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Friday, December 22, 2006

Church Membership Defined

The word church has several meanings, depending upon context. One is what most non-believers and some believers think of – a building. Another could be a worship service – “We’re about to have church up in here (this may be a U.S. urban specific use)”. A third is a profession or group of those in the profession of clergy – “He considered the church as a possible career” or “The church declared Joan of Arc a heretic”. None of those, of course, are being considered in this series!

The two definitions relevant to church membership describe a group of people. One is the entire body of Christian believers. It is in this sense that the Scriptures speak of the Church as the Bride of Christ for who Christ gave his life (Ephesians 5), or of whom Christ is the head (Colossians 1), or what would be built upon the rock of faith (Matthew 16). This church, the Church with a capital C or the church catholic (universal), is a church that has a membership – but it is a divine membership added to by God (Acts 2:47). That is not the church membership for our discussion.

There are groups of people throughout the world who gather together for worship, exhortation, instruction, and fellowship. They may be under a tree in east Africa, in underground catacombs in South Asia, in illegal house churches in China, under a bridge in North Korea, or in a Cathedral in Europe. They are in small country churches of fifty and megachurches of 20,000 in the U.S. They may or may not have formal memberships, membership requirements, or paid staff members. They may or may not have doctrinal statements to which one must affirm, classes they should attend, or established procedures of discipline for members who do not meet the standards of behavior they set forth.

The church we are talking about is “a” church, not “the” church. I do not seek to make distinctions between denominations or even what might or might not be a “real” church. The only distinction I seek to make is simply what the word means – an assembly of believers. I, for one, would certainly make distinction in what exactly they believe in, but for the purposes of our discussion we will assume that any church considering itself “Christian” qualifies for our discussion of church membership.

Why should we consider a collective group of believers a church? Why not different people sitting at home watching T.D. Jakes on TV? Why not the people who stop by Alistair Begg’s website and listen to his sermons?

Words mean something. Anyone who has spent any time at this site has read that! The Greek word translated “church” is ἐκκλησίᾳ, which merely means “assembly”. In every case, the church is a group of people gathered together in one place. Furthermore, there is clearly a sense of permanence to the ἐκκλησίᾳ. When Paul writes a letter to the church of the Thessalonians, he is not hoping that some random people show up at a certain place to read his letter – no, he is writing to a specific group of people that need specific exhortations, who regularly gather together. The permanence is not that the membership is fixed, but that the assembly is consistent and ideally growing, not reducing.

So how does one qualify as a church member? I consider the existence of a formal membership or membership list of some value, which is why I engaged Rightthinker about it in my previous post. However, I do not think a list necessary for church membership. Following the Biblical and historical model, church members are those who are a part of a local body of believers that gathers together specifically for kingdom tasks. Those tasks can vary wildly, and necessarily may involve things that are not specific to the church, but should always include elements of worship, teaching and fellowship.

A church member is not an occasional attendee, but is someone who is dedicated to that community of believers. 1 Corinthians 16 contains instructions to collect funds when the church comes together on the first day of the week. 1 Corinthians 11 discusses the fashion and context of the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper when the church (assembly) comes together regularly. The instances of the church (assembly) described as being together is countless, beginning with the apostles on the day of Pentecost, continuing with meeting in the temple and in synagogues and expanding to homes and specific locations for gathering. John and Paul both write of situations where someone is cast out of the assembly (church), as does Jesus in Matthew 18. Finally, Hebrews 10:24-25 explicitly states, “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”

There is no instance of a church which is not an assembly of believers, and furthermore this assembly is one that meets regularly to worship, teach, and build each other up. There is a significant body of Scripture dedicated to how the church (assembly) should be structured. Clearly the church is a community of believers, and I have yet to see Scriptural license for failing to join in an assembly. A church member is one who is a committed, regular attendee of the assembly.

That said, I recognize that there are other, non-Scriptural arguments used to defend a lack of church membership for an individual. The next post will examine the desert church fathers, the impact of technology upon the ability of the individual to grow outside of the assembly, and the priesthood of the believer.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Merry Christmas Charlie Brown!

