This is not an ecclesiology. But it does tell you a lot about the church. As the church we are…
Welcomed and Welcoming
We remember that Jesus Himself was criticized by religious leaders because of the type of people that He hung out with and helped (cf. Matt. 9:9-13; 11:19; 21:31-32; Mk. 2:15-17; Lk. 3:12-14; 5:29-32; 7:36-50; 15; 19:1-10). So, we’re not like the hypocritical religious leaders. Instead, we’re like our Leader, the One who reaches out to heal our brokenness.
Church membership is often not the priority it should be. There are a few possible explanations for this: (1) lack of understanding of church membership and its importance, (2) lack of commitment, or (3) a lack of desire to submit to biblical authority. This will only cover the first issue, lack of understanding. I think it can be assumed that if you are a Christian you should be committed (see for example Rom. 12:1) and you should submit to biblical authority (see for example Heb. 13:17).
What is Church Membership?
When a person is born again by the Spirit they instantly become a member of the invisible universal Church body. Church membership is a formal covenant of a believer to a local visible church body for mutual growth and accountability.
Reasons for and Advantages of Church membership
There are several reasons to be connected to a local church body: worshiping together (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19-21), equipping (Col. 1:28; Eph. 4:12-13), exhortation and teaching (1 Tim. 4:13), exercising spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-7; 1 Pet. 4:10-11), church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5), sharing the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:17-20; Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24), celebrating baptism (Matt. 28:19), giving (Matt. 23:23; 1 Tim. 6:17-19), encouragement (Heb. 10:24-25), as well as, having faithful leaders to care for and help you (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).
There are also several advantages to church membership. Church discipline may not seem like an advantage but it is. It may be the very thing to deliver a soul from hell (1 Cor. 5:5), this is a true and gracious advantage. As a church member you can enter into the life of the church in a unique way such as voting on specific church issues. Church membership is a covenant of commitment one to another. Through church membership you clearly know who your brothers and sisters are and pastors/elders know who exactly they are responsible for. Members have church resources available to them that otherwise would not be. Members also very often have more opportunities to serve in the churches various ministries. Lastly, church membership is biblical.
Church Membership is Biblical
“Biblical? Where is the chapter and verse?” you ask. Well, there is no chapter and verse that states explicitly that you must join a church. Yet, I believe we can see it implicit in the New Testament. In the book of Acts we see that the early churches’ practice was to baptize believers and then add them to the church (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14; 16:5). In fact, those that were saved and baptized in the early church “devoted themselves” (which could have taken the form of a formal covenant) to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and prayer (Acts 2:41-42).
There is no explicit text calling believers to belong to a church because it was everywhere assumed and practiced in the early church so there was no need for a formal statement. Also, many of the first churches were smaller house churches so membership or commitment would be more easily recognized (especially under persecution). However, many churches are much larger today so it serves the leadership of the church and the church as a whole to keep track of those who have formally covenanted to church membership.
We see that there was a list of widows that were entitled to financial support (1 Tim. 5:9) and there may also have been a growing list of church members (see for example Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14; 16:5). Churches would also write a letter of commendation (Acts 18:27; Rom. 16:1; Col. 4:10; cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-2) for believers that were moving to a different area. This leads us to conclude that church roles were likely kept in the early church. However, even if they did not have a formal list they obviously knew who was part of the body and this was very important to them and should be to us as well.
We also see a New Testament mandate for godly qualified leadership. Men who are called to shepherd the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2) by laboring (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17), and watching over souls (Heb. 13:17). Pastors (a synonym of elders and shepherds) will give an account to God of how they shepherded so it is important that they know who their sheep are.
Church membership is implied from church discipline (see Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 1 Tim. 5:20; Titus 3:10-11) and it assumes that the elders of the church will know who the members of the church are. We also see much biblical imagery that points us to church membership. The church is called: body, bride, family, royal priesthood. These things suggest tight connection, even formal covenant. We as the church are to be like an outpost in enemy territory, an embassy amongst a distant land. If you are a citizen of the heavenly Kingdom you should be connected to the local embassy. The church is that embassy, the church represents the Kingdom of God on earth.
