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What would you think of a mother and father who, after their newborn child is brought into the world, abandon him to fend for himself? That would be disastrous for the child, and the parents would be guilty of child abuse. What does Jesus do with His newborn spiritual children? Here is, at least in part, the essence and significance of church membership. Those who are chosen by the Father, purchased by the Son, and born again by the Holy Spirit are not left to fend for themselves against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Jesus takes His newborn children who have been baptized into the invisible church by the Holy Spirit, and He baptizes them into the visible church in the sacrament of water baptism. Through the baptism of water, Jesus brings new believers and the children of believers into the visible church as well. When a person is baptized with water in the name of the triune God, he is added into the membership of the visible church and there is to be cared for and nourished spiritually.
I am convinced that one of the reasons church membership is not treasured as it should be is that it is not understood as a means by which the Good Shepherd cares for and provides for His sheep. The church is His flock. He laid down His life for His sheep. He purchased them at the price of His own blood, and He does not leave them on this earth to fend for themselves, separately and individually. The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ . . . for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church” (28.1). Someone might ask, Where is membership found in the Bible? The answer is, in the practice of water baptism. In the New Testament, when someone believes, he is baptized, and by his baptism he is added into the membership of the visible church, under the authority and care of leaders acting as shepherds. This is how Jesus cares for His church on the earth. Those three thousand souls who were baptized on Pentecost were added into the membership of the church in Jerusalem under the care of the Apostles.
Many fail to see the connection between baptism and membership, and thus they fail to see the significance of the oversight and care that is established when a person is baptized and added into the membership of the church. Without membership, it is impossible for any leader of the church to determine which of Christ’s sheep he is responsible for. Peter exhorts the elders of the church in 1 Peter 5:2–3, saying, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight . . . not domineering over those in your charge.” The New American Standard Bible translates the phrase “those in your charge” as “those allotted to your charge.” The Good Shepherd has entrusted His sheep into the charge and into the care of particular elders who act as His undershepherds. Certainly, the Apostles knew the sheep whom Christ had charged them to oversee. Without membership by baptism, the Apostles would not have known which people belonged to Jesus and for whom they were responsible. Without membership, the sheep cannot know who the shepherds are whom they are to follow and to whom they owe obedience. The writer 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” (13:17).
When one is added into the membership of the invisible or spiritual church, he is “delivered . . . from the domain of darkness and transferred . . . to the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). For believers, membership in the visible or physical church on earth corresponds to membership in the invisible or spiritual church. No greater privilege can be afforded to man on earth. To be transferred from the world (a domain of death, darkness, and damnation) and into the church (a domain of life, light, and redeeming love) is the greatest blessing given to man on this earth. It is in the visible church that Jesus provides us with an abundant supply of the means of our spiritual growth: Word, sacraments, prayer, fellowship, discipline, etc.
In fact, the practice of church discipline assumes the concept of membership in a local, visible body. In Matthew 18:17, Jesus addresses an unrepentant believer when He says, “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” It is assumed that the person is in communion with Jesus and His church, but if he will not repent, he is to be removed from the communion of the church. Paul surely saw it this way when he removed the unrepentant man in 1 Corinthians 5:2. He writes, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” If there is no membership, then the idea of removing someone from the church is meaningless. It is only meaningful to remove someone from the church if he has been a member in covenant with God’s people, united to Christ and His body. The Apostle Paul states in Romans 12:5, “So we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
Membership in the body of Christ is the result of union with Christ. By the baptism of the Holy Spirit (an inward, invisible, spiritual reality), believers are united to Jesus and become part of His church universal, and by water baptism (an outward, visible, physical sign) believers and their children are grafted into the church visible, under the care of elders. Membership is about spiritual care and accountability. It is the blessing of belonging to the bride of Christ, and the benefit of His shepherding oversight. It is in the church that the lordship of Christ is most clearly manifested as the members assemble themselves on the Lord’s Day, provide support with tithes and offerings, use their spiritual gifts to minister to one another, and proclaim His gospel throughout the world.