Covenant Church Membership

Paul has made known the benefit of Christian judgment in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He criticized the local church body for withholding judgment when judgment was needed. He continues by clarifying his position on the matters of church discipline and excommunication from the body.

1 Corinthians 5:9-13

9 Ἔγραψα ὑμῖν ἐν τῇ ἐπιστολῇ μὴ συναναμίγνυσθαι πόρνοις,  10 οὐ πάντως τοῖς πόρνοις τοῦ κόσμου τούτου ἢ τοῖς πλεονέκταις καὶ ἅρπαξιν ἢ εἰδωλολάτραις, ἐπεὶ ὠφείλετε ἄρα ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου ἐξελθεῖν.  11 νῦν δὲ ἔγραψα ὑμῖν μὴ συναναμίγνυσθαι ἐάν τις ἀδελφὸς ὀνομαζόμενος ᾖ πόρνος ἢ πλεονέκτης ἢ εἰδωλολάτρης ἢ λοίδορος ἢ μέθυσος ἢ ἅρπαξ, τῷ τοιούτῳ μηδὲ συνεσθίειν.  12 τί γάρ μοι τοὺς ἔξω κρίνειν; οὐχὶ τοὺς ἔσω ὑμεῖς κρίνετε,  13 τοὺς δὲ ἔξω ὁ θεὸς κρίνει; ἐξάρατε τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν.  

On brothers and strangers (v. 9-11)

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.

We discover in verse 9 that 1 Corinthians is not Paul’s first letter to the local church at Corinth. The issue of immorality, porneia, is an issue Paul has already addressed in a previous letter. Apparently, the local church responded negatively to Paul’s instruction in his previous letter—meriting the reply we call to as 1 Corinthians. Paul clarifies the point of association within the body. This association, συναναμίγνυσθαι (to have company with or be named with) entails fellowship (cf. v. 13) and eucharist—the Passover that the local church is to celebrate and which Paul mentions in verses 7-8. Here, Paul recognizes two essential marks of a genuine local church. First, there is a literal gathering together. Second, there is the covenantal observance of passover from week-to-week—what we call communion or the Lord’s supper.

Paul clarifies his previous letter. He instructed the local church not to associate with immoral people. Do not have fellowship with them, have company with them or be named with them. Do not include them in the observance of passover, communion. But, his instruction applied only to so called brothers—those who identify themselves as Christians or as being in Christ. It did not apply to those who do not claim to be in Christ. It applies to the immoral people of the church, not the world. The local church is not to separate itself from the immoral people of the world—the sexually immoral, covetous, swindlers, and idolaters. On the other hand, concerning so called brothers, the local church body is not even to eat with an immoral person, in fellowship or communion. Why? So the one who claims to be a Christian but does not bear the fruit of repentance and the Spirit may recognize he or she is not in Christ and be granted repentance to salvation. Excommunication works for the good of the exile and the good of the local church (cf. v. 1-8).

On removing names from membership (v. 12-13)

For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.

Paul explicitly clarifies that the local church is not to judge outsiders like it judges insiders. We are to judge those within the church body according to Scripture alone for their good. But, God judges those who are outside. The church, today, is very good at judging outsiders. We condemn the world for its rampant sexuality, activist movements, political agendas, power struggles, idolatry, and so on. Here, the church receives very explicit teaching to the contrary. Let the world pass away. We don’t have to get caught up condemning a self-condemning world. God will judge the world, and we don’t have to waste our energy screaming at or condemning reprobate people. There are many things we can simply let go, and, as Christians who serve the sovereign God, we don’t have to be up-tight about everything we see. In fact, constant angst and complaining about things happening in the world are signs of immaturity—signs that we don’t fully understand God’s sovereign and just nature or the work He is doing in Christ. We can chill when it comes to the world and the things of the world. We, quite literally, are above those things.

As we see in verse 10 that Paul does not even desire the church to be separate from the world. Separatism is unbiblical. We are not to go out of the world, but are to, instead, associate with the worst of sinners in the world because that is what it means to be an ambassador for Christ in the world. We cannot separate ourselves out because we are to take the Gospel to sinners. So, I must teach what Scripture does, here. Go associate with the with the sexually immoral people of this world, the covetous, swindlers, and idolaters for the sake of the Gospel. Be in their midst. Do not sin with them, but do not condemn them by pretending you are any better as if we have any reason to boast—we don’t. Live like Jesus, who went to a party with drunken tax-collectors, had his feet washed by a prostitute, and was called a glutton and drunkard because of the company He kept (cf. Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34).

