Another Step Toward a Biblical Ecclesiology: Acts 9 on Baptism, Membership, and the Church

baptism_of_st_paul_-_capela_palatina_-_palermo_-_italy_2015-2The book of Acts is pivotal for understanding the nature and function of the church. It is also challenging, because it presents a church that is “born” on Pentecost, at first contained to Jerusalem, but later expanded to Judea and Samaria and finally unleashed the ends of the earth. At the same time, it’s founding members were believers before receiving the Spirit and yet the gift of the Spirit is one of the distinguishing marks of the church as it spreads from Israel to Italy. In four instances (Acts 2, 8, 10, 19), the Spirit is given, but in no two instances are the exact events the same. For instance, speaking in tongues accompanies the Spirit in Acts 2, 10, 19, but not Acts 8. Likewise, water baptism precedes the Holy Spirit in Acts 8, but follows in Acts 10.

From just a sampling of evidences, the book of Acts is both foundational and frustrating for understanding the nature of the church. It is foundational because of the patterns we see in how churches are formed—the Word of God is preached, Jews then Samaritans than Gentiles repent and believe, they are baptized, and then gathered into churches. Yet, it is frustrating because not everything in Acts is reproducible today. The personal visitations by Jesus, the miracles of healing, the speaking in tongues, and the survival of snake bites are all incidents that we might say have discontinued—unless one believes otherwise. For now my point is not to defend or deny cessationism, but to merely highlight how that debate among others finds difficulty in Acts.

Any point of ecclesiology, therefore, needs to be aware of Acts transitional nature. It should take into account how the Holy Spirit has given us this book to teach us about the founding of the church, but it is not a manual for every point of doctrine. That being said, where else do we turn in Scripture to find how to plant, revitalize, and shepherd churches? Therefore, we do need to watch for patterns and principles in Acts, but always with awareness of some discontinuity between Acts period of transition and our own day.

Clearing Up Two Points of Ecclesiology

With this approach to Acts in mind, I want to clear up two points of ecclesiology from Acts 9. From this chapter, I have heard two statements about the church:

  1. Paul’s baptism by Ananias suggests a local church is not (absolutely) needed for a legitimate baptism.
  2. The Church is fundamentally a universal concept, as Acts 9:31 describes the church regionally, not locally (i.e., in one spatio-temporal location).

While there is truth in these statements, ultimately I think we are on more solid ground to say

  1. Paul’s baptism was unique, but not so unique as to break from the normative pattern of the New Testament. We should exercise caution when making application from his experience, but at the same time, we can see how his unusual experience fits the larger pattern of baptism and “church membership” in Acts.
  2. The universal Church “throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria . . .” is a located in spatio-temporal “locales” (something I’ve tried to describe elsewhere).

In what follows, I will argue that Paul’s baptism is both a unique point in redemptive history and one that follows the pattern of baptism and church membership (i.e., association with other disciples in a local church). Exploring the relationship of Paul’s baptism to the churches in Damascus and Jerusalem will also prove the corollary: life in the universal church is experienced through local assemblies. In the end, I will list seven points of application from this chapter related to ecclesiology. Continue reading

A Better Understanding of Baptism

baptismBobby Jamieson is a clear thinker and compelling writer. He is also a good friend. But it’s not his friendship that impels me to commend his two books. Rather, it is the fact that I think his two books on baptism (Going Public: Why Baptism is Required for Membership and Understanding Baptism) succeed in answering the question: If baptism doesn’t save, why does it matter?

In a day when church membership is often taken lightly and popular ecclesiology focuses on activities and attractions more than exegetical essentials, Jamieson’s two books explain why Scripture requires baptism and why churches need to reclaim the value of this ordinance.

In what follows, I want to highlight three arguments from Understanding Baptism addressing three different kinds of people. First, he makes a case for why Christians reticent to be baptized should be baptized. Second, he explains why baptism is necessary for membership. And third, he shows how membership in the local church is the natural result of baptism.

In truth, this blog can’t do justice to all the Scripture Jamieson considers in his two books. Rather, if you find yourself in one of these camps—(1) an unbaptized believer, (2) baptized but not (intending to become) a church member, or (3) a member indifferent towards baptism—my aim is to spur you on towards picking up his book and going to the Bible to see what it says about baptism and the church. Continue reading

The Lord’s Supper: A Messy Meal for Messy People

traySilver trays, clean hands, fresh bread, sterile cups, and a well-ordered room may be just a few of the things that keep us from seeing how messy the Lord’s Supper is. And how the Lord’s Supper is for messy people.

