The Lord’s Day Morning
Hebrews 13:17; Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:42
Biblical Priorities for Church Life
What’s So Important About Church Membership?
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Let me ask you to open your Bibles to the Book of Hebrews. For a number of months we have been working through what we have said are the Bible’s priorities for healthy church life. And very frankly, one of the reasons that I have wanted to do this with you is we are in a transitional time in the life of our church. For almost two years now we have been outside of our permanent sanctuary in this temporary quarter; within three months, God willing, we’ll be back in our sanctuary. I know that’s an artificial thing—we’ll still be the same people when we gather in that room, although it will be a very beautiful place and a very comfortable place, a very glorious place to worship the living God together—but it does give us an opportunity to take stock of what we’re supposed to be, what we’re supposed to be doing, and how we’re supposed to be doing it.
And I believe that’s important for us to think about from a biblical standpoint, because in our day and age there are many people, many Christians, many Christian leaders, many pastors who are saying that if the church is going to be effective in reaching the world, then the church has to change. And they’ve gone on to say ‘And the way the church has to change is this: the church has either got to change its message so that its message is more appealing to the culture, or the church has to change its methods so that its methods are more effective in reaching the culture. And as the church changes its message or its methods, it needs to look to the culture to determine how the message and the methods are changed in order to be more effective in reaching the culture.’
Well, I’m convinced, as I am convinced most of you are, that that’s not what the Bible says about the church. The Bible says that we move from the Bible to ministry, not from the culture to ministry; that is, we move from the text to ministry not from the context to the ministry. We move from what God tells us to be and do and how to do it in the Bible to ministry, not from what the culture says we ought to be doing. But I began to think about that, and I realized that we are so pressed in on by our culture around us, and we so often unwittingly buy into its assumptions, that it would be a good thing to think explicitly about what the Bible says we are to be and to do, and how we are to do it as a congregation together as we prepare for however many more years the Lord gives us here to minister in Jackson. And so that’s really what we’ve been doing.
I’ve been working through emphases in the Bible as to what we’re to be and do and how we’re to do it in our life and ministry as a local congregation, with the desire that we would be more biblical. This has not been an exercise in trying to pat us on the back and say, ‘You know, we’re better than other churches. We do these things.’ That’s not the point. The point, in fact, has been in many places to convict us that we have not been as biblical as we have needed to be, and to indeed say yes, there are things that we need to change, but it is not so that we can change to be like the culture; it’s so we can change to be like the Bible—to be like God says the church is to be in the Bible.
And so today we come to church membership, and you’re scratching your heads. You say, “Wait a minute. Why would you spend a whole sermon talking about church membership?” Because many, many wonderful Christians do not appreciate the importance of church membership to Christian discipleship. Many, especially American Christians, view church membership as incidental to their Christianity. They view church membership as optional to their Christianity. They view church membership as extraneous to their Christianity. And I want you to understand, from the Bible’s perspective that is not the case. Church membership is vital and biblical, and it is not optional. And what I want to do is, I want to go to the word of God to prove that point today. So let’s start in Hebrews 13:17, and before we read that passage, let’s look to God in prayer and ask His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, we come before You today thanking You for Your word and asking that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it; that we would understand them, and that we would obey them. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hebrews 13:17—[The point of the passage in relation to church membership may not be self-evident to you when we read each of these passages, but that’s what we’re going to go back and work through, to show how these connect to the idea of church membership.]
This is God’s word, Hebrews 13:17:
“Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”
Now turn back to Jesus’ words in the Great Commission. Many of you can quote these words from heart. Matthew 28, and we’ll zero this time…we’ll zero in on verses 19 and 20. I want you to be listening for the task that Jesus gives to the disciples, and there’s just one task that He gives them. And I want you to listen for the two ways that He tells them to carry out this task.
This is God’s word:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations [there’s the task], baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit [there’s the first part, or way, that they’re to go about making disciples of all nations], teaching them to observe all that I commanded you [there’s the second part]; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age [there’s the promise].”
Now turn forward to Acts 2. Derek has been expounding this for us on Wednesday nights and Sunday nights, and in that very important passage—a passage in which he began to echo to us a phrase that he said repeatedly—remember what he’s been saying?—“This is a church that I want to belong to”, as the Christians in Acts in Jerusalem are described.
But here’s what Luke tells us in Acts 2:42:
“And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
“And everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
What’s so important about church membership? Why should we care about church membership, and why should any healthy local church be made up of a congregation of Christians who understand the vital importance of being united to, participating in, and being accountable to a local fellowship of believers and its shepherds? Why?
