CHURCH MEMBERSHIP: MEANINGFUL OR MEANINGLESS?
How do you determine someone’s passionate love for the church of Jesus Christ? Not the body of Christ universal, but the local body that regularly assembles together. When the Bible refers to the church, 90 times out of 117, it is speaking specifically of the local body of believers. Christ is the head of the church (Col. 1:18). Acts 20:28 tells us that He shed His blood for the church. Eph. 5:25-32 tells us that He washes, purifies, cleanses, nourishes and cherishes the church. Heb. 6:19-20 and 7:25 tells us that at this very moment, Christ is in heaven interceding on behalf of the church before the Throne of Grace. These Scriptures help us to understand God’s passionate love for the church. The question remains: How much do you love the church of Jesus Christ?
People frequently ask, “Why should I join a local church? The Bible doesn’t say I have to be a member.” While it is true that the Bible does not command church membership, it does imply and assume such membership. In Acts 2:41, we find: “So then those who had received his [Peter’s] word were baptized, and there were added that day about 3,000 souls.” The Greek word prostithemi, which we translate as “added,” was used to signify the act by which cities, towns or provinces changed their masters and placed themselves under the authority of another government. On the day of Pentecost when 3,000 souls were saved, they placed themselves under the authority or government of the Lord Jesus Christ. Reading Acts 4:4, we find that another 5,000 men were added to the body of believers. Who was keeping track of these 8,000 or more souls if there were, in fact, no local church keeping records? In Acts 11:24, so many people were added that records of numbers could no longer be maintained. These people, nevertheless, placed themselves under a new authority, made themselves subject to a new command. They became part of the universal body of Christ which was visibly manifested in the local assembly.
Acts 5 tells us that after Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit, “And great fear came over the whole church … But none of the rest dared to associate with them;…” (Acts 5:11,13). The Greek word for “associate” literally means “to entwine, to enwrap, to cleave to, to be glued to, to be firmly fastened against.” Non-believers dared not fasten themselves to this particular local body because it might cost them their lives. The clear teaching of the Scriptures, as recorded here, is that believers joined together, became entwined with or firmly fastened to, a group of like minded and similarly committed people. The Greek implies a unified, cohesive, distinctive body as opposed to a loosely gathered assembly of individuals. This same Greek word is also used to describe being joined together in a sexual relationship (1 Cor. 6:16) and being joined to the Lord in one spirit in salvation (1 Cor. 6:17).
Acts 2:47 reveals that the “Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.” God is not only the author of salvation, but He also joins those who are saved to the church. Every believer, at the moment of salvation, becomes a member of the body of Christ, the invisible church. The local church is the visible manifestation of that invisible body. In apostolic time, it was common practice for believers to be received into the local church. There were not a plethora of churches available. There was only one in each city. Hence, we have the church at Corinth, at Ephesus, at Laodicea, at Rome. Church membership was not discussed but it was assumed. It was automatically and universally practiced.
Heb. 13:17 instructs us to: “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” Leaders are to keep watch over souls and the souls they oversee are to willingly submit to their leadership. How are leaders to know the people who have placed themselves under their oversight if there is no public declaration of submission? How are leaders to identify those whom they are required to lead, to shepherd, protect and nurture? Church membership reveals the sheep to the shepherd and enables the elders to watch over those committed to their care.
Metaphors Describing the Church
The Bible uses several metaphors to describe the church. Acts 20:28 speaks of the flock. Overseers are charged with the responsibility of shepherding the flock of God. By definition, a flock is not a random combination of various ewes, rams, and lambs that just happen to gather together from time to time as convenience and personal preference dictate. Rather, they are specifically chosen, purchased, branded and uniquely marked so that the shepherd knows which sheep are distinctively his as differentiated from those belonging to another shepherd. The union of sheep and shepherd, as described in the Bible, is an intimate relationship where the needs of one can only be met by the tender care of the other. Sheep respond to the voice of one shepherd and one shepherd only (John 10:5). The Biblical record also illustrates that sheep were tended by members of the family (Gen. 29:9; Ex. 2:16; 1 Sam. 16:11) and that the hireling was despised (John 10:12-13).
1 Cor. 12:27 describes the body of Christ. God’s grand design was for believers to minister to one another. The local church functions as a body, with each part fulfilling a distinct and critical function. Jesus Christ Himself is the head of the body and God gifts every believer with that which is necessary to sustain, support and encourage some other portion of the body. As members equip members, the body of Christ is built up and God is glorified.
In 2 Cor. 6:16, Paul identifies the church as the temple of God and quotes the promise of the Lord to “DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM.” Whenever a body of believers who profess Christ as Lord and Savior comes together, Jesus is there, in the midst of them, praising God: “IN THE MIDST OF THE CONGREGATION I WILL SING YOUR PRAISE” (Heb. 2:12). Jesus is intimately involved in the worship of the local church.