Think about it. The cross of Christ was invented to be the most horrendous bodily experience known to man. It is reported that spectators sometimes vomited as they watched the crucifixion. One account describes the physical effects of the cross this way.

Naked and embarrassed, the victims would often use their remaining strength to seek revenge on the crowd of mockers who had gathered to jeer them. They would curse at their tormenters while urinating and spitting on them. Some victims would become so overwhelmed with pain that they would become incontinent, and a pool of sweat, blood, urine, and feces would gather at the base of their cross (Death by Love, 25).

In Jesus’ case, we know he did not use his remaining hours to malign his accusers. Rather, he prayed for those who killed him; he granted pardon to the thief next to him; he cared for the mother who had once caressed him; and he prayed to the God who was abandoning him. In all of these ways, Jesus’ death was wholly other. And yet, his body beaten and bleeding, lacerated and lashed to the cross, was a mess.

From what we know of crucifixions at the time, Jesus’ “cross was likely already covered in the blood of other men. Timber was so expensive that crosses were recycled; therefore, Jesus’ blood mixed with the layers of blood, sweat, and tears of countless other men who had walked that same path before him” (ibid.). All in all, Christ’s crucifixion was anything but a sanitary affair.

Pure and holy? Absolutely!

Clean and sterile? Hardly! Continue reading

The Bible Doesn’t Say ‘Join a Church,’ So Why Should I?

I have a friend who has been attending church regularly but is unconvinced about the need for church membership?  He challenges, “Show me where it says in the Bible, ‘ Thou shalt become a church member.'”  And truthfully, I cannot point to verse that says that one must become a church member.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that church membership is spiritually advantageous and even compulsory for the believer.  To say it another way, without church membership individual believers will not mature in their Christian faith, and local churches will be deficient of Spiritually-gifted members.

Still, what biblical data is there to support the need for church membership?  Let me suggest five reasons for the vital necessity of church membership based on New Testament principles:

  1. Membership is a NT Pattern.  When converts repented, believed, and were baptized in the book of Acts, they were added to the number of the church (Acts 2:41, 47).  This means that the church in Jerusalem knew the number of believers in their church.  So did the church at Corinth–how else could they assess when the “whole church” met together (1 Cor 14:23)?  New Testament churches were comprised of members assembling locally, as evidenced by the church discipline in 1 Cor 5 and the recognition of members leaving the congregation (1 John 2:19).  In order, for church discipline to work, churches had to be aware of their membership.
  2. Membership secures participation in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus spoke of the church on two occassions (Matthew 16:13-20; 18:15-20), and in both instances, he stated that the keys to the kingdom have been given to the church.  I take this to mean that spiritual access into the kingdom of heaven has been entrusted to the church.  That is to say, the gospel message has been given to the church, and only the church foretastes and foresees kingdom realities.  In this way, the church serves as the instrument of the kingdom.  It is not identical with the kingdom, but each true, local church functions as a kingdom outpost–proclaiming the gospel of kingdom, partaking of the kingdom ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), enacting kingdom discipline, and demonstating what Spirit-led, kingdom life is like.  Church membership matters because kingdom life is foreseen and ‘fore-tasted’ in the local church. 
  3. Membership provides spiritual protection.  God has appointed pastor-teachers to instruct believers and equip saints for the work of service.  Moreover, pastor-teacher-elders are those who watch over the souls of the local church.  It would be foolish to forego this ministry of mercy.  As Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”  Likewise, church deacons are installed to help meet physical needs and to minister to saints in need (cf. Acts 6:1-7).  And finally, church discipline falls into this category.  None of us are strong enough to contend against the wiles of Satan.  We need to formative discipline provided through the regular administration of the Word of God in the local church, but there are also times when we need the accountability of a fellow member to call us back to Christ.  Even more powerful, we may need the unified testimony of the entire church to call us back to Christ.  Church discipline is not merely a punitive action against a backslidden Christians; it is a means of protecting those sheep who wander from the fold.  Satan has come to kill, steal, and destroy.  He often does this through division and isolation!  By submitting ourselves to the accountability of the local church in church membership, we are inviting the loving and protective correction of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  This is a means of grace, intended by our loving God as a preserving force against our wicked and unruly hearts.
  4. Membership is for our spiritual maturity.  Ephesians 4 makes it abundantly clear, we do not grow by oursleves.  Just like the human body, we do not develop as individual cells soaking up nutriment in a petri dish.  No, we grow, develop, and mature as we are united to the body of Christ (Eph 4:15-16).  Church membership entails that we are in the proper context for growth.  We are stretched to use our gifts for the corporate good (1 Cor 12:7); we are challenged to consider others more important than ourselves (Phil 2:3-4).  All the while, we are benefitted by the gifts of others.  Without membership in a local body, we are not guaranteed these things.  Growth can happen in a weekly Bible study, a parachurch group, or through a school-sponsored mission trip, but without the dynamics of the local church, most of the growth fostered in these other arenas will provide only lop-sided or imbalanced growth.  Moreover, the local church is the best context whereby we can exercise and obey the one another commands.  (For a full list see my handout: ‘The One Another’s).  Doing life together in the local church stretches us to grow in ways that no other man-made institution or intensive study program can.
  5. Membership is for our spiritual fulfillment.  Membership in the local church is God’s intended platform for you to use your gifts, skills, and passions for the upbuilding of God’s church (1 Cor. 12:7).  If you are born again and filled with the Holy Spirit, God has equipped you with one or more spiritual gifts (1 Pet 4:10-11), and truth be told, your greatest joys will come when you use your giftedness for the good of others!  So, in order to increase your joy as a Christian, you should pursue church membership and serve faithful.  As Jesus said, it is more blessed to give than receive.

