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Lesson 9: Why Join the Church? (Various Scriptures)

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June 11, 2017

We live in a culture that’s often afraid of commitments. Many couples today think, “Why get married? Why not just live together for a while to see if it works out?” In a similar way, many Christians think, “Why join a church? Why not just attend and check it out? What’s the point of joining?” Some churches, such as the Calvary Chapel churches, don’t even have formal membership. The pastor and the elders make all the decisions. There are no congregational meetings. If you attend, you’re a “member.” But attending those churches doesn’t require any commitment to doctrine or discipline.

Besides, many have been burned by a church. They got involved in serving, only to have someone attack them or spread false rumors about them. Or, they were involved in a church where they trusted the pastor, only to find out that he was having an affair. It resulted in a lot of unpleasant conflict in the church. To avoid that kind of painful situation, they don’t want to commit to any church. They have a personal relationship with Jesus, but they’re leery of getting too involved with the church. Besides, they want to keep their weekends open, in case something comes up. They don’t want to be tied down.

All of these factors feed the current trend, especially among millennials, to have “church” in the home. They want authentic community with a few other believers. But they don’t like pouring money into buildings or paying a church staff. They despise the mega-churches, with their huge parking lots, canned programs, and professional, concert-like worship services. They don’t like the idea of a pastor telling them how to live their Christian lives. He’s probably a hypocrite, just like most of those he preaches to every week. On the rare occasions when they may want a sermon, they can find one online. So they meet with a few friends in their homes once in a while and call it, “church.”

In this message, I’m going to argue that …

To be an obedient Christian, you must go beyond church attendance to being a committed, serving member of a local church.

I will answer four questions: (1) Is church membership a biblical concept? (2) Why should you join a local church? (3) Whom should the church accept into membership? (4) What does church membership entail?

Is church membership a biblical concept?

In the first message in this series (4/2/17, “What is the Church?”) I offered this definition: The local church is a gathering of those who believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, who are committed to meet regularly for worship, teaching, fellowship, and prayer, and who help make disciples of all people. A key word in that definition is “committed.” The picture of a Christian being committed to a local gathering of believers in Christ, where he or she serves the Lord and is actively involved with the other believers, is a New Testament concept. This commitment is the key idea in church membership.

Paul paints this picture (Eph. 4:15-16), “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” Just as there is no passive, useless part in your human body (even your appendix serves a function), so in the body of Christ. Every member has an important function and is to work for the overall growth, health, and strength of the body.

But you may wonder, “Then why don’t we find church membership mentioned specifically in the New Testament?” My answer is that membership is implied all through the New Testament, but it didn’t need to be formalized in the way we need it today because there was only one church per city. If you were a Christian, you didn’t have options as to where to go. If you lived in Ephesus, you were a member of the church in Ephesus. Today, in North America there are usually dozens of evangelical churches in our cities. To float between several churches is to lack the key ingredient of commitment to particular people and submission to a particular group of elders who will give an account for your soul (Heb. 13:17).

In California, I was in a meeting of Christians from several churches in our community. We were going around introducing ourselves and stating which church we represented. One woman, who was on the staff of a large evangelical ministry, said, “I’m Linda Jones [not her real name] and I’m a Christian at large.” I had never heard anyone say such a thing! I thought, “That means that you’re accountable to no one!”

Many New Testament texts infer or state that local churches knew exactly who their members were. In Matthew 18:17, explaining the process of church discipline, Jesus said, “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.” It’s obvious that the person trying to confront a sinning believer knew who the people in the church were. In a similar context of church discipline, Paul commanded the Corinthians to expel a sinning member (1 Cor. 5:12-13): “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” (See, also, Titus 3:10.) The apostle John states (1 John 2:19), “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.” It’s obvious that everyone knew who “us” was!

In the context of giving instructions about the Lord’s Supper, Paul wrote (1 Cor. 11:18), “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it.” That statement implies that there was a defined group that came together as a church, although at the same time there were ungodly divisions among them. In Acts 11:26, Paul and Barnabas “met with the church and taught considerable numbers.” In Acts 12:1, Herod “laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them.” In Acts 12:5, after Herod arrested Peter with the intent of executing him, “prayer for him was being made fervently by the church.” In Acts 14:23, Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church” which they had founded on their first missionary journey. These elders were responsible to give oversight to their particular churches. So obviously, they knew who their members were.

