The Biblical Blessing of Covenant Membership in the Local Church (2)
In the previous article we lookd at the first three lines of evidence that appear to support the idea of membership in the body of Christ. We now continue with the remaining arguments.
4. The List of Widows
In 1 Timothy 5:9-12, Paul gives Timothy a set of instructions for enrolling widows on the list of those receiving support from the church. He writes:
“Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work. But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith” (1 Tim. 5:9-12).
The verb translated "enroll" (katalageô) can be either specific ("to put on a list") or general ("to consider as part of a certain group"). The former meaning would make the point more marked in that the church was clearly keeping an accessible list of widowed members. Yet even the latter meaning would imply that the church was distinguishing between people in a way consistent with the practice of church membership.
Why mention the widow’s list? It’s difficult to imagine the church keeping a list of widows but not keeping a list of covenant members. If it didn’t keep the latter list, what group of widows would even be considered for inclusion on the former list? Any widow in the entire city of Ephesus? The widow who showed up three times four years ago? Of course not. The church would have some specified pool that it was drawing from.
5. Congregational Decision Making
In Acts 15:22 we read the following:
“Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 15:22).
A decision needed to be made concerning those who would be entrusted with a letter summing up the conclusions of the Jerusalem Council. The decision was made not only by the apostles and the elders but in conjunction with “the whole church.” Who constituted the “whole church”? How was it known that one either was or was not part of the “church” in Jerusalem? How was it determined who had a right to speak into this matter? Would anyone who happened to be present at the meeting be given a voice? I find it highly unlikely that any person, regardless of belief, behavior, or involvement in the life of the body could simply assert himself into this affair. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that certain criteria or standards were in place that served to set apart those believers who were authorized to join with the apostles and elders in making this decision.
6. Responsibility within the family of faith
Consider Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 6:10,
“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
As Christians, we are responsible to display the love of Christ to “everyone,” i.e., to all people regardless of their spiritual convictions. But we have a unique responsibility “to those who are of the household of faith.” The local church is here portrayed as a family, spiritual “brothers” and “sisters” whose presence in the house and identity as members of that family are obvious. We don’t know what the criteria were that identified one as a family member and thus the object of this particular display of “good,” but there had to have been some means by which the household of faith was differentiated from “everyone” else. This is what is meant by “covenant membership” in the family of God’s children.
God evidently desires to make known to the world the existence of this unified family, this body of believers in any given locality. Look at this family of faith, men and women who are bonded spiritually, who believe together, rejoice together, are growing together, and together display the love of God that is found in Christ. That, simply put, is covenant membership.
7. The Gathering of the “whole church”
In 1 Corinthians 14:23, Paul describes a situation in which “the whole church comes together.” How would the leaders know if the “whole church” was there if no formal covenant relationship was established? The fact that Paul envisioned a group that could be identified and defined as everyone who belonged to that local body necessarily assumes that some means or mechanism had to be in place by which such people could be known. I think that means or mechanism or whatever other word you find appropriate is what I am calling “covenant membership.”
8. Biblical Metaphors
Covenant membership is implied in the metaphor of the “body” in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13. The original meaning of the word “member” is member of a body, like hand and foot and eye and ear. That’s the imagery behind the word “member” in the text (vv. 12, 14, 18, 19, 20, 23, 25, 26, 27). Verse 12: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
So the question this imagery raises for the local church that Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians 12 is: Who intends to be treated as a hand or foot or eye or ear of this body? There is a unity and organic relationship implied in the imagery of the body. There is something unnatural about a Christian attaching himself to a body of believers and not being a member of the body. Neither Paul nor any other biblical author ever describes a Christian as one who functions or exists in isolation from the whole.
In addition to the metaphor of the “body” the New Testament speaks of the church as a “flock” (Acts 20:28) and a “building” (1 Peter 2:5).
In each of these metaphors, there is an obvious relationship between the individual and the congregation as a whole. The individual Christian is a member of the body and a sheep in the flock. The individual believer is, in Peter’s words, "a living stone" in the spiritual house.
Each of these word pictures, so vital to our understanding of the church, demand more than a casual commitment from the individual. There are no informally connected stones in a building. They are cemented together unambiguously. Sheep do not hop from flock to flock; rather, the shepherd knows exactly how many sheep he has in his care. Body parts do not relate to each other informally; they are intricately connected to each other and are mutually dependent. Surely, we best reflect these metaphors when we formally tie ourselves to a local congregation.
Biblical Texts that describe the Local Church
The church is made up of many different members that comprise the one body of Christ
“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Rom. 12:4-5)
“We who are many are one body” (1 Cor. 10:17).
“Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12).
“You are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).
“Equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12).
“Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph. 5:23).
“We are members of [Christ's] body” (Eph. 5:30).
“In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).
The church is the Bride of Christ
“Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:9).
“The marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; It was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure” (Rev. 19:7-8).
“For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:12).
“‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31-32).
The church is the family of God
“I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:18).
“Stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matt. 12:49-50).
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
“As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
“Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1).
The church is God’s house
“Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (Heb. 3:6).
“I am writing these things to you so that . . . you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:14-15).
“It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God” (1 Pet. 4:17).
The church is the temple of God, built with living stones, with Christ as the foundation and cornerstone, and the Holy Spirit indwelling it
“For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11).
“The household of God [is] built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19-22).
“‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’ . . . ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’” (1 Pet. 2:6-7 [Isa. 28:16; Ps. 118:22).
"You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 2:5).
"Do you not know that you [plural] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor. 3:16-17).
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19).
When we talk about covenant membership we are not asking you to join a club. We are not asking that you affiliate with an organization or an institution. We are asking you to join yourself to other Christian men and women. We are asking you to commit yourself to pursue godliness together and to live in relationships of mutual accountability and encouragement. We are asking you to identify yourself as a vital, contributing partner in this community of faith. This isn’t about someone’s control over you, but your commitment to others. It is less about authority and more about accountability. It isn’t about walking through life beneath someone, but next to them.
So, why covenant membership? It isn’t because we want to be like some other church, or even because we want to be unlike someone else. It is because we want to be biblical. It is because this world wants to sell you a bill of goods and to shape you in its image. The world wants to convince you that:
You should maintain your independence and autonomy; Spiritual authority, or any kind of authority for that matter, is evil; You should float around, but never settle down; And if you don’t like what is being offered in your church, there are at least a dozen more down the road that will surely have what you’re looking for.
Why covenant membership? So that when your life starts to fall apart (however or whenever that may happen) you can rest assured that others who have pledged and promised themselves to you will be there, to love and support you, to pray for you, to instruct you, to walk with you through the worst of times.
Why covenant membership? So that in the face of rampant relativism and postmodern mush that says truth is whatever each individual wants it to be you can stand arm-in-arm with brothers and sisters in Christ and say: “This, the Word of God, is truth. We are united by covenant in our commitment to what it says. And we’re willing to go to the ends of the earth together to make it known, and if necessary to die for it.
To be continued . . .