My post last week tried to articulate the importance of church membership for every Christian by looking at the theological essentials of membership - summarized as covenant community - and important practical implications of church membership. This post will explore the biblical and historical background for understanding the essentials of church membership as a covenant community. This post is an adapted excerpt from a paper I wrote this past term.
There have been innumerable tomes written to address the biblical topic covenant. That God initiates a covenant with people and makes them a community, for the good of humanity and His glory, is a major theme running through both the Old and New Testament. This post will not provide a detailed exploration of the covenant community as described in the entire Bible. However, it will highlight that in the New Testament, God initiates a relationship with both Jew and Gentile on his terms (covenant), makes them into the church (community), and the primary way that the early church represented itself was in familial terms. The family language of the New Testament is representative of the covenant community.
God’s covenant community is a family. The Father sent the Son so that rebellious sinners could be adopted in God’s covenant-community-family as sons and daughters (Eph. 1:5). Furthermore, the church is not merely another family that supplements existing relationships, akin to receiving in-laws through marriage. Our Lord Jesus is clear that the church family supersedes the biological family (Mark 3:31-35). The significance of this teaching is lost on many contemporary readers because of the inability to grasp the immense value of the biological family for the early believers.
Mark 10:23-31 gives a glimpse into the mindset of those in the early church regarding their biological family. In the passage immediately preceding, Jesus talks with a rich young man about the need to give up everything in order to follow Him properly. Jesus then looks over to his disciples and tells them how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God; it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle! The disciples were astonished and wondered how anyone could be saved. Jesus responded to their wonder by saying that “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God”(Mk.10:27). At this Peter says that the disciples have given up everything to follow Jesus. The response that Jesus gives to Peter at this point is noteworthy for modern readers. What exactly is it that the disciples gave up when they said they had given up everything?
“Jesus said, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30).
Peter and the disciples gave up everything, which in their context primarily meant their biological family relationships and their inheritance. However, Jesus tells the disciples that not only will they reap blessing in the age to come, they will reap the temporal blessing of a new family. This new family will experience significant persecution, but will experience it together under the care of a new Father and the leadership of a new Brother.
Joseph Hellerman, in his book When the Church was a Family, argues that grasping the original meaning and significance of the family language in the New Testament will greatly bolster commitment to the local church. Hellerman says:
“According to the New Testament, a person is saved to community. Salvation includes membership into God’s group. We are saved ‘into one body’… Or, to draw on the family metaphor that has occupied our attention through this book, when we get a new Father we also get a new set of brothers and sisters. In Scripture salvation is a community-creating event. As Cyprian of Carthage expressed it using another pair of family metaphors, ‘You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother.’”
Understanding church membership as a covenant community has significant grounding in the New Testament. The biological family in general, and the sibling relationships in particular, was the context for the most intimate relationships experienced by people in the first century. Jesus used sibling and family language to talk about his followers. The apostles used family language to talk about people who were members of local churches. The church family is the community with whom God has covenanted. The New Testament is clear that committing to and loving God is necessarily connected to committing to and loving our siblings-in-Christ (1 John 4:20-21). The New Testament does not have a category for someone who is committed to Jesus but not the local church. Fervent involvement in the covenant-community-family was necessarily connected to following Jesus. The way in which people participate in the covenant community of a local church today ought to reflect all of the commands tied to familial and “one another” language in the New Testament.
Persecution was a growing reality for the early church as they became known for their belief that Jesus, and not Caesar, is Lord. Persecution in Jerusalem forced the church to spread to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. The persecution was fierce and martyrdom became a reality for the early church, however the fierce persecution did not end the Christian movement. By the early fourth century the Christian church had become so pervasive among the Roman people that the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity himself. His conversion sparked a transition that saw Christianity go from the margins of society to the centre of power within the state. As Christianity increasingly meshed with the state, the lines between the covenant community and general populace were fading. Entrance into the covenant community in the early church was brought about by personal repentance and belief, whereas by the time the sixteenth century appeared one would become a citizen of man’s kingdom, and God’s, through the same infant baptism.
In the sixteenth century the infamous Protestant Reformation was afoot due in large part to the German priest Martin Luther. The corruption of the church bothered not only Luther in Germany but also later reformers such as John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland. Zwingli was an attractive leader for young radicals who wanted even greater steps to be taken in the reformation of the church. Two of Zwingli’s young followers, Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, broke away from Zwingli over the issue of infant baptism. Zwingli wanted to reform the church in many ways but did not see it necessary, or profitable, to stop the practice of infant baptism. Grebel, Manz, and others among the radical reformers believed strongly that baptism was to be reserved for those who were truly followers of Jesus. One of the main reasons for this was because in all the cases of baptism in the New Testament faith preceded baptism.
Much more could be said about the political, theological, and ecclesiological implications of both the Protestant and Radical Reformations. However, for the purposes of this post it is sufficed to say that the Believers’ Church tradition in general, and the practice of believers’ baptism and believers’ church membership in particular, resurfaced because of the Radical Reformation. It was through the Radical Reformation that the idea of the church being a voluntary community covenanted with one another because of a shared faith reemerged. A person is no longer born into the covenant community of the local church, but rather enters because of confessed faith that Jesus Christ is God incarnate who lived perfectly, died sacrificially, rose victoriously, reigns as Lord over all, and will return in glory. This confessed faith has major implications on how a person daily lives out their faith in the context of the covenant community.
 Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus' Vision for Authentic Christian Community, p.124.
 Ibid., 50.
 Jost and Faber, Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren, 4.
 Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology, p.628