As I lay in bed last night contemplating Christmas, it was not visions of sugarplums that were dancing in my head. I’ve been feeling a little like Charlie Brown this Christmas, not because I don’t understand the true meaning of Christmas, but because I DO. I’ll explain.

This Christmas season has been the most spiritually eye opening Christmas of my adult life thus far. Let me begin by saying that I am a Christmas fanatic. I love Christmas. My husband would attest to the fact that I begin watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and getting excited about the season mid-July. I’m like a little kid at Christmas- I love everything about it. I love the music (all of it!), the lights, the movies, the scents, the weather (when it’s cold and “frightful” J) the decorations- you name it. Until this season, I even loved Santa Claus. Well, I must admit, a part of me still loves the magic of believing in Santa, but this year is different.

I recently completed reading the book of Isaiah in the Bible from beginning to end, meditating on it over a period of weeks. I have never felt so in awe of the Lord’s greatness and faithfulness to His promises. Each prophecy of the coming messiah was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and I cannot understand how anyone (especially Jews who are familiar with the Old Testament prophecies) can miss the fact that Jesus was and is the long awaited King born to save His people from their sins. My heart aches for the unbelieving world and culture of today who is increasingly trying to push Christ out of Christmas. A wonderful new movie, ‘The Nativity Story’ opened recently, and to say that it seems to have been a flop in the box office is an understatement. I’d bet that ‘The Santa Clause 3’ had a better turn out. Why? Because people don’t want to hear about Jesus. ‘Happy Holidays’ has replaced ‘Merry Christmas’ in most stores, and it almost feels rebellious to greet passerby’s with a jolly “Merry Christmas!” because it might be offensive to someone who celebrates the recently made up holiday “Kwanza” instead. I despise what the world has done to Christmas, and with Christmas being celebrated without any reference to Christ, Christmas seems to have done little to affect our unbelieving world today.

My initial aversion to the worldly celebration of Christmas began on the night of Thanksgiving when I was watching the news and saw the line of people camped out at Best Buy to get the early morning bargains. The next night mobs of people were shown trampling each other to get their hands on the new PS3, someone even getting shot in the process. Christmas has been turned into a greedy push and shove shopping spree. When Christmas is focused on snowmen and Santa and jingle bells and decking the halls, what is really being celebrated? Why not just celebrate the winter solstice? I have many lifelong childhood friends who are not believers in Christ who celebrate Christmas and take part in the many traditions of the season- the tree, the lights, the food, the sending of Christmas cards, etc. What I find most absurd, however, is the professing “Christians” who celebrate Advent and don’t even believe in the virgin birth of Christ or the entire reason He was born!! If you don’t even believe Jesus is God in the flesh, come to Earth to save people from their sins, what in the world does the “Advent” mean to you? I just don’t get it.

My family has celebrated the Advent so far this year in meaningful ways that have focused on the forgotten true reason for the season: the birth of Christ. We’ve read passages of the Christmas story from the Bible while enacting it in the nativity set, lit candles for the advent and talked about Jesus’s upcoming birthday. We’ll be making Jesus a birthday cake instead of cookies for Santa. We’ll be excited to put baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas morning and try to focus on giving to others because of the great gift God gave us, rather than being focused on what we’ll get from Santa. My children are excited about Christmas because of Jesus, and that’s how it should be. Their preferred Christmas movie is not ‘Rudolph’ or ‘Frosty’, but ‘The Very First Noel’. My twelve year old is long past believing in Santa, and no, I don’t think he’s damaged in any way from believing in Santa in his early years, nor does he hold resentment because I “lied” to him. Those are not my reasons for diminishing Santa from our family celebration. My little ones of course recognize Santa Claus in their Christmas books, but when they see him out in public, they want nothing to do with him. In fact, Santa approached my 20 month old daughter in the grocery store with a bag of goodies the other day and she was frozen with fear and turned her little face away so he’d leave her alone. So, at this point, why make a big deal about Santa and further frighten her by telling her that this big, burly red suited stranger is going to come down our chimney and check on her while she’s sleeping? Why distract from the true meaning of Christmas in our home any more than the world already tries to detract from it? My kids are plenty excited about Christmas for the right reasons, and I prefer to let them know that their daddy worked very hard to buy them the few presents they have- not that some man they don’t even know will give them whatever their little heart’s desire.

