And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.
1 Corinthians 1:10
Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus revealed His plans to build something He called His church. Today, the doctrine of the church is perhaps one of the most confused and misunderstood outside of the doctrine of salvation. Many people (or perhaps most people) join a church with very little understanding about what they have done or even what a church really is. In the next several lessons, we shall study the normal Christian's relationship to the church. In this lesson we shall set the foundation for this study by emphasizing membership.
Before we can discuss the relationship of the normal Christian to the church, we need to have a firm understanding of what a church is.
Let us begin by looking at what the word "church" means. Our English word church probably came from the Scotch word kirk or the old Saxon word circe. In either case, the origin is almost certainly the Greek word kuriakon, which means "the Lord's house". However, we can learn even more from the Greek word translated as church in our Bible: - "ekklesia", used over 100 times in the New Testament. The word "ekklesia" means "a called out assembly" and in the general sense was used to refer to a gathering or assembly of people.
There are many times that we commonly use the word church in the wrong way, and though we do not mean to, we have probably helped spread confusion as a result.
1. It is not a building
We often talk about a church but we are referring to the building. An ekklesia is a called out assembly of people. It is not the structure that we meet in, but we as Christians are the church. We should probably not be too dogmatic about this though because the Bible also refers to the place where the believer's met as the church (such as 1 Corinthians 11:18).
2. It is not a service
We often say "I am going to church" to mean "I am going to the church service". Let us not confuse the assembly of Christians with one of the many meetings held by the church. A Christian cannot really "go to church" because it is really not something to "go to"; it is something to be "part of". Acts 11:26 and 14:27 distinguishes between the church and a meeting; and makes clear that a church is a church only when the Christians are assembled.
3. It is not a denomination
We sometimes speak of the "Baptist Church", the "Methodist Church", etc. These are not churches but rather they are descriptive of the set of beliefs held by a group of churches. The word ekklesia is never used in the New Testament to refer to a denomination.
4. It is not a national organization
We sometimes speak of the separation of church and state as if the church were some national organization or power. As we shall see, this is not what a church is either.
5. It is not an assembly of religious people
Some people speak of a church to refer generically to some group of religious people, but ekklesia is used quite narrowly to refer only to believers in Christ. The word church can only be applied to born again Christians and no one else. There are many groups that consider themselves as a church but they are quite wrong.
As we look at the usage of the word ekklesia in the New Testament, we shall find that there are two aspects of a church:
In a small number of occurrences, ekklesia refers to all believers eveywhere, both living and asleep (Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13; Ephesians 5:25-32; Hebrews 12:23; and alluded to in Revelation 19:6-9).
The more predominant and perhaps more significant aspect of the church is the local sense, as in "church that was at Antioch" (Acts 13:1). James Crumpton gives a great definition of a local church as "an organized group of saved, baptized believers who are voluntarily banded together for the purpose of worshipping the Lord, spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth, and practicing and teaching the complete message of the Lord Jesus Christ". This is the exact meaning of a local church. For example, consider Paul's first missionary journey and the local churches involved: Acts 13:1, 14:23, 14:27, 15:3-4.
To have an assembly of Christians implies that there must be membership. Let us look at this membership in the terms of the two aspects of a church.
The church is often referred to in the New Testament as the body of Christ. Romans 12:5 says, " So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another", and in 1 Corinthians 12:27 we find, "Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular". How do we become members of this body? According to 1 Corinthians 12:13 this is a supernatural event, "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body". The moment a lost sinner gets born again, he becomes a member of the body of Christ. This is an irreversible, one-time event performed by the Holy Spirit.
Obviously, membership in a local church cannot be dealt with in the same way as with the universal sense. The universal church deals on a spiritual plane, while the local church is something that is physical and therefore requires a physical membership. In other words, to become a member of a local church, a believer must physically join that church - it is not something that is supernatural or spiritual.
In general, what does it mean to join an organization and become a member? To be a member of a local church means that the believer is uniting with the other believers in the church for a common purpose and belief (see Acts 15:22 and 1 Corinthians 1:10). This is why most churches have a covenant (2 Chronicles 15:12) by which the members must agree to abide. As a member of a local church, a believer is part of something.
Practically speaking, to assemble with other Christians and yet not have membership would be useless. The Promise Keeper movement teaches men that they should not stick to one church but should visit around. How could any work ever be accomplished with that philosophy? How could there be any accountability to the church? A normal Christian needs to become a member of a local church. There is no verse in the Bible that explicitly says this, but there are several passages that make it plain that this is God's will:
1. The first local church had specific membership
In Acts 1:15, the first local assembly of believers is described in the following manner: "the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty". Whether this list of names was written down is unimportant. The fact is that this ekklesia had a specific membership that was known. The members could be named! In addition, in Acts 2:1 we find that all these members assembled themselves together - "they were all with one accord in one place".
2. Specific people were added to churches
In Acts 2:41, a multitude of people were saved and "the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls". A specific number of people came and joined that assembly of 120 members. Later we read concerning the churches Paul started, "so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily" (Acts 16:5). This is not talking about more churches being established, but the membership of each church was increasing - people were joining those churches!
3. There was a distinction between members and non-members
A distinction is made in Acts 5:11 between the Christians in the local church at Jerusalem and other people living in the area. This distinction could only be possible if there were a known membership of that church.
4. Specific members were elected as officers
In Acts 6:3, the Apostles called the church together to appoint some deacons saying, "brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business". The "among you" phrase could only be possible if there was a specific membership of the church.
5. Pastors were responsible for specific members
Paul told the elders of Ephesus, "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers" (Acts 20:28). How could these elders be responsible for a member-less flock? They would have had to know the names and numbers if they were to have such responsibility just as a shepherd would know every sheep that belonged to him.
6. Paul addressed specific people
In many of Paul's letters to churches, he addressed specific people in the church (see Romans 16 for example). In fact, one of these he mentions as a "servant of the church which is at Cenchrea" (Phebe in Romans 16:1). How can this not imply membership in a local Church?