Local church membership, though obviously not required for salvation, is vital. It is my prayer that more and more believers would covenant together as the body and bride of Christ to be committed together to be and do what Christ our Lord has called us to do with the short time that we have here to labor for our Lord.
Introductory: Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership
In-depth: Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love
The church is given a threefold mission; upward, inward, and outward. These three things work in unison. They create a helpful cyclical motion. When we worship God as we should we want to build others up in the church, we want to evangelize, and when we build others up they grow, they evangelize, people get saved, and we praise God; and so the cycle repeats in various ways as it is supposed to. For the church to function as it should all three of these aspects of the church’s mission must be being carried out.
We are called to sing songs of praise (e.g. Ps., Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) but we are not to stop there. We are called to love the LORD our God with all that we are; mind, body, soul, and, strength. Everything! We are to lay our very lives upon the altar in service to the LORD (Rom. 12:1). This is the foundational thing. Upon this the other two aspects of the church’s mission is built. If this is lacking, the church will fall.
Thus, we see the huge importance of godly, sound, and worshipful preaching and singing. If the church is to worship the LORD they must know, see, and taste the wonder of the LORD. It is to this same end that songs of worship are to be sung.
It is when the church, both individually and corporately, are crying out to the LORD in worship, and having the eyes of their hearts enlightened to God’s love, that inward nurture and outward evangelism will flow as a perpetual fountain.
We see from Scripture that one of the non-negotiables is discipleship (Matt. 28:19-20). The Church must equip the saints for the work of the ministry that they may grow up every way into Christ (cf. Eph. 4:11-16). We strive for those we disciple to show the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), follow the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-31), and practice the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) themselves by teaching “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). We do this for the building up of the body and the glory of God among all the nations (Rom. 1:5).
The church is a gathering of the people of God and the people of God are told to proclaim His excellencies (see 1 Peter 2:9). The main way it proclaims God’s excellencies is through the proclamation and teaching of His Word (That is how the church expands cf. Acts 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 13:49; 16:5; 17:11-12; 19:20). The purpose being to make disciples that are wholly committed to Christ.
We see here the importance of the two other aspects of the mission of the church. It is when we taste of the LORD in worship that we want to tell people of the wonders of the LORD. We tell the good news most naturally when we are impressed with the fact that it is good news.
For a slightly more expanded discussion see: “What is the Church?”
Introduction. Community or community groups (or however it is worked out for you in your local context) are very important to the life and health of the Church. Community is a critical part of sanctification and growth for a believer and is thus a crucial aspect of our lives. Community groups are simply a tool to encourage biblical and spiritual interaction with each other.
What does “Community” mean? First, it is important to understand what is meant by fellowship or community. Often we think of a fellowship meal: “food, fun, and fellowship.” We even have fellowship halls. So, if asked, “What is fellowship?” We think, Ok, the fellowship hall is by the kitchen and when we use it we are always eating so I guess fellowship is eating, yes, that’s my answer; fellowship is eating.
Community/fellowship (Gk. koinonia) in the New Testament was often used as a general Greek word and was used of a business partnership in which two or more people shared a business and this word was also at times used of a marriage. Koinonia is a common union, interest, participation, and co-operation, it is being together, united. We see many similar ideas through different biblical word pictures. I think of family, body (1 Cor.12:12-27; Eph.1:22-23), and “brother/sister” references for instance.
Created for Community. Where do we get the idea that we are created for community? First, we see it in that we are created in the image of the triune God. God is relational and so are we. Second, man walked with God in the Garden. Third, we also see that it was not good that man should dwell alone. We need each other.
Community Crashed. Where do we see the crash of community? In the Fall. First, man was kicked out of the Garden and separated from God because of sin. Second, there is marital disharmony. Third, Cain kills Abel. And the problem only precipitates with the tower of Babel. Community when not united in Christ but some other cause will only lead to chaos. This is demonstrated throughout history.