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul declares that his purpose in writing is to instruct his disciple in the manner in which he is to conduct himself in the household of God or, more specifically, in the church at Ephesus (1 Tim. 3:15). A household is bound together by a common paternity, by familial affection, and by a shared heritage. The church is a family with God as their Father. It is not an assembly of casual acquaintances but a group of individuals who have bonded together, fastened themselves to one another like glue, acknowledging a common Lord and Savior and glorifying the same Father of them all as they serve one another in love.
God uses these metaphors to identify the unique character and integral union of the church. It is not a loose association of similarly minded individuals. Rather, it is an intimate, supportive, nurturing union which God Himself established. He planned for believers to thrive together and, as a single unified body, to glorify Him who made us and gave Himself for us.
Mandate to Discipline in the Church
Matt. 18:15-17 describes the God ordained process for maintaining purity, holiness, and humility within the body of Christ. If your brother sins, go to him in private, confront his sin, and if he repents, you have won your brother. If he refuses to repent, go with two or three witnesses who will affirm and assure your humble, loving servant attitude as you approach your brother once again. If he turns from his sin, you have restored your brother. If, however, he still refuses to repent, you are to tell it to the church. Does this mean we are to take the matter to the universal body of believers? What church is Matthew referring to here? The answer, quite obviously, is the local church, the church where the person being disciplined is a member. If he still refuses to repent of his sin, the church is to send him out. He is no longer to be treated as a brother but as a tax gatherer or a Gentile. In other words, he is treated as one in need of evangelization. The goal is not condemnation, but the reconciliation of the sinner and preservation of the flock of God from detrimental influences. Church discipline is meant to ensure that your brother walks with God, honors God and lives for God. It is also meant to ensure that the people of God learn the meaning of forgiveness as they seek to restore a sinning brother to fellowship.
There is only one thing worse than committing a vile, immoral sin and that is the failure of the church to deal with that sin. Why? Because “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6) and “one sinner destroys much good” (Ecc. 9:18). If the church does not remove sin, it will infect the entire body. Allowing an unrepentant sinner to remain in the church, to be a part of the body, to worship with the body, and to associate with believers as if there were no sin in his life, sends the wrong message to an unbelieving world and detrimentally influences the entire body of Christ. However, church discipline is not just for the person who sins. It is also an opportunity for the church to practice that most Christlike of all virtues: forgiveness. The church must learn to forgive a brother who repents of his sin and to restore him to full fellowship. The mandate for purity extends to all members of the body.
What makes a man and woman, husband and wife? If I tell my wife, “Honey, I love you and I am committed to you,” am I married to her? No. If I say, “Honey, I love you, I’m committed to you, and we’re going to live together,” are we married? No. I can tell my wife I love her, I’m committed to her, that we’re going to live together and that I’ll even provide for her financially, but that will not make us husband and wife. Eventually, she will say, “I want a deeper commitment.” What’s the commitment? The marriage vow where I stand publicly and declare before a justice of the peace, a priest or a pastor sanctioned by the state, that I am committed to one, and only one, woman, so help me God. Now I’m married! In the eyes of the law, the state and God, I am committed and responsible to the woman who has become my wife. You’re not married to someone because you provide for her needs. You’re married because you have vowed publicly that you are committing your life to one specific person. God says, “you are now joined, and the two now become one flesh to that person.”
In the same way, you can say I love the local church, I attend the local church, and I even support that church financially. Yet in the eyes of the world, you are not fully committed. You are not joined to one specific body of believers in an integral union. You have not declared publicly your unswerving commitment to, and affiliation with, a particular manifestation of the invisible church of Jesus Christ. You may enjoy the benefits of church fellowship, but you have not provided the world with an accurate picture of the body of Christ.
What are some of the benefits of becoming a member of the local church? First and foremost is serious accountability. When someone joins the local church, they are indicating that they want to be held accountable for their spiritual lives. There are people who are involved in so-called accountability groups which meet on a regularly scheduled basis. But within those groups, people lie because they are not held to the process described in Matt. 18:15-17. In the local church there is serious accountability because the church becomes involved in the individual’s life.
When you are unrepentant, unwilling to submit to the authority of God, the church helps lead, guide and direct you back to the proper path. This serious accountability is personally beneficial. Ps. 141:5 says, “Let the righteous smite me in kindness and reprove me; it is oil upon the head… .” Prov. 9:8-9: “Do not reprove a scoffer, or will he hate you, / Reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser, / Teach a righteous man and he will increase his learning.” Prov. 12:1: “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” Prov. 15:32: “He who neglects discipline despises himself, / But he who listens to reproof acquires understanding.” Prov. 27:5-6, “Better is open rebuke / Than love that is concealed. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, / But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.”
Spiritual confrontation changes the life not only of the sinning brother, but also of the one who seeks to reconcile his brother. Gal. 6:1: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” In Matt. 7:3-4, Christ cautions the believer. Before you seek to remove the sawdust from your brother’s eye, make sure you remove the beam from your own. In other words, make sure that you are right with God before you confront your brother about the sin in his life. This is serious accountability-an ongoing process of reciprocal cleansing and purification so that the body of Christ is able to grow spiritually. The goal of church discipline is restoring people, helping them to live pure lives so they can grow in their walk with God. This is the primary benefit of church membership.
