This is question three in a five part interview series with Dr. John Hammett on the Importance of Church Membership. Dr. Hammett (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) currently serves as Professor of Systematic Theology and the Associate Dean of Theological Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.
Dr. Hammett, what are the privileges of being a member of a local church?
God loves to bless obedience and designs his plans for our good, we find Scripture teaches that membership has its privileges. In the interest of conciseness I will limit my response to four privileges.
1. Corporate Worship
Now I like to sing, and I read Scripture and pray at home, but it’s not the same as corporate worship. Jesus promises his presence among us in a special way when we gather in his name. (Matthew 18:20) Sometimes we sense his presence more than others, but that probably says more about our lack of preparation than it does about his faithfulness to keep his promise. But it’s not just his presence in our worship, it’s his power:
When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present . . . (I Corinthians 5:4)
Paul seems to be saying here that when a local body of believers gather in Jesus’ name, that his power is among them in a special way. It doesn’t mean that God can’t work anywhere else—on the workplace, in the home, or among Christians gathered informally. But I personally don’t know of a healthy and strong Christian who has grown to maturity apart from the blessings God has bestowed through his church. Theologians talk about what we call different means of grace; various avenues God uses to minister to us, to strengthen and nurture and sustain us. Many of them are associated with corporate worship—the preaching of God’s word, the prayer and praise of God’s people, the ordinances of the Supper and baptism—Jesus’ power to work among us is seen in how he uses these times when his church gathers. I think many of us have experienced times when praising God with others gives us strength and encouragement. Christ’s power is at work when we assemble, and I think the reason is clear. Jesus said,
I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Matthew 16:18)
What has Jesus been doing since he arose and ascended? Completing what he began in the incarnation and crucifixion. Paul described it like this:
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
Special things happen when churches gather, because they are special to Jesus. The church is what he is building, what he is making holy, radiant, and blameless. And when you join a church, and you gather with that church in corporate worship, you are in the place where God promises to work—his presence, his power. O that we will have ears to hear, and hearts to know him near! He is here and is at work among us—what a blessing! What a privilege! In addition to corporate praise, there is:
2. Corporate Ministry
Of course, the church is far more than just the time we gather on Sunday morning. If we have that type of covenant commitment we mentioned, we will be sharing life, and as we do so, other members of the body will minister to you in a host of ways.
From him [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:16)
Look at that last phrase: as each part does its work. We need the ministry of the body to grow to maturity. We need encouragement, prayers, admonition, example, and teaching. For me, this happens in the church community. I hear words of support and prayers for me and my family; I receive emails and expressions of encouragement throughout the week. These things build me up, help me keep focused and going. I need that.
I’ve also seen the value of the ministry of the body in my family. My kids are healthier and more mature today spiritually because of the ministry of the local church. That’s one of the privileges of membership, and I say thank you to all of you for being part of that.
3. Corporate Confirmation of Personal Guidance
Let me mention one aspect of corporate ministry that I think we don’t often recognize or utilize. I call it corporate confirmation of personal guidance. Here’s the situation I have in mind. You have a decision to make, about a job, a relationship, your kids. You pray and seek God’s guidance and you think you understand what he wants you to do. But you know you are fallible. What do you do? I think God places us in the body and calls us to covenant commitment, to allow others into our lives, to get to know us, so that in moments like that, they can provide corporate confirmation of personal guidance. Often, they can see us and our situations more clearly than we can, because we’re too close. Consider this example from the life of Saul, who we know more as Paul.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2)
How did these first two great missionaries receive their call? In the context of the life of the body. They may have thought God was calling them, but there were other brothers and sisters there, who knew them and knew the Lord, and could see and confirm God’s guidance for them. Now that type of blessing and advice perhaps could come from any good friend, but I think God places us in churches to supply us with such wise counselors.
4. Corporate Accountability
As a local body, we are Christ’s representatives to the world, and in many cases, churches aren’t doing that great a job. Nonbelievers routinely accuse churches of hypocrisy; that their members do not live any differently than they do. The divorce rate, alcohol abuse, spouse abuse, pornography use, drug use, not to mention greed, jealousy, anger, choices of entertainment, overall lifestyle—all too often there is little difference between the church and the world. As I mentioned earlier, in the average church, less than 40% even attend. Somehow, we have to recover the courage and care enough about each other to confront, when confrontation is called for. Jesus spoke of it:
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. (Matthew 18:15)
Paul gives such confrontation as especially the responsibility of those who claim to be mature:
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)
One final example extends that responsibility to all of us.
See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Hebrews 12:15)
Do you have someone who loves you enough to call you out when you go off track? Do you have someone so committed to your holiness that they will say a hard word when it needs saying? If so, you are a blessed person, and that’s what we’re called to do and be for each other; to give and receive accountability. And when a church gives its members that kind of accountability, it’s moving toward being that radiant church that Jesus died to create, that is far from perfect, but not open to the charge of hypocrisy either.
This is tough, especially as a church gets larger. It’s tragically possible to fall through the cracks. That’s why at my home church one of the questions we ask in the membership process is small group involvement; because that’s where the relationships develop that allow accountability. It’s hard to be accountable to strangers; it’s hard for a stranger to care enough to hold someone else accountable, but that’s what we’re seeking to develop– a culture, not of rigid expectations, but loving, caring accountability among those committed to following Christ together.