Mark Six: A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership
October 16, 2022

Mark Six: A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership

Mark Six: A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership
by William Klock


As we continue our look at the marks of a healthy church, we come today to something of a mid-point.  For that reason I want to back up to where we started.  When we set out, one of the things I explained was the way in which the Protestant Reformation changed how we think about the Church.  The Roman Church, for example, claimed to be the one true church based on its having a line of bishops in succession from St. Peter.  The Reformers, however, defined a true church on the basis of its fidelity to word and sacrament.  And this was written into the confessions and formularies of reformed churches across Europe.  The Lutheran Augsburg Confession, for example, says: “This [the Christian Church] is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.  For it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word.”[1]  John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote: “Wherever we see the word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.”[2]  Or the Belgic Confession of the Continental Reformed churches: “The marks by which a true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ…”[3]  And, jumping up north, this is what the Scots Confession says: “The Notes, therefore, of the true Kirk of God we believe, confess, and avow to be, first, The true preaching of the word of God; into the which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the Prophets and Apostles do declare. Secondly, The right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, which must be annexed to the word and promise of God, to seal and confirm the same in our hearts. Lastly, Ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed, and virtue nourished.”[4]  And of course our own Article XIX: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.”


Faithfulness to God’s word and to the sacraments ordained by Jesus are the central marks of a real church.  And, I appreciate and think it’s worth noting again the words of the Augsburg Confession, which stress that these two things not only define us and establish our boundaries, but we also share them as the basis for our unity.  We don’t have to agree on every theological detail.  We don’t have to agree on precisely how the sacraments work.  But if we faithfully preach God’s word and observe his sacraments, we can be sure that we are united in the same Messiah.  Our unity does not come from bishops or a line of succession.  It does not come from perfect doctrinal uniformity.  It does not come from geography or culture or language.  It comes from our being in this Jesus whom we know by word and sacrament.


So far, the marks—or maybe I should call them “sub-marks” we’ve been looking at all related to or are derived from the first of those two great marks of the Church: faithfulness to the word of God.  We preach the word and as we do, that word informs and shapes our understanding of God, of the gospel, of conversion, and of evangelism and mission.  Today I want to switch gears and begin to look at points that follow from that second great mark of the Church: the ministration of the sacraments.  Now, there is a sense in which even the administration of the sacraments and everything connected with that is derivative of our preaching of the word and our submission to it.  Without scripture, we would neither understand the sacraments nor know what to do with them.  But I think it’s worth changing gears a bit at this point and continuing forward with the next marks of a healthy church and understanding them as derivative of or connected to the sacraments—to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.


So, first, if observing these two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, if observing them marks us out as Christians, that means they have something to say to us about who belongs to the Church—about the subject of “membership”.  And membership is a subject worth talking about, because not everyone agrees on what constitutes membership in a church or in the Church.  In the early Church, people believed and were baptised and then the baptised gathered regularly—weekly as far as we can tell—and celebrated the Lord’s Supper together.  That was it.  The churches were small and it was clear who was a member and who wasn’t, because to be baptised in Jesus the Messiah was a big deal.  To gather together, often when it meant punishment or martyrdom, not to mention living daily for Jesus, well, that itself spoke of a real and serious commitment.


But jump forward several hundred years and—at least in theory—everyone in Europe became a Christian.  Everyone was baptised.  Everyone went to church and received the Lord’s Supper (even though it wasn’t offered to them very often).  Many of those people were truly committed to Jesus and gave him their allegiance, but many did not.  And so there were various reform movements down through the ages, with folks trying to reach those nominal believers.  And it’s worth noting that those movements—where they were successful—whether the Franciscans or the Dominicans, the Protestant Reformers or, later, Puritans or the Baptists or the Methodists, those movements were founded on the renewed preaching of God’s word, because they knew that it is God’s word and God’s word alone that breathes life into dead bones.


But even the Reformers accepted that the sacraments are the markers of membership in the Church.  They knew that there are many who are baptised and rarely thereafter darken the doorway of a church.  They knew that there are many who come regularly to church and who receive the Lord’s Supper, but who fail to understand what it’s all about or who simply have other motives for coming and participating.  There are many who never show the change that comes with faith in Jesus and the gospel.  And so they put emphasis on the need for fathers and mothers to teach their children and to be faithful in family worship.  They developed catechisms, to teach both children and adults what it means to be a Christian.  The rite of Confirmation was repurposed in the Reformation churches as an opportunity to catechise children on the cusp of adulthood—to make sure they understood the faith into which they had been baptised as infants.  But everyone agreed: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were the marks of the new covenant people of God.


