Once upon a time in the west — in Europe and America — church membership was the norm. If you were a Christian, you were baptized, you made vows of faithfulness to one particular church, and then your name was entered on a roll, a list of who belonged to that local church.
But over the last few generations, as the modern world has become more and more individualized, more and more people all over the world have been questioning this norm. More and more people are asking, “Why? Why do we do it this way? Why should I make vows to one particular church? And even if I make vows, why does my name have to be written down somewhere?”
Some people are questioning the concept of membership even more strongly than that. They are saying, “Hold on! Isn’t it just a bit arrogant to believe that a Christian can get everything they need from just one church? Why should I be restricted to only one church when the truth is, no single church can do everything perfectly? Why can’t I just be a member of the “Universal Church”, and then just move from church to church looking for the best programs?”
And some people have completely rejected the idea of membership — usually because they have witnessed or experienced spiritual abuse from church leadership. These are the ones who are saying, “Look: I don’t see the concept of membership mentioned anywhere in the bible! And unless you can show me that the bible commands us to be committed members of a local church, we are not going to do it!”
And all these questions and objections are good! We are Christians. We should be guided by the Word of God, not simply by norms or traditions. We should go back periodically to make sure our practices are in line with scripture.
So that is the question we are going to answer today: where does the bible command us to be committed members of a local church?
And we are going to start to answer this question from the Book of James, in the New Testament.
Now, James was Jesus’ little brother. His half-brother, to be exact, because they had the same mother — Mary — but, obviously, they had different fathers.
And while James was the senior pastor of the Church in Jerusalem, he wrote a letter to all the churches of the Roman Empire, which had already spread from the Middle East, across North Africa, and across southern Europe. And different churches in different regions had different struggles: some were being persecuted; others were dealing with internal conflict: some churches had a problem with gossip; others had members who were rich businessmen and politicians, and these men were not certain how to use their power and influence properly.
So James spends most of his letter addressing all these different issues. But then, at the end, he zooms out in order to give every Christian from every church the big picture of what it looks like to live as Christ’s people in the Roman Empire:
 Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains.
So James is reminding all the churches that we are like a family that is on a journey together: we are a bit like Noah and his family, cooped up on the ark with the storm raging outside, waiting for the Lord to come and open the door and lead us out onto the new earth. We are like farmers, waiting for God to do what needs to be done so that we can survive.
So  you too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.
But:  Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged.
Now, in one way this instruction makes sense. Because — I don’t know about your family, but — it is exactly when we are cooped up in the car together for a long time that we begin to grumble against one another.
But in another way this sounds very strong: Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged?! Isn’t that just a bit extreme, James?
Well, to be clear, James is not saying that if we grumble against someone else in our church, we automatically fall under God’s judgement. James is not talking about a one-time thing where I complain about my wife and then God’s thunderbolt strikes me dead.
But James is saying that, if I start to consistently point the finger at others, if I start blaming you all for my problems, then it will not be long before you all begin to blame me for all your problems.
And really James is just repeating what he heard from his own half-brother, Jesus. Jesus said it first: “Do not become petty and judgemental, or you will be judged. In the same way you judge others, you will be judged.”
So the reason James is so extreme about this is because Jesus was extreme about it. And the reason Jesus was so extreme about this is because grumbling destroys unity. Grumbling can destroy a church. And if, through our grumbling, we end up dividing and destroying God’s church, then we will be judged.
As James says here: the Judge is standing at the door!
God knows what is going on inside his Church. So James is saying, “Look, if you start biting and devouring one another, do not think you are going to get away with it!”
So: don’t do that.
Then James goes on to give us two more examples of what it looks like to wait patiently through the midst of the storm:  Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.  As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about.
So the big picture James is giving the churches is this: we are on a pilgrimage together, a road-trip together in the ark of Jesus Christ. There is a storm raging outside, which does affect us in different ways. We cannot control the storm. But we can control how we respond to the storm. If we start grumbling and pointing fingers at each other, blaming each other for the bad effects of the storm, then we are going to have a very miserable ride together.
But the Good News is this: The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.
God is a good Father: the best. I don’t know if you good fathers have had to do this, but when my children were small I spent some portion of every family journey with one hand on the wheel, and the other one reaching back between the seats to administer judgement. But there was never a time when I said, “That’s it! Get out! I’m leaving you by the side of the road!” I loved my kids, even when they were biting and devouring each other. And our Father’s love for us is infinitely greater than that.
