Our King, Jesus Christ promised to grow his Church throughout the world and to enable it to prevail against the gates of hell. As Christians, we are blessed to be united to his family found throughout the world and throughout all of time. Because this universal family can not all meet at one time and one location, the Bible teaches that Christians should gather together where they are located in local churches for worship, fellowship, discipleship, and accountability. Being united to a local church and submitting to the officers that God has established in these local churches is vital for the life of a believer and for obedience to God’s commands. In short, church membership is important. It is important for you and your walk with the Lord and for the growth of the kingdom.
We live in a time when many even well-meaning people may have questions and objections to the necessity of local church membership. I thought it would be helpful to strengthen your resolve to be a committed member of a local church if I took a moment to answer a few of these objections.
Informalism rules the day in our culture. Many have an aversion to what they negatively call “organized religion.” You may have heard some people trying to appeal to the culture say that Christianity is about a “relationship not a religion.” This is a false dichotomy. It is taking two things that are not mutually exclusive and acting as if they are. The truth is that the relationship that many speak of is multifaceted. It is the relationship of a father to his son and of a king with his servants. This King, Jesus Christ, has established his religion. Christianity is a religion built upon a relationship with God almighty through Jesus Christ. The true dichotomy is not between relationship and religion but between true religion and false religion. True religion is founded upon the Lordship of Christ. Its adherents love God and their neighbors. They are subject to their king even in even minor things like their speech and also in greater things like how they care for the less fortunate (James 1:26-27).
The real problem behind the false dichotomy between relationship and religion is hyper-individualism. Christianity becomes all about me and my desires. Someone might say “I can worship God well on my own or with my family in my own home, I don’t need to go to a building with professional pastors.” But when Christ is our King, we know that he commands us to love God and to love our neighbors. The religion that Christ establishes is both personal and corporate. It will impact you individually and also relationally. The word religion is revealed this way in James 1:27, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The true religion of Christ involves obedience to his commands. He clearly commands in his word for his people to be a part of the church(Ephesians 4:15-16), to serve the church (1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Galatians 6:10) to worship him corporately regularly (Hebrews 10:24-25, Colossians 3:16, John 4:23) , and to submit to the leadership (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5) and the discipline of the church (1 Corinthians 5, Matthew 18:15-18).
Another common objection heard today is that church membership is legalistic. There are two forms to this argument, one being more sophisticated than the other. The first and simplistic argument is that anything that sounds like rules or commandments is considered legalism, therefore a command to join a church is legalistic. Of course, this is a misunderstanding of what legalism is. Legalism is whenever someone attempts to earn their salvation by any good work or deed. It is an attempt to make salvation into a button where I do this one thing and then God is bound to give me heaven because I did that one thing. We are declared righteous not by any good deeds of our own but by the life and death of Christ. We are saved by grace through faith scripture says. And it is all a gift of God including the faith. Scripture also goes on to say that our salvation is for a purpose (Ephesians 2:10). God saves us not by good deeds but for good deeds. We are saved for obedience. Therefore, when we are saved, we will want to obey God and we will strive to do so. It is not legalistic to strive to keep Christ commandments.
There is a second type of legalism that we are to be on guard against. This type of legalism is replacing or adding to the commandments of God with the commandments of men. It is this definition of legalism that some use to object to church membership. They argue that there is no bible verse that says explicitly “thou shalt fill out an application and become a member of a local church.” They are correct in as far as there is no verse that says that specific statement. Part of understanding God’s commands for us means reading through scripture and obeying what it explicitly says but we also are to obey what it implies. A really wise group of men in the 17th century put it this way “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” When we look at what all of scripture says we may be necessarily led to deduce certain things from scripture and these things that we deduce we are to obey. When it comes to local church membership, the bible is full of instruction that teaches us that church membership is a command.