Well, it’s the same answer to the question or truth that we sing when we sing:
“Jesus loves me, this I know;
For the Bible tells me so.”
I. Church membership is biblical.
The reason is the Bible tells us so. The Bible tells us that membership in a local church is biblical, vital, and not optional.
And I want to work with you through that today for a variety of reasons. One, for many, many years in evangelicalism we have stressed in our evangelism and outreach getting people saved apart from stressing the importance of them being located in a local church. We have stressed evangelizing people apart from discipleship, and I want you to see again, just as we saw when we studied Matthew 28, that Jesus says what He wants us to do is not to go do evangelism abstracted from discipleship, but He wants us to go do what? Make disciples. That’s what He wants us to do. You can’t do evangelism the way Jesus wants it done unless you’re doing discipleship, and you can’t do discipleship the way Jesus wants it done without the local church. And so what I want to do is prove that to you today. It’s biblical. How will I prove that?
Well, let’s start with what Jesus said. Notice what Jesus said to the disciples: “Go…make disciples of all the nations….” How? By baptizing and teaching them.
I need to stop right there and say something very quickly. Jesus is not saying that baptism justifies you and makes you a Christian. He’s not even saying that listening to good theology justifies you and makes you a Christian. It’s vitally important that we understand that when Jesus is talking about discipleship here, He has in view enfolding those who are resting and trusting in Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel into a community of believers that are doing – what? Growing, becoming more Christ-like, becoming more godly. In other words, Jesus is telling His disciples ‘How is it that you go about sanctifying a disciple. How is it you go about making a disciple? How is it that you go about taking someone who is resting and trusting in Me alone for salvation and then maturing that person, so that they become more and more biblical in the way they think and in the way they live; so they become more Christ-like in the way they think and the way they live?’ By the way, that’s emphasized even in the passage that we quoted from Luke. Notice that those “…were being added to their number who were being saved.” They weren’t being saved by being added to their number. They were being saved, and then added to their number.
It’s so important for us to understand: The way you are saved is not joining a church. The way you’re saved is not being baptized. The way you’re saved is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. When you’re saved, you’re saved into what? Into the church, because when you’re united to Jesus, you’re united to His body.
Well, where do we see that in the Scripture? We see it in these three passages we’ve read. In Matthew 28, where does Jesus say that this discipleship is supposed to take place? It’s to take place in the place where you’re baptized and taught. Where is that? The local church. ‘Where is it that I want disciples made of all nations?’ Jesus says in the place where they’re baptized and taught, that’s where discipleship happens.
And of course this is emphasized in Hebrews 13. How can you obey leaders if you’re not in a local church? How can you respect the shepherds that Jesus has put over you to disciple you if you are not in a relationship with shepherds who have been put over you to disciple you? Hebrews 13:17 only makes sense for Christians in a local church. You are incapable of obeying and respecting spiritual shepherds who have been put in authority over you unless you are in a fellowship of believers who have spiritual shepherds who have been placed in authority over you for your edification. And of course Luke tells you here in Acts 2:47 that as people were being saved, what was happening? They were being “added to their number.” What in the world is he talking about? He’s saying that as they were saved, what happened? They became a part of the Jerusalem church: not just the universal church, but that local church, that local gathering of believers, the Jerusalem church. In other words, each of these passages emphasizes the importance of church membership. It’s biblical.
Well, why, then, do you think it is that American Christians don’t value church membership? I actually think there are a lot of good answers to that question. Part of it has been our correct reaction to the theology of medieval Roman Catholicism that said that if you weren’t a member of the Roman Catholic church you could not be saved. And Protestants for 500 years have said we don’t agree with that. But especially for the last 150 years, many evangelical Protestants have drawn the deduction that since it is not necessary to be a member of the Roman Catholic church in order to be saved, therefore it doesn’t matter whether you’re a member of a church.
Ah! Now the second part of that argument does not follow! Because, though salvation is not by church membership, and though we are not justified by church membership, yet our sanctification requires church membership. You cannot be discipled as Jesus conceives you to be discipled apart from a relationship in which there is non-optional, mutual accountability, and the only place that can happen is in the church. That’s what Jesus is saying in Matthew 28. He’s saying, ‘Here’s My “Plan A” for discipleship. It’s called the local church.’ And you know what else He says? He says, ‘There’s no “Plan B.’ That’s why He can say to His disciples elsewhere, ‘I’m going to build My church, and even the gates of hell cannot prevail against it.’ So when you hear these people making dire predictions that the local church is going to disappear in the next fifty years, either they’re right or Jesus is right. I’m sticking with Jesus! Here’s the place where He says that believers are to be discipled: the local church.