Okay. So by this point James has given us the big picture.
Now he zooms in on the practical details of life inside the ark of Christ:
First, he says this:  Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.
James is not talking about swearing: using bad language. He is talking about the making of unnecessary vows, like when someone says, “I swear on my mother’s grave that I will pay my bill on the 14th!” Just a simple “Yes” or “No” is fine.
Now, again, this sounds very strong: James says, “Above all do not swear…otherwise you will be condemned!”
And again: really, James? Isn’t that just a bit extreme? Are you sure that above all the most important thing you want to tell us is not to swear or we will be condemned?
Well…yes. But again, really James is just repeating what he heard from his own half-brother, Jesus. Jesus said it first, “Do not swear by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” So Jesus is actually even more extreme than James: he calls the swearing of unnecessary vows demonic!
But why? Why is this so important to Jesus and to James?
Because this command against unnecessary vows is really a command to practice honest speech.
Allow me to explain with a thought experiment: what if, one day, you ask someone to do something for you, and they say, “Yes, I swear to you by all that is holy that by this time tomorrow it will be accomplished!”…okay. That’s fine.
But then, later on, you ask them to do something else. And this time they just say, “Okay!”
…and now you are wondering why they made a dramatic vow the first time and just answered you simply the second time. Was this because the first time they really really were committed to doing it, but the second time not so much? Or is it the opposite: do they have no intention of doing the first thing for you but they want you to think that they are committed to doing it…?
See, the problem with making vows sometimes and not at other times is that it sets up two levels of speech. It implies that some speech is more important and more honest than other speech. And the problem is, friends: how are we supposed to know which is which?
Just like grumbling speech, dishonest speech also destroys unity. Dishonest speech can also destroy a church. Because how can we trust one another — how can I trust that you’ve got my back and how can you trust that I’ve got yours — if we’re not even sure whether we are being honest with one another?
So James is saying, “Look, the foundation of every true community is honest speech. If someone asks you to do something and you agree to do it, just say ‘Yes’. If you dowan, say ‘No.’ But do not practice flattery and deception and exaggeration: Otherwise you will be condemned.”
In other words: we are going to be cooped up together in Jesus’ ark for a long time. Our community life will be much easier if we are absolutely honest with one another!
Next, James begins to describe for us what honest speech looks like:  Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.  Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.
James is describing what it looks like when a community lives honestly and openly with one another:
Are you in trouble? Speak up! Pray out loud. Ask your brothers and sisters to pray with you. Do not hide your struggles out of pride or shame or whatever else motivates secrecy.
Are you happy? Speak up! Encourage one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs! Do not hide the good things the Lord has given you out of some sense of false modesty or something.
And what if you are desperate? What if you are really sick, desperately ill, and even heading toward death? Then call the elders of the church to pray over you and anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord. Do not hide your desperation from your community! Instead, call upon your community to gather around and support you!
 And — James says — the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.
See, friends, prayer is the most honest kind of speech there is. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we deceive one another. Often we even deceive ourselves. But God is not deceived. Sometimes we don’t even know how to pray, or what to pray for, but the Holy Spirit that lives among us knows what to say and how to say it.
So prayer is the most honest kind of speech, not because we know how to pray perfectly honestly, but because the Father listening to us knows everything, he knows what we are trying and failing to say, he knows what we really need.
— and I am going to pause here for a moment to address two very common misunderstandings about these verses.
First: why do the elders anoint the sick with oil? Is the oil magical somehow?
The answer is: No. The oil is not magical. There are two biblical explanations for this practice: one, in those days oil was medicine. So the elders bring medicine with them. Two, in those days oil was symbolic of being under God’s special care. So the elders are offering personal spiritual comfort through this personal physical symbol, a physical reminder to the person that God still loves them even though he is allowing them to suffer in this way.
Second misunderstanding: if the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well, does this mean that healing is guaranteed if someone prays with enough faith?
The answer is: No. This verse does not guarantee healing if you pray with enough faith. And this should be obvious, because throughout the NT many sick people are mentioned; some are healed, but many are not. Paul himself talks about friends that he had to leave behind because they got sick and could not travel. Now surely Paul had more faith than anybody, right? In fact, Paul was famous for healing many people! — so why couldn’t he heal his own friends?
