Until setting out to plant Downtown Cornerstone a few years ago, I had done little investigation into the biblical rationale behind church membership - or, more simply, being passionately committed to a specific, local, loving community of Jesus-followers. Though I had previously belonged to a church that practiced membership, I had a very cursory understanding of its biblical depth. I find this is very common. When it comes to the Christian life, the local church’s importance is often overlooked, minimized or misunderstood. Have you ever stopped to ask, “What is the local church? What is God’s purpose for the local church? What is church membership all about? Is that some sort of legalism or authoritarian power-grab? Is it biblically essential or merely optional? Is membership a matter of obedience to Jesus Christ or a matter of personal preference?” Over the years, through my own study and that of others, I have compiled the following list of 11 compelling evidences that every follower of Jesus should be passionately committed to a specific local church. I hope they serve to biblically root and stoke your affections for Jesus' local church as they have mine.
Q: How does Jesus feel about the church?
The truth is that the local church is central to God’s glorious purposes in the world – and we get to be part of that. The church is not one option among many options for followers of Jesus; it is the option. Jesus died and gave himself up, for the "church" (Eph 5:25; Jn3:16-17). Jesus is the head of the "church" (Eph 1:22-23; 5:23; Col 1:8). Jesus cleanses, nourishes and cherishes the "church" (Eph 5:27,29). Jesus promises to build his "church" (Mt 16:18). Jesus is the Apostle and High Priest of the "church" (Heb 3:1). Jesus lives to make intercession for the "church" (Heb 7:25). All of history is marching toward the day when Jesus will be with His "church" (Rev 19:6ff). Clearly, Jesus loves the church. If we love what Jesus loves, we too will love His church. But, you might ask, “Can’t I be part of Jesus’ church without being committed to a specific local church?” That’s a good question.
Q: Can I be part of Jesus’ church without being committed to a specific local church?
Jesus’s church is both visible (as we see it imperfectly) and invisible (as God sees it perfectly), universal (worldwide) and local (particular context). Many Christians wrongly believe the only thing that matters is belonging to the invisible and universal church (i.e. the worldwide body of true believers). Therefore, being intentionally committed to a local church is often viewed as being of little importance, at best, and completely optional, at worst. This goes against the emphasis that the Bible places on the local church. The term “church” is used 109 times in the NT and 90+ of those are clear references to the local church. Fewer than 20 signify the universal church. In other words, the overwhelming majority of references to the church in the NT refer to a specific, local, living group of people who are committed to Christ and one another. Seen in this way, the local church is the outward manifestation of the universal church in a specific local context. We demonstrate that we are a committed part of the universal church through our commitment to the local church. You might ask, "But where do we see 'church membership' in the Bible?"
Q: What are some biblical evidences of church membership?
Let's look at eleven compelling evidences that every follower of Jesus should be intentionally and passionately committed to a specific local church. You may not be convinced by every specific point, but the cumulative case is undeniable.
#1 Metaphors for the church. There are a host of metaphors the Bible uses to explain the relationship of Jesus to his people, and Jesus’ people to Jesus – bride, flock, branches, building, crops, harvest, priesthood, house and more. The majority of these metaphors highlight that our relationship to Jesus is not merely individual, but corporate. Four metaphors seem to be central: citizens, body, temple and family. These images couldn’t merely be used to describe the universal church as it is impossible to be “family” or part of the same “body” with people you’re not in direct proximity to. Nor could these metaphors be used to describe a loose collection of isolated individuals that happen to gather once a week. God chose these particular metaphors to describe a brand new people that are vitally and organically committed to one another by nature of their faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, church membership represents the commitment to live out our corporate identity in Christ as citizens, the body of Christ, the living temple of God, and the adopted family of God, with other followers of Jesus, in a local context.
#2 Jesus loves the church. So should we. (Eph 5:25-27) Church membership is a way to say, “I love the local church (i.e. people) - these people for whom Jesus lived, died and rose again - and I’m going to demonstrate that by intentionally committing myself them.”
#3 The first Christians corporately identify themselves as “churches.” (Acts 8:1; 11:22,26; 12:1,5; 14:27; 15:3,4) If you look closely, there are no examples of Christians in the bible that lived separately from the local church. Church membership is a way of saying with our lives, “I understand that essential to following Jesus is belonging to a specific, local family (or church) of Jesus.”
