Meaningful Membership in the Local Church

            Church membership matters. Mark Dever is convinced that “getting this concept of membership right is a key step in revitalizing our churches, evangelizing our nation, furthering the cause of Christ around the world, and bringing glory to God”. [1] The church consists of a community of regenerate persons who voluntarily unite under a covenant as an indicator of the visible church. Membership in a local church is counter cultural in a context in which individualism is highly prioritized. Dever’s remarks on membership and togetherness are again helpful. 

We need to give up trying to live the Christian life on our own. We need individually to covenant together with others to follow Christ. Christians must stop being selfish in their understanding of the Christian life. The Christian life is not just about you and those you are personally trying to reach with the Gospel. God also intends you to be a committed part of helping to make disciples out of the flock of sheep He has already saved. [2]

            Unfortunately, many believers do not understand what biblical church membership is or what it should look like in the local church. One reason congregational polity is inviting and beneficial is because it gives each member an equal voice in the direction of the church. Church membership is about more than voting, however, the element of democracy should not go unnoticed in congregational polity. Membership is undermined in a few ways, one of which is a structure that places all authority in the ordained officers or in an outside governing body. Both members and ordained officers are entrusted with managing the keys of the kingdom through the local church, which makes relevant, once again, the discussion on binding and loosing.

One aspect of church membership that has been overlooked for too long is the importance of covenanting together with other believers. Dever describes church membership as an act of love when he says, 

Church membership is our opportunity to grasp hold of each other in responsibility and love. By identifying ourselves with a particular church, we let the pastors and other members of that local church know that we intend to be committed in attendance, giving, prayer, and service. We assure the church of our commitment to Christ in serving with them, and we call for their commitment to serve and encourage us as well. [3]

If ordinary believers are overlooked or rejected when attempts at meaningful participation are offered, before long those members will no longer want to participate. Part of the goal in writing this paper is to provide a discussion about empowering both ordained officers and ordinary believers so that some measure of shared responsibility is adopted regarding the leadership of the local church.  

Power and Authority: Managing the Keys of the Kingdom

            In Matthew 16:19, Jesus had an intriguing interaction with Peter following his recognition and affirmation of Jesus’s Messiahship. Jesus’s words in this passage must not be overlooked because these words provided insight into how the early church organized itself after Christ’s ascension back to the Father. 

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:19, NASB)

A faithful interpretation of this passage centers on what Jesus meant by “keys of the kingdom” and to what extent the binding and loosing was understood as a prescriptive act. Matthew 18:15-20 is another passage that must be considered to better understand the principle from an exegetical standpoint. Verses 18-20 are especially important for the present discussion. 

18 “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. (NASB)

The later passage includes the reference to binding and loosing again. Some measure of authority was delegated from Jesus to the apostles and in turn the early church leaders. The authority to bind and loose in relationship to Christ’s kingdom continues in the church age, yet it is only fitting to consider who are the persons to whom this authority is extended. Jonathan Leeman helpfully points out that this binding and loosing “takes place among real flesh and blood people on earth-not among abstract or idealized realities”. [4]

Conclusion

            Shared responsibility in congregational and more specifically Baptist church polity means that everyone, whether ordained or not, has an important role in managing the keys of the kingdom through the binding and loosing described above. Every believer is a priest to God and therefore must exercise his or her priestly role in such a way that it represents Christ’s inaugurated kingdom. This does not mean, however, that there is not a single leader of the congregation. The pastor as described in this paper is the God-called and ordained person who is set aside by the congregation to serve as the one who leads in managing the keys of the kingdom and one who models what Christ meant by “binding and loosing” both in his preaching and in his life.

Gerald Cowen said, “Authority is given by the Lord to the congregation itself. However, the pastor is a God-called, God-ordained person who not only serves and takes care of the congregation but is the leader of the church”. [5] The postmodern mood rejects the validity of any and all authority, yet pastoral leadership is warranted biblically. That does not mean that the pastor should not labor to earn relational influence over those he is called to serve or that he should assume people will follow merely from a positional perspective. Pastors must be worth following and church members should empower their leaders to lead. Some models of church government lend themselves better toward the type of shared responsibility advocated here. 


[1] Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, (Crossway: Wheaton, 2004), 148.

[2] Ibid., 152. 

[3] Ibid., 157. 

[4] Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 31. Leeman also says that it is within the binding and loosing elements that church membership and discipline are found. 

[5] Gerald P. Cowen, Who Rules the Church: Examining Congregational Leadership and Church Government, (B&H: Nashville, 2003), 2-3. 

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