The old hymn that my grandparents sang began with, “When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore, And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.” The roll call imagined in this song would be from a perfect listing of the true followers of Christ.
Contrast this roll with the membership roll of any local church, and you will find yourself confronted with some harsh realities. While the membership of a given church may be made up of many true believers, the reality of our experience and the testimony of Scripture is that unbelievers can slip into our fellowship unnoticed.
Scripture is filled with warnings about this. These words from our Lord are one chilling example:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” - Matthew 7:21-23
How can this happen?
Probably in more ways than we would expect. Here are a few ways that unbelievers can mistakenly be counted as believers and accepted into our fellowship:
We tend to give the benefit of the doubt to those who “grew up in the program.” If their parents are long-time members, they grew up in the church, they attend regularly and they say Christian things, we tend to assume that they are Christians. This is not always the truth, yet these people can be welcomed into membership with few questions asked.
Sometimes people come to our Church and state that they are “Christians,” but what they really mean is that they have some past affiliation with a church. While these individuals might be well-churched, and they may “speak the language,” they may not truly know the Lord.
Sometimes people make a profession of faith in Christ for reasons other than brokenness over sin and a realization of their need for a Savior. Sometimes they profess faith in Christ because they are hoping for a sense of belonging to a group, or out of a desire to serve and help others, or even because they wish to date or marry someone who will only date or marry a Christian. None of these motivations truly involve calling upon the name of the Lord to be saved. They are in reality calling on the name of the Lord as a means to some other end.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and it doesn’t even address the true wolves in sheep’s clothing who come in with the intention to deceive and do harm. But these examples do highlight some common pitfalls that can lead to unbelieving people being accepted into our fellowship as believers.
What is the big deal?
To be clear, attendance by unbelievers is good, wonderful, and should be a regular part of our gathering together.
However, membership by unbelievers is dangerous. Why? Because if unbelievers are in the membership…
There will be deep and abiding disunity in the fellowship. Galatians 5 draws a stark contrast between those who are walking in the Spirit and those who are walking in the flesh. Those walking in radically different directions cannot walk together!
There will be deep and abiding battle for the truth. John 16:13 declares that the Spirit of truth will guide us into all the truth. Those who do not have the Spirit cannot compensate without Him or find another qualified guide. They will wander from the truth.
There will be deep and abiding confusion about what the church should be doing. Being a Christian is not primarily about doing great ministry, or doing great miracles, or having a great country. It is about knowing Jesus. (See again Matthew 7: 21-23.) For those who know Him truly, this is crystal clear. Those who don’t know Him can seek first many things that should be secondary (at best). As these secondary things become primary, the emphasis on Christ and His Gospel can be lost.
Unity…truth…the Gospel…nothing less than these are at stake.
What can we do?
First of all, we should each take a look in the mirror. Paul would say it like this: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” - 2 Corinthians 13:5
Second, we should keep “preaching to the choir.” You may sometimes wonder why the Gospel is preached from our pulpit on Sundays when “there is no one here but us.” But the reality is that some of us need to meet the Savior, and that can only happen when the Gospel is presented.
We should also be deeply involved in one another’s lives. Why? Because it is difficult to discern the fruit of the Spirit in one another if our only interaction is shaking hands and smiling on Sunday morning. But deep involvement in one another’s lives can lead to edification, encouragement…and maybe even salvation.
We should be welcoming, loving, and intentional with those seeking membership. As I write those words, I am compelled to ask you to pray for all who are involved in the membership process…both the potential member, and the leaders who are speaking with them. Everyone involved needs discernment, humility, and hearts led by God. When we welcome someone into membership, there is a real sense in which we are saying, “We accept this person as a fellow Christian, and we believe that they are earnestly following after the Lord.” That’s saying a lot! While a person’s heart is known only to the Lord, we want to be careful to be sure that those who join our fellowship truly understand the Gospel, that they truly know the Lord, and that they are committed to following Him.
Pray that all who gather here will come to truly know Jesus…whether they have been here for years, or just walked through the door for the first time. And pray that the roll down here will more and more look like the roll up there!