The Matter of Membership
In high school, my church youth group did door to door evangelism once a week. We walked through neighborhoods and knocked on doors in hopes of sharing Christ with someone. One week, my evangelism team ended up in the living room of a man going on and on about his personal relationship with Christ and how he didn’t need “the church.” He went on passionately about the ridiculousness of belonging to a church and how “membership” wasn’t in the Bible. He could worship God right there from his living room and that was that. He was very passionate about what he was saying, and the truth is, we would likely still be in his living room without my youth pastor’s conversational ninja skills. Once free, I remember dismissing a lot of what he said as misuse of the Bible, but the membership stuff I couldn’t quite shake. I couldn’t recall a verse saying, “Join and be a member of a local church.” Was it in the Bible? I had no idea.
Well friends, church membership is, in fact, in the Bible. Now you aren’t going to find the verse, “Join and be a member of your local church,” but Scripture is full of implicit references to church membership; many of the illustrations and commands assume Christians are members of a local church. Formally belonging to a local body of believers is God’s idea and not just a tradition or practical organization tool. Belonging to a local church is not something you get to dismiss while you “worship in private” in your living room. Church membership is biblical, expected of all Christians, and important.
Church Membership is Biblical.
The idea of church membership is implied throughout the New Testament. We are going to focus on two implications: the “one another” passages and Matthew 18:15-20. As Brandon so clearly explained last week: “The Bible is full of commands that focus on the Christian’s interaction with other Christians: ‘be devoted to one another’ (Rom 12:10); ‘live in harmony with one another’ (Rom 10:16); ‘stop passing judgment on one another’ (Rom 14:13); ‘accept one another…as Christ has accepted you’ (Rom 15:7); ‘serve one another in love’ (Gal 5:13); ‘bear with one another in love,’” and that’s not all of them!
These “one another” commands imply belonging to a body of believers— which is church membership! Obedience to these commands hinges on knowing who is a part of the body of Christ. And just to be clear, it is not the universal church being talked about (of which all Christians belong); it is the local church. We are to live life alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ, loving God, spurring one another on in Christlikeness, and making His name known to all we meet. To do this, we must know who our brothers and sisters are. We cannot care for a sister who we do not know, and we cannot know our sister if we are not first united to her in a community of believers. We need church membership in order to fulfill the “one another” commands we find in Scripture!
In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus gives instruction for dealing with conflict inside the church. If a brother sins against you, you are go to him personally and seek reconciliation. If he refuses to see his sin, you are to take one or two others with you to try and seek reconciliation again. Jesus then says, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Jesus instructs that this person should no longer be a part of the church. If there is no formal, recognizable membership, who is “the church” addressing the conflict? Who is my brother for that matter? Do I take everyone who sins against me before my church? Negative. The passage is addressing two people who are a part of the same local church. Jesus didn’t arbitrarily give these commands hoping someone out there would obey them. He had the local church and its members in mind.
Church Membership is for Christians.
If you are a Christian, are you an active member of a local church? In the foreword of Church Membership, which I highly recommend, Michael Horton states, “The church is not simply another voluntary society, like the Boy Scouts or the Sierra Club. It’s an embassy of Christ’s kingdom…The visible church is where you will find Christ’s kingdom on earth, and to disregard the kingdom is to disregard its King.” Being a member of a local church is being faithful to His kingdom in the here and now. If you are a Christian, you should be a member of a local church. The New Testament seems to know nothing of a Christian that is untethered from a local church. Therefore, when a person is converted to Christ, the natural progression of their discipleship in Christ is that they are baptized for the purpose of providing a public and corporate profession of their allegiance to Jesus as Lord. Their baptism also serves as the act that joins them to the body—the membership of that local church.
Church Membership is Important.
Church membership matters. It is a primary way God intends to sanctify and keep you walking toward heaven. I confess that after my living room encounter, I only deliberated over that man’s accusations against church membership for about a week. I was young and “on fire” for Christ, and it seemed that I had more important kingdom things to do. This was to my detriment. I was making little of something God has spelled out so clearly in Scripture. As believers, we want to make sure we care about the things the Lord cares about and certainly doing the things He commands.
If you have been tempted to treat your church membership lightly, don’t! Look to the Scripture. God has given us the local church to grow us in Christ. God has clearly called us to live in the community of the local church. If you understand yourself to be a Christian and are not currently a member of a local church, then you are outside of God’s design for your life. You should seek out a faithful local church, speak to the pastors there, and then seek to become a member. For further study and discussion on church membership, I strongly recommended Church Membership by Jonathan Leeman. May God bless your pursuit of faithfulness to His Word.