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Some Thoughts about Church Membership – Part 7 Summary and Conclusion

Here are the highlights of what we have seen in our six-part study of church membership.
1. We have seen that God added new believers to the family of God in the book of Acts and they joined together to practice certain priorities.
2. Although we have no formal document detailing the process of new believers’ becoming “members” of a local church, the Bible is clear that conversion and baptism were integral steps to joining God’s community.
3. They are, indeed, specific steps that must be taken to remove someone from a local church (Matthew 5, Matthew 18, and I Corinthian 5 detail some of the process of having to expel another believer from God’s people). So if there was a process of exclusion, it is reasonable that there was a process of inclusion.
4. We have no early church “covenant” (that I am aware of), although unbelievers testify as to the practices of the early Christians. For example, Pliny the Younger asked Emperor Trajan how to deal with Christians in the 2nd century and Pliny the Younger’s letter gives us great insight into the life of the early church. Here’s what Pliny wrote (this is a bit long, but well worth reading over):

Let me point out a few things that jump out at me from this document:

1. Pliny is asking for persecution advice. Should all Christians (young, old, sick, healthy) be interrogated the same?
2.  He describes the process he has been following, giving the Christian three chances to turn away from the faith.  Capital punishment is the reward for those refusing to recant.
3.  Those who renounced their faith (and cursed Christ) were let go.
4.  Notice the amazing statement about “the sum of their guilt or error”:
a.  on an appointed day (Sunday?) they were accustomed to meet before sunrise —
b.  to recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god —
c.  and to bind themselves by an oath to abstain from certain behaviors —
d.  they would then have an ordinary meal together (not cannibalism, as some had interpreted Jesus’ words “eat my body and drink my blood”) —
e. they stopped their meetings after his order against secret societies.

Pliny goes on to describe his interrogation (by means of torture) of two maidservants, finding nothing in them but “a depraved and extravagant superstition.”

Wow!  What an amazing source of information from an enemy of the gospel!  The early believers met together (before daybreak — that would test the saints today, wouldn’t it?), worshiped Christ as a god (an early indication that Christians held to the deity of Christ contra the opinion of liberal theologians), committed themselves to a moral lifestyle, and enjoyed a potluck together (probably followed by a celebration of the Lord’s Supper)!

May God, by His grace, give us such committed church members that joyfully, and at great risk to themselves, proclaim this “depraved and extravagant superstition” that saves men and women from the wrath of God!

 

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2018 in church membership

 

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Some Thoughts about Church Membership – Part 6 What about EVANGELISM?!

The expression “church membership” is not found in the Bible.  [Of course, other important Christian words aren’t in the Bible either.  Like Sunday School.  Or board meeting.  Or casseroles.]  So, we shouldn’t pursue an efficient process of adding new, committed believers to the local church?  Of course we should do everything in our power to increase God’s family with born-again, gifted, servant-hearted disciples of Jesus.  But what ought to be the process?

I’m looking forward to preaching at Cedarcroft Bible Chapel in New Jersey the two Sundays of September 30th and October 7th. I’ve also been asked by the elders to draft a proposal about a more strategic process of church membership.

True, there is no formal document in the early Church outlining how they received new “members.”  So we’ve been looking at Acts 2:41-42, a primary summary passage, and drawing some basic conclusions about the 1st Century church’s priorities.  Let’s look at that text one more time:

We do, however, see several steps in believers being “added to” the Christian community.  They (1) accept Peter’s message (conversion); (2) were baptized (discipleship); and (3) were added to the devoted group who practiced those four priorities.  So it is reasonable to conclude that new members ought to be converted, discipled, and invited to join other believers who are committed to truth, community, worship, and prayer.

Those four priorities — biblical doctrine (“the apostles’ teaching”), fellowship, worship, and prayer — focused the attention of the early church, guiding their corporate meetings and, no doubt, forming their strategy to fulfill the Great Commission.  But isn’t there a great omission here?  Hasn’t something absolutely critical been left out?!

What about EVANGELISM?!

In our brief examination of Acts 2:42 we have seen that the early Christians devoted themselves to (1) the apostles’ teaching; (2) fellowship; (3) worship; and (4) prayer. But what about evangelism?! What about fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20)? What about sharing the gospel with the lost?

