Straight Talk about the Church: A Biblical Meditation on Church Membership

natalia-y-340640For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people.
And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.
— Acts 11:26 —

For the last year I have spent a lot of time thinking about the church. Consequently, when I read books like Acts I am primed to observe ecclesial nuances (read: churchy stuff). That happened today in reading Acts 11:26, where in one verse four different words are used to speak of different (or the same) groups of people. It’s worth noting the language, because it may reveal a thing or two about how we conceive of the church.

In Acts 11 we discover the effects of the gospel spreading into places like Antioch. As verses 19–22 tell, a report of Gentiles coming to faith reached Jerusalem (v. 22). Pre-Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the church in Jerusalem is still young in their understanding of how the Gentiles might experience salvation. So, verse 22 says, they sent Barnabas to Antioch, where he observes the grace of God in their midst (v. 23).

Upon seeing this newborn church, he goes and collects Saul from Tarsus, and returns to Antioch. This is where our verse picks up: “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” In that one verse, set in the context of a newly formed church in Antioch, we find four words related to the people of Antioch and their relationship to the gospel. These words are (1) church, (2) people, or many people, (3) disciples, and (4) Christians.

Let’s consider each and what they say to us about the church.

Disciples

First, “disciples” has not been used since chapter 9, where it (disciple or disciples) was used eight times (vv. 1, 10, 19, 25, 26 [2x], 36, 38). Interesting. This word which permeates Acts (28x) goes missing in Acts 10–11 where no visible church is found. Yes, in Acts 10 we find Peter preaching to Cornelius, but no church is mentioned. And yes, in Acts 11 (vv. 1–18) we find the church in Jerusalem mentioned, but discussion is had about Peter’s recent preaching, not the people in the church there at Jerusalem.

Why does this matter? I would propose that “disciple” may be the way in which individual members of a church are designated. Only four times is the word “disciple” used in the singular in Acts. Every other instance, Luke refers to a group of Jesus followers. In the singular, it refers to Ananias (9:10), Paul (9:26), Timothy (16:1), and Mnason (21:16). Each time an individual is mentioned, it is in reference to other disciples (cp. 9:10 and 9:19), or with regard to a specific place or group of disciples (9:25–26; 16:1).

In short, although the word can be used to speak of a disciple individually, its usage in Acts indicates a certain association with other disciples. So, for instance, in Acts 9:26 Paul attempted to join the disciples in Jerusalem; the disciples determined to send aid in Acts 11:29; and Acts 18:27 describes Prisca and Aquila write to the disciples in Achaia to receive Apollos. In short, disciples in Acts functions as a synonym for the local church—i.e., spatio-temporal gatherings of people marked out (by baptism) and designated as followers of Christ.

So, it is here in Acts 11:26. ‘Disciples’ is parallel to to the church and not all the people who the apostles met.

Church

Next, we consider the word ‘church’ itself. Strikingly, the verse reads, “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people.” It could have just as easily said, “For a whole year they met with many people and taught the church,” but instead the verb associated with the church is “met.” In fact, this translation covers the original language. As the KJV renders these words, its better to see that Paul and Barnabas “assembled themselves with the church.” The verb is ginomai (to be or become) and the infinitive qualifying to be or become is synagō (to assemble). In other words, for a whole year Paul and Barnabas did church; they assembled themselves with the disciples in Antioch—a fact confirmed by Acts 13:1–3.

But what does this mean? The significance stems from the official recognition of disciples as the church of God. Or to put it the other way, local assemblies of disciples are what designate a church. Given the ordinance of baptism, churches are made when two or three baptized believers gather in one place. And when new believers come to faith they join the assembly through baptism. In keeping with the plural nature of discipleship, individuals do not appoint themselves disciples. In Acts, a follower of Christ was created through the gospel preaching of the church and its disciples. Hence, new converts by means of baptism sought to identify themselves with the church or “the disciples.” In turn, churches formed and grew as gospel preaching resulted in baptisms (with the intermediate step of repentance and faith).

All this to say, Paul and Barnabas assembled with the recognized church in Antioch, and this group of disciples was different than the many people they taught outside the church.

Many People

Of course Paul and Barnabas taught within the church, i.e., among the assembly of disciples in Antioch. However, as it would be come customary for Paul (Acts 17:2), he also taught in the synagogue and the marketplace. Exiting the assembly of believers and entering the world, he preached the gospel and taught about Jesus to those who did not believe. To follow the language of Acts 11:26—he assembled with the church and taught many people who were distinct from the church.