But not quite everyone.  The Anabaptists (the forerunners of the Mennonites and Amish) and later the Baptists tweaked the formula.  Only those adults who could give a credible profession of faith in both word and manner of life, only they were baptised.  Not infants, not children, not young adults—only grown men and women who credibly professed and lived out their commitment to Jesus.  But even there, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper remained the markers of membership in the Church.  A person enters this covenant people by faith by passing through the waters of Baptism and then the covenant people meet regularly to renew that covenant in the Lord’s Supper.


I didn’t set out to give a history lesson this morning, but as I was working through this matter of church membership, I realised that few people today have ever really thought about this—even a lot of pastors.  Today it’s common to admit people to the Lord’s Supper whether they’re baptised or not.  It’s common to admit people as members of a local church regardless of whether they’ve been baptised.  Sinner’s prayers, altar calls, bowed heads and raised hands, and walking aisles have often replaced baptism as the means of entry into the covenant.  And as our culture has become increasingly commitment-phobic, many churches have done away with any kind of membership altogether.  In many otherwise evangelical churches, baptism has become optional.  In rarer instances, so has the Lord’s Supper.  And in the case of groups like the Salvation Army, both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have been done away with entirely.  In many Anglican churches, like ours, we’ve inherited a somewhat confusing practise of sort of informally adding to the role any baptised person who attends as a “baptised member” and then having a separate list of “communicant members”, who are those who have been confirmed—which means they’ve been officially received as members by the bishop.


So what, according to the Bible, constitutes membership in the Church?  Well, let’s go back to the Bible and back to the big story.  That’s our controlling narrative after all.  Notice how the Lord has always set his people apart.  There has always been a rite of initiation, a rite that marks a person out as a member of the covenant people—a rite by which the Lord marks out his own.  And there has always been a rite of covenant renewal and remembrance by which later members of the covenant family recall and participate for themselves in the great historical action of the Lord to redeem and to set apart this people.


In the old covenant that first rite was circumcision.  Bible scholars debate over why specifically circumcision, but this cutting of the organ of procreation was probably meant to be a reminder of the Lord’s promise to Abraham that he would make of him a great nation.  But even before the law was given, this rite marked out the Lord’s people as his own.  The sign was given to the adult who joined the community, but most importantly to the infant children of its members.  It wasn’t optional.  The uncircumcised has no part in the life of the covenant people and neglecting to include one’s children was a serious offense.  Consider the story of Moses on his way back to Egypt.  The Lord, we’re told sought to kill him, but the Lord’s anger was placated when Moses’ wife circumcised their son, doing herself what Moses had neglected.  Is salvation by faith?  Yes it is and it always has been.  And circumcision was for the people of Israel, an act of faith in the Lord’s promise to Abraham—both for themselves and for their children who were to inherit that promise.  The children of covenant members were to be raised as full members of the covenant people, with all the rights and obligations that came with membership.  A covenant child was to be raised in faith, never to know a time apart from this people who lived with the living God in their midst.  From before they could even remember, they bore his covenant sign.


And then came the Exodus, when the Lord delivered his covenant people from Egypt.  And he gave them the second rite, the rite of Passover.  “Rite” is really too sterile a word.  Passover was a meal—a meal that gave meaning to the events of the Exodus, that reminded the covenant people of what the Lord had done for them, and a meal through which every succeeding generation participated for themselves in those saving events and came to know their own place in the people of God.


And, of course, there was the torah, the law—the covenant charter between the Lord and his people that outlined what life in this covenant people was to look like.  And, if you can be included in a people, you can also be excluded, and so the torah specified what that looked like, whether it was the death penalty for certain severe offenses to temporary “exile” in cases of impurity, and everything in between.