Surely, these five reasons can be added to and improved upon.  I would love to hear your thoughts on why church membership is essential in the life of a Christian believer, or how God has convinced you of this truth from the Bible.  It took me a long time to learn some of these things, and I am still learning…but I am learning with and in the body of Christ as a member of a local church.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

A Growing Disciple: The Eighth Mark of a Healthy Church Member

The essence of being a Christian is to be a disciple. 

“Disciple” and “discipleship” are not words that get much “air time” today, and when they are used in secular parlance, it often conjures up thoughts of cults or sects.  However, in the pages of the New Testament, God’s Word speaks of discipleship with great frequency (over 260 times).  So what does it mean to be a disciple? 

The best way to answer that is to simply look at the lives of Peter, Andrew, James, John and the other apostles–because these men exemplify discipleship.  They were those who left their fishing nets, tax collecting booths, and families to follow Christ; they worshipped Jesus, learned from Jesus, proclaimed the gospel of Jesus’ kingdom, and went to their own bloody deaths for his sake.  As disciples, however, they did not simply imitate Jesus, they also trusted in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for eternal life and justification on the last day.  In short, as disciples, the followers of Christ found every area of their life transformed by the one whose name and cross they now identified.  And so do Christ’s disciples today.

In What is a Healthy Church Member?, Thabiti Anyabwile marks growing discipleship” as the eighth characteristic of a healthy church member.  From our study at Calvary Baptist Church in Seymour, Indiana, here are five points of application for growing as a disciple:

1. Baptism & Church Membership.  The first thing Jesus said after giving his Great Commission to “Make Disciples” was to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Therefore, if you have made Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior–that is that he has made you a new creation in Christ.  The first thing you should do is to be baptized by a local church who believes the gospel and teaches the Word of God.  Concurrent with this baptism should be your request for church membership.  Hopefully, your church has an informative/instructive process where new members are instructed in the history, doctrine, and practices of the church.  This would be a first step as a growing disciple.  For an excellent and brief treatment of this subject, with a funny cover, see Bill James revision of  Erroll Hulse’s Baptist and Church Membership.

2. Abide in the Word of God.  Next, as a growing disciple, it is imperative that you grow.  The second thing Jesus said to his would-be disciple(maker)s is to “teach them to obey all that I have instructed you.”  In other words, in the Christian life, knowing the Bible matters.  In fact, Spiritual growth DOES NOT HAPPEN WITHOUT IT.  Consider John 15:7-8, “If you abide in me, and my word abides in you, ask for whatever you want, and it will be given unto you.  By this is my Father glorified, and so you prove to be my disciples.”  The core of discipleship is an abiding relationship with Jesus founded on and mediated by the Word of God.  Moreover, discipleship is proven by this.  So the second step in growing as a strong disciple is to abide in the Word of God.