Reading past Acts 2:42 we learn that

“43Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and miraculous signs done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

God gave miraculous signs to the early church to confirm its message. And the believers practiced sharing their material goods with one another. They so connected with one another that every day they met together for common meals and worship. Their corporate prayer caused them to be held in high regard by those who looked on the Christian community. Then we read that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47). Perhaps our failure to see others come to faith in Christ may well be because they don’t see our lives being changed by God’s grace and our corporate fellowship as something attractive. What they often see is our Christian churches just keeping the religious machinery humming along, going through the sanctified motions, doing the “Christian thing” without ever drawing closer as the family of God. Is it any wonder that the world isn’t interested?

The development of strong, trusting relationships with other believers is the place to start. They are God’s instrument for making you and me holy. We need the kinds of friends Dinah Maria Mulock Craik described when she wrote:Strong Christian friendships are critical, but what about evangelism?  Evangelism begins with friendship! The unsaved world not only saw signs and wonders in the early church, but they observed a tangible unity and mutual material care that attracted them! They gladly ate meals together. And they enjoyed “the favor of all the people” (v. 47)

We then read that fantastic statement: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (v. 47).

The book of Acts is clear that sharing the gospel for the early church meant debating with various religious groups (see Acts 17), proving to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 9:22; 17:3; 18:28), and simply spending time with lost people (as Jesus did).  We are to witness to philosophers, intellectual loiterers, strangers.  But we must not overlook simple, basic, honest friendships.  (from the book DocWALK: Putting into Practice What You Say You Believe, pp. 172-173). (to be continued)

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2018 in church membership

 

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Some Thoughts about Church Membership – Part 5

“Well, I guess we’ll just have to pray about it!”  How often have you said (or, at least, thought) those words?  I’m embarrassed to say that one of my weakest Christian disciplines is . . . PRAYER!

We’re thinking about the issue of church “membership.”  I’ll be preaching at Cedarcroft Bible Chapel in New Jersey the two Sundays of September 30th and October 7th.  The elders have asked me to draft a proposal about a more strategic process of church membership.

As we look at the early church, we don’t uncover ancient church membership roles, but we do find specific principles and priorities which marked those believers.  They were not mere attenders.  They were dedicated to four specific goals which they consistently practiced.  We learn of their deepest concerns in Acts 2:41-42.  Here’s the text for our consideration.

We have seen their emphasis upon biblical doctrine and their concern for genuine fellowship with one another. We’ve also considered the great value they placed on worship (“the breaking of bread”).  Let’s notice their fourth priority which is —

Priority #4: Passionate about Prayer

This fourth priority makes me extremely uncomfortable. I am not a prayer warrior. I am not a prayer conscientious objector. I am not even a prayer pacifist. I would classify myself as a pathetic, prayerless Christian who has much to learn – and much more to put into practice – about prayer.

This was not my professor.

When I was a first-year Bible college student, one of my professors gave a wonderful lecture on the Christian discipline of prayer. He was not a real approachable teacher, but I gathered my courage about me, caught up to him after class, and said, “Mr. __, I really appreciate what you said about prayer. In fact, I’m going right over to the bookstore and buy a large spiral notebook and I’m gonna’ start studying all the prayers of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation!” He looked at me and said, “Hmmpf. I think you’d be better off just praying.” And then he walked off. But he was right.

Why do I find prayer so difficult? Part of my problem is that prayer seems to me to be passive, a last resort alternative, the farthest thing from being proactive that I can think of. Maybe I do need to study biblical prayers, for I would soon learn that the prayers of God’s people have stopped the rain (Elijah, James 5:17-18), opened prison doors (Peter, Acts12:12ff), prevented God from wiping out a nation (Moses, Num. 11:1-3; 21:7; Deut. 9:23-29), kept God from dispensing justice to some incredibly foolish counselors (Job 42:7-9), etc.

