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Changed By Glory

"And we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." II Cor. 3:18

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church membership

Church Membership & The Death Bed

Have you ever watched a show like America’s Got Talent or American Idol and grimaced when someone gets on stage who has no business being there? You watch as they face the embarrassment of being told on a national stage that they can’t sing and as the news breaks (with the family fuming backstage) the singer’s world comes crashing down in a moment. As you see this unfold time and time again, one is always left asking the question, “Why didn’t someone love them enough to tell them they couldn’t sing before it got to that point?”

I wouldn’t want to be outed as a phony on a national stage. To find out that I was delusional about my abilities. And yet, so many of us live our lives insulating ourselves from the reality about ourselves. Now whether or not you are a good singer is really irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but there are greater realities that we also avoid. Namely, spiritual realities about the standing of our soul before God and it is from these realities that we tend to hide. This is tragic, foolish, and it is dangerous. Because the truth that we see in Scripture is that every single man and woman will one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ – as the writer of Hebrews says, “It is appointed for people to die once ​— ​and after this, judgment” (Heb. 9:27) Therefore, we should not wish to face that day, be it tomorrow or fifty years from now, on the basis of our own subjective assessment of our standing before the Judge

God has not designed for that to be the case – he has not designed for us to be independent of others, he has not designed us to base our sense of justification before him on self-assessment alone. Because we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, we need others and we need others because of at least three realities that we see in Scripture.

 

The heart is deceitful – We all know the familiar words “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable ​— ​who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) The story of the Bible is a case-study of humanity which proves the truth of those words. Our feelings are poor indicators of our standing before God. Our heart can condemn us when the truth is that we are justified. And our heart can justify us when the truth is that we are condemned. 

When pleading with his readers, Paul will make the appeal multiple times  “Do not be deceived”. In the case of the Corinthians, Paul saw their arrogance in relation to the fruit of their lives which was disconnected from their claim of faith in the gospel of Christ. He is concerned for them that they would be deceived and so he warns them and even instructs discipline in at least one case so that a so-called brother will not be deceived.

Satan is on the hunt – We have a real enemy who roams about seeking someone to devour. He is a liar, who loves to say “peace, peace” when there is no reason for peace or to incite fear when there is reason for assurance. Whatever his angle, his aim in all his devices is to “steal, kill, and destroy”. How do you combat this deadly liar? With truth. But when you combine his lies with our propensity toward deception, we understand that we need truth to comes at us from the outside, we need people who are “speaking the truth in love” on a regular basis, combatting the lies that would either cause crippling fear or deadly calm.

Endurance is necessary – Perseverance is the most profound mark of genuine faith. And the writer of Hebrews points out that even the most radical, most godly, most genuine of Christians should have a healthy sense of their need for endurance and they should understand the role that the local church plays in that endurance. He writes that we should not neglect to meet together, that we should exercise watchfulness over each other, that we should stir each other up to love and good works, especially in light of the day of judgment. Why? Because we need to endure. Baby Christians need endurance. Seasoned saints need endurance. And we should not expect to endure apart from the means of church membership that God has ordained.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be on my deathbed with only my own subjective, self-assessment of the condition of my soul. Of course I claim faith in Christ, but is there evidence of a faith that works, a love that labors, and a hope in Jesus that endures? Are there others that I have invited into my life who then in my hour of greatest need can say, “Steve, I know you are loved by God because I have seen his grace in your life. There is no condemnation for you.”

Now God has in his wisdom designed a community that provides just that – the local church. And it is membership in the local church that is God’s mechanism by which he guards from deception, strengthens our sense of assurance, and helps us endure.

Obviously, not just any so-called “church membership” will do. It must be meaningful, it must have substance, it must be something that has authority behind it which can provide safety, direction, and assurance. To merely have your name on a list is of no use.

