What We Believe

Editorial: Membership Rolls and the Book of Life

Gregory E. Reynolds

One of the legacies of the romantic movement is the notion that formality and institutional organizations and their protocols are, by their very nature, inauthentic. That nineteenth-century seed blossomed in the countercultural revolution of the sixties. It is now part of the currency of popular culture. The disdain for history, which characterizes the modern temperament, has covered the tracks of this development so that well-meaning Christians believe their disdain for membership and other church formalities is a more spiritual attitude than that of those who are requiring these forms. It comes as a shock if they come to realize that in holding this position on membership and many other things, they are conforming to the world in a way that the Bible itself warns us against. The modern bias against forms of all sorts is contrary to the biblical doctrine of the goodness of the created order; and it is contrary to the punctuation of that reality by the incarnation and resurrection of our Lord. It is also a denial of our creaturely limits in space and time. Beneath the appearance of humility in these denials is a thinly veiled hubris of sinful rebellion. But how do we as officers in the church go about showing people how important the formality of membership is from Scripture?

While there is some growing literature on the importance of church membership, there is little or nothing, to my knowledge, about the importance of written records of membership, i.e., the roll book. I will briefly explore this small but very important aspect of the session's care for the flock—keeping the written rolls of the congregation. I hope to demonstrate that written records of membership are part of the warp and woof of heavenly citizenship, and clearly revealed in the Bible.

As a minister in New Rochelle, New York in the 1980s I became familiar with the importance of the status of immigrants. Since then I have witnessed the agony of those who have been denied permanent status and the jubilation of those granted such status. In either case it was the actual possession of green cards or citizenship papers that mattered. No one questions the value of formality and written documents in the case of earthly citizenship. I would like to suggest that what is true of earthly citizenship is true of the heavenly original. It is my contention that both the practice of belonging to God's people and the metaphors for heavenly membership undergird the practice of keeping written records of membership in the visible church.

Rolls in the Old Testament

Roll books—both actual and metaphorical—are very important in the Bible. They are the concrete record of inclusion with the visible people of God. The genealogies of the Old Testament demonstrate the importance of such written records.

The idea of being written in the Lamb's book of life, while a metaphor, comes from something concrete, an actual roll book. Written records were very important in the ancient world, going back to at least the third millennium BC. By the time of the Exodus in the mid-second millennium BC written records were an essential part of public governance. So it is not surprising then to encounter a strong emphasis on such records in the early history of Israel.

Numbers 1:17-19 (cf. 11:26) demonstrates the importance of written records during the old covenant wilderness experience of Israel.

Moses and Aaron took these men who had been named, and on the first day of the second month, they assembled the whole congregation together, who registered themselves by clans, by fathers' houses, according to the number of names from twenty years old and upward, head by head, as the LORD commanded Moses. So he listed them in the wilderness of Sinai.

Note the language used by Moses: "registered" (ילד, yalad) focuses especially on the record of births.[1] The Septuagint translates this word with ἐπαξονέω (epaxoneō), meaning to register or "enroll on tablets." Then Moses "listed" (פקד, paqad), meaning to number or appoint, especially in a military context. The ESV is unique among translations for using "listed" here. It reflects the fact that numbering implies the requirement of written records. The Septuagint use of the verb (συντάσσω, suntassō) in this place becomes significant for the New Testament concept of written rolls. The relative permanence of such records in the ancient world, together with the expense and difficulty of making them, adds to the seriousness with which ancient cultures treated such documentation. Finally, this written record is not optional or arbitrary; it is commanded by God himself: "the LORD commanded Moses."

The record of the descendants of Simeon in the genealogy reiterated after the exile is similarly instructive. Consider 1 Chronicles 4:41.

These, registered by name, came in the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah, and destroyed their tents and the Meunites who were found there, and marked them for destruction to this day, and settled in their place, because there was pasture there for their flocks.

Here "registered" is the Hebrew word כתב (katab), meaning write or inscribe on tablets. The Septuagint translates this with the ordinary Greek word for "write" in the form γεγραμμένοι (gegrammenoi), from which the English word "grammar" is derived.

The importance of the distinction between who is in and who is not in the kingdom is highlighted in Ezra 2:61-63.

Also, of the sons of the priests: the sons of Habaiah, the sons of Hakkoz, and the sons of Barzillai (who had taken a wife from the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called by their name). These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but they were not found there, and so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. The governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until there should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim.

The noun "registration" is derived from the common root for write (כתב, katab, see above). The verb "enrolled" (יחש, yahas) refers specifically to being enrolled in a genealogy (cf. Neh. 7:64).

The warnings of the old covenant use the ordinary Hebrew word for writing, as noted above, and express the centrality of written records of membership in the holy community in the thinking of ancient Israel.

