The very word membership is of Christian origin, but it has been taken over by the world and emptied of all meaning. In any book on logic you may see the expression "members of a class." It must be most emphatically stated that the items or particulars included in a homogeneous class are almost the reverse of what St Paul meant by members. By members he meant what we should call organs, things essentially different from, and complementary to, one another, things differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity.
C. S. Lewis, 1898-1963, Membership, The Weight of Glory (Harper Collins, 1980, pp. 163-164)
How can we introduce this idea of membership into the modern church? What would the result look like?
Many think the message of Jesus was somehow corrupted. It is commonly thought he was just a human moral philosopher, though there are other options. The most common suspect is Constantine the Great, though there other possibilities. But does this really stand up to examination?
There are a great number of New Testament manuscripts, with a wide geographic distribution. A number of these date before the time of Constantine and contain the majority of the New Testament. These, when compiled, consist of preserved passages alternating with gaps. (Imagine a book that has been left out in
the weather for a long period of time, and some pages are torn or
stained and some pages are missing, and you get the idea.) One would not expect the parts missing to be of a substantially different quality
than the parts that are there, because what is preserved is
preserved by accident. Copies of the entire New Testament are found from soon after Constantine. It is difficult to see how Constantine could have changed the New Testament. Nor is clear why the Christians, who very shortly before had been willing to die for their faith and to preserve the Scriptures (which previous emperors had threatened to destroy), would have let him do it, without a preserved word of protest. Nor does it seem probable that anyone before Constantine would have been in a position to have the ability to change the Scripture, given the number of copies and their geographical distribution. There are, of course, textual variations in the preserved manuscripts, but they are minor and do not affect the substance of the text.
It may also be asked whether the books in the New Testament were chosen to distort the message. Christians from very early quoted and copied the books of the New Testament. Ireneaus says there are clearly only four gospels, and gives a detailed description of them and Acts and Romans. The Muratorian Fragment about the same time lists the books of the New Testament, though a few of them are not clearly included. Tertullian gives a detailed description of Luke and most of the Pauline epistles and mentions the other gospels, Acts, and the rest of Paul's epistles as Scripture. Athanasius and Eusebius, at the time of Constantine, both give lists. There were some doubts as to whether a few books should be included or others added, but the substance is the same. There was a later church council that made the list official and took a stand on the dubious books. But the idea that the Christian church went about 400 years without having a general idea of what belonged in Scripture is incredible.
Scripture, as well as all the earliest other sources, presents Jesus as God, who came in the flesh to pay the price for sin and conquer death. The idea that the original message was majorly distorted at some point does not hold water.
Scripture pictures this world as a battlefield. It says Christians are to stand strong against demonic forces (Ephesians 6:10-20; 2 Corinthians 10:3-6; 1 Peter 5:8-10). Now we are told that Christ has already won the victory (Colossians 2:13-15;1 John 4:4; Hebrews 2:14,15). But from our perspective we are still in the midst of the battle. We are told that in Christ we will ultimately conquer (1 John 5:4; Romans 8:37; 2 Corinthians 2:14). But we are also told to stand firm and be on the alert. Though we will ultimately be victorious, we are not to let our guard down and be comfortable in this world. But we also do not despair, knowing God will bring us through. And we must avoid too simple answers and quick fixes that get us to expect easy solutions. For we are in a battle.
The cross is the centerpiece of Christianity. And it is what sets it apart from other belief systems. It is there that the price for sin was paid. The basic approach of most faiths is that we work to make ourselves acceptable to God. There may be some provision for forgiveness, but it is generally limited and provisional. But the Christian position is that Jesus paid the full price (1 Peter 2:24,26; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
The problem is that we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6, Jeremiah 17:9) and cannot keep God's commands (Romans 7:14-18; 3:19,20; Galatians 3:10-12). Now we can try to convince ourselves we are really acceptable to God based on our behavior. One way is to become nominally moral people, avoiding blatant sins and maybe showing up at religious services. But God is really not impressed by this (Malachi 1:10; Isaiah 65:2-5; John 4:24). This is watering down God's commands so we can keep them. Or we can become extremely self-righteous and attempt to follow strict standards. But even that does not measure up before God (Matthew 23:23-28; 15:1-14; Romans 2:1). God's requirements are stricter than our human attempts (Matthew 5:21-48; Luke 10:25-37; James 2:10). And their self-righteousness is completely contrary to what God requires (Luke 18:9-14; 7:36-50; 19:1-10). Or we can admit to ourselves we cannot live up to God's demands and give in to discouragement. We may keep going through the motions of some set of religious practices hoping that it will one day become fully real. Or we may just dump the whole thing and decide there is no God. Now some discouragement may be a good thing and may bring us to the point of realizing we need God (Isaiah 6:5; 2 Corinthians 7:10; Proverbs 1:7). But if left unchecked can, be highly destructive in our lives.
But God became a man to accomplish what we could not (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:9-16). He had to become human to identify with us and take our place. He had to be perfectly righteous to not have His own sins to pay for (1 Peter 1:19; Hebrews 10:26;27; Romans 8:3). And only God could make a sacrifice sufficient to cover the sin of all who would come. We can therefore accept this salvation simply by faith (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9), and we can do good works not to earn something from God, but out of love to God for a salvation already received (Titus 2:11-14; 1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15). We therefore are not discouraged, but have confidence and assurance, based not on what we have done, but on what Christ has done (1 John 5:11-13; Romans 8:31-39; Galatians 4:4-7). But we are also required to have humility, recognizing it is not based on us, but on what Christ has done (Romans 3:27,28; Philippians 2:11-16; 1 John 1:8-10). And this is made possible because what matters is what Christ has done, not what we do.