But why is it that Americans don’t value church membership? I think that one important reason is, it doesn’t cost us anything, and consequently we don’t value church membership.
Now, friends, that’s not how it’s been for most of Christian history, and it’s not how it is in most places in the world today. For you to have been a Christian at most times in history and in most places in the world would have cost you something. For you to be a member, a baptized member of a local church could cost you very dearly in some parts of the world today.
This past week I’ve had the privilege of being for a few days with John MacArthur at Grace Community Church for his Shepherds Conference. He had 4,000 pastors from around the world to gather together and just edify one another and encourage one another in the ministry of the word. John MacArthur told this story of a 17 year-old girl, who was a member of his congregation, and it just reduced me…and it speaks to this very question.
She—I’m not going to tell you her name or the country from which she hails, and you’ll understand why after I tell you the story. She is a student at his college, the Master’s College in California, there at Sun Valley, California – a college started many years ago under the elders of the Grace Community Church that educates some 1,000 young people every year. And she is technically a student in computer sciences, because she is from a Muslim country where it is not allowed for citizens of that country to study things pertaining to Christianity. So she is studying computer sciences and technologies. But what she really is enjoying studying at the Master’s College is Bible and Greek. (I got that right!) Now listen to me: she’s 17 years old. She speaks four languages fluently. She’s brilliant in languages, and she’s devouring the study of New Testament Greek because she wants to translate the Bible into some of the languages and dialects of the people from whom she came. She heard the gospel, embraced Christ, was baptized, and joined Pastor MacArthur’s church.
Now her family is Muslim and she comes from a Muslim country, and it is against the law in that country for a Muslim to convert to Christianity, be baptized, and join a Christian church. Fortunately, her father loves her very much, and he is an open-minded man and he did not abuse her or expel her or kill her for what she had done, and he even allowed her to go (and because of his position in his country, he was able to allow her to get a visa to come to the United States) to study in California.
Just a few months ago she went home on a break to be with her family. And when she got there at the airport, she was arrested and questioned by the local police as to what she had been doing here in the United States. And after a day or so she was released to her family, and when she got home, her dad was not there. He was away at another meeting. But her uncle was there. Her uncle asked her if it was true that she had been baptized and had joined a Christian church. She said it was. He began to beat her. He beat her until she fell to the floor almost semi-conscious…with his fists…and then he picked up a chair and he began to beat her with the chair. Just before he killed her, her father came home, stopped his brother from killing his daughter, and got her to the doctors. She still went and met with local Christians. I think there are only 150 Christians that she knows of in the country from which she comes. And her father immediately put her on a plane and got her out of the country and sent her back to the Master’s College.
After she recovered, Pastor MacArthur went to visit her, and talked with her about this experience. In the course of talking with her, he said, “Can I ask you a question? I know I don’t even have a right to ask this question. Would you permit me to ask you a very, very personal question?” She said, “Yes, Pastor.”
“What were you thinking when your uncle was in the process of almost beating you to death?” And she said, “I was thinking that this man has a religion that he would kill for, and I have a Savior that I would die for.”
And that’s a 17 year old girl. Church membership is something that she embraces at the peril of her life.
It reminds me of Jay Smith, who’s from New York, and he goes to London and preaches to Muslims in Hyde Park. And at a conference in January in New York, he spoke to a group of pastors and he said to them, “My wife and children know that someday I will die because of what I do.” The July bombers of the London subways and buses were often in the crowd that listened to him as he preached to Muslims about Jesus Christ in London. He knows he will die because of what he’s doing, but he still does it. Why? Because it matters to belong to the body of Christ and to be in fellowship with the people of God! It matters!
I think one of the reasons that we don’t value church membership is it costs us nothing. That young 17 year-old girl—she knows the cost of church membership, and what’s so glorious is, she embraces it.
Now there are some 15-16-17-18 year olds in here today. Are you ready to die? I want to be very clear. That’s what we’re inviting you to do when you join this church. We’re inviting you to be ready to lay down your life. Don’t misunderstand. That’s what we’re inviting you to do when you join this church. We’re saying, “Are you ready to die for Jesus? That’s what He asks of you. Are you ready to do that? Don’t join this church if you’re not ready to do that.”