#4 The first Christians were “added” to the church. (Acts 2:14,47) In other words, these new Christians did not merely become isolated Jesus-followers or choose a small group of fellow Christians to hang out with, but they were added to a people – the church. Church membership represents being “added” to a particular local church.
#5 An intentional record was kept. (Acts 1;15; 2:41; 4:4) The early church seemed to be keeping track of those that demonstrated faith in Jesus Christ – likely for the purposes of planning and care (cf Acts 6). There is biblical evidence that the early church kept a list of widows (1Tim 5:9). If there were lists of widows it is very reasonable to conclude there were also lists of those who belonged to the church. Church membership is counting yourselves among those that belong to God’s people, in Christ, in a local context.
#6 Common commitment and mutual dependence. (Acts 2:42-47) From the beginning those in the church were committed to and mutually dependent on one another. It is evident that the church was not just random collection of isolated individuals who happened to gather once or twice a week. Church membership is demonstrating your common commitment to and mutual dependence on other followers of Christ in the context of a local church.
#7 Pastors/leaders are responsible for specific “sheep.” (1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28) These verses tell us that the pastors/leaders knew who they were responsible for (i.e. the “flock”) and who they were to give an account for before Jesus Christ (Heb 13:17). In order to give an account, the pastors must know who they are accountable for. Clearly, this cannot mean that pastors/leaders are responsible for everyone, but only those who are part of their “flock.” Church membership allows the pastors to know who they are ultimately responsible for.
#8 Christians are responsible to follow specific pastors/leaders. (Heb 13:17; 1 Tim 5:17) These verses are instructive. Just as pastors and leaders must know who they are responsible for, the church must know who they are to follow, emulate and who honor to. By becoming a member of a local church you are placing yourself under the watch and care of specific leaders who have been given the task of shepherding your soul. Without becoming a member of a local church it is impossible to actually obey these verses.
#9 Church discipline infers church membership. (1Cor 5:13; Titus 3:10; 1 Jn 2:19; Mt 18:15-20) In each of the cases referred to in these passages, an individual is living in stubborn, unrepentant sin and thus removed from among God’s people. The question this raises is, “How can someone be removed from the church who has not first belonged to it?” Answer. They can’t. You can’t put someone out of the church if they have never officially been part of the church.
#10 The Apostle Paul planted churches not isolated Christians. (Acts 14:23; 15:41; 16:5) Throughout the book of Acts the Apostle Paul’s aim was to plant churches, not merely convert isolated, independent individuals. We see this not only during his three missionary journeys, but also in his epistles which comprise the bulk of our New Testament – written to churches (Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Corinthians, Thessalonians, etc). Church membership is an acknowledgement that God’s primary plan for the spread of the gospel is through the planting of local church-planting-churches.
#11 God gives spiritual gifts to followers of Jesus for the upbuilding of the church (Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12:4-31) On two occasions the Apostle Paul addresses the great reality that God gifts individual followers of Jesus in order to build up the church. Now some of these gifts benefit the universal church (e.g. apostleship), but the vast majority are given by God to be used for the benefit of the local church (serving, teaching, exhortation, generosity, leadership, mercy, etc). “For the body does not consist of one member but of many…if all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” (1Cor12:14,19-20). Church membership is a way of saying, “I belong to this particular body and commit to exercising my God-given gifts here for its up-building and flourishing, alongside others who are doing the same.”
When you take all of these together we have a very compelling, cumulative case that we are saved, in Christ, to be a living, loving, local people who are committed to Christ and one another. When you choose Jesus, you choose Jesus’ people too. If we’re to love what Jesus loves, we must love the church (universal and local), which he loved to the point of death on a cross. If we’re committed to what Jesus is committed to, we must be committed to the church – not merely in an abstract I’m-part-of-the-universal-church-sense, but in the sense that I belong to a real, flesh-and-blood, imperfect, local community of fellow believers. One of the primary ways that we demonstrate our common allegiance to Jesus, and his people, is by becoming intentionally, passionately committed to a specific local church - thus church membership.