WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: Membership Vows (part 1)

WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: Church Membership Vows (part 1)

Why do new members take public vows during the worship service? What is the meaning of this practice? To answer these questions, we need to explore the significance of church membership itself. Church mem­ber­ship is a for­mal, covenan­tal rela­tion­ship between a fam­ily or indi­vid­ual and a true, local man­i­fes­ta­tion of Christ’s vis­i­ble church. It begins with the under­stand­ing that Christ not only pos­sesses an invis­i­ble church, that is, all the elect peo­ple of God whose names are writ­ten in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21.27), but has also estab­lished a vis­i­ble church on earth (Matt 28.18–20).

God first insti­tuted this vis­i­ble church imme­di­ately after the fall when he sep­a­rated the seed of the woman from the seed of the ser­pent and estab­lished them as a peo­ple united in his promise of sal­va­tion (Gen 3.15). He fur­ther estab­lished his com­mu­nity when he made his covenant with the patri­arch Abra­ham and his off­spring (Gen 12, 15, 17) and ful­filled his promises, first in the nation Israel and the promised land of Canaan, but more fully in the per­son and work of Jesus Christ. Through­out the unfold­ing drama of redemp­tive his­tory, from the days of Abra­ham to Christ, God kept his peo­ple as a vis­i­ble covenant com­mu­nity marked by the covenan­tal sign and seal of circumcision.

With the com­ple­tion of Christ’s earthly min­istry and the inau­gu­ra­tion of the new covenant, how­ever, God no longer con­fined his vis­i­ble church to one peo­ple (national Israel) and one place (Pales­tine). Hav­ing sat­is­fied the Law of Moses in his life, death, and res­ur­rec­tion, Christ com­mis­sioned his apos­tles to preach the Gospel, bap­tize, admin­is­ter the Lord’s
Sup­per, and make dis­ci­ples throughout the world. As the book of Acts reveals, the apos­tles ful­filled this com­mis­sion by plant­ing churches (Acts 2.42). Begin­ning in Jerusalem, Christ added daily to his church those who were being saved (Acts 2.41, 47; 4.4). The vis­i­ble, covenant com­mu­nity became a “cho­sen race, a royal priest­hood, a holy nation, a peo­ple for his own pos­ses­sion” (1 Pet 2.9a; cf. Ex 19.6) made up of peo­ple ran­somed “from every tribe and lan­guage and peo­ple and nation” (Rev 5.9b).

After the apos­tles died, though, the vis­i­ble church did not cease to exist. The New
Tes­ta­ment tells us that Christ intended his vis­i­ble church to con­tinue until the end of the age. He ordained the office of pas­tor to feed his flock with the preach­ing of the Gospel so they will be healthy and grow to matu­rity (Rom 10.14–17; Eph 4.11–16; 2 Tim 4.1–5; Titus 1.5–9). He has sup­plied his church with sacra­ments, which the Holy Spirit uses to nour­ish our faith (1 Cor 10.16; 11.17–34; cf. John 6.41–58). He gave the office of elder so that we will have guardians over our souls and gov­er­nors to keep­ order (Acts 14.23; Phil 1.1; 1 Tim 3.1–7; 5.17; Heb 13.17; 1 Pet 5.1–4). He main­tains the purity and peace of his church through the exer­cise of dis­ci­pline (Mt 18.15–20; 1 Cor 5; 2 Thes 3.6, 14–15; Titus 1.10–14; 3.9–11). He has pro­vided the office of dea­con to ensure care for the poor and needy in the con­gre­ga­tion (Acts 6.1–7; Phil 1.1; 1 Tim 3.8–13; 5.3–15). He pours out gifts upon his church so that each believer uses his or her gifts for the ben­e­fit of oth­ers (Rom 12.3–8; 1 Cor 12; Eph 4.15–16). The New Tes­ta­ment reveals a church estab­lished by Christ that is an observ­able, iden­ti­fi­able soci­ety made up of real flesh and blood mem­bers and real orga­ni­za­tion and structure.

Church mem­ber­ship, there­fore, is about belong­ing to this vis­i­ble, iden­ti­fi­able com­mu­nity as it is man­i­fested in the local con­gre­ga­tion. The church is not a store fre­quented by loyal
cus­tomers. It is not a vol­un­tary asso­ci­a­tion of indi­vid­u­als loosely united by con­sumer
pref­er­ences or cul­tural prac­tices. Rather, the church is the peo­ple who belong to Christ, and the place where Christ meets them through the means he has ordained.

When a fam­ily or an indi­vid­ual pur­sues for­mal church mem­ber­ship, they are say­ing, “We belong to Christ and his body.” They and their chil­dren pass through the waters of bap­tism, acknowl­edg­ing that they are part of some­thing much larger than their own pri­vate, spir­i­tual expe­ri­ence. They rec­og­nize that Christ has set them as liv­ing stones in his one tem­ple (Eph 4.19–22; 1 Pet 2.4–5) and gath­ered them as sheep in his one flock (John 10.1–29; Acts 20.28). They take pub­lic vows in the holy assem­bly of God’s peo­ple in which they pro­fess their faith in Christ and their will­ing­ness to sub­mit to his Lord­ship and the gov­ern­ment of his church. Like­wise, the con­gre­ga­tion receives them and acknowl­edges their oblig­a­tion to them as fel­low mem­bers of God’s family.

~ Pastor Brown