Hammer to the Nail: The Requirement of Local Church Membership – Part IV

This is the fourth part of a series on local church membership written against Bojidar Marinov’s articles against the same. In Part I, we looked at how Bojidar Marinov’s perspective isn’t reflective of historical Reformed practice, Part II demonstrated that the life of Abraham is not an example for Lone Ranger Christians, and Part III demonstrated the same for Moses.

In this series, however, Moses deserves at least two posts if only because his life and example isn’t the only relevant consideration when we look at the subject of church membership. The Bible itself is extremely honest about the lives of the saints and Moses is no exception. The Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) does not seem to lift up the life of Moses as an unqualified and absolute example for Christians to imitate. Moses displays several faults from the murder of an Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-14) to his lack of confidence that he could be God’s spokesman alone (Exodus 4). While the New Testament is clear to mark Moses as a man of faith, there is no evidence that his singular calling is a paradigmatic example for just anyone to follow as Marinov claims.

However, Moses is important for other reasons. In addition to the life of Moses, this important biblical figure also provided the community of the faithful with what we know as the Mosaic Law, the first five books of the Old Testament. This is important for local church membership because it gives us a glimpse of how Moses would design a nation to function when it comes to things local membership in the community of God’s people. A person’s autobiographical account of a potentially troubled and lone example is one thing, but the pattern Moses sets up for the people in the establishment of the Old Covenant is quite another and certainly more important. The rabbis called this sort of argument moving from the lesser to the greater and it’s an important biblical paradigm Bojidar Marinov seems to miss. As if that wasn’t enough, the nature of the Mosaic Law is especially important here to reference because it constitutes not just the words of Moses, but the very word of God (Psalm 19:7; 2 Timothy 3:15-16).

The caution registered in the first part of this series remains, however. We can’t simply interpret the Mosaic law one-to-one as if an ancient Israeli economy and nation could be transplanted here in the 21st century. Again, we’re not looking for ancient examples of modern Presbyterian churches in the Pentateuch. The nature of God’s revelation in the Bible is progressive and the moral principles of the Law are honored throughout the text of Scripture but often applied in very different ways. That means that we may see differences in implementation as far as how God’s people live in a local community due to the particular covenantal administration, but we will always see God’s people as members living in local community with one another and regularly calling upon the name of the Lord (Genesis 4:26). In short, the Mosaic Law provides us with a moral paradigm for a nation and community of people that is later reflected in more detail in the New Testament.

So, what does Moses tell us about local church membership? Leviticus 23:3 provides one of the clearest examples that God wanted his people resting and worshiping on the Sabbath in their local communities. The verse reads (NASB):

‘For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; it is a sabbath to the Lord in all your dwellings.

At first glance, this might seem to just say that the Lord appointed a Sabbath of worship in every family’s house in the community. However, the word for “dwellings” here more properly refers to the seat of leadership in a community (1 Samuel 20:18; Psalm 1:1; Psalm 107:32; Job 29:7) as much as it does the actual houses or dwellings of the people. In short, when a congregation or community is in view this refers to the place where the elders sat as leaders of the people and ones in authority (Psalm 107:32).

More importantly, however, is the meaning of “holy convocation.” The holy convocation was a formal calling out or summons of the people of Israel and is used several times in Leviticus 23. The weekly Sabbath gathering of the solemn worship of the people of God is put on the same plain as the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, and Pentecost — all holy convocations and all holy and corporate gatherings of God’s people.  More than that, in Leviticus 23 the local weekly gathering of Old Testament saints for worship is put first and even before the Passover.  In Numbers 10, the word for convocation is used to summon the people of Israel together and constitutes a solemn remembrance of the deliverance God would provide in war and always provided to Israel (Numbers 10:2; Numbers 10:8-10). Matthew Henry summarizes Leviticus 23:3 this way:

“If it lie within your reach, you shall sanctify it in a religious assembly: let as many as can come to the door of the tabernacle, and let others meet elsewhere for prayer, and praise, and the reading of the law…Whether you have opportunity of sanctifying it in a holy convocation or not, yet let it be the sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings. Put a difference between that day and other days in your families. It is the sabbath of the Lord, the day on which he rested from the work of creation, and on which he has appointed us to rest; let it be observed in all your dwellings, even now that you dwell in tents.” Note, God’s sabbaths are to be religiously observed in every private house, by every family apart, as well as by many families together in holy convocations. (Matthew Henry, Commentary on Leviticus 23)

Since the first example of public worship before God is a matter of calling out (Genesis 4:26), Abraham and Moses were called out as leaders of God’s covenant people, the Sabbath remains a holy calling out of weekly worship to God by his people, and the church exists as an assembly of called-out ones (the very meaning of ekklesia), the consistency of the biblical language is too strong to ignore. In fact, this very consistency is noted by James in Acts 15:21 where he says, “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

Add to this the weekly practice of our Lord and his interpretation of what it meant to practice Leviticus 23:3 while he was here on earth (Luke 4:16) and it gets very difficult to go all Bojidar with the biblical text.  Local church membership and participation remains a requirement for Christians today and the Mosaic law reflected that reality from the earliest of times.  The next post will examine synagogue worship and its relevance to the New Testament church in light of both the Old and New Testaments.

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[[ Part I, Part II, Part III ]]