Now we come to the heart of the Bible’s teaching on church membership. What does the Bible have to say about church membership? It may be more shocking and more wonderful than we realize. I submit the following four steps to arrive at a Biblical understanding of church membership.
Step 1: Jesus came not merely to have personal relationships with disconnected people, but to establish a kingdom (a redeemed community submitting to His Lordship) over which He reigns as king.
This is in fact one of the primary themes of the New Testament. The Kingdom of God established by Christ is mentioned over 150 times in the New Testament, most of them from Jesus Himself. Jesus does not come merely to forgive sins. He comes also to establish a kingdom: the kingdom of God that comes from Heaven to Earth in the person of Jesus Christ. A kingdom where righteousness dwells, a kingdom where he reigns as king, where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus life, death, and resurrection is in order to redeem people, forgive people, renew people, and then make those people into a New Covenant, Kingdom community.
Even though we will not fully experience this kingdom until the resurrection, Jesus says that kingdom of heaven has already infiltrated our world. He has already established it. Some of the very first words out of Jesus mouth in the Gospel of Matthew are “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come.” (Matt. 4:8) The Gospel preached by Jesus is called the “Gospel of the kingdom” (Matt 4:23). Our salvation is described as a transfer of kingdom citizenship. Paul says, that when Christ saves us we are “delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the Kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). Jesus mission is not merely to have personal relationships with disconnected people, but to purchase people with His blood and make them citizens of His kingdom.
But there is one big problem: Anyone could claim to be a part of this kingdom. This kingdom is for the repentant, the poor in Spirit, those who have trusted in Christ and submitted to His Lordship. They are united to Christ and now represent their king in the world. But in a global kingdom without borders and flags and land, who is going to exercise border patrol? Who is going to differentiate between true Kingdom Citizens and Terrorists? How can we tell who are the true citizens under the authority of Christ and who are the fake citizens who are there to usurp Christ’s authority and bring shame and dishonor to the kingdom.
Of course, the answer is: the King Himself can know. Christ can judge what is in the heart of man. He can tell who is in the kingdom and who is not. He can tell who is saved and who is not. But (some say) we cannot judge anyone’s heart. We don’t have the authority to make those type of judgment calls. And of course, it is true, only the King can make that type of judgment call; unless He gives that authority to a representative. Which is exactly what we will see happens in Matthew 16 where Jesus gives that authority to the church.