After the first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas “gathered the church together” (Acts 14:27) to report how the Lord had used them on that endeavor. In Ephesians 2:19-22, Paul paints a picture of the church as a holy temple (Eph. 2:22) “being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” Temples aren’t built of disconnected, independent bricks and timbers floating around wherever they may feel like going that week! They’re built from definite materials committed to being a part of that particular structure. In Ephesians 4:25, Paul commands us to speak truth with one another, because “we are members of one another.” That is true for all Christians everywhere, but it especially applies to those who are in a local church, who are being built together in the Lord.

Also, the elders in local churches are commanded to shepherd the church of God (Acts 20:28). You can only shepherd a definite group or flock of people, not an undefined mass. Peter implies a particular, defined group of people when he tells the elders (1 Pet. 5:2-3) to shepherd the flock of God “allotted to your charge.” In line with this, Hebrews 13:17 exhorts the church, “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.”

So to fulfill the responsibilities of both elders and members requires a well-defined group of committed believers who are identified as members of each local church. They meet regularly for teaching, worship, fellowship, and prayer. They are formally committed to the Lord and to one another to help further His cause.

Why should you join a local church?

In my second message in this series, I cited the late Anglican pastor, John Stott, who wrote (The Message of Ephesian: God’s New Society [IVP], p. 129; cited by Joshua Harris, Dug Down Deep [Multnomah], p. 202):

If the church is central to God’s purpose, as seen in both history and the gospel, it must surely also be central to our lives. How can we take lightly what God takes so seriously? How dare we push to the circumference what God has placed at the centre?”

That centrality of the church to God’s purpose should be reason enough for you to be committed to a local church. But here are five specific reasons you should join a local church:

1. You should join a local church because Christ loves the church and gave Himself for her; if you love Christ, you must love His church and commit yourself to her well-being.

In Ephesians 5:25, Paul commands, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” He then talks about how Christ’s aim is to sanctify the church so that He might present her to Himself in all her glory, as beautiful as she possibly can be. Then he tells husbands tenderly to nourish and cherish their wives, just as Christ also does the church. Throughout this passage, you’d think that Paul was talking about Christian marriage. But then he adds this surprising statement (Eph. 5:32): “This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” He’s saying that Christian marriage is designed to be an earthly picture of the relationship between the divine Bridegroom and His bride, the church (cf. also, Rev. 19:7-8).

I’ve told you before that a main reason I am a pastor is that many years ago, the Lord impressed Ephesians 5:25 on me. I thought, “If Christ loves His church and gave Himself for her, and I love Christ, then I’ve got to love His church and give myself for her. I want to try to make His church the beautiful bride that He intends for her to be.” Of course, not everyone should apply that verse by deciding that you’re called to be a pastor! But God has given every believer at least one spiritual gift (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-11; 1 Pet. 4:10-11), which he or she is to use to build up Christ’s church. If Christ loved His church enough to die for her, then every believer who loves Christ should love His church and be committed to her well-being.

2. You should join a local church because the church is where you learn practically to love God and love others (the two greatest commandments).

You can’t be a “Christian at large” any more than you can be “married at large.” I love all my sisters in Christ in the church worldwide, but there is only one to whom I’m committed as my wife. I’m not suggesting that we are to marry a local church with the same lifelong commitment that we vow in our marriages. But we do need a strong enough commitment to help us work through personal conflicts and difficulties that inevitably arise in the church so that we all grow in love for one another. Commitment is the glue that holds relationships together and enables you to grow in love when there are conflicts. That’s why living together outside of a committed marriage relationship is bound to fail: there’s no lasting commitment. If you casually date the church or even if you move in and live together with a church for a while without the commitment of membership, you’ll bail out as soon as you encounter difficulties, as you surely will.

