so, we are violating the command to "preserve the unity of the Spirit". When we place more importance on "the unity of the faith" than "the unity of the Spirit" we thus contradict the command of scripture.
But, if we adhere to Eph. 4:3, we must, in all of our attitudes, beliefs, actions and practices, fight to preserve what exists in Christ – the oneness of all believers. This is why any practices which artificially divide believers that live in a smaller (neighborhoods) or larger geographical area (cities) - such as membership - are so serious.
Paul continues this emphasis in Philippians 2:2 – 8, only with the revelation that the key to our oneness is based upon the very character of our Lord Jesus, His utter humility, and His willingness to lay down His own life – the very same issues regarding our being one in practice today.
Further emphasizing the seriousness of our oneness, there is only one basis for separating oneself from other groups of believers: we must separate ourselves from those groups who are causing division in the body (Rom. 16:17, 18). And almost every warning in scripture against "heresy" is really a warning about division and personal preferences (Vines says of the word "heresy" [gr: hairesis], "a choosing, choice; …that which is chosen….and lead to division and the formation of sects……such opinions are frequently the outcome of personal preference…"!)
Why is this so important to the Lord? There are at least two reasons. The first must be that just as if my right arm is severed from my body, the result is great real and physical pain, and a tremendous loss of the ability for me to function as intended. I sincerely believe, with all of my being, that when saints are separated in any unnatural way, it causes our Head, the Lord Jesus, great and real pain. Is it not a contradiction to claim that we want all the members of our own little gathering to function in their gifting and calling, and at the same time we refuse the giftings and callings of those saints all around us with whom we do not gather?
Secondly, when believers are divided, we invalidate the very testimony of the church to the world of Who God is, and Who Jesus Christ is. We preach the gospel, but for the most part, the world does not hear - for our divisions, our divisiveness, our many sects scream much more loudly that we are no different than any other group of religious people or any other religion. We by our practice in effect cancel John 13:35, which does not refer to our loving only those in the "church" where we are "members", but our loving all of the Lord’s people within our proximity – with whom we have natural and normal contact in our daily life - equally. How important is this to the Lord Jesus? So important that it was one of the main focuses of His High-Priestly prayer just before He went to the cross: "that they may all be one…..that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me." John 17:21, and again in vs. 23, "that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them."
Now, we should always note that when the Lord says anything twice, it is extremely important, and here our Lord Jesus prays it twice in His only recorded lengthy prayer, just prior to His laying down His life.
How can it be correct to apply all of the scriptures relating to our oneness primarily to our little (or large) local assembly? Yes, the oneness and unity within any gathering of believers is important: it must begin first with my Christian neighbor next door, then my development/neighborhood, then locally, and then in my city. However, to make our focus on unity apply to our little group more than that of the whole of the people of God does two things: it furthers the development of a mindset that "we" are separate from our brethren that do not meet with us, and it hinders our practicing our oneness with saints outside of our little (or large) company of believers. If we, in practice, only show love to other "members" of "our church", are we not wholly guilty of our Lords condemnation found in Matt. 5:46, "if you only love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax gatherers do the same?"
We are not talking about ecumenism, which embraces every perversion of true Christianity so as to include even unbelievers – which has different sects/denominations come together every once-in-a- while, approvingly pat each other on the back saying "I love you.", and then each returning to his own separate ways. We are talking about standing – in both faith and practice – on the fact that we are one with all of God’s people, and in practice embracing every saint equally with whom our lives come in contact. It means basing our fellowship not on our choice of a leader or leaders, or our choice of doctrines, or our choice of style of worship, or any of the many things that separate God’s people. It means letting the Lord build us together with saints in our neighborhood as much as with those we drive miles to meet with on Sundays.
The common terms, "my church", "your church", "my pastor", etc. are wholly foreign – even unknown – to the scriptures, for there is no such delineation or division of God’s people. The terms show a mindset, an attitude that is not only foreign to scripture, but to the very character of Christ. The churches are God’s, Christ’s, but never "ours". Such terms indicate that we have a mindset of separating God’s people that God does not have, and which in actuality separates us in either a minor or major way, depending on our personal character in Christ. The terms say there is a "we", and a "they" to God’s people, while in reality there is only a "we" – a "we" which includes all.
For some of us, this means that in practicality, we can name no other name but the name of the Lord Jesus Christ – not in superiority, or a sectarian attitude as in the last group listed in I Corin. 1:12 – but in humility and brokenness, weeping over the many things that separate us from our brethren. It means that we must practice the life of fellowship with all the believers in our proximity and not limit our fellowship to a group delineated by any other means.