Community Recreated through Christ. So how do we have this union or community? We have it in Christ (Rom. 6:4, 6, 11; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:4-6; Col. 2:20; 3:3)! We have union with God and each other. What was destroyed in the Fall is remade and being remade through Christ. So, we see that koinonia in Scripture means we have intimacy with Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:9), God the Father (1 Jn. 1:3), God the Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14), and each other (2 Cor. 8:4; 1 Jn. 1:7).
Our union one to another is much deeper than merely eating together. It is more intimate and real, it is truly eternal. Further, it is not merely we that are together, we are together with God in Christ. “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
Two other powerful texts:
That He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph. 2:15-22).
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that You [pl.] may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved [that is, the church], I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your [pl.] conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you [pl.] as evildoers, they may see your [pl.] good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (1 Pet. 2:9-12).
Can you imagine the scene in some of the early churches?
Imagine a converted (and “unclean”) Samaritan woman standing next to an ex-Pharisee. Now imagine that this Pharisee is being taught by a non-Jew. And then walks in the once notorious crew: Neroious the Egyptian and ex-demon-possessed man, Phillirono the Jewish ex-drunk and tax collector, Markus a Roman Centurion that use to exploit his power to have his way with women, Allatu a Babylonian woman and witch, and Simon the Leper. Yet, all these, in Christ, are made new and united! That’s what Scripture says! And that is actually what we see in the Church!
Our union with Christ gives us a realistic expectation for fellowship. We know that we are at the same time saints and sinners. We therefore don’t expect perfection, we expect people’s lives to be a little messy. We expect to be patient with each other and help each other out. We all need grace. And we have all received it in Christ.
When we remember where our community comes from it protects against the error of thinking that fellowship is simply socializing, i.e. food, fun, and football. It also protects us from thinking that in our community groups we will experience heaven on earth. As we understand more and more where our community comes from, we will have more community.
So our communion is much more significant than just eating together, though that can and should be an outworking of our union with Christ as it was in the Early Church. In the book of Acts we see that people from every nation under heaven (Acts 2:5) received the word and were added to the Church (v. 41) and they (the very large and very diverse group) devoted themselves not just to teaching and prayers but also to fellowship and the breaking of bread (v. 42). Also, significantly, one of the qualifications of a pastor/elder is that he be hospitable (Titus 1:8).
Community is Commanded. Community is not just something that has become trendy with the recent popularity of community groups. Community has been around since the world has been around. However, Christians are not just called to any type of community. Christians are called to Christ exalting community (cf. Ps. 133:1; Jn. 17:23; Rom. 12:4, 16; 1 Cor. 1:10; 12:12-13; Gal. 3:26-28; Eph. 2:14; 4:3, 16; Col. 3:13-14; 1 Pet. 3:8). So community groups, or the way that community is worked out in your context, is not just a nice option; it is vital and life giving. God want us all to be in community.
What is a Community Group? A community group is a small group of often diverse people that intentionally share life together in order to encourage each other. Community groups are a pragmatic way that the modern Church has sought to fulfill the various “one another” passages. Remember, the book of Hebrews says to consider, that is, intentionally think about, how to stir each other up to love and good works (Heb. 10:24). Community groups are, as the name would indicate, a good place to practice all the exhortations to community and they are a very good way to stir up each other for good works.
It is through the church that we are “equipped for the work of the ministry” and “built up into Him who is the head.” It is in Christ through connection with the church that individuals within the church our nourished and grow together (Col. 2:19). Perseverance is a community endeavor. We need to be provoked to good works.
On and an aside, it may be helpful to remember the example of Jesus. If anyone did not need fellowship with others it was Jesus. Yet, He spent almost all His time with His followers. He prayed with them, ate with them, walked with them, taught them, and went through life with them.
There are also many “one another” passages that can only be carried out in a small familiar setting. Here is a sampling of the “one another” passages. Think about each of them and about the benefit community groups are to practice all the various aspects of life together.
