Mark Dever, in his book "Nine Marks Of A Healthy Church", outlines the key factors in biblical discipleship and growth. Today, continuing from part 4, we'll look at the fifth component of biblical discipleship and growth.
6. Biblical Understanding of Church Membership
A biblical understanding of church membership probably sounds like the most boring subject covered thus far in this series. But if we understand what a true Christian is, and what a real church is, then membership in a local church becomes a deep longing for those who are the bride of Christ.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen." Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?" I said to him, "Sir, you know." And he said to me, "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. "Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7:9-17).
That is an exciting picture. But if you talk to many professing Christians today they will complain and give you a huge list of negative things about the church. Paul Washer commented on this:
I want to talk about finding the church, in other words, stopping the slander. If you want to be endeared to me, then treat my wife with the greatest respect. If you want to be on my bad side, then slander my wife. The accusation of infidelity and immorality is the hindrance in the work of missions.
We have experts who tell us over and over that there is little difference between the actions of the church and the actions of a fallen world. We hear experts that there is just as much immorality in the church as there is in the world. I am here to tell you that angers me because it is a lie. The experts do not even know what the church is. The church today is absolutely beautiful, and I will have words for anyone who says anything else. Because we are talking about Christ’s bride.
The church is in a process of sanctification. Yes she has her weaknesses; yes she has failings. Our bride is broken and humble and believing her master, and she is following him and being changed by him in a way that exalts the power of God in salvation. We are calling Christian that which is not Christian, and it has led to the slandering of the bride of Jesus Christ. Because of our watered-down view of the gospel, our superficial views of regeneration and conversion, because we believe that God is enough to save from the condemnation of sin but not enough to save from the power of sin.
It is not the fault of a liberal political party; it is the fault of pastors. Even conservative, fundamental pastors.
As we examine the topic of a biblical understanding of church membership, I will try to answer these three questions:
1. What is a true church?
2. Why should we join a church?
3. What things does church membership call us to do?
In today's post I will focus solely on the first of these three questions because it addresses the biggest problem - a problem created/perpetuated by the abundance of "seeker sensitive" churches that many of us have “left behind”. If I can answer and clear up the issue of defining church biblically, then I believe everything else will happen naturally.
Theologians through church history have made a distinction between what they call the “visible church”, the “invisible church”, and sects/cults/false churches. The greek word used for church in Scripture is “ekklesia” which describes the called out ones. All true Christians all over the world. These are the ones Jesus prayed for in John 17. This is every name written in the Lamb's Book of Life. Do we know every name written in that book? That is why we call the whole body of Christ the invisible church. There is no real argument here. It is when we discuss the visible church that the big problems start.
The expression of the local congregation where we find ourselves on Sundays is one example of a visible church. It is something we see every time we visit an area where professing believers gather to worship God and hear His word preached. These local churches are visible churches. The seven churches in Revelation are visible churches with one of them on the edge of apostacy by departing from the Gospel. The Laodiciean church was close to becoming an apostate or false church and was being strongly warned to repent by our Lord Himself. Professing believers gather in a visible church but we are always aware that there is always tares among the wheat, goats among the sheep, and false converts among true Christians in a visible church. The visible church is called to deal with this through church discipline but some goats are able to wear a sheep suit all their life as Judas did. I once told Ray Comfort that I am so thankful for him being the first person to teach me about false conversion. It has helped in many ways but none more so than in harmonizing passages that I used to find difficult.
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us (1 John 2:19).
John says that true Christians or members of the invisible church cannot apostatize: "for if they were of us, they would have continued with us." The fact that these professing Christians departed from the church is empirical proof that they were never true Christians. On a recent visit to the USA, a friend with Arminian theology asked me “Who perseveres until the end” and I said “the elect”. He then asked me “who are the elect” and I said “those who persevere”. Brothers and sisters, this may make our head spin but it is easily understood in the Sovereign mind of God. It is ultimately He who will divide the sheep from the goats.
When God saves someone they become a part of the invisible church. They then need to find a true visible church to join.
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:24-25).
This is where a lot of the problems happen. Rick Warren, for some very strange reason, recently preached to a lot of reformed pastors (at Desiring God 2010). During his “talk” he rebuked them for teaching too much Scripture and not enough application. Why would Rick Warren say something so incredibly stupid and unbiblical? Because his church growth philosophy has perverted how he defines a visible church. When he sees a large group of people who pray a sinners prayer but keep living in their old way he doesn't see false converts – he sees people who have not been taught how to apply all the teaching that they are getting too much of. Guess what will happen if I start teaching all my fornicating friends the application of waiting until they are married? They don't sin because they have never been taught application, they sin because they are evil, and love their sin, and hate God, and so did I, but God saved me and gave me a new heart with new desires, and now I am called to preach this Gospel to all those wicked sinners because God loves to save wicked sinners just like me!
When we look for a visible church to join we need to look much deeper than seeing a building with a sign that says church. The reformers fought against the false church of Roman Catholicism all their lives. To this day the Catholic church denies salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. The council of Trent pronounces damnation on anyone who believes that.
If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema (Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 9).
The Reformers defined a true Church in article 29 of the Belgic Confession:
Article 29 of the Belgic Confession
We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God what is the true church, for all sects which are in the world today claim for themselves the name of church.1 We are not speaking here of the hypocrites, who are mixed in the church along with the good and yet are not part of the church, although they are outwardly in it.2 We are speaking of the body and the communion of the true church which must be distinguished from all sects that call themselves the church.
The true church is to be recognized by the following marks: It practises the pure preaching of the gospel.3 It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.4 It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.5 In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God,6 rejecting all things contrary to it7 and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head.8 Hereby the true church can certainly be known and no one has the right to separate from it.
Those who are of the church may be recognized by the marks of Christians. They believe in Jesus Christ the only Saviour,9 flee from sin and pursue righteousness,10 love the true God and their neighbour11 without turning to the right or left, and crucify their flesh and its works.12 Although great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their life.13 They appeal constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of Jesus Christ, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins through faith in Him.14
The false church assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God. It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ.15 It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in His Word, but adds to them and subtracts from them as it pleases. It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ. It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.16
These two churches are easily recognized and distinguished from each other.
(1. Rev 2:9. 2. Rom 9:6. 3. Gal 1:8; 1 Tim 3:15. 4. Acts 19:3-5; 1 Cor 11:20-29. 5. Mat 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:4-5, 1 Cor 5:13; 2 Thes 3:6, 2 Thes 3:14; Titus 3:10. 6. John 8:47; John 17:20; Acts 17:11; Eph 2:20; Col 1:23; 1 Tim 6:3. 7. 1 Thes 5:21; 1 Tim 6:20; Rev 2:6. 8. John 10:14; Eph 5:23; Col 1:18. 9. John 1:12; 1 John 4:2. 10. Rom 6:2; Phil 3:12. 11. 1 John 4:19-21. 12. Gal 5:24. 13. Rom 7:15; Gal 5:17. 14. Rom 7:24-25; 1 John 1:7-9. 15. Acts 4:17-18; 2 Tim 4:3-4; 2 John 9. 16. John 16:2).
In Part 6 we will look at the questions of why we should we join a church and what things does church membership call us to do?
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