Security is a booming business today.
We have sophisticated alarms in our homes. We have and continually change detailed passwords for our computers, phones, and online accounts. We have various sets of keys for our cars and offices. Airports and other public venues abound with metal detectors and security guards. And these aren’t bad things are they? Of course not. We should be very eager to employ these various measures of security to keep our families, homes, cars, phones, computers, and places of work and fun safe. After all, in a fallen world we interact with fallen people who make these things are necessary.
Yet, notice one thing: almost 100% of our securities is for two purposes, to allow certain people in and to keep certain people out. These purposes points out a glaring omission among Christians. We’re very concerned with having the best security in every aspect of our lives but when it comes to the security of our churches we grow extremely careless. I’m not saying that we too often leave the doors unlocked or the alarm turned off, no. I’m saying that when it comes to the spiritual security of the Church, when it comes to who we let into membership and who we keep out of membership, we are far too careless. Paul Alexander sums it up well when he says, “The password of the gospel is often not required, the key of sound doctrine seldom made necessary, the verifying signs of holiness and love left unexamined, and so the purity of the church left open to compromise.” So how do we see to the spiritual health and security of God’s Church? Two ways, church membership, which we’re about to examine, and church discipline which, Lord willing, we’ll look into next month.
Church membership is the 6th mark of a healthy church in our first Sunday of the month 9marks series. To see it’s ins and outs please turn to Acts 20:28-32, where from seeing the doctrine of church membership naturally flow from Paul’s teaching to the elders in the Ephesian church, my prayer is that you’ll be greatly served today by learning what the Bible calls us to in our life together.
As you turn there let me set the context. Luke tells us in the verses leading up to v28 that Paul called for the elders of the Ephesian church to urge them to carry out a proper and God honoring ministry. Though persecuted and hunted Paul spoke of his humility, his tears, and his teaching. He tells them God is calling him to go Jerusalem where he must finish the ministry the Lord Jesus gave to him and preach the gospel though it will likely bring greater persecution to him. Amid what had to be a tearful moment, Paul told these elders he wouldn’t see them again, he was innocent of their blood, and that he hadn’t shrunk back from teaching them the whole counsel of God. It is here where we pick up on Paul’s words to these elders. Follow along as I read Acts 20:28-32.
Today I would like you to consider three things: what church membership is, why church membership is urgent, and where church membership leaves our hope.
What is Church Membership? (v28)
As Paul continues on towards his final remarks to the Ephesian elders, he tells them in v28 to keep a careful watch on their own hearts and on the flock of God. By paying careful attention to the flock, they would be caring for the Church of God that He bought with His own blood. This is the call and commission for these elders in v28, and any elder in any congregation throughout the ages.
A question rises up here. Who are these elders to care for? All it says is the “flock of God.” Who is this flock? It surely cannot mean all Christians, that would be way to large a task for one group of elders. So who are they to care for and exercise spiritual leadership over? Not just any flock of God found around the world, but specifically the flock of God that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers of. Did you see that detail? The Holy Spirit chose men to carefully watch a certain flock of God that God bought with His own blood. Which flock are these Ephesians to care for? The Ephesian church. The Holy Spirit placed them over the church in Ephesus and because of this they’re to be pay careful attention to the flock in Ephesus, as they pay careful attention to themselves.
Here in v28 we see the principles of elder leadership explicitly. But underneath the explicit command to lead and care for the church, we implicitly also see the Christians who willingly join themselves with and submit to these leaders in the Ephesian church. Who are these people that have come to and joined the Ephesian church? The members of the Ephesian church. That’s who is in view here when it says to pay careful attention to the flock of God. In other words, the leaders of the church in Ephesus are to have a special relationship to the Christians in the church in Ephesus. This relationship is one of pastoral care, where spiritual needs are attended to and met.
There are many takeaways from this passage in regards to church membership:
We see the definition of church membership. Church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s oversight of that Christian’s discipleship as well as that Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship under the care of the church. v28 shows us this. Explicitly we see church membership from the view of the elders here, but implicitly we can also see the same from the view of the members as well. For the elders, it is no small thing to care for the blood bought church of God. These are the very people they are responsible for before God. And the same is true from the member’s view. It is no small thing to join with and submit to a local church. The elders of that church are the ones they are to be responsible to before God. For both of these groups, coming together in church membership is an agreement and the counter cultural declaration that they will not live their Christian lives in isolation from other believers, but will live their Christian lives under the care and watchful eyes of qualified elders along with other Christians.
b) We see the boundaries of church membership. Today some people are immediately put off by church membership because the very talk of it brings up the notion that some are ‘in’ and some are ‘out.’ This is completely understandable, no one likes to feel left out. But though understandable, we should never avoid a biblical practice so that people are less offended. Does this make you uncomfortable? Perhaps this will aid you. God has always been eager to make the distinction of who His people are and who His people are not. In Leviticus 19, Old Testament Israel is called to live holy lives, just as God is holy. In living like this God says He is pleased that His people are not characterized by the wicked living of the nations around them and thus distinct from them. You know where Leviticus 19 shows up again in the Bible? Peter quotes it in 1 Peter 1:14-16 to tell us that we as members of the church are to live holy lives, because God is holy, and that our holy living makes us distinct from the world around us. Bottom line? God calls His people to be separate and distinct. Paul even brings this up in 1 Cor. 5 when he speaks of those who are inside the church and those who are outside of the church, to indicate that there truly is a difference.
In our passage here in v28, we see the clear difference too. There are those who the elders are to care for and those who they’re not to care for. Who are they to care for? Everyone who comes and joins themselves to the Church in Ephesus. Who are they not to care for? Everyone who doesn’t join themselves to the Church in Ephesus. Practically speaking, this is how Chad, Dave, and I know who we’re to spiritually care for and who we’re to take serious responsibility for before God. Who are we responsible for? The members of SonRise. Who are we not responsible for? Everyone else. Why? Because the Holy Spirit has only made us overseers over the membership of SonRise and no one else.
