Church Membership: Option or Command?
Mark R. Brown
Can you sing this hymn ["I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord," by Timothy Dwight, from Trinity Hymnal] from your heart? It speaks warmly of Christ's love for his churchand of your love for it.
From God's perspective, the church involves all the saints of all ages (2 Tim. 2:19). From man's perspective, it involves visible, local assemblies of believers (and their children) who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and submit to his Word. The New Testament church was visible and local (Matt. 18:20; Acts 11:26; 14:23; 20:17; 1 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:2) and it is in this sense that we use the word church here.
Consider with me ten reasons why I believe every Christian should join a local church:
1. The first and most important reason is that Christ in his Word commands church membership. In Matt. 16:18, Jesus tells his disciples, "I will build my church." People who confess "Jesus is Lord" are the building blocks of the new covenant temple (Matt. 16:16; 1 Pet. 2:5; Eph. 2:19-22; 2 Cor. 6:16).
In the Great Commission, the Lord Jesus confirms and expands his earlier statement above. In Matt. 28:19, Jesus commands his apostles to make disciples, baptizing and teaching them. The Great Commission demands church membership.
To become a disciple of the Lord Jesus is to submit to the authority of his Word. The first outward sign of submission is being baptized (Acts 2:41). Baptism is the sign of incorporation into and identification with the church. Christ commands us to be baptized and thereby be identified with the people of God on earth (Matt. 10:32; 1 Cor. 12:27; 1 Pet. 2:9; 4:16; Gal. 3:16-27; Heb. 10:25).
The church is a divine institution set up by the Lord Jesus, not a voluntary society which a Christian may decide to join or not. Membership in the churchsharing in its privileges and responsibilitiesis part of my initial commitment as a disciple of Christ.
2. Look back to the Old Testament practice of membership. Who was an Israelite? Being an Israelite was not a matter of race and nationality. An Israelite was a person in a covenant bond with God. God had commanded circumcision as the sign or token of membership in the covenant community of Israel (Gen. 17:7, 10). If you were an alien, you had to receive circumcision to become an Israelite and participate in the Passover (Ex. 12:43-49; Rom. 11:17-20). If you were not circumcised, you were to be cut off from the people of God, regardless of your genes or personality (Gen. 17:14). Do you see the analogy to the New Testament sacraments? Baptism marks your entry into the church; only then may you partake of the Lord's Supper (Acts 2:41-42).
3. We see the New Testament practice assumes the church membership of every convert. Conversion included being added to the body of disciples (Acts 2:42, 47; 11:25-26; 14:21, 23). There were no spiritual drifters or permanent adherents. In the New Testament, there was no such person who was a Christian, yet not a church member.
Since membership is both assumed and practiced in the New Testament and throughout church history, the burden of proof really belongs to those who see no need to join a church (Eph. 3:6). You see, the question is not, What is my personal preference? but, What does the Scripture say? Just think how many illustrations used in the New Testament to describe Christians have the group or community as their focus. For example, we read about the Body of Christ, brothers, priesthood, sheep, fellowship of saints, holy nation, the people of God (1 Pet. 2).
4. Consider the analogy of membership in the church and membership in secular organizations. Whether you have civic clubs, fraternal orders, political parties, or trade unions, you must have a list of members or you have no distinct group. Registering your name makes you a Republican or Democrat. Paying your dues signs you up on the union roster. Confessing Christ and being baptized identifies you as a member of his church (Gal. 3:27).
5. According to the Bible, coming to Christ and his church involves one step, not two. It is incorrect to see two unrelated stages where you first trust Christ and later decide if you will join a church. It is better to see these actions as two aspects of our salvation. In private, we turn to God and cry out to him to save us through the blood and righteousness of Christ (Luke 18:13). In public, we profess our faith before the church and continue in worship, learning, and witness with that assembly (Matt. 10:32; Acts 2:37-42; Heb. 10:25; 1 John 2:19). Psalm 50:5 and 1 Timothy 6:12 stress the public nature of our membership covenant. Uniting with a church does not mean signing a piece of paper to get our name on a roll. It means making a covenant with God that involves public vows of profession before God and his church. To be a Christian is to be a part of the Body of Christ (Rom. 14:7; 15:7; 1 Cor. 12:27). We are to serve Christ as a living member of his body, not in isolation.
6. The church on earth is not only an organism (body), but also an organization. There are requirements for admission (Acts 2:37; 16:30), and there are officers or leaders (Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1; Eph. 4:11). How can you have officers without members to elect and then to follow them? Where would ministers, elders, and deacons come from? Without organization, you could have no seminaries, no home or foreign missions.
7. There is much of the Bible you cannot obey without being a church member. The Lord's Table is open only to those who are baptized members of a church. Christ commands as well as invites us to observe the Lord's Supper (Luke 22:19). We are commanded to love the brethren and serve them (Gal. 6:2; 1 Pet. 3:17; 1 John 3:14). Who are the brethren? Those who attend one week? Two weeks? Aren't the brethren those who publicly confess Christ and agree to submit in the Lord to the government of the church?
There is a spirit of independency prevalent today that despises and rejects authority (2 Pet. 2:10; Jude 8). It is impossible to obey the scriptural commands to "respect those over you in the Lord" (1 Thess. 5:12) and to "obey your leaders" (Heb. 13:17) unless you have promised to submit to themjoined the church of which they are overseers.
A man and a woman are not husband and wife until they recite their wedding vows. So a disciple has no leaders until he promises submission to them in the Lord. Christian, I ask you, Who are your leaders?
8. Discipline is impossible without membership. Pastoral care and oversight is exercised over the gathered church. Adherents, friends, and visitors are not under the authority of the elders. The elders are shepherds of the church of God. It is God's flock that is under their care (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2; Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:12; Acts 14:23; Gal. 6:10).
9. The business of the church is a spiritual and practical work which cannot be done without church membership. There are important matters to handle, such as calling a pastor, electing elders and deacons, adopting a missions budget, buying property, and erecting a meeting place. These are vital decisions. Without membership, it would be impossible to decide fairly who had the privilege of voting (1 Cor. 14:40).
10. For the tenth and final reason, we see that biblical evangelism is impossible without church membership. The Bible stresses discipleship, not decisionism. The yardstick of success in Scripture is not the number of decisions announced, but rather the admission of people to the discipline and duties of church membership.
When you lead someone to Christ, where do you direct him? To the church, of course. Evangelism is not complete until converts are enlisted in the school of Christ and join with the family of believers (Matt. 28:19-20; Gal. 6:10; Col. 1:13).
You have read ten reasons why I believe every Christian should join a local church. I ask you to ponder them prayerfully as you examine the Scriptures to see if what has been said is true (Acts 17:11).
Membership in the church is a serious and important matter. It is a command of Christnot an optional choice to all who claim him as Lord.
Won't you join in membership with us and confess before men that you are a living stone in the new covenant templethe church of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 6:14-18; 1 Cor. 6:19-20; 1 Pet. 2:5)? Then join us in singing the hymn from your heart.
Mr. Brown is the pastor of Westminster OPC in Hollidaysburg, Pa. This article first appeared in the June-July 1983 issue of New Horizons. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 1996.