In Ephesians, Paul writes, “So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone,” (Ephesians 2:19-20). In the next chapter he goes on: “This is so that God’s multifaceted wisdom may now be made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in the heavens,” (Ephesians 3:10). We’re not foreigners, but family. We’re not united around demographics, but around Christ Himself. We’re not idle, but making known the Wisdom of God to the world.
So, who are the members of God’s household? Who is this church that makes the Wisdom of God known? Who are the former strangers who are now citizens?
Enter covenant church membership.
The idea of the church is wrapped up in the idea of covenant and, as the church, we must be able to articulate the what and why of membership.
One of the best explanations of covenant membership comes from Pastor Sam Storms: “Covenant membership is simply the way in which an individual is known to be committed to all others in a local body of believers and how all others are known to be committed to that individual. Covenant membership is simply the way in which an individual makes known his/her covenant commitment to the Elders as spiritual leaders and how the Elders make known and fulfill their responsibility to shepherd and lead and protect the flock.”
While this list isn’t exhaustive, here are 7 reasons why we need covenant church membership:
1. Covenant is Biblical.
The idea of covenant (promise) is a major theme throughout the Bible. God makes a covenant with Adam & Eve to crush the head of the serpent. God makes a covenant with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. God makes a covenant with His people, Israel. Throughout the biblical story, you see that God has made a promise to set all things right and He is working throughout human history to that end.
And Paul tells us Gentiles that, through Christ, we become part of God’s covenant people. We are brought into a covenant of promise (Ephesians 2:12-13). This covenant isn’t simply me-and-God. It’s a covenant with the people of God. We are fellow heirs with one another and with Christ (Romans 8:17).
2. Membership is Biblical.
Membership in a local church is assumed in the New Testament. Throughout the book of Acts, it becomes clear that local congregations of Christians knew who were theirs. They knew to whom they were devoted (Acts 2:42). Paul writes to the churches in Galatia, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially those who belong to the household of faith,” (Gal. 6:10). Paul tells the Ephesians that they are “members of God’s household,” (Eph. 2:19). I don’t have time to go into great detail here; suffice it to say, there is clear understanding in Scripture that each local congregation of Christians knew who were their own.
3. Authority and Submission are Biblical.
The author of Hebrews exhorts believers, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account,” (Heb. 13:17). To the Elders, Luke writes, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among whom the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood,” (Acts 20:28).
Both of these passages (and many others) uphold the authority of local leaders who oversee, shepherd, and lead local congregations of Christians. Thus, it beckons the questions: without covenant church membership, who should submit, and to whom should we submit? Commitment must proceed submission. The person who says that they’re a Christian but is not an active and committed part of a local church is actually a person walking in disobedience. God has called us to bring our lives under authority, for our good and for the good of others.
Without covenant church membership, pastors don’t know who the “flock that is among them” are.
4. Membership commits us to one another.
True commitment is truly liberating. Think about it: when someone knows your junk and still accepts you, you are free of trying to perform or putting up pretenses. You can be you – the good, bad, and ugly. We are free to let our sinful hearts come to light because, as one pastor said, the cross has already exposed us as sinners.
Committing to one another in covenant membership is making a claim that no matter what, we are with these people. Commitment means we confess when we sin against someone, we forgive when sinned against, we show mercy and grace, we give sacrificially as though caring for our own family – because we are caring for our own family. When life caves in on you and begins to break away at the seams, you can rest knowing that you do not face any of it alone.
5. Membership provides you pastoral care.
Passages like Acts 20:28; Galatians 6:10; and 1 Peter 5:2-3 show God’s design for specific men to care for specific people within the confines of the local congregation. This does not mean pastors cannot or should not meet or seek to care for other people. But the biblical charge gives priority to those who are of “the household of faith.” This is good for you, church member, because the Spirit, working through the congregation, has appointed men to lead, teach, pray, correct, and shepherd your soul. What a joy to know you are loved, cared for, and prayed over!
6. Membership provides you with a safety net against sin.
Covenant membership means there are people committed to stopping you from running headlong into sin. This should provide a great warning and a great comfort. We commit to bringing Scripture to bear on one another’s lives on a daily basis.
If I speak a harsh word to my wife, those believers around us have committed to speaking truth in love to me, gently calling me to repentance. To leave sin alone without a call to repentance is not only damaging to my marriage, it hinders true worship and, what’s worse, it preaches a false gospel absent of repentance.
7. Membership provides assurance of faith.
Take a look at 1 Corinthians 5:12-13. The church is given the authority to determine who is “in the church” and who is “outside the church.”
While this is true for church discipline (Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 5; etc.), it’s also true for affirming the faith of Christians. The church is given the authority and discernment to say, “Yes, we believe you have responded to the gospel in repentance and faith; your life gives evidence to your conversion; we want to lock arms with you in fellowship as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Dr. Russell Moore explains it best in his book, Onward: “The reception of members into the church marks out the future kings and queens of the universe. Our church membership rolls say to the people on them, and to the outside world, ‘These are those we believe will inherit the universe, as joint-heirs with Christ,’ (Romans 8:16-17).”
Covenant membership is a worldly display of a cosmic truth: the truth and power of the gospel has united us to Christ and to one another, all to the glory of God.