If I look at prayer as speaking with my Best Friend, I become comfortable and ready to share my deepest secrets with Him. If I look at prayer as passing on my burden for a lost loved one, I find relief and assurance that He loves my unsaved relative more than I ever could. If I look at prayer as a reporting in for duty, I find that I become submissive to His guidance and ready to get into the battle. If I look at prayer as the means by which my life receives order and calmness, I find its effects far better than any medication our overdosed world can sell over the counter or by prescription. If I look at prayer as a primary vehicle of praising God, then I can do what ought always to be done: worship the One who gave His Son for my sins.

My problem, and yours too I suspect, is that I look at prayer wrongly. I either view it in a cosmic vending machine way (we insert prayers as if they were coins, pull the handle, and wait for God to deliver our selection), or in a monastic grit-your-teeth discipline way (we pray because God commands us to – that’s all the reason we need), or as something religious to do when all our efforts at solving a problem have had little success (“Well, we’d better call God into this mess! We’ve done everything humanly possible!”). We seem to have God on speed dial, but His only number is 911.

When I fail to spend significant time conversing with the God I cannot see, part of my problem may be that I am walking by sight, and not by faith! The Christian life demands that we talk to Someone we cannot see, Someone who normally will not audibly speak back to us, Someone whom we must believe is there, especially when all evidences of His presence seem to be missing. We are to walk by faith, meaning that we take His promises in His written Word seriously. His Word says, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15). I either believe that passage of His Word – or I don’t.

Can we talk? Sometimes my problem is that I don’t believe. I don’t always believe that He has my best interests at heart. I don’t always believe that He cares about my needs. I don’t always believe that He answers my prayers. I don’t always believe that prayer works. But in my saner moments, I must acknowledge that unbelief is sin, that I had better be careful in how I define “my best interests,” that I often don’t have a clue about how my “needs” ought to be met (or even what my real needs are), that I am sometimes so out of it spiritually that I wouldn’t know an answer to prayer if it came up and bit me on my….

The first Century Christians devoted themselves to prayer. They gave themselves to systematic, strategic, heart-changing, energizing communication with the Creator. Prayer is God’s gift to straighten out a messed-up Christian like me. What do you think? Am I alone in this struggle? (from the book DocWALK: Putting into Practice What You Say You Believe, pp. 170-172). (to be continued)

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2018 in church membership

 

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Some Thoughts about Church Membership – Part 4

This morning I am overwhelmed with gratitude to the Lord.  He is letting me write this blog on the critical issue of church membership while I am teaching Burmese students in Myanmar for three weeks!  In a country of great poverty, he has me in a nice hotel room with time to work on class material and a fairly strong internet connection!  I am a blessed man.

But do I worship the Lord only when things are going well?  I hope not.  As we continue our examination of the early church and the issue of connection to the local church, we have been looking at a pivotal passage, Acts 2:41-42.  Here’s that text again:

I’ve grown up in a denomination (the Plymouth Brethren) that has frowned upon church “membership.”  Sometimes for good reasons.  However, the New Testament testimony is that the early Christians bound themselves together to serve the Lord with four specific priorities in mind.

We have seen their emphasis upon biblical doctrine.  We have also noticed their concern for genuine fellowship with one another.  Let’s notice this morning their third priority which is —

Priority #3: The Worth of Worship

We learn from Acts 2:42 that the early Christians devoted themselves to “the breaking of bread.” This expression could refer simply to the sharing of a common meal together, but that would seem to repeat the idea of fellowship. The early believers practiced the Agape feast which archeologists tell us was the precursor to our pot-luck church dinners (I think they have uncovered the clay equivalent of a Tupperware casserole dish). Christians shared a common meal, fellowshiped over the things they had in common in Christ, then someone would make a smooth transition and bring out bread and wine so they could celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. Remembering the Lord’s death until His return was one primary form of worship for the early Christians.

I grew up in a tradition which has very few distinguishing characteristics. The “Open Brethren” celebrate a weekly Lord’s Supper, usually by a separate service dedicated to following the instructions given by the Lord Jesus in Luke 22 and repeated by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11.