We see this in every single book written in the New Testament after the book of Acts. Each one of these letters is written to a specific group of Christians called churches. Why do you think there are so many commands about how we’re to live with and treat ‘one another?’ Because all the ‘one another’s’ are to be carried out in the context of church membership. So even though you’ll never find a verse in the Bible that tells you outright to become a member of a church, the Scripture assumes that’s already the case.
So we’ve seen what church membership is, let’s now see secondly why church membership is urgent.
Why Church Membership is Urgent? (v29-31)
After Paul counsels these elders to shepherd the members of the Ephesian flock, he continues by warning them in v29-31 saying, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” So the urgency in church membership come from security, specifically the security of the church in allowing certain people in, and keeping certain people out. What kind of people should be let in? Those who know the gospel, love the gospel, and have been changed by the gospel. What kind of people should be kept out? Wolves. There’s something about this that even a small child can understand. In nearly every fairytale story the one of the villains is either a wolf or has wolves as they’re evil underlings or minions. I’ll never forget the moment I first watched the movie The Never Ending Story. As the land of Fantasia is being destroyed by the great despairing blackness the main character Sebastian meets the great power behind the blackness. As Sebastian approaches this great power all you see is big black eyes and all you can hear is a deep throaty growl. Then the moment comes, it frightened me as kid, a great black wolf lurks out of the cave to meet Sebastian and they fight for the fate of Fantasia. One thing has always stood out to me about the wolf. His chief weapon wasn’t his enormous stature or his large claws. It was his words. It was the words of the wolf that caused the great blackness and pushed it over the whole land. And Sebastian faced the battle of ceasing to listen to the wolf and believe the truth that he already knew.
Come back now to v29-30. Notice that Paul uses the image of a wolf to describe the false teachers who creep into the church. Notice that Paul says it’s their cunning words that lead the flock astray. It’s their false teaching that infects the church and ultimately ruins the church. This is what Satan always does, twisting the truth to lead people away from God to him. Rarely do these wolves seem to be so at first, but eventually they will be seen as what they are. Christ will out them. So what do we do about these people? We go to v31 to find guidance, “Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.” How did Paul bring security to the church? How did Paul protect the flock? By allowing certain people in, and keeping certain people out. He employed alertness and pure teaching that stood as bright as the sun in contrast to the blackness the false wolves were teaching. This passage is one of the reasons why we have a slow church membership process. When wolves come, and they do come, we’ve found that they don’t normally like things that take a long time. So when we see someone attending the church or when we even see someone in the membership process who seems to be a bit wolfy we examine that person deeper, and if we find things that concern us we extend the membership process even further with them and include more and more gospel teaching and a heightened watchfulness, in the hope that these errors will be corrected and this person would repent and join the church as a sheep and not a wolf. Why do we do this? Not because we think we’re better than anyone or that our club is the best in the world, heavens no. We do this because we want to protect you, the sheep!
We’ve answered from this passage what church membership is and why it’s urgent. Now let’s see where church membership leave our hope.
Where Does Church Membership Leave our Hope? (v32)
I am asking the question ‘Where does church membership leave our hope?’ because the commands and duties described in v28-31 are daunting and require an unusual level of discernment and wisdom. Discernment and wisdom that is rare even among elders. What then is our hope in protecting the flock of God if the elders given by God naturally lack all that is necessary for the security and purity of the church? Naturally speaking, there is no hope. But supernaturally, there is every reason to hope. Why? Because the elder is what he is, and can do what he can do, because of God’s enablement alone. Knowing this leaves us in the lap of v32, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
Paul’s hope for the Ephesian church isn’t the elders of the Ephesian church. What’s his hope? Two things: “I commend you to God and to the word of His grace.” First, Paul’s hope is in God because though God gives elders to be shepherds over His flock, He Himself is the Great Shepherd of the sheep. An elders wisdom may run out, an elders discernment may fail, an elder may not always be able to distinguish between the sheep and the wolves, but God never fails. Second, Paul’s hope is in ‘the word of His grace.’ This is either a reference to the gospel itself, which is the greatest thread of God’s grace in the Scripture, or it refers to the entire Scripture itself, which contains all the threads of grace throughout history. Paul’s hope is in these two places, for two reasons. First, God and the word of His grace is able to build us up. And Second, God and the word of His grace gives us our long awaited inheritance among the church eternal. So again, where do demands of church membership leave us? With God and the Word of His grace, which is able to do what none of us can do.
Church, in a day where a deep commitment to anything is rare, “…one of the most countercultural things you can do is join a church and worship every week.” Visit around sure, find a healthy church that has these 9Marks yes, go regularly of course, and then quit merely attending it, and join it! Just as the goal of dating is marriage, the goal of visiting a church is joining! “If the church is a building, we are the bricks. If the church is a flock, we are the sheep. If the church is a vine, we are the branches. If the church is a body, we are the arms, legs, knees, and toes. If we’re Christians, we must be members of a church.”
Perhaps you think church membership is too old fashion or unbiblical. Some people think of it like that. But think of it like this. The flock of God, is the very people God obtained with His own blood. If God went to such lengths to purchase His bride, shouldn’t we go to great lengths in setting up and committing to a hefty church membership to for the security and the purity of God’s Church?
 This is the opening illustration in chapter 4 of Mark Dever’s and Paul Alexander’s book The Deliberate Church, page 59.
 Ibid., page 59.
 Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership, page 64.
 The first one (1984) not the strange sequel.
 Burk Parsons, Twitter Account, accessed on 5/31/17.
 Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, page 175.