There may be two moves going on amongst God’s people today. One, consists of many different emphases, many dynamic leaders, many experiences, all with one thing in common: they further divide God’s people.
A second is one that brings God’s people to a place of brokenness, humility, and repentance for all our past attitudes and actions that have separated us from the rest of God’s household; where saints wholly embrace one another in love, refusing to see (just as I believe Christ does not see) outward lines of delineation between believers, standing in belief and practice on the reality of the oneness of the body of Christ, "until we all attain to the unity of the faith (i.e., what we believe), and of the knowledge of the Son of God.." Eph. 4:13.
3. Membership offers a form of unity other than that given in scripture, thus further dividing God’s church. The unity of membership allows each little group to follow its own chosen leader, or the unique purpose and mission of that particular "church" (i.e., that of the leader or leaders), which disassociates, alienates, and disconnects that group from God’s church which is invariably a larger group. Now many of the chosen "purposes" or "mission statements" of churches are very scriptural ones. However, when a "church" gathers for a unique purpose, it has made its purpose a foundation rather than areas of fruitfulness based on the only foundation which God lays: Jesus Christ (I Corin. 3:11). I would propose that the period (admittedly not in the Greek) following the words "Jesus Christ" in this verse is one of the biggest periods in the Bible.
We would always add to God’s foundation something. Thus, we have "God’s Foundation - Plus. . (what we think is most important)" We add something to His foundation which He has not added, thus we have made a foundation other than the one He has laid. Oh, the "Plus" is almost always scriptural: Baptism, Evangelism, Being Filled with the Holy Spirit, being Holy, importance of gifts, the form of church government, etc.
Thus, we lead God’s people to a false unity, for it is not God’s unity of the whole body of Christ. It is the unity of our small group – or if we are a mega-church, our large group. Whatever, it is something other than the body of Christ. We exclude those who do not share our vision, our understanding of what is important. Oh, we allow others their emphases – just as long as they keep theirs to themselves, and we keep ours to ourselves. How is this not just another form of ecumenism? It is not in reality practicing the oneness of the body of Christ.
4. "Membership" also divides God’s people by creating first and second-class citizens. Those who are "members" have rights (e.g., voting) and privileges (e.g., ministry, leadership) that non-members do not have. Thus some saints are preferred (given preference) over other saints not based on spiritual matters such as gifting, maturity, personal walk with the Lord, or fruitfulness, but based upon a criteria not found in scripture. Partiality, of any form, is forbidden among believers in all forms in the scripture (Jas. 2, esp. 2:9).
Nowhere in scripture is there the added requirement of "membership" to function in any gifting or ministry in the body of Christ. The only requirements are an evidence of 1. salvation, 2. spiritual character, and 3. gifting. By adding to those requirements our preference of "membership", we have added something in practice which is not in the Word of God, and which contradicts another major biblical principle.
There are usually several points made as a basis for the need for "membership" in the local assembly. Some of them are:
A. We need to commit somewhere; membership helps us in the practical working out of our commitment to one another and is necessary for that reason.
First of all, it must be pointed out that the whole concept of a "call to commitment" – even to the Lord Jesus - is foreign to scripture. Oswald Chambers said, "The phrase we hear so often, ‘Decide for Christ’, is an emphasis on something our Lord never trusted. He never asks us to decide [or "commit" – rah] for Him, but to yield to Him – a very different thing." The flesh can decide, and thus think that by deciding, it aligns with God. But this only occurs as a result of yielding, not deciding – or committing. Commitment is a work the flesh can do. Yielding is a work of the Spirit. And it must be moment by moment.
A call to commitment is actually an appeal to man’s flesh, which satisfies its desire to be acceptable to God – and His people. And the flesh always fails….it can do nothing, it "profits nothing."
Furthermore, one could also well argue that no where in scripture is there such a call for any commitment to any defined group of believers, or to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our yielding, and its resulting commitment is to the Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, our yielding to Christ will be worked out in our relationships with our brothers and sisters (humility, gentleness, patience, love, submission to, etc.), and there are sufficient scriptures to focus on the resultant fruit of yielding to Christ to the way we relate to one another without any (fleshly) call for commitment.
The analogy of the marriage ceremony and its public commitment is used, but applying this to our commitment to the ekklesia is foreign to scripture, for every scripture clearly reveals that the love and commitment of marriage is uniquely and only illustrative of our commitment to and relationship with the Lord Jesus Himself. For members of the body of Christ to commit to the body is for the bride to commit to herself rather than to her Head and Master! And if so, it can carry with it the aspects and results of self-commitment (narcissism?) – especially when it is exclusively limited to a defined group of God’s people.
