The idea of entering into covenant with a church and being held under its authority is an almost foreign concept in modern-day Evangelicalism. A covenant—theologically speaking—can be described as a commitment between God and His people vertically, or a commitment between His people horizontally. The vertical covenants are seen in the narratives of Abraham, Moses, David, and finally Christ and His Church. Horizontal covenants—which are being presently discussed—are depicted in marriage and church membership. Church membership is vital to the well-being of the church and its constituents. It is absolutely necessary in the life of the Christian for three reasons: identity, accountability, and edification.
Jonathan Leeman from 9Marks says it best just in the title of his book on this subject, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. The visible church is how the outside world sees Christ. Obviously, Christ is not here on this earth physically, but He is here spiritually. Christians know that, and experience it, but what external evidence do non-believers have of this truth? Just as a bride represents her groom—evidenced by the taking of a man’s last name—the Church represents Christ here on earth.
“The members of these churches are saints by reason of the divine call, and in a visible manner they demonstrate and declare, both by their confession of Christ and their manner of life, that they obey Christ’s call.” — 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 26 Article 6 (Scripture Proofs)
Each individual congregation shows that the individuals and the body as a whole “obey Christ’s call.” The individuals of the congregation are held together “by their confession of Christ and their manner of life.” If one on the outside asks, “who is a part of this body” and Christians can’t give a formal answer, the outsider to the church is left wondering. If a church does not consist merely of people in a building who meet on a particular day of the week, what does it consist of? Of course, there is an answer that is very clear in covenant membership: a local congregation of members in covenant to the body under the authority of the elders, wherein the sacraments/ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered. Those in this body identify as a local church.
There are two sorts of accountability—as a member—that are vital in a community of believers that call themselves a local church: authoritative accountability and equivalent accountability.
1. AUTHORITATIVE ACCOUNTABILITY
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” — Hebrews 13:17 (ESV)
Authoritative accountability is exactly what it sounds like: being accountable to authority. As fallen, prideful beings, man has an issue with authority, and always has. This is evident to anyone who takes a look at the fall of the familial structure and basically anything in the news. Most importantly, the local church is accountable to God. Every thought, word, deed, and action will be answered for, and both the regular member and the elder is held accountable to Him. However, the authoritative structure does not end there. The next level of authority lands on the elders, and the member is held accountable to the elders on matters of doctrine and practice of Scripture where interpretation needs to be made.
“All believers are under obligation to join themselves to local churches when and where they have opportunity to do so. It follows that all who are admitted to the privileges of church fellowship also become subject to the discipline and government of the church in accordance with the rule of Christ.” — 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 26 Article 12 (Scripture Proofs)
The doctrine of church discipline is how a local congregation stays at peace. Every member enters into formal covenant membership, and it is the responsibility of the elders to keep the congregants in line with that covenant. Discipline in a church body is not to be administered over minor disagreements, but over large issues in practice. For instance, if a male member of a church admits to infidelity against his wife, the member is to be put under active church discipline. During this time, the member is to abstain from communion and walk in repentance alongside the elders of the church to be reinstated to the table. The goal of church discipline is not to “put out,” but to reinstate.
2. EQUIVALENT ACCOUNTABILITY
Equivalent accountability is the accountability among members to each other. It is the basic “iron sharpening iron” in the church, wherein members hold each other to the covenant of the church, and most importantly to the Scriptures. This process of accountability is very loose and informal unlike authoritative accountability, and takes many forms. For example, a brother in Christ letting another know that his language is unbecoming of Christ-likeness in love is a form of accountability. Letting another brother in Christ in on a habitual sin to keep you in repentance is another. This form of accountability is by far the most informal, yet the most frequented.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” — Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV)
The ideas of edifying one another and equivalent accountability go hand in hand. In keeping a fellow brother or sister in Christ on the straight path guided by Scripture, one is also by default edifying—or building up—that brother or sister. Edification does not only come in the form of constructive criticism, but of positive encouragement. The different parts of the body have different gifts to offer both to the Christian community at large, and to the specific congregation. In order to keep the peace of the church, encouragement must happen as well! Imagine if a husband had the mindset of “I don’t need to tell her that I love her, she already knows it” when dealing with his wife! Not only is this a disaster waiting to happen, but it will almost completely halt the productivity of the wife and the husband. Just as a married couple needs encouragement from one another to function, so do the members of the church.