My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and who give lying divinations. They shall not be in the council of my people, nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord GOD. (Ezek. 13:9)

Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous. (Ps. 69:28)

These stern warnings accentuate the importance of the written record of inclusion in the congregation of the old covenant people. The Psalm adds to our consideration a book (ספר, sepher) in which such records were kept. Being erased from this "book of the living" is the tragic consequence of becoming an enemy of the king.

On the other hand being written in the roll book expresses the tender care of the covenant Lord for each of his people. Psalm 87:6 speaks of this blessing in terms of a roll book: "The LORD records as he registers the peoples, 'This one was born there.' " The verb "registers" is the same general word from the root "to write" (כתב, katab). But the verb "records" (ספר, sopher, cf. Ps. 69:28 above) is from the same root as the noun "recorder," (סופר, sopher) which refers to an enumerator, secretary, or scribe—similar perhaps to the clerk of session in our context.

Rolls in the New Testament

The situation of the new covenant people is the same despite the dramatic change in the form and administration of the visible people of God. The governing center of the kingdom has moved from earth—the Jerusalem below—to heaven—the Jerusalem above (Gal. 4:25-26; cf. Heb. 12:18-24). The disappearance of the outward forms of worship indicates the fulfillment inaugurated by the coming Messiah. This prophetic realization does not, as some mistakenly believe, call us to disparage forms per se. Citizenship papers prove one's commitment and relationship to one's country and one's people throughout history. In the church the written roll is an accurate way of keeping track of membership as under-shepherds who care for the sheep of Christ's fold.

The presence of such a record in the apostolic church is made plain by passages such as Acts 13:48: "As many as were appointed to eternal life believed." The same concept—based on the root τάσσω (tassō)—expressed by the Septuagint word συντάσσω (suntassō) in Numbers 1 and "appointed" in Acts 13 (τάσσω, tassō), is used to express military order and authority in Luke 7:8. In Romans 13:1 a variation of this same root (ὑποτάσσω, upotassō) is used to call the Roman believers to "be subject to the governing authorities," i.e., civil government. There is papyri evidence for translating this word "inscribe" or "enroll." In Acts 2:41 and 47 the idea of adding to the church (προσετέθησαν, prosetethēsan) implies written records of such additions. The Liddell and Scott Greek lexicon defines the Greek word translated "added" as: to join his party, or to associate one's opinion to another, i.e., agree with him; to associate oneself to, to come in, submit, or to give one's assent, agree to a thing; and indicates that the word can mean "adding articles to documents." There is an example of this in Plato.

What can "adding" in the evangelistic situation in Pisidian Antioch mean if people have not made some sort of public commitment to the visible church? How did the apostles know who was added? How can Paul tell the Corinthian church to put the sexually immoral man out of the church if he was not considered a member of the Corinthian church? In 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 Paul distinguished between those who were "inside" and "outside" of the church.

Because our ultimate allegiance has been changed by grace, "our citizenship is in heaven" (Phil. 3:20). The roll book of the church reflects this new loyalty. It is not accidental, therefore, that one important metaphor for our election is a roll book. Consider these two examples:

And at that time your people shall be delivered, every one who is found written in the book. (Dan. 12:1)

He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. (Rev. 3:5)

Finally, Hebrews 12:22-24 gives a powerful testimony for the importance of roll books:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

The verb "enrolled" (ἀπογράφω, apographō) is translated "registered" in the NKJV. Thayer's Greek Lexicon gives this illuminating definition of the word: "a. ... to write off, copy (from some pattern). b. to enter in a register or records; specifically, to enter in the public records the names of men, their property and income, to enroll ... to have oneself registered, to enroll oneself ... οἱ ἐν οὐρανοῖς ἀπογεγραμμένοι (hoi en ouranois apogegrammenoi) those whose names are inscribed in the heavenly register, Heb. 12:23 (the reference is to the dead already received into the heavenly city, the figure being drawn from civil communities on earth, whose citizens are enrolled in a register)."

Our Book of Discipline embodies this biblical concept of the importance of written records of membership in the visible church. While many cultural forms are relative to a given society, such as codes of dress, other forms reflect our essential humanity, such as the need for written records of all kinds, especially the need to distinguish those who profess the true religion from the lost world. This is a good commandment of our Lord, one that expresses the commitment of the pastor and overseers of the church to care for each one of its members. Maintaining them should never be a mere matter of keeping good records, but keeping good records of membership should be an expression of the care of the Great Shepherd, through his under-shepherds, for God's people.


[1] The hitpael form of this verb in Numbers 1:18 (יתילדו, yityaledu) may be translated "to announce themselves as born, i.e. to have themselves entered into genealogical registers." C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, Vol. I, The Pentateuch, Three Volumes in One, translated by James Martin (repr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), Vol. III, 16.

Publication Information

Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

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Ordained Servant: November 2007

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Taking Care of Your Pastor

The Pastor's Job Description

Leading Congregational Prayer

The Prayer of Jabez: A Berean Look: A Review Article

Beale, Commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians

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