That weekly service typically is not led by a minister. The men of the congregation are encouraged to come to that service prepared to share a Scripture or lead the congregation in a hymn which focuses on the sacrificial death of Christ for us. Some Brethren celebrations of the Lord’s Supper are painful (for example, when there are long periods of silence because the men have not prepared themselves to lead in worship, or one brother in particular waxes long on some pet doctrine, or the singing, often a capella, is so bad it would shatter a paper cup). Most I have found are encouraging and meaningful.

There are many ways to worship the Lord. “The breaking of the bread” was a reminder to the believing community of the sacrifice the Son of God gave that we might be forgiven and worship God “in the beauty of holiness” (Ps. 29:2). (from the book DocWALK: Putting into Practice What You Say You Believe, pp. 169-170). (to be continued)

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2018 in church membership

 

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Some Thoughts about Church Membership – Part 3

What does it mean to be a “member” of a local church?  How does one become a member?  Can one’s membership be revoked?  Should there be a process that makes church membership a bit difficult, instead of easy?  Is there value in outlining the privileges, duties, and expectations of someone who is called a “member”?

These and other questions I will be tackling as I work with the leaders of Cedarcroft Bible Chapel in New Jersey the first week of October.  They have asked me to propose a more formalized approach to church membership than currently exists.

While it is true that no detailed procedure for receiving new members into a local church appears in the New Testament, there are a number of passages which support the concept of aligning oneself with one local body of believers, exercising one’s gifts to build up that body, and accepting the leadership of those raised up by God to guide His flock. In the early church Acts 2:41-42 indicates that those who were added to the people dedicated themselves to four specific priorities.  Here’s the text:

We’ve already looked at the first of the four priorities of the early church and it was Biblical Doctrine.  Let’s notice the second one:

Priority #2: A Focus on Fellowship

Fellowship involves what we have in common in Christ. We must learn in our churches to tolerate and respect differences of opinion in areas such as politics, sports team affiliations, musical preferences, and even translations of the Scriptures. The unity of the local church does not necessitate uniformity. This means that when it comes to distinctive areas of doctrine, we must not all believe exactly the same thing as each other. Of course, one man’s “distinctive” might be another man’s “essential,” so focusing on the major truths which unite us will not be easy. When it comes to math, some of us Christians do division and subtraction much better than we do addition and multiplication! But we must guard our unity in the fundamentals of the Christian faith without compromise. And we must protect our right to hold different opinions on the distinctives without resorting to compulsion to conformity.

We need fellowship in the Body. We must spend time with each other, doing the sometimes hard work of developing relationships with one another, and talking about what we have in common in Christ. My unsaved tennis buddies actually use the term “fellowship” after a match, meaning that they’re going to spend time standing around, drinking beer and talking about life.

I heard of one church where the janitor was always rushing people out of the sanctuary so that he could turn off the lights and lock up. If I were in leadership in that church, I would fire him in a Donald-Trump-New-York minute! One sign of a healthy church is how slowly people actually leave the building when the formal church service is over. If they linger and talk in twos and threes, there’s some serious fellowship going on.

One way to encourage fellowship in the things we have in common in Christ is to use small groups to discuss the topic of Sunday’s sermon either before it gets preached (which will really keep the pastor or preacher on his toes!) or after it is given (which will test how well people were listening). Either way, there is a focus upon and discussion of the important truths which bind us together as believers. (from the book DocWALK: Putting into Practice What You Say You Believe, pp. 168-169). (to be continued)

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2018 in church membership

 

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Some Thoughts about Church Membership – Part 2

The leadership of Cedarcroft Bible Chapel in New Jersey (where I will be preaching September 30 and October 7) has asked me to help them think through a more defined understanding of church membership. The “denomination” to which we belong (the Plymouth Brethren) have traditionally held a low view of formal church membership.  For good reasons.  But I believe there are biblical advantages to a more defined process of becoming a fully-committed member of a local church or assembly.

True, we don’t find such a process of church membership in the New Testament, do we?  Or do we?  We do see wholehearted devotion to the family of God upon conversion and a serious commitment to serving the Body of Christ.  Often followed by martyrdom!

When my wife Linda and I were missionaries in West Berlin, Germany (back when the Berlin wall was still up), we got to visit a small church in communist East Berlin.  Young people who attended that church automatically forfeited the right to attend university because of their connection with a church.  That’s commitment!

