God’s Family Has Members
Series: God's Family
This week, pastor Matt Cohen kicks off our August sermon series on “God’s Family” by showing from the Scriptures that “God’s family has members.” The text is Ephesians 2:18-19. He answers the questions, Why join a local church? And, What are the benefits of joining a local church?
Church Membership by Jonathan Leeman
My and Andrea’s lives were permanently turned upside down when we were about twenty-four years old. We were living in Louisville, KY, where Andrea was working in sales and management, graciously paying my way through seminary. At the time, we thought that after seminary we might go back to California where I could serve as an associate pastor or that we’d move to another university where I could earn my PhD and pursue academia. But then everything changed. Andrea’s pastor from Penn State, whom I knew very well, asked if we would prayerfully consider being sent out by his church to plant a new church in Philadelphia. We prayed, fasted, finished seminary quickly, moved for a year of training, and then landed in Philadelphia with Pete and Jackie Horning in the summer of 2011. We started a Sunday evening Bible study in our apartment, which began with about a dozen people. By God’s grace we grew into one church that gathers in three congregations with hundreds of covenant members and hundreds more attenders living as Jesus’ family for his glory in Philadelphia. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, and we all experienced about sixteen months of what can only be called unprecedented isolation from one another. As the other Citylight elders and I have prayed, fasted, and sought the Lord for His particular focus for this new ministry year, which for us runs July to June, we believe that the Lord is leading us out of a season of unprecedented isolation and into a season of unprecedented family. Family means rich relationships with one another. Family means being deeply rooted in Jesus and this area for the long haul. Family means reaching out to friends, neighbors, co-workers, and classmates because anyone can get in on Jesus’s family by grace. Doesn’t a year of unprecedented family sound wonderful? Isn’t family in Jesus just what our weary world needs? Over the next six Sundays we are going to explore the biblical theme of the church as family and unpack practically what a year of unprecedented family is going to look like for us this ministry year. The foundation and first big idea of our journey into the church as God’s family is: God’s family has members. In Ephesians 2:19 we read: So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. Now I realize that Ephesians 2:19 is, in part, talking about being members of the universal church, God’s family made up of all people who have been saved by Jesus, in all places, at all times. But membership in the universal church and membership in a local church are inseparable. Membership in a local church is a testimony to our membership in the universal church. How many of you are members of a gym? To not join a local, Bible-believing, gospel-preaching church because you’re a member of the universal church, is about as silly as not going to a local gym because you’re a member of the universal gym. To enjoy the church as God’s family, we join the church as family members because God’s family has members. So, to get to the heart of church membership we are going to explore two questions: 1. Why join a local church. 2. What are the benefits of joining a local church.
WHY JOIN A LOCAL CHURCH?
Simply, because it’s biblical. The best way to see that church membership is taught in the Bible is not to look for one isolated verse that says “thou shalt join a church.” Rather, the best way to see that church membership is taught in the Bible is to see what the Bible says that a church is. Church is not a building, a place we go, or even a weekly meeting. Look with me at Ephesians 2:19a: So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints…Circle the word “citizen” in your Bible because it’s a massively important word for understanding what a church is and why we should join one. Citizenship implies, to use old fashioned language, a kingdom, and a king. The Bible says that Jesus is the king of kings and when we repent of our sins and believe in Jesus as King and Savior, the Bible says that our citizenship is transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Jesus (Colossians 1:13). But King Jesus is in heaven and so is his kingdom. And that means that, as Philippians 3:20a says, “…our citizenship is in heaven…” We are resident aliens, foreigners, and sojourners on earth because our ultimate citizenship is in heaven.
This brings us back to the local church. If Jesus is king, and he is, and every follower of King Jesus is a citizen of Jesus’s heavenly kingdom, and we are, then every local church on earth is, as pastor and scholar Jonathan Leeman says, an embassy of Jesus’s heavenly kingdom on earth. Think about an embassy. An American embassy is the headquarters for U.S. Government representatives serving in a foreign country. An American embassy represents the U.S. and its interests inside another country. An American embassy doesn’t make someone an American citizen, but an American embassy does officially affirm, oversee, and protect our American citizenship while we are abroad. That’s just what the local church is! Local churches are heaven’s embassies on earth. Local churches are the biblically authorized earthly representatives of King Jesus and his Kingdom interests on earth. Local churches provide protection and accountability and mission-marching orders to the citizens of heaven while we are on earth. The local church doesn’t make us citizens, or members, of heaven, but the local church does officially affirm and oversee our citizenship, or membership, in Jesus’ kingdom while we are on earth. A church is an embassy! In his wonderful little book called Church Membership, Jonathan Leeman helps connect what a church is to why we should join one, “A local church is a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and his kingdom through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances…Church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submissions to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.” The church is an embassy, so we formally belong.
There are several other reasons to be convinced that the Bible teaches something like formal church membership. First, church discipline – when someone who claims to be a Christian but persists in visible, serious, unrepentant sin is officially removed from a church and not permitted to take the Lord’s Supper – requires that the people in the church joined it and are identifiable. The command to expel a man from the church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 5 assumes that some people are formally in and formally out. Second, church membership is required for Christian leadership and Christian followership. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account…” Does this verse teach that you have to obey every and submit to every Christian leader on the planet? Does this verse teach that the Citylight elders will give an account for the souls of every person that happens to show up here on a Sunday morning? How do you know who to submit to and how do we know whose souls we are responsible for? Christian leadership and followership require something like formal church membership. Third, in the book of Acts and in 1 Timothy 5, we find that the church counted up, their people kept lists of people so that the church could be visibly identifiable. Finally, all the metaphors for the church in the New Testament – flock, family, body, stones of a temple – they all speak to formal belonging and commitment among the members. Love requires commitment.