Call me a fundamentalist, legalist, killjoy- whatever. While I loathe the term “fundamentalist” because it conjures up visions of religious extremists like that of 9/11, I remind myself when I know I am being mocked for my convictions that there IS only one way of being Christian. Repenting of sin, trusting in Christ’s sacrificial death to pay the penalty for my sin and believing the fundamentals of the faith that are taught in the Bible. Dr. Albert Mohler wrote an article about this on his blog, and I encourage you to read it. He goes as far as I have in previous posts to say that if you do not believe the fundamental truth of the Biblical account of the virgin birth of Christ once you are presented with this truth, then you are not a Christian. I am not giving up Santa because I think it is a sinful practice. However, I do think Santa has a danger of becoming an idol of Christmas in many homes today- even Christian homes. I don’t think I HAVE to do it this way, but the Lord has changed my heart and I WANT to. I don’t plan to ban Santa altogether- at this point, at least. We will still read our Christmas books about Santa and watch holiday classics starring Santa, and we’ll still belt out songs like Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Coming to Town, but we won’t make this a focus by playing it up and emphasizing it. We’ll tell our children that Santa and all the other secular traditions of Christmas are fun additions to the season, but that’s not the reason we celebrate. When we focus on the wonder of the manger and Christ’s birth, it far overshadows any nostalgia about Santa.

You can’t be expected to appreciate Christ’s wonderous birth if you don’t understand why He came. And, you can’t understand why He came until you can admit that you are a sinner in need of a Savior. We are lawbreakers sentenced to death and cannot afford to pay our fine ourselves. Christ paid the fine for us and released us from the oppression and bondage of sin and death. He did not come to promote social reform or to teach us how to properly love our neighbor or to change our circumstances, but His primary reason for coming to Earth was to “save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1: 21). What greater reason do you need to celebrate this Christmas?

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2: 8-14)

And THAT’S what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown. It was a divine revelation for Charlie Brown and I finally fully understand it myself. I’m not going to let anything distract my family from the fact that JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Church Membership: Introduction

“To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints”

“To the church of God that is in Corinth

“To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia:”

“To the churches of Galatia

“To the saints who are in Ephesus

“To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi

“To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae

“To the church of the Thessalonians”

“To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion”

“To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion”

“My little children, I am writing these things to you”

When we read the Epistles of the New Testament, something should stand out to us – these books are written to churches. There are letters to church leaders (Timothy, Titus, 2 & 3 John), and a letter of direction regarding a specific case (Philemon), but even in those the letters are written to believers who are part of a fellowship of believers. They are written to be read and applied by individuals, but read and applied by individuals in community.

Yet today, many professing believers give short shrift to church membership. They feel that being intimately connected to a body of believers is of little consequence. Some are honest enough with themselves to say it, others simply do not join themselves to a fellowship and make excuses. The result is the same – Christians who are supposed to be a part of the body of Christ, yet have little connection to that body.

This series covers two interrelated themes – the need for church membership and how one lives in community with believers. I’ll give a bit of sneak peek into a major idea – our failure to live properly in community is inseparable from our failure to live in community at all. I’m not yet sure which led to which, but a lack of regard for community is not likely to encourage us to make the harder choices to live properly in community, and a failure to live properly in community necessarily creates disregard for community living.

First I will talk about what church membership means, followed by a Biblical and historical support for the communion of saints. Then I will describe the lost ‘secrets’ to living in community that makes it everything it should be. This will necessarily involve examining the reasons given for abandoning the fellowship of our brothers and sisters and weighing their balance against the body of Biblical and historical evidence.

As I consider this short series, I marvel that of those who have commented in the past, many who oppose me on several issues are likely to agree with me on this issue, while some of those who have supported other doctrinal positions I have presented will not Perhaps I will better understand that dynamic when we are completed.

Next: What church membership really means.