Yet, when it comes to so called brothers, “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves,” a command that alludes back to the Deuteronomic Law concerning the moral purity of national Israel. Here, Paul indicates that the principles of the Old Testament Law carry over to the operation of the local church. Deuteronomic Law instructed Israel to purge the evil from among the nation. Those to be purged were:

  • False prophets (Deuteronomy 13:5),
  • Idolaters (Deuteronomy 17:7),
  • Those who did not listen to the teaching of Scripture through the priest (Deuteronomy 17:12),
  • Those who disrespected their parents (Deuteronomy 21:21), and
  • Those who committed porneia (Deuteronomy 22:21).

Those who claim to be in Christ and yet live in these types of sin do not bear the fruit of regeneration. Instead, they are bearing the fruit of their sinful and sordid flesh. They are not to be associated with for their own sake and the sake of the local church. If we excommunicate anyone, we recognize that person as not in Christ. Because they are not part of our fellowship, we treat them like worldly people—as a person who needs to receive and respond to the Gospel, with the grace which we treat outsiders according to Paul’s instruction. Instead of changing to be more inclusive of the world, Paul instructs the local church to be more exclusive even though it is not to separate out from the world. All of the sudden, we are having to talk about the biblical importance of church membership. For, how else can the church be both exclusive and non-separatist? How else can the local church guard the communion table and be open to those who are not in Christ? How else can proper church discipline be practiced?

What Paul refers to as association has two parts—(1) being named with a certain group and (2) having the exclusive privilege of communion with that group. The type of church membership we are admonished to be a part of is not the modern legal definition of church membership. Nor does it deal with the privilege to vote like we have made it in our modern, democratic age. The members of the church at Corinth are named with the body of Christians at large and with the church at Corinth locally—both the universal and local church. Excommunication is given to the local church—meaning that those who claim to be Christians that are not named with a local church are considered to not be in the body of Christ at large—they are exiles according to Paul’s letter. This teaching can get very sticky. What we can say is that, normatively, those who are in Christ become biblical members of a local church. To say that local church membership is unimportant or to neglect local church membership and participation is to prove we don’t understand the Scriptures, are immature in the faith, or are not in Christ at all. God has given us active church membership as a test of whether or not we are actually in the faith and have eternal life (cf. 1 John 2:19; 5:13). Those outside the community of faith are treated differently than those inside the community of faith for such a reason—we have a treasure that belongs only to the church, sanctification.

Church membership is regenerate. One cannot be a member of a local church and live consciously in sin because, when one is regenerate he or she bears the fruit of repentance and the Spirit instead of the fruit of the world. Church membership is only for those who are really in Christ. Regenerate church membership and the importance of not bearing false witness about someone’s regeneration means not hasting into baptism or membership but waiting until we see the fruit of salvation in a person’s life (cf. Didache 7). 

Church membership is covenantal. When one becomes a member of a local church, he or she becomes a member for the purpose of sanctification, fellowship (being named with), and for communion—the picture of Christ as Passover. Paul, here, is describing an essentially closed communion. Those who are not covenanted with the local church, being named with the local body of saints, are excluded from the Lord’s table because their spiritual standing is not certain. Communion is only for those who have Christ as their Passover—who have been delivered from the power of sin (regenerate church membership). If someone who professes to be a believer is not associated with the local church, he or she is outside the faith (or very close to outside the faith). Since membership, being named with a local church, is a test to see if we have eternal life, those not named with the local church are not to receive the ordinance of communion, lest we bear false witness and cause a person to think he or she is in Christ when he is not. This text leads me to take a modified closed view of communion. If someone is not a covenanted, active member in good standing with my local church or a sister church of like faith, he or she is to be excluded from communion lest we bear false witness about him or her. Communion is a testimony as to the efficacious hold of the Gospel on our lives. It is why we proclaim, “You are forgiven” when we observe the meal. Anyone can attend because we are not separatists. Not everyone can receive baptism, be a member, and observe communion. We discriminate not on the basis of sex or gender or ethnicity or color or age or any other worldly form of discrimination. We discriminate on the basis of regeneration, repentance, belief, and the bearing of selfless, Spiritual fruit.

Ultimately, Paul’s instruction deals with the effectiveness of the Gospel. Christ gave Himself as a substitutionary atonement. Those who believe in Him have eternal life and are liberated from the consequence and power of sin—which brings all sorts of trouble to our lives. Christ instructs us to covenant with a local church for the purpose of our sanctification, a purpose in which church discipline has a necessary role. Church discipline is impossible apart from covenant membership. Further, we are instructed not to neglect the gathering of ourselves together for this very purpose on this side of the resurrection (cf. Hebrews 10:24-25).

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