A second benefit is shared ministry. 1 Cor. 12:7 tells us that every believer is “given the manifestation of the Spirit”, or a spiritual gift, “for the common good” and profit of all. There is a reciprocity in ministry that is often available only to church members. Some ministries will be unavailable to you if you remain uncommitted: teaching, eldership, receiving missionary support, and the emergency needs fund. To enjoy the full benefits of body life as God has designed it, membership is required.
An additional benefit, closely aligned to shared ministry, is subsequent maturity. If someone challenges a doctrinal belief of the church, they are not booted out. Instead, we study the Scriptures together and if the Bible says we’re in error, we change our doctrinal statement. Bible study grows people and solidifies what they know and believe. We want people to be convinced of what they believe, not because we’ve told them what to believe but because the Scriptures have convinced them of the truth. Eph. 4:11 says, “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.” God has given gifted men to the church. Why? So that they might equip the people. The word “equip” refers to the mending of broken nets or broken bones. It denotes a putting back together again of that which is splintered or fragmented. How do gifted men equip the church? 2 Tim. 3:16-17 tells us that “All Scripture is inspired by God. . . so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped [or mended] for every good work.” God gives the Word to gifted men that they might mend lives that are broken. Everyone has a broken life spiritually. We all have holes that need to be mended because none of us is perfect. So, God has given gifted men to help heal these broken lives. Once healed, these people then begin to minister to one another and the body of Christ is built up and matured. When people are properly taught, they fervently toil. If they fervently toil, they will become spiritually tall. That’s a biblical principle. Those in the body strive together “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13). That’s a goal of church membership.
There is another aspect of subsequent maturity that results from church membership. Heb. 10:24-25 exhorts us “to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another … .” This is more than just coming to church. It’s coming to church with a purpose, with the intent of influencing the life of another person so that he or she grows spiritually. We go to church because we know the Spirit of God is going to speak to us and because there might be somebody there who has a burden that is too heavy for them to carry alone. We go wanting to share that burden and to be used by God in someone’s life.
Mark 8:38 describes the benefit of a significant identity. “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man also will be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Who do you identify with? Are you ashamed of Christ? Identifying with a local body that names the name of Jesus Christ and is willing to give of itself sacrificially for the benefit of others is a joy. By joining a church, we identify with those who are committed to the same Lord, to the same Biblical principles and to the same walk of faith. There is joy in such a glorious identity.
Church membership also affords a steadfast loyalty. In Ephesians 2:19, we are called “fellow citizens with the saints, and are [members] of God’s household.” We all belong to the same family, God’s family. In Philippians we read of Epaphroditus whom Paul describes as “my brother, and fellow worker, and fellow soldier.” Paul further identifies him as “your messenger and minister to my need; … [he] was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. For indeed he was sick to the point of death … .” (Phil. 2:25-27). Epaphroditus was so loyal to the Philippians that he didn’t want them to know that he was sick because he didn’t want them to be distressed. He only wanted to serve that body. Therefore, Paul would exhort the Philippians to “Receive him then in the Lord with all joy, and hold men like him in high regard; because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me” (Phil. 2:29-30). Honor him, Paul says, because he came close to death for the work of Christ. He risked his life in the Lord’s service trying to complete what was lacking in your own ministry. Few people are consumed with the interests of others. Most of us are concerned about our own interests. We have much to learn from Epaphroditus. He is a model of loyalty and unwavering commitment. There is no better way to die than to die serving God.
Lastly, church membership offers a solidified credibility. John 13:35: “By this, all men will know that you are My disciples if you have love for one another.” The world doesn’t care how many people attend a church. They only want to know how many of those who attend are actually members. They want to know how many people are really committed to the local church. They know membership means something. Membership solidifies the church’s credibility in the community. We are a holy nation. We are the people of God, coming together to declare the praises of Him who called us “out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). We are the picture of Christ to a world that has lost its vision. We are the light of Christ to those who stumble and perish in utter darkness. Who wouldn’t want to be a member of such a body, of such a loyal family, of such a royal household as the church?
Some final instructions remain. If you want to become a member of a church, three things are necessary. There must be a supernatural transformation. You must be born again. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17). Secondly, there needs to be a symbolic identification. Acts 2:38 compels us to “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Once you make a commitment to follow Christ, you must identify with Him, with His life, His death, His burial and His resurrection symbolically. Baptism is our testimony to the world whereby we declare publicly that we are following Christ, denying self, and living for God. Finally, there must be a significant participation. If there has been a supernatural transformation and a symbolic identification, there must also be involvement. We are to use our gifts to grow the body, to touch the lives of others.
Membership in the local church affords us the opportunity to watch God perform a powerful work in our own lives as He uses us to work in the lives of others. How do you determine someone’s passionate love for the church of Jesus Christ? By discerning the level of their commitment to the visible manifestation of the body He created, sustains, purifies and glorifies. May you be guided by the Word of God and the leading of His Spirit as you consider church membership.
Scripture taken from the New American Standard Bible Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission