Church Membership: A Treatise (2)

In the previous article, I surveyed Bojidar Marinov’s views concerning church membership. In this article, I will examine his views in light of God’s holy Word. At the same time, I will construct a biblical case for obligatory local church membership.


Historically, both Baptists and Presbyterians have claimed Scripture as their ultimate authority in all matters of doctrine, and church polity is no exception. Both Old and New Testaments are relatively loud on the topic of God’s people and the ways in which God’s people are to be organized. Of course, the Old church looks quite different than the New. For example, we are no longer required to circumcise our children on the 8th day, we are no longer geographically constrained to national borders, we are no longer primarily an ethnic people, etc.

One principle for the church, however, that has maintained constancy throughout all of Scripture is order. God has always been a Shepherd to His people, an organized Shepherd (1 Cor. 14:33). My purpose, in this article, is to analyze Marinov’s position in light of Scripture. The contention, stated and defended, is this: Scripture, either explicitly or by necessity, commands God’s people to be a part of a local church. Marinov states:

Nowhere else in the Bible is there anything to suggest any form of special covenantal commitment to a local body that is different, separate from, or superadded to the Covenant of Grace made with the universal church in general, in baptism.

First, in order to dispel confusion, a formal church covenant is the way some local churches have sought single-mindedness among the congregation, but local church membership does not necessarily entail a church covenant. In other words, it must be understood that my argument for obligatory church membership is not mutually inclusive of local church covenants. Marinov appears to identify church covenant’s with church membership, but this isn’t accurate. Indeed many churches recognize the necessity of membership without the use of formal covenants. Because of this, a definition of church membership is in order.

I am defining church membership as thus: Local church membership simply refers to an gathering made up of several individuals, so closely united that they are said to be one (Rom. 12:5).

Local Church Membership in Scripture

Marinov thinks that membership pertains only to the universal church. If one is regenerated, they are a member of the universal church. That is Marinov’s position. However, the New Testament, short of explicitly mentioning the developed notion of local church membership, does indeed assume local church membership. Let us then make a distinction between being a regenerate child of God, and therefore a member of the universal church, and being a functioning member of a local church. There may be times at which a Christian is not a member at a local church, due to providence; but this isn’t the norm, and ought not last for long.

In Hebrews, a letter written to the Jerusalem church, the author writes: “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 (Heb. 10:24, 25).” We are instructed to “meet together,” not neglecting to do so, “as is the habit of some.” So, even Marinov must grant that the gathering of the saints is mandated in Scripture. These regular gatherings must be of a local nature. But, is there a structure to these local gatherings?

In order to validate my contention above, it must be shown that (1) there is a disciplinary system innate within the church, and (2) this disciplinary system is the proper responsibility of local church elders. It would then follow that local church elders must have a congregation to discipline, in the name of Christ.

Matthew 18:17 presupposes a system of discipline at the local level. After all, Jesus spoke  of individuals. In Hebrews 13, just three chapters after believers are exhorted to gather together, there is mentioned obedience to leaders. It says:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (Heb. 13:17).

Who are these leaders (ἡγουμένοις)? They must be those who “keep watch” over the souls of the people. Just 10 verses before, in Hebrews 13:7, the author writes, “Remember your leaders (ἡγουμένων), those who spoke to you the word of God.” Therefore, within worship, a major theme in Hebrews, there is a necessity of gathering, a necessity of leadership, and a necessity of obedience to that leadership. To depart from the words found in Hebrews would be sin, and this makes some sort of reciprocal responsibility between elder and member, necessary or obligatory, within the church of God.

This relational responsibility could only take place at a local level, and thus, there is certainly a biblical mandate for a person to be a part of a regular gathering body of saints and mutual submission to local church leadership. There must be granted, at least, a mandate to gather regularly, for that gathering to be discerning, and for the gathering to submit to certain leaders which God has ordained for spiritual care.