We need…

  • Clear boundary lines – a biblical understanding of conversion. That is, we need to be members of a church where a clear understanding of how someone becomes a Christian is taught and where this is the standard for affirming an individual and bringing them into the church.
  • The expectation of discipleship – a biblical understanding of the Christian’s calling to walk in a manner that makes sense with the gospel and to be conformed into the image of Jesus is essential to avoiding deception. Jesus’ sheep hear his voice and they follow him. We need membership where our commitment to each other is a commitment to provoke each other to love and good works.
  • The practice of discipline – a biblical understanding of congregational authority and responsibility to affirm, and if needed to revoke, a person’s profession of faith must be present. We need a membership that is devoted to loving watchfulness and that is ready to affirm or rebuke/remove a member on the basis of their ongoing response to the gospel and the clear commands of Scripture. Paul could not be more clear, it is not loving or merciful to continue to certify someone as a brother or sister in the faith while they refuse to submit to lordship of Jesus. Why? Because then we become enablers of their deception.

To be at a church that does not have these things could be harmful to your soul. Don’t go to a church where you can be a member in anonymity. You need to approach church membership with the commitment to know and to be known by your fellow members. Furthermore, if you go to a church where you do not know a pastor/elder on a personal level, you need to either pursue one of the elders of that church or find another church.

Life is short, eternity is long, our hearts are weak, and our enemy is real. Therefore, we need church membership, especially as we see “the day approaching”.

One day, when the heart monitor flatlines and the respirations cease and I cross into eternity, I don’t want to walk through that door on the basis of my own subjective sense. Whether in that moment I am tempted with false hope in my goodness or the terror of doubt because of my sin, I want brothers and sisters in my life who reminded me of the gospel, who rebuked my sin, and who encouraged the evidence of God’s grace in my life. People who will hold my hand and hand me off to Jesus.

 

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One Even As We Are One: Church Membership & The Prayer of Jesus

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may be one, just as you Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

John 17:20-21

There are perhaps few passages of Scripture more precious and rich than John 17. It doesn’t get better than this – so many themes in John’s gospel flood together in the prayer of our Savior for us. A prayer which we may place confident hope in and one from which we may also learn so much.

One thing that we may not think of as being promoted in this prayer is church membership. By church membership I mean a voluntary commitment to a group of Christians in recognition of the identity we share and the calling we have been given in Christ.

Few Christians doubt the oneness, the unity, they share with all Christians. No one disputes the need for unity. But it is that unity expressed through commitment, which is so often lacking. In a world, especially in the west, that is increasingly individualistic church is treated like something to be consumed, not something to be joined; like a service that is offered, and not like a reality to be expressed. Because of this, sometimes in the name being inclusive, churches have abandoned the idea of any formal commitment to a local group or “body” of believers all together. Or membership has become meaningless, without substance. This leads to churches where unity is assumed, rather than intentional; where commitment is nebulous; and where being “one body” is more theoretical than substantive when push comes to shove.

But this is not the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for his people. Because it is not the kind of unity with the Father that he displayed in his life. The unity of the Father with the Son was visible in the words and works of the incarnate Son in 1st century Palestine. His commitment was not nebulous, but clearly defined with sweat drops of blood and cries of agony as he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” His oneness with his Father was not theoretical but clearly perceived in hearable and seeable things which showed he did only what he saw his Father doing. In fact, in John’s gospel Jesus appeals again and again to this “tangible unity” as proof of his oneness with the Father (i.e. John 5:37-38,7:16,8:19).

Why then would we think, that the life we are called to as Christians together would be any less tangible, any less committed, any less substantive? We are real people, living in real time and space, therefore, the kind of unity that God wills, which Christ prayed for us, is “incarnated” where we are in the context of the church.

Unity remains a mere idea until it is expressed in real time/space in the form of mutual commitment, shared mission, and tangible oneness. This is accomplished through membership in a local church.

