New in the popular 9Marks series on healthy church life, Jonathan Leeman offers a short, readable book on why church membership is a critical element in every healthy Christian’s maturation.
About the Author
Jonathan Leeman (PhD, University of Wales) is the editorial director for 9Marks. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books and teaches at several seminaries. Jonathan lives with his wife and four daughters in a suburb of Washington, DC, and is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.
Michael Horton (PhD, University of Coventry and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford) is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California. In addition to being the author of many popular and academic books, he is also the editor in chief of Modern Reformation magazine, a host of the White Horse Inn radio broadcast, and a minister in the United Reformed Churches.
Read an Excerpt
WE'VE BEEN APPROACHING IT ALL WRONG
Imperium. I recently discovered this word. It's not a word you would pull out while chatting with friends over coffee. It sounds socially clumsy, like an overly intelligent thirteen-year-old. But I think it's a useful word.
It's what you get when you turn imperial, a word that you just might hear in coffee-time conversations, into a noun. Imperium means supreme power or absolute dominion, and it gets at the idea of where the buck stops in a society. Who is the authority to which all other authorities must answer? Who can make heads roll, literally speaking, without threat of reprisal, because it's in the job description? That's who has imperium.
Imperium is what Caesar had in Rome, as well as those kings in the medieval days who were always shouting, "Off with their heads!" In modern times, we would say that the state has imperium. There is no higher power than the state. The state is where the buck stops. The state alone has the power over life and death — the power of the sword.
So if you want to start a business or a school, you need the state's permission. The same is true for soccer clubs, trade unions, or charity organizations. They exist by permission of the state, and the state regulates them. They don't regulate the state. They don't have imperium.
Okay, what about local churches? Do local churches exist by permission of the state? Now that brings us to an interesting topic. In fact, it's a topic that just might turn our present ideas about the local church and its membership upside down.
JESUS HAS IMPERIUM
Most people in Western societies lump churches into the same category as soccer clubs or charity organizations. Churches are one more kind of voluntary association, we say.
Alternatively, we regard churches as a service provider, like a mechanic who services your soul or a gas station that fills up your spiritual tank.
But are local churches clubs or service providers that exist by permission of the state, one more supplicant who depends on the mercy of the lord of the land?
It's true that you as an individual Christian should submit to the authority of the state. But remember that the state is God's "servant" and God's "agent" for bringing judgment (Rom. 13:4). Yes, the state possesses the "sword," but it does so only at God's behest.
It's also true that churches should abide by the laws of the land when it comes to regulations such as adhering to building codes (if it has a building) or paying any taxes on staff salaries (if it has a paid staff). In that sense, churches are like every other business or organization.
At the same time, there is one thing that should be utterly clear in a Christian's mind: the local church does not exist by permission of the state. It exists by the express authorization of Jesus. After all, Jesus has imperium, not the state.
To be a Christian is to know this: Jesus is where the buck ultimately stops. Jesus is the authority to which all other authorities must answer. Jesus will judge the nations and their governments. He is the one with final power over life and death. The state exists by Jesus's permission, not the other way around. States typically don't acknowledge this fact, of course. But churches know it's true (John 19:11; Rev. 1:5; 6:15–17).
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, and he gave his church the authority to march on the nations. His church will therefore advance like an army that cannot be stopped. The boundary lines of the nations won't stop it. The executive orders of presidents and prime ministers won't stop it. Not even the gates of hell itself will slow it down.
Jesus has imperium.
WE NEED TO CHANGE OUR THINKING
In case we are tempted to overestimate the authority of the state, the fact of Jesus's imperium should diminish it. The state is merely one of his agents with a specific mandate.
But the fact of Jesus's imperium should have the opposite effect on our view of the local church: it should raise it. The local church is also one of Jesus's agents, and he gave it an authority that you and I as individual Christians do not have. And this has radical implications for what the local church is and what it means to be a church member.
If you are a Christian living in a Western democracy, chances are that you need to change the way you think about your church and how you are connected to it. Most likely, you underestimate your church. You belittle it. You misshape it in a way that misshapes your Christianity.
We've all been thinking about the local church and its membership as if it's one thing, when really it's another. It's as if we've been looking at our immediate families (dad, mom, children) and calling them businesses. And now I'm coming along and saying, "They are not businesses; they are families! We need to start treating them differently."
Let me try in this chapter to put the whole vision out there with five big ideas, all building on the universe-sized reality of Jesus's imperium. Then I'll spend the rest of the book cleaning up the mess I make here: justifying, elaborating, and applying.
We'll start with what a local church is not. If you are a Christian, the local church is not a club. It is not a voluntary organization where membership is optional for you. It is not a friendly group of people who share an interest in religious things and so gather weekly to talk about the divine.
Nor is a church a service provider, where the customer has all authority. It's ironic that we refer to church "services" (yes, I do this, too). As I already said, it's as if we are telling people to pull into the church parking lot at 11:00 a.m. and get themselves serviced — "Tune-ups for your soul in sixty minutes!"