We are to honor one another (Rom. 13:7). We are to accept one another (Rom. 15:7). We are to bear with one another (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13). We are to forgive one another (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). We are to pray for and confess sins to one another (James 5:16). We are to cheer and challenge one another (Heb. 3:13; 10:24-25). We are to admonish and confront one another (Rom. 15:14; Col. 3:16; Gal. 6:1-6). We are to warn one another (1 Thess. 5:14). We are to teach one another (Col. 3:16). We are to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). We are to share possessions (Acts 4:32). We are to submit to one another (Eph. 5:21). We are to not gossip, slander, or be fake with one another (Gal. 5:15; Rom. 12:9). These “one anothers” most easily take place in community groups, so please be involved in a Christian community/community group.
Elements of a Community Group. In Acts 2:42 we see a glimpse of what fellowship was like for the Early Church. It says they continually devoted themselves to teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. There are at least seven important elements for community groups.
1) Bible Study: The Early Church was continually devoted to teaching and we also want the Word of God to be central in all we do as a church. It is the Word of God that makes us competent and equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
2) Prayer: We want our ministry to be saturated in prayer and this is just what we see in Acts. They devoted themselves to prayer (2:42).
3) Hospitality: As we have seen, one of the qualifications for an Elder is that he be hospitable. This points us to its importance. We also remember that the early church also broke bread together. That is, they ate together. This likely includes both regular meals and the Lord’s Supper.
4) Confession and Repentance: This is a sensitive subject and must be done with much wisdom and tact. However, we know from James that we are to confess our sins one to another (5:16) and Galatians chapter six tells us to bear one another’s burdens (6:1-5). There is likely no better place for these things to happen than through community groups.
5) Service: The service that we are to do is varied. We are to do good to all people and especially those in the church. We are to make disciples of all nations. Yet, we are to do those things in community. Yes, we need to do them on large scale as the whole church but it is also helpful to focus on service at a smaller more intimate level.
6) Worship: We as the church must desire and seek for our involvement in community groups to lead individuals to better love the LORD their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.
7) Mission: We want to intentionally stir each other up to love and good works (Heb. 10:24) by being together and devoting ourselves to Scripture and prayer (Acts 2:42) so that the result is mission to the surrounding world (v. 43-47). The purpose of community groups is not so we can create a “Christian ghetto.” We need community so that we won’t be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13) but we also need community so we can be on mission together.
D.A. Carson says,
The heart of true fellowship… is self-sacrificing conformity to a shared vision… Christian fellowship, then, is self-sacrificing conformity to the gospel. There may be overtones of warmth and intimacy, but the heart of the matter is this shared vision of what is of transcendent importance, a vision that calls forth our commitment.
Mission of Community Groups. The mission of community groups is to encourage each other to Christ-like living for the sake of God’s Name among all the nations, to provide intentional outlets for all the “one another passages” in Scripture, to use as a catalyst to reach the lost people around us through intentional relational witness, and to promote more intimate Christian relationships.
Community Group Logistics. The church should desire diverse community groups. That is, we want people to come together in relationship that outside of Christ would likely never partner together for anything. This is for many reasons. Diversity better pictures the Kingdom of God; in heaven there will be people form every tribe, tongue, and nation. If there is diversity in age than what Paul commends in Titus 2 can be put into practice; older men teaching younger men, and older women teaching younger women.
Imagine the scene that I described above again. And remember that the world will know that we are disciples by our love for each other (Jn. 13:35). Our love will show all the more when we are not all the same; when the only thing that could possibly unite us is Christ.
Conclusion. Although, we do not exactly see community groups in Scripture I believe that biblical community is vital to the health of individual Christians and to the corporate life of the church. Thus, I strongly encourage people to be connected to a church and to be involved in a community of believers whether in a community group/small group/cell group or some other intimate gathering. Community groups may not be exactly biblical but they are designed to do biblical, God given, things. I, thus, implore you to be connected to a Christian community/community group. I say this not merely because I think you should, not merely for my own spiritual health, not merely for your own spiritual health, but because I believe that God teaches in Scripture that it is important.
 D. A. Carson, Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians, 16.