The unity that Jesus prayed for his people is to be a reflection of the very real, gritty, painful, beautiful, lasting, loving oneness that we see displayed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The unity that Jesus prayed for his people is experienced and displayed through membership to a local church. And whether they scoff or marvel, it is such commitment alone which will display to the real world around us that the Father sent the Son to save sinners and it is to him, and therefore, to each other, that we belong.

The Rope – A Picture of Church Membership

As a pastor convinced of the importance of each believer being a committed part of a local expression of the body of Christ – a church – I am always grasping at ways to talk about church membership and why it is important. No one can top the inspired picture of “one body with many members” that Paul employs, but recently in an attempt to express to my church what membership is and why it is important, I was struck with the following image.

The Christian life is a mountain climb, the substance beneath our feet is the gospel, the peak is conformity into the image of Christ, church membership is a rope going from base to summit, and becoming a member of a church means laying a hand on that rope. We learn from the New Testament, especially from places like Ephesians 4:11-16, Hebrews 3:13, 10:23-25 that it is by pushing and pulling our fellow climbers, calling up encouragements, echoing down warnings, that we reach the peak.

Imagine if we were strung together on the rope, all at different stages of the climb. What happens if one stops moving? What happens if one falls down? Such a one must be exhorted and encouraged. At times when the weak go limp we may even be required to pull them so that we can keep going. If one starts going backward, pulling the church down, the church must warn, push, and if need be, even cut them loose. When someone lets go of the rope and attempts the hazard of free-climbing, we reach out to them with earnest voice and stretching fingertips, pleading with them to once again lay hold of the rope.

Sometimes we hand people off to another rope (another church), but we dare not let people be free-climbers. Free-climbers are exposed to all sorts of dangers. They fall, they perish, they get lost, they lose track of the sure footing of the gospel.

We must admit, we need the rope. If we knew ourselves and our environment we would know we need the rope. I hope we are honest enough to see that. Our footing (the gospel) is sure, but the climb is steep while wind, rain, and storms of this life lash against the slopes. Darkness crowds in and obscures the peak at times. We need the rope. We need our fellow climbers. We dare not let go. And we dare not stop moving. To stop is not only deadly for us, but it pulls down and endangers others. There will be times when we have to be dragged, when we have to be pushed, but the rope is God’s means for getting us safely to the peak.

Do you see the danger of climbing without clinging to a rope? Have you ever stopped to consider that when you stop your climb, when you stop pulling and moving along with others, what effect that has on those around you? Are you holding a rope? And if you are, what kind of rope-holder are you? Do you put your team of climbers at risk or do you help everyone get to the top?

The invitation to church membership is an invitation to take hold of the rope. Anyone who has ever seen a movie about Everest or some other peak knows that going at it alone never ends well. We are too easily disoriented. Our straying feet slip from the gospel too readily without others to hold us up. When cold surrounds us, and we are fatigued from trying to climb in our own strength, we are tempted to lay down for a nap. And with no one attached to us, to shake us, to slap us, to yell at us amidst the snow, “Don’t you dare fall asleep, because you won’t wake up”, we die.

God keeps his people by his power. This is the truth that drives us on the darkest moments of the climb. But to let go of the rope is to turn aside once again to the very essence of our rebellion – which is to look at God and say, “I know better than you. I believe you will keep me apart from your means.” Such reasoning is Satanic and deadly.

Lay hold of the rope, if you have not already. Pull, push, shout, poke, shout some more. Don’t let go. When you lose your footing someone will be there, holding the rope to help reestablish you on the gospel. When you are weary, someone will be there to pull your weight. When you are falling asleep, overwhelmed with pain and fatigue, a chorus of voices will be there to shout “Only a little farther.”

Much that is called church membership is admittedly a mere association of free-climbers or a rope untethered. But I am speaking of something more meaningful than that. I am talking about a rope that is God’s means of getting his people on the footing of the gospel to the peak of glory in Christ along the slope of sin, through the darkness of deception, and the winds of suffering.

This is what we mean when we talk about church membership. This is the rope we need.

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