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