I love the way that Claude McRoberts, a son of this congregation, introduces The Apostles’ Creed at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Whenever they say The Apostles’ Creed, do you know what Claude says? He says that phrase that we say: “Christian, what do you believe?” but then he adds something to it. He says, “Christians, what do you believe, and for what are you ready to die?” And then the congregation repeats The Apostles’ Creed. Are you ready to die, to be able to repeat The Apostle’s Creed as a member of a Bible-believing church?
I think one reason that we don’t value church membership is because it hasn’t ever cost us anything. Most Christians around the world know that being a baptized, believing member of the local church costs.
II. Church membership is vital.
Church membership is biblical. It’s also vital. Let me ask you to turn to Ephesians 4. Look at verse 11 and verse 12.
Church membership is vital for discipleship. Jesus makes that point in Mathew 28. Where does discipleship happen? In the context of those who baptize and teach you: the local church. That’s where discipleship happens.
It’s vital for witness. Baptism and discipleship does what? It sets us apart from the world. Our Christian friends in Muslim countries understand that. To be a baptized disciple sets you apart at the peril of your life in those countries. Ask Bassam.
But it’s also important for our encouragement in the Christian life and for accountability. Let me tell prove to you why.
Paul in Ephesians 4:11 is telling you that when Jesus ascended on high, leading captivity captive, He gave gifts to His church. And what gifts did He give? Well, among them, He says at the very end of Ephesians 4:11, He gave pastors and teachers…shepherds, elders, pastors to the church. Why did He give them? Well, the Apostle Paul doesn’t make you sit down on the ground and scratch your head and wonder about that. He tells you in verse 12. And what does he tell you? “For the equipping of the saints…for the work of service,” and doesn’t that echo exactly what He says in II Timothy 3 about the Bible? That the Bible is inspired… “All Scripture is inspired by God and is…” what? “…profitable…” for what? “…for reproof, correction, for training in righteousness…” for what? “…that the man of God may be equipped for every good work.” You see, that’s what the church is for. The church is here to equip you for every good work, to encourage you, and to hold you accountable. You’re equipped through encouragement and accountability in the local church.
You know, there are marriages in this church that I love to watch, because there are Christian husbands and Christian wives that just love one another tenderly and tenaciously. And that is such an encouragement to me, and I have to say, “Lord, I want to be a husband like that.” And I could give a hundred other examples of that, because we’re not meant to live the Christian life in isolation. We need the encouragement of seeing other brothers and sisters living out the Christian life. That’s not an option to the Christian life. It’s essential! We can’t live without it!
We also need the accountability…and, my friends, there is no such thing as “optional accountability.” You cannot be accountable outside of a place in which there is authority. There’s no accountability where you’re choosing either or not to be accountable. Where accountability is optional, accountability does not exist.
At that pastors’ conference this last week, I had an opportunity to preach to those brothers. But, you know, I’m never going to see most of them again in my life. I hope my ministry was helpful to them. I’m never going to see them again, and they’re probably never going to see me, and so we’re not accountable to one another. But a dear friend of mine was there, and he took me out for lunch afterwards. And ninety percent of what he did was encourage me, but ten percent he was poking around in my heart, meddling and speaking truth into my life! It was downright uncomfortable at certain points! But he loves me, and he cares about me, and he was getting in my face. That’s what happens in the local church, and the beautiful thing about it, it’s not just like a friendship out there. You know, if my friend meddled too much, I could just decide he’s not going to be my friend anymore. But, you know, if I decide that, say, the elders can’t speak truth in my life anymore… well, the moving van is going to be moving up to the house pretty soon! See? That’s the beauty of it. Accountability is not optional here. I can’t decide, “Well, I’m just not going to be accountable to anybody anymore.” That’s not optional.
There’s a story in Christianity Today this month about a pastor who didn’t want to be accountable to church officers, so he went out and started his own church and his own denomination that doesn’t have church membership and it doesn’t have church officers. So he gets to do anything he wants to do, and nobody can hold him accountable. And you know what the article in Christianity Today is about? Even though this group of churches has 500 churches—some of them with 5-10-15,000 people attending them regularly—you know what problem they’re having? They’re having a gross problem with sexual immorality amongst the pastors in that family of churches. Well, duh! They’re not accountable to anybody! There’s no officer to speak truth in their life. There’s no membership to speak truth in their life. There is no accountability. And in the local church, you have non-optional accountability so that we love one another enough to speak truth into our lives: “Brother, you’re not treating your wife right.” “Brother, you are abusing alcohol.” “Sister, you are gossiping.” “Son, you are living like the crowd at school, not like followers of Christ.”
