Church membership means different things to different people. In the Bible Belt South, church membership is one’s civic duty. The Constantinian mandate. In North Africa, church membership might well be a death wish. In America, church membership may cost you a little time or a little money. In much of the rest of the world, it may cost you a wife, house or freedom.
Whatever it means wherever it means it, it did mean certain things to the Architect of the church. We do well to think about church membership the way he and the Apostles entrusted with his message did. Jesus and his Apostles taught that believing the gospel of Jesus Christ assumes formal, accountable membership in a local assembly of other Christian believers. There simply was no believing of Christ’s gospel that didn’t work itself out in the context of a local, formal, identifiable assembly of other Christians. In calling people to repentance and faith Jesus was also calling them to the new creation community in which their repentance and faith are exercised “on earth as it is heaven” (Mt 6.10).
In Phil 2.12, Paul wrote “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” The imperative “work out” and pronoun “your” are plural while “salvation” is singular. Paul exhorted the community to work out their common salvation together, not their individual salvations at their own convenience.
Consider this top ten list:
(1) The NT uses the word for “church” (ekklesia) overwhelmingly to refer to a local, formal, identifiable assembly of Christians (e.g. “the church at Corinth”). Jesus certainly created a global community of followers. But, that global community would be known in this life through its local, formal, identifiable expressions.
Interestingly, the NT uses ekklesia some 114 times, 111 of them outside the Gospels (i.e. post-Pentecost). The word “synagogue” is used 56 times, only 3 of which outside Gospel-Acts. Paul, Jew of Jews, does not even use the word at all! God’s “assembly” took a radical turn in Christ. For the Jewish Apostles, God’s new covenant people would be known in their gatherings as the “church.”
(2) Church discipline texts assume formal church membership in a local, identifiable assembly of Christians (Mt 18.15-17; 1 Cor 5.11-13). Paul even uses the words “outsiders” and “insiders” to describe the difference between professing Christians from unbelievers (1 Cor 5.12).
Paul commanded the Corinthian church to “remove” an unrepentant “so-called brother” (1 Cor 5.13). Certainly, it wasn’t simply keep him from gathering because Paul allowed unbelievers to attend the church’s worship (1 Cor 14.24-25). It meant to expel from church membership. The man could attend, but not as a member of the church.
When the church gathers for discipline (Mt 18.17; 1 Cor 5.4), how are we to know who has authority to speak to discipline matters except by membership? Who comprises “the church” which serves as the final court of appeal? Do we open the doors to any and all Christians who want to give their two cents about a church discipline issue? Of course not. When Jesus tells us to “tell it to the church” (Mt 18.17) he obviously doesn’t mean the universal church, but the local assembly to whom the unrepentant is accountable. The church has the authority to determine outsiders from insiders. Of course, baptism was the means of making one an insider. Communion maintained “insiderness.”
“By baptism we are initiated into faith in him; by partaking in the Lord’s Supper we attest our unity in true doctrine and love” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.7).
(3) Normal NT Christianity displayed formal, identifiable membership in a local assembly. When God killed Ananias and Sapphira for skimming off the top, local unbelievers “dared [not] to associate with them” (Acts 5.13). The word “associate’ (kollao) did not mean a casual association, but a formal (inviolable?) association. The same word is used to describe the “cleaving” of spouses to one another (Mt 19.5; see also Lk 10.11; Acts 8.29; 10.28; 17.34; Rom 12.9; 1 Cor 6.16f.). Even unbelievers knew believing the gospel meant being part of a local, identifiable community wherein God killed liars who claimed to be Christians. And they wanted no part.
(4) The early church shared all things in common (Acts 2.32-37). They didn’t share everything with everybody, but only those in the identifiable community of faith. The judgment on Ananias and Sapphira was based on a certain responsibility they had to their local church. God didn’t kill every shyster in Jerusalem, but only the ones who had a formal connection to the local Jerusalem assembly.
(5) On several occasions the NT speaks of the “the whole church” in a local church context (Acts 15.22; 20.28; 1 Cor 14.23). There was no way to define “whole” if there was no formal church membership. The elect of God is a certain, quantifiable, identifiable number known by God (Phil 4.3; Rev 21.27); therefore, the local expressions of that number should reflect the same. Jesus calls his sheep by name and so should we!