Because: Paul did not actually heal anybody, ever. God did. When Paul prayed and someone was healed, it was his prayer offered to God that made the sick person well. It is the Lord who raises them up.
See, this misunderstanding happens when we read this verse with the emphasis on the wrong word. When we read it like this: the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up, it tricks our minds into treating prayer and faith as if they are magical somehow. This false reading can deceive us into believing that, if I could just believe hard enough, if I could just pray hard enough, then this person would guaranteed be healed. But that is a false reading because it tells us to put our faith in our own strength of faith, which is nonsense! That is like trying to jump higher by pulling on your shoelaces! And that is definitely not what James is saying!
We need to read this verse with the emphasis on the right words: the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. Physical healing is not guaranteed! — but if healing does happen, then it was the prayer that made the the sick person well; it was the Lord who raised them up.
If they have sinned, it is the Lord who forgives them.
 Therefore, James goes on, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
James is telling us that ultimate healing — true spiritual healing — begins with honest speech. Stubborn sin is like a poison bubbling away in our belly, and keeping that poison secret just gives it more time to eat away at us. So James commands us to begin with a special kind of honest speech called confession. Confession opens us up to the most special kind of honest speech called prayer.
And once we have our brothers and sisters praying for us, praying for our healing from the poison of sin — well, healing from sin is guaranteed!
That is why James goes on to say that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
He is not trying to say that some people are more righteous than others and therefore their prayers are more powerful. Actually, he is saying the opposite: every Christian’s prayers are powerful and effective because, when we pray according to God’s will, we actually get what we pray for. And because our Father loves to forgive sin, then guess what? — every time we pray for our brothers and sisters to be healed from their sins, our prayers are powerful and effective!
And James makes this very clear with his next sentence:  Elijah was a dude just like us!
Now: yes, Elijah did have a special calling as God’s prophet during a very difficult time. But he was not “more righteous” than everybody else, his prayers were not actually “more powerful”. In fact, at one point God actually rebuked Elijah for thinking he was more righteous than everybody else. Basically the Lord shows up and says, “What? You think you’re special izzit? Actually, I have 7000 more just like you back home!”
So Elijah was just like us: a righteous person — by God’s grace — who prayed — according to God’s will — that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.  Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
James is telling us that the foundation of every true community is honest speech, and the foundation of all honest speech is honest confession followed by honest prayer followed by honest healing — not the guarantee of physical healing, but the guarantee of spiritual and relational healing, the promise that we really can live in peace with one another and with God.
And that is the hope James finishes his letter with:
 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back,  remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
Friends, we do not often think about it this way, but this is the truth: when we practice honest speech with one another, we are actually saving each other from death.
Isn’t that amazing?
— and sobering?
So here at the end of his letter, James is telling us that, no matter what our individual issues may be, as Christians, we are all in the same boat. We are all waiting for our Lord to return and redeem us from the storm that has overtaken our world. We are safe from the storm, but we are affected by it. So instead of grumbling against each other because of our problems, we need to learn how to share our problems with one another. That means learning how to talk about our struggles, our joys, and our sins, so that we can be praying for one another. We need to know one another intimately so that we can tell when a brother or sister is wandering away from the truth, so that we can save one another from death.
Now, all of that is great!
But what does this have to do with local church membership?
Because — did you notice? — everything James talks about here can only be applied on a local church level. The things he says are all true of the Universal Church, the Global Church, but we do not actually live at a Universal Church level, we are local creatures.
For instance: it is true that every Christian in the world should be the kind of person who practices honest speech. But the only way to learn how to practice honest speech is in a local community that knows you and loves you.
Every Christian needs to confess their sins so that they can be healed. But the only safe place to confess your sins is in a local community that knows you and loves you.
Every Christian sometimes needs to be prayed for by name by the elders of the church. But the only way to be prayed for by name by the elders of the church is if you are in a local community that has elders who know you and love you.
See, James is really just expanding on what he heard from his own half-brother, Jesus. Jesus said, “Love one another! As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Now, James knew that it is impossible for disciples to love one another if they do not know one another. And it is impossible for disciples to know one another if they cannot speak honestly with one another. And it is impossible for disciples to speak honestly with one another if they do not know who is a disciple and who is not.
We started by asking, “Where does the bible command us to be committed members of a local church?” And if you are looking for a verse that says, “You should become a committed member of a local church,” then the answer is: nowhere. There is no verse that says that.
