Dear CPC Flock,
Over the next few months, we will have several new families join the church. This provides an opportunity to think about, what is church membership? Since the Enlightenment, the practice has taken a hit. A spirituality has emerged that is both individualistic and anti-authoritarian. Individualistic in the sense that religion is primarily private, non-confrontational, and non-committal. The practice of ‘faith’ has become classified, me-oriented, and self-determining. At the same time, there has been a move towards anti-authoritarianism. In some segments of Evangelicalism, a suspicion of church government has occurred, which has fostered a non-committal approach to church membership.
Covenant Theology and Church Membership
Church membership is bound up with the concept of covenant, where commitment, vowing, and obligation is central. Within the Godhead, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit committed themselves to plan, accomplish, and apply redemption to the elect, through the Covenant of Redemption. This covenant initially worked itself out in time, with God promising to crush the head of Satan through Eve’s heaven-sent seed (Gen. 3:15). In Genesis 15, the LORD invoked a self-maledictory oath, obligating himself to uphold his promise to Abraham to provide to a promised people a promised land via a promised seed. Furthermore, (2 Sam. 7) the LORD pledged to David that a son who would reign forever upon his throne, ruling over the people of God.
In each of these portions of Scripture, God used language which undergirds church membership. The promises God made in each were contingent upon his upholding the vows he had taken. These promises were later fulfilled in Christ, who through his life, death, and resurrection secured our membership into the covenant community (Eph. 2:14-22), gave entrance into the Promised Land (Rev. 21:1-8), and established a kingdom that would last forever (Col. 1:13-14). And just as God vowed redemption, so now those who have been declared to be citizens of heaven and members of his household are to obligate themselves to follow him and serve one another.
What Does Church Membership Involve?
First and foremost, church membership communicates one’s allegiance to Christ. It is an opportunity to declare one’s need of the Redeemer’s work, and the ongoing ministry of the Spirit through the means of grace. Church membership entails commitment to the corporate worship of the church, because, as Calvin noted, ‘the church is our mother.’ We need her Gospel-rich, Christ-focused nourishment, given through Word, sacraments, and prayer (Acts 2:42). And it is in the context of the local body those who profess faith in the Savior are reminded of their adoption into the family of God through Christ (Gal. 4:4-5). It is here they get a foretaste of their membership in heaven, as they join their voices in the worship of God, with the angels and the saints who have gone before them (Heb. 12:22-29). It is here in public worship they are primarily led to persevere as pilgrims journeying from this life to the next (1 Pet. 2:11-12). It is here in public worship where the Beloved are instructed, strengthened, and encouraged in their commitment to Christ (Heb. 10:23-25).
Second, church membership involves personal piety and holiness. Taking vows for church membership is a call to train for godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). It includes personally and corporately studying the Scriptures, being committed to prayer, being more devoted to killing sin and growing in the fruit of the Spirit. As the hymn writer said, members of the church are to be conscientious of the fact that they are ‘prone to wander and leave the God they love,’ as well as seek their own good, rather than the good of others. Since church members vow to protect its peace and purity, being committed to personal and corporate holiness is important. It is one way we shield each other from our sinful flesh.
Third, church membership means attention needs to be given to the mission and service of the church. Evangelism is the responsibility of every member. We all are to pray for the lost and seek to be faithful witnesses, given our context (Eph, 6:19-20, 1 Pet. 3:15). And we are to serve. Gal. 6:10, we are to do good to everyone, especially to the household of faith.
Taking vows before a congregation is a churchly practice that in recent years has been lost, in part because of an individualistic and anti-authoritarian culture, which distorts the theological underpinnings of church membership. To deprive the Body of Christ of the opportunity and blessing of church membership will, in the end, only harm the church’s ability to promote the doctrines of the faith and guard her peace and purity. It is for the church’s benefit that she re-discovers the practice of having her members formally commit themselves to orthodoxy and orthopraxy, all for the doxology of God. May the Lord bless CPC, as more people join in the months ahead.
— Pastor Clif