For example, the book of Hebrews chapter 13 verse 17 says “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Two questions immediately come to mind. If there is no biblical requirement to belong a local church, then which leaders should an individual Christian obey and submit to? The second question is, who are those whom leaders are to watch over and be held accountable for? As a pastor, this is an important question for me. The Scriptures clearly commands elders to care for and exercise oversight over a specific people (1 Peter 5:1-5, Acts 20:29-30) Am I responsible to exercise oversight over every person who claims the name of Christ? There are churches all throughout southern Indiana and Louisville. Will I be held accountable for the work and teaching of these churches? Will I have to give an answer for the souls in these churches? Or could it be that I am held responsible for a certain group of believers who I am to shepherd?
Coming back around to the first question, Christians are commanded to submit to and honor their elders as we just saw in Hebrews 13:17 and can see elsewhere (1 Timothy 5:17; Matthew 18:15-18). If there is no understanding of local church membership, then who are we to submit to and obey? While Christians should honor the office of pastor and elder of any true church, are they also called to submit to and obey anyone with the title “elder” from any church?
Think about the issue of church discipline. This is an issue that many do not want to consider but Jesus taught that discipline is a function of the church (Matthew 18). Scripture gives us an example of this being carried out in 1 Corinthians 5:1-12. There was a man in this church committing wicked and unrepentant sexual sin with his mother-in-law. The church was a very tolerant church, but Paul confronts their tolerance. They thought they were being gracious, but Paul rebukes them. Their “tolerance” was nothing to boast about. They should have been mourning and should have dealt with this cancerous evil in their midst. He tells them to hand the man over to Satan and put him out of the church. It is obvious that in order to be kicked out of something, someone must be in it. If there is no commitment to a local church, no church membership, how do you remove someone from that membership? Church discipline is predicated on the idea of church membership.
Furthermore, we see in scripture the concept of membership rolls or records of who belongs. In the book of Acts, over and over again we are given a numerical record of those who were being added to the number of the church. In Acts 6:1-6, we see elections take place in order to address a specific problem in the local church. This signifies that there was organization in helping different groups within the church. In Romans 16:1-16, there are various members of different churches mentioned by name. In regard to rolls, Paul instructs Timothy on adding widows to an official list aka roll for the church. The church is organized and organizing in the New Testament. There are a host of other texts that we could go to in both the New and Old Testament to bring together this concept of church membership, but it should be clear by now that membership of a local church is commanded by God and is set forth in the example of the New Testament church. It is God’s plan that we be connected to and accountable to a local church for growth in maturity, for service to others, and for the building up of Christ’s body, the Church.
So what about applications, church membership packets, membership interviews, and membership vows? Sure, church membership is biblical but aren’t all these things legalistic? It doesn’t say we have to fill out an application or go through an interview process in scripture. The same wise men in the 17th century that I quoted above also said this “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.” What they are saying is that there are some things that God has left up to the leaders of the church to work out according to wisdom. These things are common not just to the church but to any organization. Sometimes God gives us instructions but doesn’t specify some of the incidental details.
For example, we are told to gather for worship weekly. We are not told the exact material of the building we should meet in. We aren’t told whether we should use pews, chairs, or mats to sit on. We aren’t given a command on whether the song lyrics should be in a book or projected on a screen. These things should be decided using wisdom instructed from God. Depending on the location in the world, your building materials might be different. You might not meet in a dedicated church building but in a basement of a home. When it comes to church membership, we know that it is required. How we structure it should be based upon wisdom and principles gathered from God’s word and creation. The membership process from church to church may look different based upon the needs of the church. These things are to be decided wisely by the elders of the church. And we are commanded to submit to the leadership of the elders of the church. In these incidentals, we should obey unless they clearly contradict the word of God.
I have dealt somewhat at length with these objections to show from scripture that church membership is a command from our Sovereign King. There are many other reasons that people have for avoiding obedience to this clear command. Fear of commitment or dealing with hurt from other bad situations in the past are not good excuses to avoid the instructions of scripture. We all know someone or have been the someone who has been hurt by others in a church. Churches are made up of sinners and until the end of time when Christ returns we will be dealing with the consequences of sin. But God has determined that we are still to be a part of the church. It is in the church where we will sin and be sinned against, but it is in the church where we can learn to forgive and be forgiven. It is in the church where we encourage others to grow and are encouraged to grow. It is in the church where we serve and are served. It is in the church where we love and are loved.
*This article is indebted to 9 Marks.org