A Formal Agreement about Gospel Partnership Matters
We’ve explored official church membership from a fresh angle and looked at a biblical precedent for the formal process of recognizing gospel partners. Now, let’s survey some of the key reasons this all really matters for the Church today. In short, it promotes healthy participation, provides clarity, and protects the message and reputation of the Church. Naturally, there’s a bit of overlap among these points, but it’s still helpful to look at each one individually.
It Promotes Healthy Participation
As mentioned in part one, being recognized as a member of a local church isn’t about exclusivity per se or spiritual superiority. It is normal Christianity. Every believer is called to form a part of a community on mission. Every believer is called to submit to God-given authority. Every believer is called to walk in holiness. When encouraging believers to partner with us, we are simply asking them to do what the Bible calls them to do.
If someone is not wishing to be committed or accountable to our particular family of believers, we encourage them to seek that in another local church. If they are unwilling to commit and be accountable anywhere and at any point, but just want to engage on their own terms, this would raise serious concerns about their willingness to obey Scripture. Would we want to allow someone who doesn’t desire commitment or accountability to partner with us on mission, teach adults or children, participate in the selection of new elders and deacons, and have a say in major financial decisions? Would we want outsiders to identify this uncommitted and unaccountable person with the Bride of Christ? They might anyway, but at least we will not be contributing to the problem.
In the local church that I help shepherd, we involve those who have gone through our partnership process in the selection of new elders and deacons because we know that they agree with our core values, our mission, and our statement of faith. We know they are invested in our church family and have agreed to submit to the authority of the elders. We involve them in major financial decisions because they are committed to giving their time, talent, and resources. Unlike a mere attendee or spectator, those who are truly invested and accountable to our particular church are affected by these kinds of decisions. They have skin in the game.
It Provides Clarity
It is the responsibility of the members of a local church and of the elders, in particular, to know where people are at in their level of commitment. Like all believers, elders should desire the edification of every Christian everywhere, but they have a unique responsibility for the souls under their care––and those under their care have a unique responsibility to them (Acts 20:28; 1 Thes 5:12-13, Hebrews 13:17). Therefore, it is essential for leaders and church members to be aware of who they are partnered with at the local level. Am I accountable before God for shepherding the believers in another city whom I’ve never met? Of course not. That would be a weight no leader could bear.
Partnership in Hebrews 13
Hebrews 13:17 is, of course, one of the key verses on this point. “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.” What’s fascinating is that the proceeding verse actually talks about partnership (koinonia) though most of our English translations hinder us from seeing it. In Greek, the phrase translated by the ESV in verse 16 as “to share what you have” is actually the noun koinonia. So perhaps a better rendering would be, “And do not neglect doing good (eupoiia) and partnership (koinonia), for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” This more precise translation reveals the continuity and flow of thought within this passage. Applying koinonia’s broader sense of gospel partnership in verse 16 uncovers a natural link between the two previous verses (14 and 15) that speak about the church as a priestly community of hope and verse 17 that speaks about submitting to church leadership. A loving church family, formed by sacrificial service produced by sincere faith in Jesus, is a foretaste of the future under God’s reign and rule. So partnering together under biblically qualified leaders helps maintain our unity and protects the caliber of our witness.
It Protects against False Teaching
Churches that uphold the priesthood of all believers are sometimes the most resistant to an official recognition of members, but they should actually be the most in favor of it. If we rightly understand that every believer is called to do ministry, and we rightly care about the purity of the gospel and the health of the church, then we would be right to care about a formal process of acceptance into partnership. Nothing less than the purity of our message is at stake.
It Protects the Reputation of the Church
This has already been alluded to above, but there is value in seeing how explicit the New Testament writers are about the boundaries of our partnership.
Paul to the Corinthians:
“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14)
Paul to the Ephesians:
“Therefore do not become partners with them; 8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:7-11).
John to the Church:
“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:6-7).
This survey wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the doctrine of church discipline. We must clarify that discipline is a glorious thing. It is something that God does because he loves us. In fact, the author of Hebrews tells us that if we don’t receive discipline, we may have cause for alarm (Hebrews 12:5-13). In love, God uses his church to discipline his children who fall into sin. Discipline is really about discipleship, and it is always restorative in design.
However, Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 point to a time when it is necessary to remove someone from the fellowship of the church due to their ongoing, unrepentant sin. Even here, the goal is that they might come to the end of themselves and seek repentance and restoration. There’s much more that could be said, but for now, here’s the point: you can’t remove someone from church fellowship who was never welcomed into it in the first place. When who belongs to the fellowship is clearly defined, church discipline can actually be effective in preserving the reputation of the Body of Christ before the eyes of the world and in protecting its internal health (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).
I hope this evaluation of church membership has proven helpful as you seek to build up the Body of Christ in your city. At Kaleo, the local church where I serve as one of the elders, we began the transition to formal membership a few years ago when we were already several years into our church plant. And I would definitely recommend making this process a part of your culture from the very beginning if at all possible. But in spite of our late start, we have benefited immensely from moving in this direction. Our ultimate confidence must always be in Christ and not in any process or structure, but it is a joy to partner with brothers and sisters who I know are committed to making the gospel known in word and deed as faithful members of our local family of believers.