What is the Church?

At one level, the church is the total number of God’s people everywhere; when Paul said that Christ is ‘Head over everything for the church, which is His body…’ (Ephesians 1:22-23) he was speaking not just of the Christians who belonged to a church in Ephesus, but of everyone everywhere who believed in Christ.  This is usually called the ‘universal church’.

On another level, Paul talked about ‘The churches of God’ (1 Corinthians 11:16) and he wrote letters addressed to separate companies of God’s people, as in 1 Corinthians 1:2 and 1 Thessalonians 1:1.  These are examples of ‘local’ churches (not buildings); groups of people whose lives had been changed by Christ, and who gathered together to worship God in particular places.

Please note – the New Testament does not state anything about a Christian belonging to the universal church while at the same time neglecting to become a member of a local church.

What does it mean to be a member?

Originally a ‘member’ was seen as a limb or part of a body, and Paul uses this idea in some of his letters.  He sees the church as the body of Christ, and each person as a member of that body(Romans 12:4-5).  Everyone has a part to play, working together in a living relationship with Christ who is the head of the body and the source of its life (Ephesians 4:15-16).  Paul stresses in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 that just as members or parts of a body operate in a co-ordinated way for the well-being of the body, so Christians as members of Christ’s body, the church, should work together in unity: ‘Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it’ (v27).

Who should become members?

The Bible makes it clear, New Testament churches were composed of believers who had been baptised (Acts 2:41, 16:13-15 and 23-40).  The sequence is always the same: faith + baptism = membership.  For a person who has accepted Christ as Saviour, then baptism and church membership should be the next logical steps.

Why should a person become a member of the Church?

As Baptists we rightly stress that a person’s salvation is personal and individual.  Each person ‘must be born again’ individually into God’s family, but once we become children of God the stress should be on the family aspect, on being members of the ‘household of God’ (Ephesians 2:19 ) or as Paul puts it in Galatians 6:10, the ‘family of believers’.  The idea of ‘household’ or ‘family’ suggests a place where we can share our joys and sorrows, and where we can grow up and become mature; in other words these are the privileges of belonging.

The idea also suggests certain responsibilities: of caring for one another, of maintaining the well-being of the family, and accepting its discipline.  Certainly church membership has its obligations: to promote true Christian fellowship (1 Corinthians 12:25-27), to attend the various meetings regularly (Hebrews 10:24-25), to give financial support to the work (2 Corinthians 9:7) and to share prayerfully in the decision making (Acts 13:1-3).

Please note – the New Testament letters addressed to groups of people and congregations should be read with this in mind, the writer’s intention was to comfort, instruct, exhort, or warn the community of believers and should not be applied merely at an individual level.

How is a person received into membership?

Faith + baptism = membership

The actual procedure is very simple, when you apply for membership you will be interviewed by office-bearers of the church where you will be asked to share your testimony and something of your spiritual experience.  When the church has accepted your application after hearing a report from those who interviewed you, you will be received into membership, usually on a Sunday at the Lord’s Table.  The pastor or one of the elders will give you ‘the right hand of fellowship’ (Galatians 2:9); that may seem a strange term for a simple handshake, but it means a great deal more than a mere ‘hello’ or introduction.  It means that you are accepted into the fellowship and the care of the church with all the privileges that will bring.  The handshake is also a sign that you commit yourself to the church to fulfil the obligations that being a church member will involve.  The ‘right hand of fellowship’ is the sealing of a contract between you and the church in the presence of the congregation.

 The above notes, adapted from the Windsor Baptist web site, help us to explain Membership to those unfamiliar with Baptist beliefs and practices.

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