Why Church Membership Is Important- Part 1 (Nehemiah 10:1-31)

Why Church Membership Is Important- Part 1 (Nehemiah 10:1-31)

Although, on the surface, it might appear that the Western mindset is commitment-phobic, most people recognize the value of making an agreement to keep their most important goals. There are a few successful apps like GymPact and Beeminder that penalize you with a fine when you fail to keep your goals. In the case of Gympact they take the pool of money and distribute it among those who kept their commitment to go to the gym. It doesn’t know what you did once you were there, but it at least knows that you went. Now, I don’t think anyone has quit their day job in order to become Gympact sharks, but my point is that we tend to recognize the importance of making commitments to the things that we most value.

The Israelites had just confessed the repeated rebellion of their ancestors that was passed on to them. What could they do to break the cycle? Ultimately, it was God’s covenant faithfulness that gave them the strength and courage to recommit themselves to his commandments. In this passage, they seal their commitment in writing and in the company of the whole community.

This chapter reflects the principles of membership in the covenant community. While it is not identical to the practice of church membership, I believe the “general equity” (universal principles of justice) contained in the judicial laws of the old covenant demand our adherence today (WCF 19.4). Whatever is grounded in the moral law, and not specific to the nation of Israel, is applicable to us—and our neighbors—even now.

Since it is appropriate to confess our own repeated rebellion, likewise, it is appropriate to respond with our own renewed commitment to God’s revealed will.

Church membership acknowledges our need for accountability due to our tendency to veer from God’s moral prescription.

Read Nehemiah 10:1-31.

Church Membership Reveals a Commitment to Adopt God’s Convictions (1-29)

The first verse contains the names of the civil leaders, Nehemiah and Zedekiah. They are followed by a list of 21 priests (1-8). Many have wondered why there is no mention of Ezra. 15 of these names represent families, of which Ezra belongs to the first, Seraiah. All of this is consistent with the covenant operating in terms of family and tribal units.

Out of the 17 Levites listed in vv.9-13, 6 of them were readers whose names are found in Neh. 8:7. So these most likely represent assistants to the priests. They carried a certain level of religious leadership themselves.

Finally, there were 44 chiefs (14-27). Some listed already in Neh. 7:8-25. These may have been the same “heads of their father’s houses” who had gathered with Ezra to study the law of God further (Neh. 8:13). 

The total list of 84 names contains the select number of those who sealed the agreement. These representatives sealed their names on behalf of their clans and families, but everyone else joined the sealers in taking the curse and oath upon themselves (28-29).

The Covenant Community

No one who belongs to a covenant household is excluded from the covenant community. Not only did all of them benefit from God’s providential care, but they also recognized their own obligation to submit under the authority of God’s Word.

To separate from the pagan nations was to join the covenant community. They could not have one foot in the church and one in the world. If you are not joined to the church, by default you are joined to the world. There are no biblical grounds for being in the covenant community without making a formal commitment to her.

God’s Convictions Must Replace Our Own

Commitment to the covenant community begins with a replacement. We replace our personal convictions—which have been informed by our sinful nature and the corrupt cultural air that we breathe—with the convictions of God’s revealed will. We replace our inhibitions to offend men with inhibitions to offend God.

That being said, I get the reluctance of some to take this step of faith. There is a curse and an oath that accompanies the decision. No one should enter into that lightly. The curse was illustrated in Neh. 5:13 when he shook out the contents of his pockets signifying that covenant breakers would be emptied of their blessings.

But, ultimately, the trade-off is worth it. We lose the enjoyment of temporary and fleeting pleasures of sin (Heb. 11:25). In return, we gain the enjoyment of an eternal, heavenly reward (Heb. 11:26). One of my favorite sermons is “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” by Thomas Chalmers. 

To obliterate all our present affections by simply expunging them, and so as to leave the seat of them unoccupied, would be to destroy the old character, and to substitute no new character in its place. But when they take their departure upon the ingress of other visitors; when they resign their sway to the power and the predominance of new affections; when, abandoning the heart to solitude, they merely give place to a successor who turns it into as busy a residence of desire and interest and expectation as before – there is nothing in all this to thwart or to overbear any of the laws of our sentient nature – and we see how, in fullest accordance with the mechanism of the heart, a great moral revolution may be made to take place upon it.

Look to a Superior Savior!

Jesus, in his humanity, perfectly adopted and adhered to God’s convictions. There was no hesitation or confusion regarding who he was committed to follow. He obeyed God’s law, and through our union with him, our desires are transformed by him. God’s convictions do not change even though specific commandments have been fulfilled and abrogated by Christ. 

We must take into account the reality of what Jesus accomplished in order to know how we are to live in the new covenant, but we are not free to design our own convictions. We must repent if we have adopted convictions that are contrary to Scripture. This will require taking regular analysis of our habits and routines.