3. Pursue Older Discipleship.  Since discipleship is not an individual effort, it is important to learn from older, wiser, more mature believers in Christ.  Titus 2 frames this well.  It begins, “Teach what accords with sound doctrine…” and then instead of moving into a systematic theology, a lecture on doctrine, it focuses on relationships.  It says for older men to train younger men and older women to instruct younger women.  This is not an accident or a backup plan.  This is the very wisdom of God.  As Paul tells the Corinthians, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (11:1).  This is not an optional component of the Christian life.  Too many believers remain immature because they have never had anyone model for them a godly example.  If you don’t have anyone like this in your life, pray that God would bring someone into your life.  At the same time, ask God to shape you to be faithful, available, and teachable, so that such a disciplers’ example might not be lost on you.

4. Pursue Younger Discipleship.  Whether you have had a mentor/discipler in your life or not, if you have walked with Christ in obedience to his Word for any amount of time, you should begin looking for ways to share that with others.  Again let me challenge you– “The Christian life is not an isolated/individualized/introverted event.”  It is a lifetime of abiding in God’s word and being sharpened by others who are seeking Christ with you–ahead of you and behind you.  If you have the opportunity to share your life with a younger believer and to help show them how to walk more closely with our Savior, why wouldn’t you do it?  Honestly, is there anything better?  Doing life together should be the motto of the Christian life and is required for growth as a healthy disciple.  For an excellent resource on discipleship, see Robert Coleman’s The Master Plan of Evangelism and Michael Card’s The Walk.

5. Make Disciples.  Finally, the Great Commission impels us to go outside the church and to call others to Christ, to literally take the Word of God seriously and to make disciples.  God calls us to do something that in truth, we cannot do.  He is asking us to see to it that converts/new creations/kingdom citizens are made.  We cannot do that!  But his Word and His Spirit can, and as we carry forth the message of the gospel, he promises to bear fruit and draw many into the kingdom.  Thus if we are to truly know Christ, to walk with him, and to grow up in him, sharing the gospel and living to make-disciples must be a regular part of our lives.

None of these things are novel, but all of them are easily overlooked and undercooked.  May we strive to pick up our respective crosses and to press on towards Christ-like conformity as Baptized, Word-saturated, Maturing Disciples of Christ who love to share the gospel with others.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Committed Church Membership: The Sixth Mark of a Healthy Church Member

To many Christians today, church membership is a non-essential or an enigma.   Be it from the proliferation of extra-church ministries (i.e. Bible camps, collegiate ministries, or other parachurches), the ever-increasing array of Christian teaching diassociated from church membership (i.e. Christian TV, radio, Bible studies, etc), the creation of hybrid-churches (i.e. multi-site, Internet and virutal churches), or the simple neglect to teach this subject in many churches (thankfully, not all), many Christians have little concept of God’s desire for Christian’s to be inseparably united to a local body of believers.  Or at least, that is how it was for me, but I don’t think I am alone.

In my own life, church membership was a truth I had to grow into.  For instance, for the first five years of my Christian life I was not a church member.  I was baptized at age 17, but not a church member until 22.  This was not a conscious rebellion against the church, but an unaddressed, ecclesial ignorance.  Therefore, it my conviction that churches and pastors today must teach on the importance of church membership, if our churches–Baptist, Presbyterian, and otherwise–will be thriving outposts of Christ’s kingdom.  In Thabiti Anyabwile’s book What is a Healthy Church Member?, the sixth mark of health is understanding and embracing this reality.

As an aside, but also as an entry into this week’s applications, let me add personally that as it concerns church membership, I have been much helped by my friends and teachers at IX Marks.  If you are not familiar with this ministry, I encourage you to take an afternoon at your nearest coffee shop or library and peruse their website.  From articles to audio interviews to straight-forward teaching on the subject, let Mark Dever, Matt Schmucker, and their church-loving peers, encourage and challenge you with biblical teaching and practical ways to grow as a committed church member.  (Perhaps, the first thing to do is to listen to Mark Dever’s SBTS 2002 chapel message: Membership Matters).   I remember listening to this sermon while mopping up the children’s building at Woodland Park Baptist Church, and thinking, “I have never heard anything like this before!”  It gave me a whole new love and priority for the local church.