(6) The pastoral oversight passages assume formal, identifiable, accountable membership in the local assembly (Acts 20.28; 1 Tim 3.1-7; 5.9, 16; Titus 1.5-7; Heb 13.17; 1 Pt 5.3). Elders were not charged with shepherding the ephemeral universal (invisible) church or even just anyone in their communities. They had responsibility to and authority over the flesh-and-blood, particular people who joined themselves to Christ and the part of his bride in their town.
(7) The biblical metaphors for the church assume formal, identifiable, accountable membership in a local assembly. A “flock” is not a random, loosely-associated group of sheep (Acts 20.28; 1 Pt 5.2-3). A shepherd cares for the specific number of sheep entrusted to him by the sheep’s owner. A shepherd isn’t responsible in the same way for the neighbor’s sheep who wanders into his pen. He is held accountable to the flock the owner puts in his charge.
For example, assume you own a local hardware store that employs three people. Do you then assume responsibility for and pay employees of Home Depot who come in to shop? Of course not. You have no formal relationship with them. Conversely, will your employees go to Home Depot for their paychecks? Of course not. They work for you. Likewise, the believing community assumes a formal, accountable relationship with Jesus means formal, accountable relationships in a local assembly.
A temple/building is not a random pile of bricks (1 Cor 3.9; Eph 2.21). It is a carefully organized structure, intentionally united by the builder for a common purpose.
A body is not a disjointed collection of parts (1 Cor 12; Col 1.24). A box with two arms, two legs and head does not make a body. A body is one where all the parts are particular arranged, supplied by the same blood and serve at the pleasure of the head.
A family is not any group of siblings in the same room (1 Tim 3.15). A family is a group of people formally united by genetic (or legal) ties. Any brother is not by definition my brother. Likewise, while we may have a general responsibility to Christians worldwide, we have particular responsibility toward those with whom we share the same loaf of bread, cup and pastoral leadership.
(8) All the “one another” passages (e.g. Rom 12.10; 13.8; 15.7; Gal 5.13; Eph 4.32) assume formal, identifiable membership in a local church. We don’t love the idea of the church, Christians in general or those churchfolk on TV. Loving an idea is no evidence of the gospel (1 Cor 13.1-3). We are to love the “another,” which assumes a particular person with whom we have regular contact, fellowship and communion. Of course, the gospel assumes also this “another” is someone I wouldn’t otherwise ordinarily love. But, Christ now compels us to make friends out of enemies, like he did. The “scandal” of the gospel is the tangible display of otherworldly love to particular people who wouldn’t be together were it not for Jesus.
(9) The local church is necessary for spiritual accountability/protection (Rom 12.4-5; 15.14; Gal 6.1; Heb 3.13; 10.23-25; 12.15). Mortifying sin in our lives is a communal effort. The church protects us from sin. We fall into sin more easily when we have not opened ourselves to the community of faith. Fighting sin apart from church membership is like fighting terrorists on your own.
In Christ, God saves you as part of saving us. He saves persons, to be sure. But he does so because he’s saving a people. Jesus forges a community of individuals with no individualism.
(10) Accountable, formal membership in an identifiable, local assembly is a primary means of Christian assurance (Eph 4.11-16; Jude 22.23).
Many will insist joining a church doesn’t make you a Christian. While technically true in the “You-Can”t-Tell-Me-What-To-Do” sense, assuming the gospel without local church accountability gives very little assurance you are a Christian. To suggest you don’t need the church to be a Christian is at least a sign of spiritual immaturity if not outright spiritual deception. It’s as nonsensical as saying you don’t need a wife to be a good husband. It’s a non sequitur if ever there was one.
“For the Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of the Word and sacraments. He so esteems the authority of the church that when it is violated he believes his own diminished. . . . From this it follows that separation from the church is the denial of God and Christ” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.10).
Jesus gave himself up only for her (Eph 5.25). And those for whom he died will by definition be part of her.