Maybe we acquired this understanding of the local church from the Protestant emphasis on the location of preaching and the ordinances. Maybe we've been duped by Western democratic society into viewing churches as voluntary associations. Maybe it's a century's worth of practice at being consumers. I'm not sure. But here are some of the symptoms of our wrong thinking:
Christians can think it's fine to attend a church indefinitely without joining;
Christians think of getting baptized apart from joining;
Christians take the Lord's Supper without joining;
Christians view the Lord's Supper as their own private, mystical experience for Christians and not as an activity for church members who are incorporated into body life together;
Christians don't integrate their Monday-to-Saturday lives with the lives of other saints;
Christians assume they can make a perpetual habit of being absent from the church's gathering a few Sundays a month or more;
Christians make major life decisions (moving, accepting a promotion, choosing a spouse, etc.) without considering the effects of those decisions on the family of relationships in the church or without consulting the wisdom of the church's pastors and other members;
Christians buy homes or rent apartments with scant regard for how factors such as distance and cost will affect their abilities to serve their church;
Christians don't realize that they are partly responsible for both the spiritual welfare and the physical livelihood of the other members of their church, even members they have not met. When one mourns, one mourns by himself. When one rejoices, one rejoices by herself.
The basic disease behind all of these symptoms, the disease which, I admit, courses through my own veins, is the assumption that we have the authority to conduct our Christian lives on our own. We include the church piece when and where we please.
That is to say, we treat the local church like a club to join — or not. And this assumption leaves us conducting our Christian lives somewhat aloof from the local church even when we do join one: "Sure, I'm a member, but why in the world would I ask the church to help me think through accepting that job in Albuquerque?"
Please understand, I'm not just pointing the finger. These are my cultural instincts, too. I confess that I want to do things my way. I want to avoid taking responsibility for others.
But this is not the biblical picture. We need to take off one set of glasses and put on another. Are you ready?
THE HIGHEST KINGDOM AUTHORITY ON EARTH
What is the local church? I'm going to say a number of things to answer that question, but let me start here: the local church is the authority on earth that Jesus has instituted to officially affirm and give shape to my Christian life and yours.
Just as Jesus instituted the state, so he instituted the local church. It is an institutional authority because Jesus instituted it with authority. Now, I'm doing my best to avoid getting into a conversation here about the relationship between church and state, but here is what you must understand if we're going to have a paradigm-shifting discussion about church membership:
Just as the Bible establishes the government of your nation as your highest authority on earth when it comes to your citizenship in that nation, so the Bible establishes the local church as your highest authority on earth when it comes to your discipleship to Christ and your citizenship in Christ's present and promised nation.
So Jesus has instituted the state by giving it the power of the sword. Narrowly, this means the state can take your life (under the authority of God's Word). By implication, this means it has the enforcement mechanism necessary for establishing the basic structures of society, such as deciding who is publicly recognized as a citizen.
Similarly, Jesus has instituted the local church by giving it the "power of the keys." Narrowly, this means it can remove a person from church membership (under the authority of God's Word). By implication, this means it has the enforcement mechanism necessary for establishing the basic structures of the kingdom life, such as deciding who is publicly recognized as a citizen.
LOOKING FOR THE RIGHT THINGS
So instead of starting with the idea of a church as a voluntary association, we need to start with the idea of it as the people of a kingdom or nation. Do you see what I mean by a category switch, like moving from a business to a family?
When people ask, "Where is membership in the Bible?" the problem is they're looking for something like a club to join, because the word membership is a club word. Clubs and political parties and labor unions have memberships. But you don't often use the word membership in relation to governments and the citizens of nations. You don't say, "So how's the membership of the British nation doing? Aren't you guys running, like, sixty million members these days?"
Clubs begin with a point of common interest. Service providers begin with a common need or desire. Churches have all this, but they have something more: a king who requires the obedience of his people. The church begins with this fact: Jesus is Savior and Lord. He has died on the cross for the sins of everyone who would believe and follow him.
This means the Bible doesn't talk about church membership quite as you might want it to. It talks instead about how God's people gather together under his supreme rule. It's interested in the citizens of a kingdom, not club members. Beyond this, the Bible talks about a church's unity with a number of other metaphors (family, vine, etc.). This brings us to the second big idea:
When you open your Bible, stop looking for signs of a club with its voluntary members. Look instead for a Lord and his bound-together people. Look also for other forms of unity (brothers and sisters in a family, branches on a vine, etc.).
Is church membership in the Bible? If you're looking for the right thing, it's everywhere. I'll try to show you in chapters 2, 3, and 4.
NOT A CLUB, BUT AN EMBASSY
Now, there's more to the church than its institutional authority over you and me. We need the idea of a church as a family, and flock, and temple, and so forth. But all of these other realities have to be set inside the authority structure of the local church, which is why I'm starting there. A church's authority gives shape to the family aspects of church life, the body aspects of church life, and so on.