We are here to hold one another accountable and to speak truth into one another’s lives, and you can only do that in a context where there’s authority. And what has God done? He’s given pastors, shepherds, elders to help hold us accountable. And that’s why Hebrews 13 says, “Brethren, obey…revere…appreciate…respect your leaders.” Because guess what? There’s nobody not accountable in the Christian church. What does it say about those leaders? “They will give an account.” They’ll give an account to God.
So the church is vital to our discipleship, to our encouragement and our accountability.
III. Church membership is not an option.
And membership in the local church is non-optional. I’m out of time, so let me just take you to two passages real quick. First, turn to Acts 9:4. You remember when Jesus, the risen and ascended Jesus, meets Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus? Talk about a shocker! You’re on the way to kill some Christians, you’re on your way to put some churches out of business, and Jesus meets you! And you remember what Jesus says to Saul – Acts 9:4 – “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting…Christians?” That’s not what He said. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting…churches?” That’s not what He said. That’s what Paul was doing: he was persecuting Christians and churches. But what does Jesus say? “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Why does Jesus say that? Because if you persecute a Christian, if you persecute a church, you are persecuting Jesus’ body. You are putting your finger on Jesus. And the Apostle Paul makes that…he obviously got this point! He obviously got this point, because if you’ll turn to I Corinthians 11, when he’s telling you about the Lord’s Supper, he tells you if you’re going to take the Lord’s Supper—go ahead, look at it…I Corinthians 11—if you’re going to take the Lord’s Supper, you’ve got to do two things. First (verse 28), you need to examine yourself. Second (verse 29), you must discern…what?... “the body.” What in the world is the Apostle Paul talking about?
Well, this church has a lot of problems, but what’s the big problem that Paul’s dealing with in this context at Corinth? It’s division within the church, and the Apostle Paul says don’t come to the Lord’s Table unless you understand that these brothers and sisters in this local church with you are the body of Christ; so that anything that you do to promote division amongst them is promoting division amongst the members of the very body of Jesus. No wonder He says if you don’t discern the body, don’t take the Lord’s Supper, because it will be eating and drinking condemnation to yourself…because this is the Lord’s body.
You see, when you’re united to Jesus, you are united to His body. That’s not optional. “Lord, I want Jesus…I just don’t want His people.” There’s no place in the New Testament where that option is laid out. Yes, I know. I know the thief on the cross is in the halls of glory now. But he didn’t have time to join the local church, friends! He didn’t have time. But let me tell you, if he had lived a week later and had said, “You know, Jesus, I love You, but I’m not sure about joining Your people,” Jesus would not have given him that option.
You see, it’s one thing for us to say that joining a church is not the way that you are saved and justified, that joining a local church is not necessary for justification: it’s another thing to say that joining a church is optional, because there is no way that you can be expressing your tangible membership in the universal body of Christ without expressing it in the local church.
I love the way that Brian Habig and Les Newsome say this in their book, The Enduring Community. And if you haven’t read that book, and you want to read a book on this subject…the subject of the church…I would suggest that you pick up a copy of The Enduring Community and read it. But what they do is… Do you remember that little bumper sticker that you see on the environmentalists’ VW’s that says, “Think globally and act locally.” Well, Brian and Les took that little bumper sticker and they changed the motto to apply to the issue of the church, and it says “Think globally; love locally.”
In Revelation 21, we read of the New Jerusalem, the bride, beautifully dressed for her husband. Who is the bride? It is the church. And who is her husband? God. It can be popular today among some circles to identify as "Christian", and yet reject any kind of "organized religion." But, the Bible is clear that to be a Christian involves identifying with the bride that God has created for Himself. Church membership exists finally for the glory of God; it exists so that the world might see who God is by looking at what He has done in building His church. When all is said and done, with the glory of the bride and her Groom in mind, join a church for God.
You see, there are a lot of Christians that love the universal church, but when it comes to the local church they’re not so sure about it. And you know, it’s easy to say that you love the universal church, because you don’t live right next door to it. It’s much harder to love people that you know and who have hurt you and have let you down, and who you have hurt and let down. But Jesus says ‘That’s exactly where I want discipleship to happen: where people who have hurt one another have to forgive one another; where people who have let one another down have to ask forgiveness and repent and be restored and reconciled in their relationship. Because that’s how I grow Christians who are ready to die to be a part of My body.’
O Lord, make us to be a church of people who understand the cost and the value and the vitalness, the essentialness, of being a part, not just of Your church universal, Your church invisible, but Your church local. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
message has been lightly edited and formatted for the web page. No attempt has
been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to
produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an
established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any error to be with the transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permissions information, please visit the FPC Website, Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.