John W. McGarvey (1829-1911) is a well known gospel preacher of the American attempt to restore the practice of New Testament Christianity, free from the embellishments and teachings of men.
McGarvey was a tremendous scholar of the apostolic word; his talents were consumed with the teaching and defense of the ancient faith. He was, for example, a deliberate and strong advocate for the New Testament teaching of worship free of any musical instrument (a cappella singing).
His strong conviction on this matter played into his decision to leave the Broadway church in Lexington (his “home” congregation) where he had served both as a preacher for many years, and an elder for thirty-two years.
Brandon Renfroe recounts this decision. In September of 1902, McGarvey resigned from his service as an elder “citing his increasing deafness.” On November 2, the remaining elders announced that they would “put the use of the instrument to a vote” a week later.
In reaction to this vote to include the instruments of music in worship, McGarvey submitted a “letter of withdrawal from the Broadway Church” dated “the very day the elders decided to put the unscriptural practice to a ‘vote’.” He subsequently placed his membership with the Chestnut Street congregation and remained with them until his death.
Why does McGarvey’s withdrawal from one congregation and placement within another matter? At bare minimum, the decision reflects his desire to be affiliated with a faithful congregation. Church membership, however, is much more.
Is Church Membership Biblical?
This is the first question that needs to be answered: “is church membership biblical?” The practice of “placing membership” is often regarded as a “good tradition” but not a biblical responsibility for every Christian.
Apologist Paul Little is known for saying, “Believing something doesn’t make it true; refusing to believe it doesn’t make it false.” I believe this is a fitting point to ponder here. Let us consider this important question: Is “church membership” biblical, or is it merely a “good tradition”? What does the evidence affirm?
A passage to consider in answering this question is 1 Peter 5.1-5:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. (ESV)
In this passage the apostle Peter teaches, on the one hand, that elders are required to “shepherd to the flock of God that is among you” (1 Pet. 5.2).
On the other hand, the apostle instructs that the flock likewise has a responsibility to be submissive to their shepherds (1 Pet. 5.5). These responsibilities are both dependent upon a mutual submission to God.
Let us briefly consider these three aspects as we answer this question.
The Responsibility of the Elders
The Apostle Peter exhorts the “elders” with the imagery of shepherd and sheep: “tend to the flock that is among you like a shepherd” (5.2). The exhortation has teeth, for it is in the mood of a command (aorist imperative).
Peter makes “a direct demand upon the will” of these godly elders. He summarizes their standing responsibility to the congregation as shepherds and overseers.
Moreover, their leadership will be seen by their godly example, not through ungodly behavior (5.3). They too must be submissive to their Chief Shepherd (i.e. Jesus/God cf. Psa. 23), that they may be blessed (5.4).
The Responsibility of Christians
Peter quickly turns around and reminds the “younger” (i.e. the body of Christ in general) to be submissive to their congregational leadership (“the elders”).
Peter addresses the “younger” with the command as well to accept their standing responsibility of submission and humility toward their congregational leadership (aorist imperative). This is an obligation with a spiritual blessing – God gives “grace to the humble” 5.5).
Membership among Local Churches
The passage demonstrates that congregations are forged on the basis of a submission to God. The elders are responsible for its flock, and the flock is responsible to its leadership. There is another factor to consider.
Peter uses the phrase: “the flock of God among you” or “the flock of God that is in your charge” (RSV). Congregational elders have their own sheep to pasture, and do not pasture the sheep from another fold. They do not work with sheep that are not among them; those sheep belong to other shepherds.
The members of congregation A, are not members of congregation B, C, or D. Biblically speaking, there is no such thing as the “roving Christian”, wandering from congregation to congregation. The permanent visitor is equally unscriptural. They must be members in one congregation at a time.
In “church” terms, then, there is such a thing as church membership. Christians are responsible to place themselves under the leadership (ideally the elders, cf. Phil. 1.1-2) of their congregation. “Placing membership” is biblical and required to maintain the imagery; but more importantly, to show submission to God’s plan for our lives.
So many times Christians trivialize church membership. They hop from congregation to congregation, never submitting themselves to the Lord’s plan. Sometimes it is out of ignorance that they violate God’s plan; other times, it is a willful act of defiance. Those who believe a Christian may wander about are simply wrong. The remedy is simple however: repent and submit to the Chief Shepherd by submitting your membership to a faithful congregation and its leadership.
- Brandon Renfroe, “J.W. McGarvey and the Instrument,” Christian Courier 41.11 (March 2006): 43.
- Marie Little, “Introduction” in Know Why You Believe, 3rd edition (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1988), by Paul Little, 10.
David A. Black, Learn to Read New Testament Greek, Expanded edition (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman, 1994), 171.
- J. Gresham Machen, New Testament Greek for Beginners (New York, N.Y.: Macmillan, 1923), 180; Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2d edition (London: Sheffield Academic, 1994), 52-54.