My hand is not committed to the other members of my body, it is committed to the whole alone; the whole in the church is our Head, the Lord Jesus. While the hand has unique proximity to my wrist and forearm, they receive no special treatment from the hand (in fact, less as the hand cannot assist them directly; i.e., the close proximity itself actually limits direct help). Yes, our commitment to the Lord will be worked out practically with some saints more than others, but it will not preclude or hinder our being built together with others outside of our particular gathering(s).
What is the fruit of "commitment" to any particular group? One could well show that public commitment to a group appeals to and satisfies the religious flesh, without in any way effecting the actual working out of the many "one anothers" of scripture. In fact, one can be fully committed to meetings, services, serving, church activities, and more without in any way requiring the humility, preferring of one another, loving one another, etc. that scriptures emphasize.
Furthermore, there is a pattern that is proven by history. In time, an emphasis on being committed uniquely to a particular group eventually results in first a separatist mentality, and then over more time, an exclusiveness and inwardness, and the eventual result is often a sect - or even worse, a cult.
The scripture is full of "one another’s" (someone said 54?), and gives us ample encouragement and clarity on how we are to relate to one another in the body of Christ, and no where is there found any call for one to commit to a particular gathering or group of saints. A whole different matter is that to commit to a particular gathering invariably prevents us from being built together with saints that may live in our very same neighborhood.
A group of saints that first focuses on preaching "Christ Jesus and Him crucified," knowing Him and walking with Him, the unfathomable depths of what Christ did on the cross, the life of sacrifice and denial of self (the cross), the love of the brethren (as lived out in all of the "one another’s" of the New Testament, and the oneness of the body of Christ - will see all of the fruit described in the scriptures, desired by God, and spiritual leaders. And it can be done completely without the first mention of "membership", "joining", or "commitment to" a particular church. If our emphasis on membership ever precludes a focus on these central matters which scripture does command us, we probably fall under the condemnation of our Lord found in Mark 7:8 where he said, "Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men."
It may be outside of one’s individual history, knowledge or experience, but history itself has proven that hundreds if not thousands of gatherings of the Lord’s people have seen the fruit of the glory of God in the church – all without any mention or use of membership whatsoever.
B. Without membership, pastors do not know who are their sheep, and sheep do not know who are their pastors/leaders and to whom they should submit.
This is a problem of natural, or human leadership, but not of truly godly, spiritual leadership. The book of Acts proves this of itself, as do the many letters to the churches in the New Testament. Nowhere in any letters to a church in a city (Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, etc.) is there an example where the saints are told to, in any special way, submit to the exclusively and specificly local elders or leaders. The only "leaders" defined in scripture are the leaders (elders, overseers) in a city. No where is a single "pastor" seen as heading a church, of having "his own" church, or of being the only type of leader in a church. Governing and shepherding responsibilities are clearly given to elders (Acts 20:17, 28; I Peter 5:1 – 4; etc.), not a single "pastor". (No where in scripture is a single pastor prominent in leadership – no where is the word "pastor"- singular - ever used except in reference to the Lord Jesus. Acts 13:1 interestingly omits pastors while telling us that the church in Antioch definitely had "prophets and teachers." Titus was to appoint elders in every church, not pastors. The argument that James was "THE pastor" (singular) of the church in Jerusalem is at best, tenuous, without the evidence in and support of scripture that evangelicals and fundamentalists so stringently require for most of their other doctrines and teachings. But this is a whole different subject worthy of being addressed by itself)
While there are indeed under-shepherds in God’s house, none have their own sheep – all the sheep are the Lord’s, and His prime responsibility. Under-shepherds in scripture never have their "own" sheep, or any sheep assigned specifically to them. Rather they are to represent the Chief Shepherds heart, interest and care to all the sheep with which they have contact.
The commands in scripture do say that we are to be in submission to godly, mature, men being used of the Lord. They never refer to a local leadership in the sense of a small congregation separate from all the believers in a city. I Corin. 16:16 says nothing of local leaders, but is speaking of Timothy (16:10) and Apollos (16:12), who were traveling ministers of the Lord (most likely considered as apostles [see note at bottom next page] with no local responsibility. Hebrews 13:17 is not written to any particular church, but to saints all over, and the Hebrew saints in particular (who were slipping back into Judaism and an emphasis on Hebrew doctrine and practice).
The main reason that any emphasis on submitting to particular local men is a "vanity of vanities" and neither needed in practice nor emphasized in scripture is this: only spiritual men and women will be submissive; only the spiritual saint will first discern spiritual authority (who has it), and only the spiritual will be in submission to spiritual authority. The spiritual saints neither need to be told to submit, nor to whom they should submit: they alone recognize spiritual authority, they alone have submissive hearts, and they alone submit to such leadership. .