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul writes, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you (vv. 1, 2).” Paul here is not speaking to a political entity, but a particular social community within the broader civil context. Moreover, Paul makes distinction between this group of believers and the pagans. He exhorts the members of this congregation to remove the unrepentant sinners from among them, following Matthew 18.

From the above it can be inferred that: Not only is there a regular, Scripturally mandated gathering of the saints, but that gathering is to be autonomously discerning and submissive to leadership.

The Function of an Overseer

This debate hinges on the function of leadership within the church. Do local church leadership have the ministerial responsibility and prerogative to administer accountability and discipline? We have, thus far, mentioned leadership in a vague sense, but what is this leadership? How does it work? Paul writes:

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil (1 Timothy 3:1-7).

Paul lays forth an easy-to-follow list of overseer, or elder, qualifications. They are as follows. An overseer must:

  • Be above reproach
  • Be the husband of one wife
  • Be sober-minded
  • Be self-controlled
  • Be respectable
  • Be hospitable
  • Be able to teach
  • Not be a drunkard
  • Not be violent
  • Be gentle
  • Not be quarrelsome
  • Not be a lover of money.

From this, it follows that he must:

  • Manage his household well, including his children

Why? Because if he does not, or cannot, do this, how is he to care for God’s church? The word care, here, just means to care for someone or something either spiritually, physically, or otherwise. Surely this ideal, singular, overseer isn’t caring for the entirety of God’s church. Naturally, it appears to indicate that an overseer is to be qualified to care for a local congregation, a congregation within the scope of his ability. Moreover, Paul draws a strong parallel between an overseer’s family unit and the church. This is a local church of which the overseer is a part.

Therefore, the Bible mandates: (1) a regular gathering of saints; (2) a submission of those saints to particular leadership; (3) leadership qualified to care for those saints. It may be objected that the leaders in Hebrews 13:7, 17 are not the same leaders Paul has in mind in 1 Timothy 3. However, there is no good reason to believe this is true since the leaders in Hebrews 13:7, 17 are intended to keep watch over souls. In 1 Timothy 3, the overseer is to care for the church of God. Thus, either there are two separate offices within the church which have almost identical functions, or the leaders in Hebrews 13 are the overseers in 1 Timothy 3.

Biblically, something which very much looks like local church membership is beginning to emerge. In fact, the basic tenets of traditional local church membership are all there. Again, these are listed below:

  1. Scripture commands a regular gathering of saints (Heb. 10:25)
  2. Scripture commands submission of these saints to leadership (Heb. 13:7, 17)
  3. Church leadership and the congregation are commanded to take part in the accountability and disciplinary processes within the local church (Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5:1, 2)
  4. These leaders (overseers, elders, pastors) are to be qualified for the job of caring for God’s church. This church must not be universal, but local. A body within the scope of this singular overseer’s abilities (1 Tim. 3:1-7)

This relationship, between congregation and ordained church leadership, is basic to membership in general. The four Scriptural tenets listed above constitute a very simple doctrine of local church membership.

Conclusion

It can be seen that there is rich Scriptural support for local church membership. Perhaps it is not as immediate, or explicit, as Bojidar Marinov would prefer, but the scouting for explicit references and unfair demands placed upon the biblical text is not how the church has done theology for the last 2,000 years. Marinov writes:

Nowhere else in the Bible is there anything to suggest any form of special covenantal commitment to a local body that is different, separate from, or superadded to the Covenant of Grace made with the universal church in general, in baptism.

I would counter his statement with, “Where is the local church and it’s governmental polity presented above not assumed in the text of Scripture?” Bojidar’s burden, therefore, is to show why my interpretation of the above passages are wrong.

In the next article, I will discuss the local church as it relates to the Reformation in the 16th century. I will also examine 17th century writings by men like Herman Witsius. Moreover, I will take a glance at the historic Reformed confessions and how one ought to go about interpreting them.

Go to part (3).