After considering this neglected biblical truth in more detail, you could begin to grow as a committed member through these five points of application:

1. Take a step of obedience in one area of church membership.  Thabiti Anyabwile lists 8 characteristics of a committed church member: (1) Attends Regularly; (2) Seeks Peace; (3) Edifies Others; (4) Warns and Admonishes Others; (5) Pursues Reconciliation; (6) Bears with Others; (7) Prepares for the Ordinances; and (8) Supports the Work of the Ministry (68-70).  Does the members in your church do this?  Can you imagine if they did?  Be a trendsetter in your church: start practicing these corporate spiritual disciplines and encourage others to do the same.  Taking God at his word, and stepping out in Spirit-empowered obedience will have untold impact on you and your local church.

2. Develop a ministry of presence at your church.  Realize that your attendance matters.  In my own life, I started going to church regularly at age 17.  When I did, there was an older gentlemen who greeted me at the door every week.  In addition to the preaching of God’s word, I truly believe that his enthuiastic hospitality was one of the ways that God brought me to himself.  When we go to church, we are not simply going as consumers; we go as those upbuilding and supporting the rest of God’s people.  And when your Christian liberty “enables” you to freely skip church, it may have a negative effect on another brother or sister who is depending on your presence.  The ministry of presence is vital for all believers and should be something that we gladly live out each week.

3. Learn the names of every member of your church and use the church directory to pray for one another.  John 10:3 says that Jesus calls his sheep by name, and that when he speaks, his sheep hear him and follow (10:27).  So too, for Christians, especially church leaders and shepherds, we must be committed to knowing those in our church, calling them by name, and praying for them.  Now, with that said, I realize, some churches are ginormous–which is a technical term for “really big”–and that such feats would tempt some to pride if they learned 7,500 names.  However, within these larger churches, are smaller groups, however they are classified.  The point here is not legalism, but love!  Out of love, you should know the names of those in your flock, and by whatever means you can, learn to pray for your fellow members by names.  You may say, “I don’t know how to pray for those I don’t know.”  Well here are two ways to respond: (1) Get to know them!  Ask their name, their family situation, where they serve in the church, where they work outside the church–simply put, be curious.  This is where number 2 helps number 3.  (2) Pray Paul’s prayers for those people whom you still don’t know.  If they are believers, these are great ways to make concrete petitions for fellow-members to grow in Christ.  D.A. Carson’s book on the subject, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, is an excellent resource to help you here.

4. Inform yourself of church business.  Most churches have regularly scheduled business meetings.  As a committed member, you should know what is going on in your church.   This gives you opportunity to join in prayer with what God is doing in your midst; it gives you time to ask the pastor, elders, or other members about the business at hand; and it protects your church from the wiles of Satan who would love to bring division to your church by uninformed members making hasty, uninformed, and unspiritual comments at the meeting. (By unspiritual, I mean those comments that have not been sanctified by prayer, the Word of God, and even time– James 1:19-25).

5. Study the New Testament to learn what the church is and does.  Perhaps this should actually be the first thing you do, but either way, your commitment to the church is directly related to how important you think the church is, and the only way you can have a proper understanding of the church, is to get God’ Word on it.  One way to do this is to simply use a concordance (online, or in print) to look up every instance of ekklesia / church in the New Testament and see how the Bible uses it.  Is it speaking of a local assembly?  An abstract universal entity?  A heavenly gathering?  Or what?  Then you should ask, what is God’s intention for the church and how should we be participating in that?  Answering these questions will go along way to seeing how vital church membership is.

Overall, growing as a committed member is a process, but one promises lasting joy as union to Christ in his body promises inimitable opportunities to grow up into Christ.  As Ephesians 3:10 tells us, the church reveals the wisdom of God to the world, and is in fact the wisdom of God.  Sadly, most people don’t see it that way.  Consider these steps of application this week, and I trust that you too will see how the events that take place within the local body of assembled believers are more important than the events that occur in the Pentagon, the Kremlin, the halls of congress, or any place else for that matter. 

Soli Deo Gloria, dss