  • Have we committed to train up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord? What does that look like in our home? We might need to replace commitment to our favorite TV shows with more frequent family worship.
  • Have we committed to supporting the church in its worship and work (vow #4)? How are we serving? Are we giving sacrificially to the work? We may need to replace spending habits in order to give a more appropriate offering. We may need to develop new routines in order to open up our schedule to serve and attend church on a regular basis.

The sealed agreement goes on to speak of a few restrictions…

Church Membership Reveals an Eagerness to Accept God’s Restrictions (30-31)

1. Restrictions Regarding Marriage (30)

Marriage is restricted to other covenant members. This has nothing to do with xenophobia or ethnocentrism. This was not a prohibition against biracial or even multicultural marriage. The Book of Ruth would not exist if that were the case. Boaz, the son of Rahab (a converted prostitute from Jericho), marries Ruth, a Moabitess. Ruth boar Jesse, who was the father of David, which eventually leads to the birth of the Messiah Jesus.

The problem was pluralistic marriage. To engage in marriage with those outside of the covenant community was to unite yourself to false gods. While Rahab and Ruth entered into the covenant community, many of the households in Israel were still joined to foreign gods.

Jesus said you cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon was a Semitic word for money, but it really served as a variable that could be replaced with anything. You cannot serve God and X.

Christianity makes exclusive demands upon our worship. The pinnacle of rebellion against that exclusivity is a willingness to marry another person/idol. The prophets frequently liken idolatry to harlotry because it turns the church into a brothel.

We are not to be unequally yoked (2 Cor. 6:14)—which conveys uniting ourselves with outsiders of the covenant. But what happens if a person comes to faith after getting married? Paul tells them not to pursue divorce. The covenant of marriage shouldn’t be undone without qualified reason. For the record, my understanding of Scripture is that divorce is only allowed in cases of infidelity and abandonment, which would include abuse).

All of this goes to show that marriage is restricted to the covenant community in both the Old and New Testaments. We are not free to marry whomever we want, nor are we free to divorce—just because the state allows it. We should be eager to accept God’s restrictions, even if that complicates matters further.

2. Restrictions Regarding Commerce (31)

The primary prohibition assumed in the Sabbath is to refrain from work. That is the kind of rest that is to be enjoyed on the Sabbath. It is not inactivity, but rest from worldly employment. This naturally led to a follow up question. Would it be ok to purchase something from foreigners if the Sabbath was only commanded for Israel?

This verse shows that all commerce was restricted on the Sabbath. The marketplace was closed on Saturdays (technically from Friday evening until Saturday evening). Foreigners were invited to sell their goods at any other time. And the Israelites could do their shopping any other time. But the Sabbath day was to be set apart as a day of rest and worship. 

The only work allowed was that which supported temple worship. In the gospels we also see that God permitted a few exceptions to the rule. Jesus condoned acts of mercy and necessity. When the Pharisees tried to rebuke him for healing a person on the Sabbath—he turned their challenge back upon them.

There was also to be a sabbath rest for the land (every seventh year). This was an example of entrusting our property to God’s care. Not worrying about the fields, in an agrarian society meant loss of income and opportunity to get ahead. This included the canceling of any remaining debts (or potentially allowing a pause on the payments) people had against one another.

The Christian Sabbath

College student’s satirical tract: “I Believe in All Nine of the Ten Commandments”. The first four commandments detail how we are to love God which is given priority to the way we are to love others. Jesus teaches us that the Ten Commandments are morally binding (Matt. 19:18, 19).

Four General Principles in the Fourth Commandment:

  • Two Positive
    1. Remember the Sabbath Day – “Remember” implies prior knowledge, not forgetting, as well as observing and celebrating. Devoting the time requires that we keep our schedule free from other arrangements. The entire dayis “booked” for the Lord.
    2. Keep it Holy – Set apart. Not common. Whether the context is private, family, or public, it should have a holy purpose.
  • Two Negative
    1. Do Not Do Any Work – Not inactivity (cf. Gen. 2:1-3). Keeping the Sabbath holy is not defined by sleep. Worship and service for God will involve energy (possibly even more than our secular work requires), and may even require a nap!
    2. Do Not Employ Others – We should not employ those inside or outside the covenant community. As a creation ordinance, the fourth commandment has universal application.

If you agree with the authors of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, then the principles of Sabbath restrictions still apply today. The day has shifted from Saturday to Sunday, since the resurrection, but we are still obligated to worship and rest. And that means we should refrain from any work that is not pious, necessary, or merciful in nature.

Chantry, “The sense given by those who claim that Jesus removed the Sabbath institution is as follows: ’Since from the very time of creation God made the Sabbath to be a blessing for all mankind, therefore the Son of Man will become Lord of this blessing to demolish it.’”

Rather than demolish the Sabbath, Christ’s fulfillment of it, enables us to keep it out of gratitude.