Who belongs in the local church? How do we determine who is in and who is out? Should we really be allow the us-verses-them mindset to define our congregation? Does everyone who claims to be a Christian get have the right to join our church? And what about the kids? Do the children of believers get to join?
To answer these questions, we have to step back and ask another question: Who creates the church? Is the church the creation of believers seeking fellowship, relationship, and spiritual formation through the creation of a special group or is the Church a divine creation established between God and his people?
According to the Scriptures, the Church exists because God has bound himself to his people. Ephesians 2:18-19 states that
18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,[d] but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by[e] the Spirit.”
All believers are brought into the household of God the moment they are converted. The moment one repents of his sins and believes in Christ for salvation, that person become a part of the household of God. He or She becomes a member of God’s separated people.
In Titus 2:11-14, Paul describes are salvation in the following manner:
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Those who have been saved have been redeemed and purified.
Compare those words to Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:25-30
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.[a] 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body.
The same language that Paul uses to describe the believer is used to describe the church directly and undoubtedly revealing that the church is the people of God. Christ died to save sinners to redeem the lost. Those who are redeemed are the church.
If you are a believer, you are a member of God’s Church. The terms are synonymous.
Since God’s people consists of only the redeemed our local churches should be consist of the redeemed. Can unregenerate people attend our church? Yes! We should welcome them into our service. We should invite them to come and taste the goodness of God as revealed through the preaching of the gospel and through our love for our fellow man.
Why Is Church For Believers?
But we must only admit believers into membership. We must only allow those who publicly and unequivocally claim Christ to vote, to teach, to lead, and to occupy positions of service in the church because the church is bound together by the gospel. D.A. Carson hits the nail on the head when he writes:
The church itself is not made up of natural “friends.” It is made up of natural enemies. What binds a church together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have all been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance.
We only true unity and peace with those who have been transformed by the gospel.
Moreover, only those who have been changed by the gospel possess the ability to function as the people of God.
“The assumption is that, since all the members of the church are regenerate believer-priests, and thus indwelt by the Spirit, they all have both the ability and the responsibility to hear God’s voice and discern God’s will for the body.”
While unbelievers can read and cognitive understand the Bible, they cannot love it, follow it, or obey its commands. When unbelievers can prominence and power in the local church, they destroy the local church.
1 Corinthians 5:6-7, Paul reminds us that, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” A little tolerated sin will destroy the church. If we allow sin to go unchecked, if we allow sinners to vote, to hold positions in the church they will destroy it. If we seek to grow the church by incorporating people into community apart from repentance and faith, we will become a community that lacks repentance and faith and will eventually cease to resemble the gospel. Only those who believe should be allowed to be members of the local church.
And lastly, we must admit only the redeemed because only the redeemed are permitted to take the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor.11:20-33). If the church hopes to fulfill her God given responsibility of overseeing the thoughtful practice and application of the sacraments, she must seek to limit membership to believers.
How Do We Keep the Church Pure?
Then next question undoubtedly becomes: How do we do this? How do we make sure that only believers are part of our local church? God knows who he has redeemed but we do not. What do we do?
We hold the line on baptism. We only allow those who have been baptized by immersion join the church. And we only Baptize those who can article the gospel and point to fruits of the repentance. In the New Testament, the leaders of the early church only baptized those who clearly articulated the gospel. The did not baptize someone because they raised their hand while everyone else stared at the carpet between the pews. They did not baptize someone because he or she repeated a prayer. They baptized those who had confessed Christ as their savior and publically repented of their sins. When the Philippian Jailer repents we see this playout in the Acts 16:30-33: 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.
Baptism does not save, but all who believe and have the opportunity will want to be baptized. Why? They will want to be baptize because God commands his people to separate themselves and to publicly identify with Christ through proclaiming that they have died to sin and risen with gospel by going under and being raised from the waters of baptism. (Rom. 6:3-5).
Mark Dever notes:
Baptism, then, is essential for membership in a church because if one were to be admitted by a church, only to refuse such a clear command of Christ, then such an unbaptized person claiming to follow Christ would simply be immediately disciplined until they either decided to follow Christ’s commands, or stopped having the church’s endorsement of their claim to follow Him.
To protect the integrity of the church, we covenant together only with those who have been baptized upon a credible profession of faith.
However, this plan is not full proof. In Acts 8:9-25, Simon the Magician makes a profession of faith in response to Philips preaching and is baptized (13). But then Simon sees the Holy Spirit working mightily through Peter and John and tries to buy God and is cursed by Peter.
Because of this mess and other failures, some in the church especially those in the Presbyterian camp argue that all who loosely identify with the gospel should be in the church. They often point to Matthew 13:24-30.
24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds[a] among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants[b] of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
Children of believers should be allowed to be in the church. They should be baptized as infants so that they can experience the goodness of God. All children in the Old Covenant were circumcised and were allowed to benefit from their status as the people of God. And children of believers in the new covenant, should be allowed to participate in the church. Kids in the church will be better prepared to receive the gospel. And if they do not repent, the church will discipline and kick the little guys and gals out of the church.
But there is a major problem with this interpretation. In verse 38, Jesus says, “The field is the world, and the good see is the sons of the kingdom.” This is a parable of the world and not of the church. Christ seeks not inclusion but purity in the church.
Moreover even in the Old Testament, two people of God existed. The physical and the spiritual people of God.
Deuteronomy 30:6 says,
And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
Though all Jews were descendants of Abraham not all we truly and fully the people of God (Rom 9:6). The physical sign did not guarantee the spiritual reality.
In the same way, there is the physical local church and there is the spiritual church. There is a physical church that is comprised of all who claim Christ. Same may not be saved. But the church is to always strive for holiness. She is to always strive to have only those who are saved in her ranks. Our inability to achieve perfection should not cause us to abandon the biblical ideal. Rather we should seek to have local churches filled with believers.
Physical Local Church
And the local church should be present in a physical location. The church should assembly locally to glorify God. The historical weight of Acts and the epistles of Paul make this clear. In Acts 8:3, Paul begins to destroy churches. In Acts 11:22 Barnabas and Paul meet with the local church. In Acts 12:1, Herod arrest members of the local church. The church prays together and comes together in Acts 12:5; 14:27. The church sends out missionaries in Acts 15.
Paul writes letter to the 1 Corinthians 1:2
2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”
He uses the same language in 2 Corinthians 1:1. Later in 1 Corinthians 11:18, Paul deals with the Corinthians actions when they come together. Galatians is addressed to the churches in Galatia (1:2). Paul talks about local churches in Romans 16:5, Philippians 1:1, in Colossians 1:2 and in 4:16 Paul wants his letter read in the churches in Loadicea. The author of Hebrews encourage us not to forsake the assembling together (10:25). All this builds to the reality that the people of God want to be together and are together in specific locations.
Why do members need to be in covenant with local congregations? Why cannot the not just float from here to there? We need local congregations to establish who cares for who. To establish who can discipline who. Should I take a phone call and go to Vermont and care for a sick brother far up north because he calls and asks for help? Should I try to discipline someone in Texas for leaving their wife? They answer is no. I have not covenanted with them. I have not assembled with them, learned the Word with them, and ministered with them. We establish local covenantal communities the consists of at least two to three people so that we glorify God through preaching, obedience, administering the sacraments, maintaining purity, and evangelizing the lost. Because the people of God are a people and not a set of private individuals, the people of God must assembly together to advance the kingdom.
Those who have been redeemed are the church. And as the church, they cannot help but have a passion and a desire to be with the local church.