Let’s begin to take this personally. Here is the one thing I hope you’ll do with this first point: believe it. The Bible teaches church membership. Of course, that doesn’t mean that church membership has to look the same in every church in every context. Every true church should have members because the church isn’t a place, it’s a people. The church is its members. However, church membership can look far less formal in a small village in central Asia where nearly everyone is Muslim and 8-10 people gather regularly under two elders. Those two elders can probably welcome members without an application or interview, through conversation. In a large, transient Northeastern city like Philly in a church with hundreds of people like Citylight, membership requires more formal structures. Membership need not look the same everyone, but membership itself is a good and necessary implication of what the Bible teaches about the church. Here is my practical encouragement, therefore: take your next step toward joining the church. The first step toward joining Citylight church is attending our next membership class on August 8. If you’re not a member, please indicate your interest on the connect card. And if for some reason you can’t join Citylight, no problem, let us help you find another Bible-believing, gospel-preaching, Jesus and people loving church that you can join.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF JOINING A LOCAL CHURCH?
We have settled the question. Church membership is biblical. Church membership is the way that we officially affirm and oversee and nurture and encourage one another’s membership in Jesus and his kingdom in the embassy of heaven known as the church. But ending there would be like say marriage is the marital covenant while saying nothing about all the wonderful physical, spiritual, social, missiological, relational and recreational benefits of being married. What are the benefits of joining a local expression of God’s family? Let’s look once more to Ephesians 2:19: So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. The church is a family and family-life is put into practice locally. The benefit of joining a local church is that you get to experience the local church as God’s household, his family. The metaphor of the church as family reveals at least six benefits of joining a local church.
- Joining a local church assures us of our identity. At various times both of my kids have responded to me telling them that I love them with the question “why?” The simple answer is “because you’re my children.” Our bond as family provides us with a shared identity and we assure one another in it. In the same way, when we join God’s family, the local church, we are affirming one another’s identity as God’s saved people in Jesus. We can’t do that alone. Similarly, we get the benefit of being reminded by others that we really do belong to God, that our identity really is in Jesus, and we really are citizens of his kingdom.
- Joining a church provides the environment to be deeply known and truly loved in relational intimacy. A good family provides the rich soil from which relational intimacy can grow. In the same way, a local church with its membership, accountability, discipline, and teaching is the rich soil from which loving relationships grow. And the world will know that we belong to Jesus by our love. If we simply attend church, no matter how faithfully, there is little commitment. Nothing is keeping us from moving onto a new family tomorrow. That’s not a good environment for relational intimacy. But the commitment made in membership is the perfect environment for love.
- Joining a local church helps you know who specifically you have the privilege to serve. Good families serve one another. Similarly, Christians are called to serve one another, but there are billions of Christians on the plant. Who do you prioritize? You can’t serve everyone. Membership helps you know which Christians you have the specific privilege of serving with your life. Membership welcomes you into a community of mutual service and encouragement. Wonderful!
- Joining the local church builds you up. In good families, we use our words and our resources to build one another. In the same way, we join a church, rather than being loosely affiliated, so that we can build one another up as a spiritual house for God’s glory.
- Joining a local church helps spur individualistic Christians out of isolation. Did you notice that when new members were welcomed this morning, some of you felt this longing in your heart to move from observer or guest to family member? What a benefit of joining a church.
- Joining a local church protects us from ourselves. I owe my life to my wife. When she married me, I was a deeply broken, angry person and I didn’t know it. She has saved my life by protecting me from me. We all need that. When we join a church with its membership, eldership, accountability, and discipline structures, we are joining an embassy and locking arms with fellow citizens who are committed to protecting us from ourselves, even when it hurts, so that we make it to the last day with our love for Jesus intact.
Before we explore the final benefit of joining a local church, I want to invite you to respond to these benefits of joining God’s family in a really practical way. This fall we are going to be doing monthly family nights. The first Sunday evening of each month from October to December, we are going to gather together as covenant members for family nights of prayer, worship, dreaming, and joyful fellowship. It’s a gift given to us as members. Be part of that. Ok, final benefit. Let’s return one more time to our passage. Ephesians 2:18: For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. Did you notice the “so then”? Through him, that is through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection in our place for our sins, we all, that is everyone everywhere who believes in Jesus, have access by the power of the Holy Spirit to the Father. So then, we are church members. In other words, Jesus died not just to reconcile us to God as Father but to bring us into God’s family with one another. The greatest of all benefits for joining the church is that we fulfill God’s grand purpose to get a family through Jesus! And that’s why we can never keep this family closed or to ourselves. Jesus died to reconcile. We are ambassadors of this reconciliation. Believe in Jesus. Join the church. Be agents of God’s reconciling love.
 Jonathan Leeman is the first person who taught me the concept that the church is like an embassy.
 I was helped by Tony Merida and Matt Chandler in formulating this list.