So I'm going to use a number of biblical metaphors for describing what life inside the local church looks like. But I want to start with one that we can then build on, one that replaces the "club" or "service provider" idea: it's the metaphor of an outpost or an embassy.
Where am I getting the idea of an embassy? I'm getting it from the biblical idea of Christ's kingdom. A church is not the kingdom; it's an outpost or embassy of that kingdom.
What is an embassy? It's an institution that represents one nation inside another nation. It declares its home nation's interests to the host nation, and it protects the citizens of the home nation living in the host nation. For instance, I spent five months of college in Brussels, Belgium. During that time, my US passport expired. If I had tried to leave the country without renewing my passport, I would have gotten in trouble. I no longer had valid documentation affirming that I was a US citizen. One afternoon I went to the US Embassy in Brussels and had my passport renewed. The embassy didn't make me a US citizen that afternoon, but it did officially affirm it. Even though I'm a US citizen, I don't have the authority to officially declare myself as one before the nations. Yet the embassy's affirmation gave me the ability to continue living in a foreign city protected by all the rights and benefits of my citizenship.
So an embassy represents one place in another place of the globe. But what if I told you there's another kind of embassy, one that represents a place from the future? That's what the local church is. It represents the whole group of people under Christ's lordship who will gather at the end of history.
A Christian's citizenship, Paul tells us, is in heaven. He even calls us "fellow citizens" with Israel, which is interesting when you consider what citizenship meant in Israel.
Unlike Israel, however, Christians' homeland is nowhere on planet Earth. We're strangers and aliens. Christians must look forward to their homeland. They wait for the day when the "kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ," when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that "Jesus Christ is Lord" (Rev. 11:15 ESV; Phil. 2:11).
But hold on. There is a place on earth where the citizens of heaven can, at this moment, find official recognition and asylum: the local church. Churches represent Christ's rule now. They affirm and protect his citizens now. They proclaim his laws now. They bow before him as King now and call all peoples to do the same. Here then is a third big idea:
A local church is a real-life embassy, set in the present, that represents Christ's future kingdom and his coming universal church.
The idea of church membership immediately follows from this picture of the local church. What is a church member? It's someone who walks through the embassy doors claiming to belong to the kingdom of Christ. "Hello, my name is Christian." The embassy official taps a few keys on his computer and then says, "Yep, I see your records here. Here's your passport." The individual can now enjoy many of the rights, benefits, and obligations of citizenship even though living in a foreign land. But not only that — and here's the crazy part — the individual becomes part of the embassy itself — one of the officials who affirms and oversees others. To be a church member is to be the church, at least a part of it.
A church member, therefore, is someone who is formally recognized as a Christian and a part of Christ's universal body. That's not to say that churches always get it right, but it's their job to identify and affirm who belongs to the kingdom and who does not. This is the fourth big idea:
A church member is a person who has been officially and publicly recognized as a Christian before the nations, as well as someone who shares in the same authority of officially affirming and overseeing other Christians in his or her church.
Church membership is more than this. Again, we need to talk about the family-ness, and the body-ness, and the flock-ness of membership, and a host of other things, as we'll see in chapter 4. But we start here because it represents the kingdom authority that Christ has given not to us as individual Christians but to us as local church members. Jesus didn't leave us to govern ourselves and to declare ourselves his citizens. He left an institution in place that both affirms us as believers and then helps to give shape and direction to our Christian lives.
The embassy-like authority of the local church gives individuals who mouth the words, "I'm with Jesus," the opportunity to demonstrate that those words mean something. The local church guards the reputation of Christ by sorting out the true professors from the false. The local church enables the world to look upon the canvas of God's people and see an authentic painting of Christ's love and holiness, not a forgery. And the local church lays down a pathway with guardrails and resting stations for the long journey of the Christian life.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Church Membership"
Copyright © 2012 Jonathan Leeman.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Michael Horton,
Introduction: A Bigger Deal Than We Realize,
1 We've Been Approaching It All Wrong,
2 Membership Sightings in the New Testament,
3 What Is a Church? What Is a Church Member?,
4 What Are a Church and Its Members Like?,
5 What Are the "Standards" of Membership? (Becoming a Member),
6 How Does a Christian Submit to a Church? (Being a Member),
7 What Happens When Members Don't Represent Jesus?,
8 Must Membership Look the Same Everywhere?,
Conclusion: How Church Membership Defines Love,
What People are Saying About This
“Church leaders across many denominations will find this little book filled with practical ideas and good arguments that will help us cure Christians in our culture today of their allergy to church membership, pastoral authority, life accountability, and any limits to their personal freedom.”
Timothy Keller,Founding Pastor, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City; Chairman and Cofounder, Redeemer City to City
“Brief, fresh, entertaining, and, above all, biblical. This is the explanation and defense of church membership you’ve been looking for.”
Mark Dever,Pastor, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC; President, 9Marks
“Practical. Convicting. Biblically faithful. Leeman reminds us that church membership is not a choice but a demand. The book is punchy and provocative, but at the same time it is permeated with the gospel of grace.”
Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary