A Case for Covenant Membership in the Local Church

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Sam Storms:

Does the New Testament explicitly mention or describe formal church membership? No, it does not. However, there are numerous truths and responsibilities in the NT which would be minimized or denied if there were no definable local church membership. In other words, the fact that membership is not explicitly mentioned does not mean it didn’t exist. Those things which are explicitly mentioned necessarily assume that covenant membership existed. Therefore, if we conclude that covenant membership is necessarily entailed by the Bible’s commands for the church and the description of its life, we are morally obligated to pursue it in our churches today. If we conclude that it is not, we are free to regard local church membership as a matter of prudence which we may disregard if we think it not to be helpful in fulfilling our calling as the body of Christ.

As I read the New Testament, I can see several truths or responsibilities that, in my opinion, necessarily assume the existence of a definable covenant membership in the local church. I should point out that in addition to my own research, I’ve drawn heavily on the writings of John Piper, Michael McKinley, Jim Elliff, Mark Dever, and Kevin DeYoung.

1. Accountability to the Leaders (Elders) of the Church

Without covenant membership, who is it that the NT is referring to who must submit to a specific group of leaders? And who are those leaders? No one would argue that a believer is required to submit to the authority of just anyone who chooses to designate himself an Elder or Pastor, whether in this city or another. Some kind of expressed willingness or covenant or agreement or commitment (that is, membership) has to precede a person’s submission to a specified group of leaders who themselves are committed to providing spiritual direction to those who have acknowledged their authority. Consider the way the New Testament talks about the relationship of the church to her leaders.

“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17).

“We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17).

2. The Requirement that Shepherds Care for their Flock

The Bible instructs Elders that they are to have a special responsibility and care for a certain group, a group of members. Consider Acts 20:28 where Paul tells the Elders how to care for their flock.

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

This verse does not say Elders cannot visit unbelievers or those who are not yet members. But it does make clear that their first responsibility is to a particular flock. How are they to know who their flock is? For whom are the Elders and Pastors responsible? For whom will they give an account to God? Peter writes:

“Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).

“Those in your charge” (your portion, your lot) implies that the Elders knew those for whom they were responsible. This is just another way of talking about membership. If a person does not want to be held accountable by a group of Elders or be the special focus of the care of a group of Elders, they will resist the idea of membership. And they will resist God’s appointed way for them to live and be sustained in their faith.

3. Church Discipline

Three texts are worthy of our consideration. First, church membership is implied inMatthew 18:15-17 where “the church” (ekklesia) appears to be the final court of appeal in matters of church authority as it relates to membership.

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:15-17).

If there is no church membership, how can you define the group that will take up this sensitive and weighty matter of exhorting the unrepentant person and finally rendering a judgment about his standing in the community? The final step in this process of discipline is treating the unrepentant person “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Clearly, again, this makes sense only on the assumption that criteria exist by which one can know who or what constitutes the “church” from which this unrepentant person is now being excluded.

Second, we read this in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13

“What have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you’” (1 Cor. 5:12-13).

It is clear from Paul’s language that there is an “in the church” group and an “outside the church” group. Being in the church is definable. There are recognizable boundaries that make drawing this distinction possible. The objective criteria that constitute those boundaries would be the terms of membership in the church.

It is also clear that a person can be removed from being “in the church.” Such a formal removal would not be possible if there were no such thing as a clear membership. In other words, Paul’s exhortation would be impossible to obey unless there were a way of determining who is an accountable part of a local body and who is not. Simply put, formal exclusion presupposes formal inclusion.

Paul says that the church’s discipline is to occur when “you are assembled” (1 Cor. 5:4). For our purposes, simply note that there was a definite and formal assembly of the church, and they knew who to expect when it gathered. The church would have to have known who constituted its membership.

Apart from some expression of formal membership, how would it be determined who has the right to speak and to vote in the passing of judgment on the offending party? Surely this right would not extend to just anyone. Otherwise the person being disciplined could bring in extended family members and friends or coworkers or even people off the street who said they believed in Jesus. What about the person who has attended services only at Christmas or Easter, or perhaps someone who hasn’t been present for several years but occasionally sends in a support check? The right to engage in the disciplinary process must be limited to a specific group, one that is limited by the criteria that constitute membership in the body.

Finally, building upon the previous four points, the “discipline” of which Paul speaks was intended only for those who are in the church (v. 12). Evidently some in Corinth were avoiding contact with immoral unbelievers outside the church. Paul seeks to correct this misunderstanding by reminding them that the church’s judgment was aimed only at those “inside” the church. It seems clear that the church knew who was an insider and who was an outsider. Those “inside” the church must have been united to one another or committed in some special way beyond just casual acquaintance.

We look finally at 2 Corinthians 2:6 where Paul refers to the discipline the church inflicted on an individual as the “punishment by the majority.” The existence of a “majority” only makes sense if there was a defined set of people from which the majority is constituted. There cannot be a majority of an unspecified group; it must be a majority of something. The most natural assumption to make is that Paul meant the majority of an acknowledged membership of the church.

4. The List of Widows

“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” 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

“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? I find it highly unlikely that any person, regardless of belief, behavior, or involvement in the life of the body could simply insert 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

“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.

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 a 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 randomly 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.

I conclude, then, that although we do not find explicit language in the NT that points to the presence of a formal covenant membership, the latter must necessarily be assumed to have existed if sense is to be made of these many exhortations, practices, and responsibilities of Christian men and women.

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I am currently serving churches and colleges as a bible teacher, overseas and in the UK.