Now, the new covenant people.  I hope the parallels are already starting to come into focus.  We see the same pattern in the Church, because of course, the new covenant is the fulfilment of the old and carries on the same mission that the people of God has always had: to make the living God known to the nations as he works to set his fallen creation to rights.  The old makes sense of the new.  We are his priestly people, mediating his presence to the world. We are his prophetic people, calling the nations to repentance and faith.  We are his kingly people, announcing the royal proclamation that Jesus is Lord and preparing the nations for his dominion.  The difference is that this new people is not defined by circumcision, Passover, or torah, but by Jesus and the life of the Spirit.  And we enter that life in our baptism, just as the Israelites entered God’s covenant by means of circumcision.  As circumcision marked out the Israelite, so baptism marks out the Christian as belonging to the Lord.  And as circumcision was, so baptism is a fitting and appropriate sign in that it reminds us of the Lord’s promise in Jesus to wash us clean from sin.  Specifically for those first Jewish believers, it spoke to them of forgiveness for having failed to keep the old covenant, but for each of us as we pass through the baptismal waters in faith, we are forgiven our own past unfaithfulness.  And our baptism links us to the Lord’s saving acts in the past—with Israel’s exodus from Egypt.  The font is our Red Sea and through these waters the Lord leads us into a new life in his presence.  Peter told them men present on Pentecost to repent and to be baptised.  Jesus, earlier, called his hearers to believe and be baptised.  Repentance and belief are necessary, but Paul reminds us repeatedly that it is our baptism that formally unites us to Jesus.  You can repent and believe all day long, but baptism is the means God has given us make us his.  It is his promise to us in visible, tangible form.  “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” he writes in Galatians 3:27.  And, “In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit,” in 2 Corinthians 12:13.


And, despite what our Anabaptism and Baptist brothers and sisters might say, just as with the sign of the old covenant, baptism rightly belongs to our children.  Consider that at the very first, the new covenant people was made up entirely of old covenant people.  Think of Peter’s sermon on Pentecost.  He finished by announcing to his hearers, “This promise is for you and for your children” (Acts 2:39).  Children were included in the old covenant.  Again, not to include your children got you excluded from the old covenant.  And here Peter announces a new and better covenant in Jesus.  And it’s being announced to people who are already members of the old.  Imagine those men who were baptised excitedly going home to their families to tell them about this new and better covenant, but then telling their children: “Sorry, you’ve been part of the Lord’s people, you’ve participated in the Passover every year you’ve been alive, but now that there’s a better covenant, you’re no longer part of it, you can’t participate in the new covenant meal—at least not until you’re an adult and can make the choice for yourself.  Even then, you can’t be baptised until everyone’s reasonably certain you really believe.”  That would hardly be a new and better covenant.  The Lord has always fully included the children of covenant members in his people.  The family is one of the primary means of grace—it always has been—for raising, first, new Israelites, and now, new Christians.


I know there is concern for children who are baptised, but for whatever reason never develop their own faith, who have no commitment, who leave the church but think, “I’m fine.  I’ve been baptised.”  Brothers and Sisters, God is concerned about those people too.  It was as great a problem in Israel as it is in the Church.  And yet he has always insisted on the inclusion of our children in the covenant.  It is his gracious means and we need to trust him.  Our duty is to be faithful in raising our own covenant children and—for the leadership of the Church—to do our best to ensure those who bring their children for baptism are, themselves, faithful and aware of what they’re doing.  Some fall away, but we trust the Lord knows what he’s doing when he insists we include our children in the covenant.


So baptism corresponds to circumcision and initiates us into the new covenant.  In the same way the Lord’s Supper corresponds to Passover.  The meal itself, when Jesus instituted it the night before he died, was a Passover meal reinterpreted around what he was about to do.  Again, this was the meal by which the Lord’s people in the old covenant recalled and participated themselves in the events by which he had made them his people.  Consider that neither Jesus nor his disciples had been there when Israel painted the blood on their doorposts, when the angel of death passed through Egypt, when the Lord parted the sea and then drowned Pharaoh’s army.  But part of the Passover meal and the liturgy associated with it, involved—and still involves—the participants talking about those events as if they themselves were part of them.  And Jesus took that meal and recentred it on himself and on his saving death.  The cross and the empty tomb were about to become a new exodus.  And through that new exodus the Lord would create a new people.  Brothers and Sisters, in the Lord’s Supper we recall—and not just recall, but participate in—those mighty, saving deeds by which the Lord has led us out of our slavery to sin and death.  The Supper reminds us that by virtue of our baptism into Jesus, we are the Lord’s covenant people.  And it reminds us of the life to which we have been called.  The Lord led Israel through the sea and on the other side he gave them his law and took up his presence in their midst.  And so with the Church, the Lord has led us through the sea of baptism, by Jesus’ death and resurrection he has delivered us from our slavery to sin and death, and he has, in a new and better way, made himself present in our midst.  He has filled us with his Spirit and he has written the law of his Spirit on our hearts.  He has taken our hearts of stone and replaced them with hearts of flesh, ready to be the people who will mediate his presence and proclaim his good news to the world.


