Functioning Church Membership
By Dr. Matt Richards
Most of us in the Baptist tradition owe our existence to a man named John Smyth. In the years following the Protestant Reformation launched by Luther, as well as some of the ensuing reforms led by others in various parts of Europe (Calvin, Zwingli, etc.), John Smyth came along right when it seemed that some of the momentum launched by others was waning. While he agreed with much of what these men stood for, he did not think they went far enough.
After continually trying to bring reform to the Church of England, he was eventually excommunicated. He and a group of about 50 people were sent to Holland for their disruptive views, and after studying the Bible outside of church tradition, they came to several convictions: only consenting adults should be baptized by immersion, church membership should be autonomous (disconnected from a hierarchy), and church officers should only include pastors and deacons.
There was just one problem for John Smyth and this excited group of Bible-believing Christians – none of them had been baptized in the way they had come to believe baptism should take place. How could they make this right, without someone who had been baptized the correct way to baptize them? This did not stop John Smyth. In an act that demonstrates the epitome of Baptist autonomy, John Smyth decided that since he could not look to someone else to do this, he would do it himself. After baptizing himself, he baptized the rest of the group, and because of their beginning and their strong instance on what has come to be called “believer’s baptism,” they were given the name “Baptists.”
For John Smyth, these things were necessary for church membership, in large part, because they helped ensure a regenerate group. In other words, consenting, deliberate membership helped ensure a biblically functioning membership.
Biblically functioning membership is NOT about being more correct, or better than everyone else; it is about being engaged and centered on the Gospel of Jesus. I met a man in a coffee shop a couple years ago that approached me while I was working on my sermon, with commentaries and Bibles strewn out in front of me. “What are you doing?” He asked. In my experience, you do not ask someone who is obviously writing a sermon what they are doing unless you want to either 1) pray and encourage them; or 2) tell them how wrong they are. In this instance, it was the latter!
After confirming to this person that I was writing a sermon to preach at a Baptist church, he proceeded to tell me why all the Baptist churches he knew of had deviated from correct doctrine into heresy. I could not help myself: “So where do you go to church, if so many of them are wrong?” “Oh, I can’t go to church anywhere around here.” “You don’t go to church at all?” “Well, I do Bible studies, and listen to solid, doctrinal teaching online, but I can’t go anywhere around here.” “So, are you telling me, that every church in driving distance from you is so wrong and unorthodox, that you can’t even have fellowship with the Christians that go there, who you disagree with?” “Oh, I didn’t say that.” But effectively, he did. I do not doubt that this guy had good intentions. Like John Smyth did, he wanted to be in a church that he feels believes and practices what the New Testament church in Acts taught and practiced. That is a great desire. But at the end of the day, church membership is not about your desires – no matter how admirable.
On the surface, the church in Corinth had some pretty decent desires. Unlike my friend at the coffee shop, they were not obsessed with doctrine; they were obsessed with spirituality. Everyone desired to have the highest and most distinguished marks of spirituality within the church.
But neither being super spiritual, nor believing all the right things, magically results in being a functioning church member. Biblical church membership is functioning church membership. Some of you have co-workers who know every single thing regarding the place that you work for, and how to do everyone’s job better than they know how to do it themselves. Does this necessarily mean that these co-workers function the way they are supposed to? Probably not. In fact, you may even classify them as “dysfunctional.”
Jesus did not commission the Church primarily to teach theology, or to be a school of spirituality (as important as these things are); but to function as HIS body in advancing the Gospel. As the literal body of Christ, we have been put in charge of something that ultimately is not ours. The church does not belong to the pastor, the deacons, the committee members, the voting church members, or any other person or group in your church tradition. It belongs to Jesus, as Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 12:27: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a part of it.”
Thom Rainer, in I am a Church Member, cautions against likening church membership to being a part of a country club, civic organization, or any other secular entity we affiliate with to obtain a benefit. Functioning church membership is an obligation to BE the body of our Lord and Savior, to whom we owe our life and salvation.
*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common