This is vitally important for us to understand Paul’s mission and ours. While he regularly associated with people outside the church and while the church regularly ministered to those outside the assembly of recognized disciples, they did not confuse disciples and people devoted to Paul’s teaching. There is a massive difference between someone who enjoys listening to the teaching of given pastor or church and the person who follows Christ. Usually, these two features occur in the same person—followers of Christ ought to enjoy and feed upon their church’s teaching. However, there are others who willingly enjoy the teaching, but refuse to follow Christ.

In our day, the challenge is found in those who enjoy the teaching (and fellowship of the church) and who are genuinely born again, but who for a variety of reasons refuse to publicly identify themselves with the members of a church. Perhaps, going back to the language of discipleship would aid in this process of assembling true disciples. Perhaps, gently showing Christians the biblical pattern of membership would help. But however churches tackle the challenge of gathering God’s people into the care and nourishment of their flock, what they must not do is blur the line of disciple and non-disciple—i.e., the many people who in this passage are not disciples.

Ultimately, the purity of the church and the visibility of the gospel is at stake. When leaders and churches conflate born-again members with well-intentioned regular attenders we put at risk our ability to declare and display the gospel. The church is God’s plan for making his gospel visible. While the gospel is a message; the medium which best proves the power of the gospel is the church. But the church only amplifies the effects of the gospel when it is distinct from the world. Thus, only as the disciples baptize believers and receive members who evidence faith and repentance will this distinction continue. For ultimately, the church is be a place where the world sees Christ and his people as Christians.

Christians

The last word in verse 26 is “Christian.” If the word “disciple(s)” is associated with the assembly of the church (in the beginning of the verse), it is also associated with the word Christian at the end. Luke records, “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” Strikingly, this is not a word widely used in the Bible. Acts 11:26 is one of three places in the New Testament where this word (which means little Christ) is used (cf. Acts 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16). Importantly, this is a word that might have been given to the church from those outside.

And whether or not it is a mark of derision, it is certainly striking that those who have been saved by Jesus, and who have been with Jesus (through his Word and his Spirit) are recognized to be like him. This ultimately, must be our aim. In the church, we should live our lives as Christians, even suffering like Christ did (1 Peter 4:16). We should persuade others to be Christian (Acts 26:28), but our persuading must be more than words. The gospel is words; it is a message. And we do persuade with words. But more powerfully than words, the church when it is observably like Christ, will be a persuasive force for the gospel in the world.

And ultimately, this is what motivates care for the church. Baptism, discipleship, membership, the Lord’s Supper, and church discipline are all important because of this larger reality—the glory of God on display in the church. Why does it matter that we make distinctions between disciples and others? Why do we implement membership classes and elder interviews with baptismal candidates? Why do we insist on visible faith before baptism? Because the glory of God is at stake.

Churches that do not pay attention to their membership will not go pagan overnight. But give it long enough and churches which do not teach about the significance of the ordinances, the distinction between disciple and non-disciple, and the nature of the church as a family of faith not just a social gathering for the religious, and that church will not longer be able to powerfully articulate the gospel. Should the gospel message be preserved in its teaching, the counter-examples in the church will undermine its effect. Unless the church makes a concerted effort to distinguish itself from the world, it will be of no use for the world. And thus, its Christian testimony will be lost, because its Christianity will no longer look like Christ.

Be the Church: A People Marked Out from the World

At first blush, the call for meaningful membership may seem austere, severe, or unappealing. But when we see why it matters, it begins to make a little more sense. And then when we see the way that routine matters of ministry in Acts are framed by this undergirding logic, then it impels us to consider: how do we order our churches to make the distinction between disciple and non-disciple clear? How do our assemblies remain Christian, even as we teach many people?

Truly, the church who faithfully disciples the nations (read: make disciples from all nations) must keep these two priorities in place. We must know who our church is so we can build them up in their faith and exercise our covenantal duties towards them, and we must know who our church is not, so we can call them to faith and obedience to the Lord in baptism and life together with God’s people. Too often this kind of clarity is misunderstood, resisted, rejected—but only to the detriment of the individual, the church, and glory of God.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Natalia Y on Unsplash

 

2 thoughts on “Straight Talk about the Church: A Biblical Meditation on Church Membership

  1. Ok great. Yes, the church is and should be separate from casual attenders, but too often joining a church in official membership simply adds a number to the roll sheet of the denomination to which the church building is affiliated. Actions speak louder than words. If a person attends and is a disciple of Jesus and contributes value to the local body, there is not a biblical mandate for official membership. I have witnessed many members who add no value whatsoever.

  2. Pingback: God’s War Memorial (pt 2): How a Diverse Christian Community Displays Christ’s Glory (Ephesians 2:11–22) | Via Emmaus

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