Biblically speaking, these two things, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, mark us out objectively as members of the Church.  We can point subjectively to the life of the Spirit.  Every believer will show the fruit of the Spirit.  Every believer will show a love for God and a love for others, for example.  Perhaps what we need to be reminded of most in this day where everything is about the individual: Every believer who professes love for Jesus will also love his body and be eager to gather with it.  But these things aren’t as easy to pin down objectively.  Next week, Lord willing, I’ll address the topic of church discipline, which addresses those times when our lives fail to match up to our profession.  But this change that takes place in us because of Jesus and the presence of the Spirit doesn’t happen at the same pace for everyone.  It’s not usually linear.  And none of us is perfect.  Being immature in the faith isn’t the same as not being in the faith.  And so we come back to the sacraments as the marks of the Christian.  Have you been baptised into Jesus?  Do you regularly receive his invitation and come to the Table to participate anew in his death and resurrection?  If the answer is yes, then you belong to God.  He has marked you as his own.  And he will work in you day by day by his grace to conform you to the image of his son.


What about all the other membership-related things we and other churches do in addition to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper?  What about Confirmation or reception by a bishop?  Or membership covenants?  Churches have a variety of ways for people to formally identify with the local church or with the denomination.  Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the biblical markers of membership in the Church.  Does that make those other practises bad?  Not necessarily.  Just because the Bible doesn’t tell us specifically to do something doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t do it.  There are good reasons to have means for people to formally identify with a local church and to commit to the people there.  There are good reasons to have means for people to submit themselves to the doctrine and discipline of a local church or denomination.  In a day when there are a lot of people who drift from one church to another—which is not a good thing—we need means of encouraging people to commit to a specific congregation.  Speaking as your pastor, I need to know to whom I have an obligation of pastoral care and you show me that by your commitment to this congregation.  When someone attends here a few weeks, then does the same at three or four or five other churches and then makes her way back here months later for another few weeks—it’s hard to care for, to exhort, to discipline people like that, or even to know if I should.  Anything else we do with regard to church membership ought to reinforced Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as marks of membership.  If what we do detracts from or becomes a substitute for the sacraments, then we’ve lost a biblical understanding of membership.


Finally, in closing, I want to remind you of the “why” to all of this.  It can be easy to get so focused on the what that we forget the why—that we forget our mission and the reason why membership in the church matters.  Brothers and Sisters, God has called us together, he has marked us out, he has given us his grace so that we can make him known.  St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”  We are the people redeemed by his blood and that makes us, as a people, living witnesses of God’s love and mercy and grace.  Our Baptism, our participation in the Lord’s Supper, they are not merely for us.  They are for the life of the world as we reveal to the people around us what it is to be part of God’s new creation and what it looks like to live in the presence of the living God.  One day the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  Dear Friends, that day will come, because of God’s word, because of God’s Spirit, but most importantly, because he has created a people for himself, marked by the waters of baptism and fed with his body and blood, whose faithful presence and witness in the world makes him known and reveals his glory.


Let’s pray: Father, we come this morning and give you thanks for having graciously brought us into this family we call the Church.  You have washed us clean, you feed us at your Table, you call us your own sons and daughters.  You have poured your own Spirit into us, that we might be conformed to the image of your true son, Jesus.  May we be as committed to this family as you are.  Deliver us from the consumerist mindset of our age, that we would come to give, not so much to get.  We pray that by your word and Spirit you will make us ever more faithful to you and to this mission to make your good news known to world around us.  Through Jesus we pray.  Amen.

[1] Article VII

[2] IV.i.ix

[3] Article XXIX

[4] Article XVIII

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