But if you are looking for all the verses in the bible that describe what love actually looks like in the daily life of a Christian, then the answer is: everywhere. Every single verse in the bible that talks about loving one another assumes that we are committed to living in local community with one another.
In other words: the need for committed church membership was so obvious to Jesus, and James, and John, and Peter, and Paul, that they did not even bother to write it down in a single sentence! They expected us to understand that the only way for love to grow safely between people is when those people are committed to one another!
But here we are, 2000 years later. And unfortunately the evil one has often snaked his way into Jesus’ ark — he has often snaked his way into Jesus’ garden — and many times he has taken the concept of membership and turned in into a weapon that actually destroys love. And that is why so many of us today are rejecting the concept of church membership: we are a bit like children who reject the concept of marriage because we have seen how terrible our parents’ marriage was. That is very understandable.
However, this church — CDPCKL — is a church that wants to be guided by the Word of God, and not simply by norms or traditions. And because the bible does not reject the concept of membership, we are not going to.
So what I am going to do here, in closing, is answer the specific questions that were asked at the beginning. I am going to explain how we, as a local church, practice membership. I am going to explain what parts of our practice are universal commands that every church should practice, and what parts are simply what appears to be the “best practices” for us in this time and place.
So: some of us have completely rejected the idea of membership because we have witnessed or experienced spiritual abuse from church leadership. You might be saying, “Show me the verse that commands me to be a member, and I’ll obey.” I cannot show you a single verse. But I can show you a thousand verses that command us to love one another. And love requires commitment.
So if you are afraid of membership because you are afraid of tyranny and abuse, then — first of all — please allow me to say: I am sorry that happened to you inside a church. And I want to say this, very clearly: that was the work of Satan.
And I would love to tell you that this will never happen to you if you become a member of our church. But I cannot make you that promise, because I do not know that for sure. Satan is trying to worm his way in here among us as well. Every time we grumble against one another, that is evidence of Satan’s work. Every time we keep our sins secret from one another, that is evidence of Satan’s work. And I can assure you that these things are happening among us even now, because we are not perfect, we do not perfectly resist every attack of the evil one.
But I can also assure you that the bible has given us weapons to help us in the fight, and that this church is committed to using these weapons. I want to tell you what some of those weapons are so we can hold one another accountable and make sure we are using them — and that will help you help us to avoid setting up abusive structures in our local church.
Our first weapon is prayer. Every week we pray the Lord’s Prayer together — the same prayer, the same words, every week — because every week we need to ask our Father to deliver us from the Evil One.
Our second weapon is the Word of God. Every week we open the bible and the Holy Spirit reminds us that we are the children of God, one family with one Lord and one faith.
Our third weapon is Communal Worship. Every week we sing songs of praise. We witness baptisms. We eat and drink together. We confess our sins and forgive one another.
Our third weapon is a plurality and a parity of elders. This means that our church is shepherded by more than one elder — that’s the plurality — and that every elder has the same level of authority — that’s what parity means. And what this means for our church, on a very practical level, is that no one man gets to be in charge — because that is the easiest road to tyranny and abuse.
Now, there are other weapons in our arsenal against Satan. But I just wanted to start by assuring you that we, as a church, are committed to resisting the Evil One with these specific weapons, because these are the Universal Weapons that Jesus has commanded his Church to use. Every church in the world should be using these systems and structures. If your current church is not using all of these tools, then…keep your eyes open, and be careful. Because without these safeguards in place, most likely your church will become a place of grumbling and abuse — if it is not already.
So I cannot promise that you will never be hurt if you join us. But I can assure you that we are committed to practicing honest speech with one another, and if you join us, you will have the right — actually, the obligation — to practice honest speech and hold us accountable, to help us avoid setting up abusive structures in our community.
Now, some of us have not completely rejected the idea of membership, but we don’t like the idea of being committed to only one community. You might be thinking that it’s a bit arrogant of us to expect that a Christian can get everything they need from just one local church.
So I want to be clear about this: we do not believe that our church is the perfect church that can give every Christian everything they need.
But that is because we do not believe that membership is about meeting a person’s every need. Biblical membership is more like marriage and family.
