Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In recent weeks, I have been enjoying the process of getting to know many of the members of Starnes Cove Baptist Church. I have been able to meet long-time members and relatively new members. I’ve met people who live in the immediate neighborhood of the church, and others who live further into Asheville, Candler, and elsewhere. As society slowly continues to move toward some kind of new normal, in what we pray are the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, some church members and visitors are returning to the weekly gathering for the first time in several months. But even in these strange times, it is good to remember the importance and the blessedness of God’s design for the local church, of which church membership is central.
As Baptists, we are so accustomed to church membership that we do not often think about what it means and where it came from. If you grew up in a Baptist church, you might never have asked, what is church membership and where did it come from? But as Baptists, we like to say that we are a “people of the Book.” If so, everything that we do should be shaped and guided by the Bible, especially how we order the local church. It should come as no surprise then that church membership is a biblical idea and is not something that we invented for the sake of convenience. In the New Testament, Christians belonged to particular local churches, for instance in Corinth, Ephesus, or Jerusalem. The apostles and their associates planted particular local churches in cities across the eastern Mediterranean. And several of their letters, that comprise a large portion of the New Testament, were addressed to these churches. Notice that many of Paul’s letter’s, for instance, are not addressed to the pastor of the church, nor to one or two key leaders, but rather to the church, that is, to the members of the church. The New Testament does not use explicit language of church membership precisely because it did not have to; membership was assumed.
Since the Bible assumes that individual Christians are members of a local church, and thus committed to a particular church body, we would expect to find some kind of dividing line between those who were inside and others who were outside, that is, nonmembers of the church. We see this clearly in 1 Corinthians 5, where the Apostle Paul addressed a case of immorality in their local church. Interestingly, of the two parties involved in this sin, one was a member and one was not. We come to know this because the member is held to spiritual accountability, while the non-member was not. Paul made a rhetorical point saying, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Corinthians. 5:12). Church membership is a wonderful blessing, but it is also a stewardship.
In years past, when Christianity held a central place in American society, especially in the South, church membership took on a lighter and more social character. To be a member of a church was not drastically different from belonging to any other social or civic group like the rotary club or the local PTA. But if we are going to be a people of the Book, we should strive for the church to reflect God’s design for his people.
Church membership is a commitment to one another to regular worship, service, and fellowship. It gives us a place to belong, where we can be nurtured in the Word and encouraged by fellowship. And it is a safe place, where mutual prayers and accountability guard us against hostile forces, both in this world and behind the scenes in the spiritual realm. God knew what he was doing when he designed the local church.
As a minister, I desire to know everyone who is in the church’s orbit, and I aim to build bridges in the broader community as paths to evangelism and discipleship. But in a special way, my spiritual stewardship belongs to the members of Starnes Cove Baptist Church. It is the members who called me to serve this church, and it is my privilege to serve them as a shepherd. As a pastor, I have an enduring reminder of my spiritual stewardship in Hebrews 13:17, which declares that one day I will have to give an account for those under my care. Just like church membership, it is a joy, but it is also a responsibility.
I look forward to getting to know each of you better in the days ahead. Please join me in praying for our church in these strange days. Pray that God will continue to bring us together to worship him and to do his work.