On the other hand, all the outward declaration of authority (position, which is never equated with spiritual authority in the scripture - Acts 23:5 applied to Jews only as God established the position of high priest for Israel, and all that was outward and physical in the Law; he has no relationship to the church) in actuality only brings an outward form of submission in the hearts and lives of those who are not first in submission to the Lord, those who are not spiritual. It also allows them to become self-righteous, being deceived to thinking that their outward submission is real and acceptable to the Lord regardless of the inward condition of their hearts.
Both the I Corin. 16 and Hebrews 13 passages are extremely small comments at the tail of the lengthy addressing of other major issues, almost in an, "oh, by the way…." mentality. No where are these issues a focus. If church leaders put all talk of submission and obedience in the same perspective of the New Testament, it would rarely be mentioned, and when it was, it would be in the same, "oh, by the way…." style. And in neither passage is it stated or assumed that those to whom the saints are to submit are limited to their local assembly.
It must also be noticed that no where does Paul emphasize that anyone submit to him; he appeals, he states his call and authority from the Lord; but he never insists. When he does say, "submit", it is to others, not himself. Just as no husband should ever tell his wife to submit, no church leader should ever tell the saints to submit to his leadership. The husband must only concern himself with loving his wife as Christ loved the church; the church leader must only concern himself with faithfully representing the Lord’s heart in all that he says and does, and not with the submission of others to his ministry, or the lack thereof. (Our Lord Jesus is the best example of this, who never made an issue of whether or not He was followed – He made His claim on each life, and let each one choose whether to follow that claim. He never insisted or pursued, regardless of how much He loved – e.g., the rich young ruler.
Our Lord Jesus stated, "My sheep hear My voice.", and this is today – as always - the reality where one finds godly, spiritual men leading His people…..those who know Him will be drawn to hear Christ and not the man.
At the same time, many naďve or self-seeking saints will always be drawn astray by the voices of men who are hirelings, who draw men after themselves (Acts 20:29, 30). Neither membership nor calls to church commitment will change this.
(Note from previous page: For the last century or so, it has become an accepted view that Timothy was a pastor, and that I Tim. and II Tim. are "pastoral" letters. This is not supportable in scripture, for a pastor’s call is a local call to a local assembly. Timothy traveled with Paul and was apprenticed by Paul as an apostle. A pastor does not have authority over churches in multiple cities, while Timothy clearly did have this authority. I Corin. 16:16 refers to vs. 10 and Timothy. Paul calls Timothy a "fellow worker" which means he was in the same work as Paul. He used the same term about Titus, who he told to appoint elders in every city. It appears that Timothy also appointed elders. Only an apostle appointed elders, never a pastor. Paul listed the requirements for appointing elders to Titus; it is logical to assume that Paul listed the same requirements for Timothy for the same reason. Paul sent Timothy to Philippi and Ephesus to minister on his behalf – not as a pastor, but as an apostle; for a pastor’s ministry is local, an apostle’s is to multiple churches. Paul’s letters to Timothy are pastoral in the sense that Paul pastored Timothy for his whole life soon after Timothy’s salvation. But most of all in these letters he is "passing on the charge" to Timothy as he knows his departure is soon. Paul is putting the churches he so loved in the hands of the only man that he could trust.)
There is much abuse today in the church in this area of authority and submission. "Membership" is usually the tool for those wishing to abuse authority to claim their privilege over others. Tragically, this is most often not drawing the saints to a closer relationship with the Lord, but rather having the effect of either driving them away from Him, or causing them to replace His Headship with the headship of men.
It also seems to be an almost universal truth that when leaders begin to emphasize authority and submission, it corresponds with a spiritual decline in their own lives and ministries, thus being the gasps of the flesh striving to maintain an outward evidence of what has ceased to exist in the inward and invisible.
It rather seems that the greater focus of scripture is for believers to be in submission to one another, thus recognizing Christ’s authority which exists to some degree in every saint who is walking in the Spirit.
C. Without membership, the church cannot raise the funds it needs to fulfill its ministry.
A most simple response to this argument would be any good biography of George Mueller. History is full of testimonies of churches that had no membership, but rather were a praying people, living sacrificial lives daily, who saw God meet every need "above and beyond" as they sought Him faithfully. It may be outside of one’s knowledge and experience, but even today, countless churches around this country and the world have the rich experience of seeing God’s rich provision not only without the benefit of church membership, but without any outward fundraising efforts whatsoever.