And here’s the thing about that: biblical marriage is also not about meeting a person’s every need. It is impossible for a man to get everything he needs from just one wife, and impossible for a woman to get everything she needs from just one husband. In fact, if you are getting married — or becoming a church member — because you think that marriage or membership is going to “meet your every need”, then: please do not get married! Please do not become a church member.
Because if you are expecting marriage or membership to meet all your needs then you are destined for disappointment. And as time goes by, and as your expectations are not met, you are going to begin to grumble against your spouse and against your brothers and sisters in church. You are going to become the kind of person who blames others for your problems, who blames others for not meeting your needs. You are going to be miserable, and you are going to make everyone around you miserable. And James has warned us that we are going to be judged if we live that kind of complaining and judgemental lifestyle!
So instead of going down that road, I would like to tell you what our church believes membership is for, and I am going to encourage us all to change the way we think about membership.
We believe biblical membership is like biblical marriage: our Father brings us together so that we can serve one another. We enter into membership for what we can give to one another, not for what we can get from one another.
So, we do not believe that CDPCKL is the perfect church that can give every Christian everything they need — and we are not even trying to do so. Our local community does not exist to offer us products and services, we exist so that we can love one another, so that we can confess our sins to each other and pray for each other so that we may be healed, so that we can save one another from death.
That’s all we really have to offer.
And quite honestly, to us, that is everything! What more could we possibly want or need than the opportunity to love others and be loved in return?
And we believe that this also is a Universal Command for every church. Every church in the world must be a space where Christians get to practice honest speech: confession, and prayer, and singing. Because it is only through committed relationships that human beings grow in faith and maturity and love.
So I want to assure you that, if you become a member of our church, this is what we are committed to offering one another. We understand that every church is different, that every church has different strengths, different weaknesses, just like every marriage is different, every family is different. So if our church is not quite the flavour of family you are looking for, that is okay. Just as, in our faith, you cannot be married to more than one person at a time, we understand that you cannot be members of more than one church at a time. So we encourage you to choose slowly, to choose wisely, to commit carefully, and then to plug in deeply to whatever church family you end up at.
Now, we are not saying that you can never worship at another church, or join a conference or a study somewhere else. That is fine. Theological knowledge is good, and it is good for people from different churches to learn from one another. But keep this in mind: spiritual maturity does not actually come from theological knowledge. It does not come from attending lots of different conferences or bible studies. Spiritual maturity comes through intimate relationships with other people. Spiritual maturity comes from brothers and sisters who know you enough, and love you enough, to speak honestly to you. Spiritual maturity comes through forgiveness, and forgiveness comes through honest speech: confession and prayer and a growing sense that your sins are known by other people — and yet they still love you with the love of Jesus Christ.
For many centuries, church membership was the norm. If you were a Christian, you were baptized, you made vows of faithfulness to one particular church, and then your name was entered on a roll, a list of who belonged to that local church. More lately, many of us have questioned this: “Why do we have to do it this way? Why should I make vows? Why does my name have to be written down on a list?”
This is our answer, as a local church: we do not have to do it this way. Not every church requires vows of membership, not every church keeps a roll. But we do. Because we do believe that making vows of faithfulness to one another, and making sure we know one another’s names, has proven to be a “best practice” over the last 20 centuries of the Church.
For instance, if you fall sick, and you want the elders to come and pray for you by name and anoint you with the reassurance that you are still precious to our Father…well, then it is helpful if you know who your elders are, and if your elders know who you are!
We believe it is helpful for you to know that there are men and women in this church who have made vows of faithfulness to you, who have promised to love you and pray for you by name. And we believe it is helpful for our community to know that you have made vows of faithfulness to us. That way, when we practice honest speech with you — when we confess our sins to you, and ask you to pray for us — we can be more confident that you will love us in return, and that you won’t betray our trust and run off to some other church and say, “Wow, you would not believe the sins they confessed to me over there!”
But ultimately, friends, even if you decide that you do not want to become a member and have your name added to our rolls…we are still committed to practicing honest speech with one another. We know that, without vows, you could betray us; but we also know that, even with vows, people often betray one another, lie to one another, grumble against each other. So I want to close by assuring you that our commitment to honesty is not based upon your commitment to us, it is based upon our Father’s commitment to us. Our Good News is that the Lord is full of compassion and mercy. He does not betray. He does not despise us for our sins. He knows us inside and out, and still he loves us. Still he answers our prayers for healing.
So let’s pray now.