Church membership or church commitment involved a core set of beliefs which we find in Acts 2:41-42- “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”  These four priorities — the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer — marked the early church and bound them together in their effort to obey the Great Commission.

Let’s notice the early church’s Priority #1: Biblical Doctrine
Imagine the following conversation taking place in the first century:
“Say, Markus, did you know that the Apostle Paul is going to be speaking on the divinity of the Messiah tonight at our local synagogue?”
“Really?”, Markus says. “Do you want to get there early to get a good seat, Philip?”
“Well, I just don’t know. John Mark is over at the public square right now debating with some Stoics. And then Simon Peter is down by the lake (using his own boat as a floating pulpit, if you can believe it!) giving a lecture on the meaning of ‘Upon this rock I will build my church….’”
“So, which apostle are you going to go and listen to, Philip?”
“Oh, I’m not sure, Markus. Maybe I’ll just stay home tonight and read over my copy of Habakkuk again.”

The early Christians had the Old Testament and perhaps some of Paul’s epistles, but they had what we don’t have today: the Apostles themselves! They could sit under the teaching of those who had been discipled by none other than the Lord Jesus Christ Himself!

When we read that the early Christians were devoted to the apostles’ teaching, we are being reminded that they cared about truth. They wanted to know God’s view of the world, of sin, of judgment, of His love in sending His Son, of His plans for believers and for the world, of the promised coming of the Holy Spirit, of how they ought to behave themselves in a culture which advocated either too many gods or none at all. They wanted to be prepared to be faithful witnesses of the truth in an environment which denied truth’s existence or minimized its importance. In short, they wanted to know and to be what we ought to know and be: wholehearted followers of the Way. (from the book DocWALK: Putting into Practice What You Say You Believe, pp. 166-168). (to be continued)

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2018 in church membership

 

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Some Thoughts about Church Membership – Part 1

Friends: I’ve been asked by the leadership of Cedarcroft Bible Chapel in New Jersey to help them think through a more defined understanding of church membership.  Among the so-called Plymouth Brethren assemblies (such as Cedarcroft), church “membership” has been more implicit than explicit.  Those who attend regularly are considered members, but often no formal declaration of their “joining” the local church is made.  Only occasionally will a church membership class be offered.  It seems to be more an issue of faithful attendance than any specified or organized process that is followed.

There are some good reasons why the Brethren assemblies have resisted more formal church membership.  Some would say that it is difficult (if not impossible) to find verses that support the traditional view of church membership.  Second, as a whole the Brethren have typically resisted some of the practices of the so-called “denominations.”  A third reason would be what some would see as the abuse of church membership (that is, some think it is salvation-bringing).  It has also not gone unnoticed that few churches purge their membership roles due to non-attendance or unrepented-of-sin.

But, properly defined, biblical church membership offers some genuine advantages to less formal ways of looking at one’s involvement in a local church.  Let me suggest four advantages to a more formal — and more biblical — way of looking at one’s connection to the people of God.

First, a membership document (“covenant”) provides the spiritual leadership with the opportunity for spelling out expectations of church involvement (the need for church offices, such as elders and deacons; respect for leadership; concern regarding spiritual gifts; commitment to service; process of necessary church discipline; etc.). There is a great advantage to the congregation’s publicly reading aloud this church covenant every time new members are received.

Second, a membership covenant explains possible situations in which the congregation of members is asked to vote for or against certain proposals.  Being on a formal membership “role” helps identify those who have the right to vote in the congregation.

Third, a membership covenant spells out the process of discipline the spiritual leaders will follow in serious situations. Therefore, the “members” are aware of the process (perhaps lessening the likelihood of lawsuits in cases of unrepentant members).  Further, it is difficult to “discipline” someone who is merely an “attender” at the local church’s services.  Membership means something and loss of membership ought to be a serious consideration in the Christian’s life!

Fourth, it could be argued that the absence of details about formal church membership in the New Testament is simply due to the fact that the uninvolved, non-serving believer is not considered a viable option in the Word! (“God has no sons who are not servants!”). (to be continued)

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2018 in church membership

 

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