It could be that the only benefit of membership is that it allows a church to raise significant funds even if the "need" is contrary to God’s will by imposing upon the "members" their unique responsibility to rise to the specific occasion.
Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians in II Corin. 8 and 9 is greatly misinterpreted, misused and abused. First of all, the need was not for themselves or their own "ministry", but for other saints in another area, possibly the church in Jerusalem. This was not a "regular" collection, but a unique need and situation. Secondly, they had volunteered to take up a collection a year previous, were apparently the first to come up with the idea, and had failed to follow through. Paul’s motivation for addressing the issue was that they had failed to fulfill a previous commitment, that was probably their own idea (how like them we are).
Paul’s methodology was not to club them (while he did club the Galatians), but to point out, 1.) other churches had already generously given, though much poorer than Corinth (i.e., make them jealous, challenge them by example); they had failed to fulfill a previous commitment (shame, shame); he would not command them, but appeal to them in love and emphasize the life and example of their Lord, "though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor".
C. S. Lewis pointed out that religion easily becomes a device to exploit others. Perhaps this is more the case than in the area of the church’s need for funds than any other area. To avoid this, II Corin. 8 and 9 are a case-study in how leadership should appeal to the church when there is a need. Missing from this picture in II Corin. is any case for church membership, or the basis for one.
D. We need membership to judge and evaluate the value, fruitfulness, and success of our ministry
Granted, few church pastors or leaders would verbalize this, knowing that judging by numbers is not only a carnal means of counting success, but also a possibly a sin (David’s counting the people of Israel). Zech. 4:10 points out that we should not despise small things, which is a fleshly trait.
It is also true that while we should always examine ourselves before the Lord, we can never judge the success or value of any ministry….only God sees His real purpose in His works. Sometimes He wills that they be small and inconspicuous. Real value is measured not in numbers, but in spiritual fruit: love, joy, peace, humility, patience, forbearance, gentleness – and lives laid down for God’s glory.
The histories of both Israel and Christianity have proven that when the church and/or its leadership begin to focus on external, outward metrics, it is a clear sign of spiritual declension – the flesh attempting to recapture by natural means fruit that only the Holy Spirit can produce.
Shouldn’t we rather emphasize that which produces life in God’s people, focusing primarily on preaching Christ Jesus and Him crucified, the totality of His amazing work on the cross (which so few believers begin to comprehend), loving God and laying down our lives for one another?
Hopefully, the preceding review of scripture and scripture principles provides any believer with substantial evidence that the concept of "church membership" is not only not supported by scripture, but that the concept violates many major principles from the Word of God and is indeed a serious matter.
While the vast majority of churches and their leaders emphasize "church membership", most do it naively, never having weighed or been confronted with the guidelines of the Word of God in this area. The practice has been the only way known to many, and has never been seriously questioned.
At the same time, literally tens of thousands of saints, their leaders, and churches (admittedly, most outside of denominational circles) - both now living and now with the Lord have seen and followed the scripture principles we have listed in this area. There is evidence that there may even be a move of the Spirit of God moving many churches to abandon the practice of church membership, trusting the Lord to see the spiritual fruit from standing for their oneness with all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. These who do are seeing not only fruit from doing so, but also seeing the Lord Jesus glorified in His people who live holy, sacrificial lives before Him, one another, and the world without participating in the world’s ways and practice of membership.
Finally, it must be pointed out that if one were to list the major emphases of scripture where believers are deficient in their walk and relationship with the Lord and their knowledge of the Lord - and where churches are deficient in their service and ministry - one would clearly find more than enough areas which desperately need to be addressed long before even touching things that are not even found in the Word of God – such as church membership.
Can we trust the Lord that if we lift up our Lord Jesus, and all that He is and has done in His work on the cross, and teach only that which the Word is clear about, that saints will come to know and experience Him, and as a result they will then live the life of service and commitment that we so long to see?
May we return to the simplicity of Christ (II Corin. 11:2), where knowing Him, walking with Him in faith and obedience, and loving one another and the lost are not only our focus, but the very fruit of our lives and churches.
To Him be all the glory and honor "in the church" (Eph. 3:21), forever.
[Note: For over 30 years of public ministry as an elder, pastor and teacher of the Word, I frequently emphasized the importance and many reasons for a whole-hearted, full commitment to a local assembly, and submission to the "authority" in the church, believing they were vital truths to the life of saints and the maturing of the church. Having been called by the Lord to repent of my error in these two areas, having seen the disastrous results in God’s people from such emphases and how they divide believers, I have now a different perspective on these matters than in years past, which is expressed in this document.]