Take the other analogy that the church is the body of Christ. What would happen if your hand decided, “I don’t like being joined to this arm”? “It’s too restrictive! When the arm says that we’re going somewhere, I don’t have any choice in the matter. I’ve got to go along. I’m going to cut myself off from this stupid arm so that I can have a little independence in life!” We all know that our hand would be absolutely useless if it were cut off from our arm!

And Christians who are not committed to other Christians will not be able effectively to serve the Lord. They won’t learn to grow in love for others. As 1 John 4:20 pointedly states, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Being committed to a local church is where you learn practically to love God and love others.

3. You should join a local church because you need to place yourself under spiritual shepherds who care for you and will give an account for your soul.

Jonathan Leeman (Church Membership [Crossway], pp. 25-26) argues that we need a paradigm shift regarding the local church. He says (p. 22) that it isn’t a club or voluntary organization where membership is optional if the club provides what you’re looking for. It’s not a group of people who like to get together and talk about religious ideas. It’s not “a service provided, where the customer has all authority.” Rather, he argues (p. 30), because Jesus is the Sovereign King over His church, “Christians don’t join churches; they submit to them.”

As we’ve seen (Heb. 13:17), Scripture commands Christians to submit to their spiritual leaders as those who will give an account for their souls. That doesn’t absolve individual Christians from being responsible to grow in holiness. Nor does it imply blind submission to leaders who may ignore or violate Scripture by lording it over the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). But, as Leeman so rightly notes, joining a church is much different than joining a service club or voluntary organization. It is submitting to the shepherds of that church, assuming that they are seeking to obey God’s word.

4. You should join a local church because it is the means Jesus ordained to fulfill His Great Commission.

While parachurch and missions organizations are helpful in the cause, they agree that the local church is God’s ordained means of fulfilling His Great Commission, to make disciples of all the nations. They’re committed to planting local churches and training the leaders to preach the Word and to make disciples. As Paul told the Philippian church (Phil. 1:27), “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.” That’s the church’s job!

5. You should join a church so that you have a specific place to serve the Lord.

The idea of just attending a local church to get spiritual food, much as you would go to a restaurant for a meal, is foreign to the New Testament. God has given you a spiritual gift, which you are to use in serving Him (1 Pet. 4:10): “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” Stewardship means that each believer will give an account to the Master who entrusted the stewardship to him or her. In the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), it was the servant who was given only one talent (a sum of money) who buried it and gave it back to the master without any gain. The master castigated him in the harshest of terms. The danger for the one-talent person is, if you think, “I can’t do much for the Lord because I’m not a pastor or evangelist,” you’ll bury your talent. You need to figure out how God wants you to serve and do it for Him in a particular local church where you’re committed!

Whom should the church accept into membership?

Briefly, the church should accept all whom Christ has accepted through salvation. We should accept all who give a credible testimony of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Many churches are much narrower than this, in that they will only accept into membership those who agree with the church on some secondary doctrines. We have sought to make a way in our constitution so that those who differ with us on some secondary matters, such as baptism, prophecy, or charismatic gifts, may join this church. To preserve our distinctives as a Baptist church, we only require that for the sake of unity and harmony in this body, members who hold to different views not teach those views or seek to gather a faction in the church built around their views. And, those who serve as elders must hold to our Baptist distinctives.

What does church membership entail?

Jonathan Leeman (ibid. p. 64, italics his) offers what he calls a clunky definition of church membership: Church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church. I could list many responsibilities of church membership (cf. Mark Dever, The Church [B&H Academic, pp. 40-45). But here I can only briefly list six:

1. Membership is a commitment to seek to live by the church’s covenant.

You may be a member here, but have forgotten that in our constitution there is a church covenant that you agreed to seek to live in accordance with. I suggest that you read it over from time to time! None of us comply perfectly, but it should be our aim.

2. Membership is a commitment to participate regularly in the church’s gatherings for worship, teaching, and fellowship.

Hebrews 10:25 exhorts, “not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Sunday morning is our main time to gather for teaching and worship. Fellowship also happens there, but also should take place in smaller settings during the week, as well as at church-wide socials.

3. Membership is a commitment to believe in and uphold the church’s doctrine and practices, including church discipline whenever necessary.

In some areas, where godly believers differ, we allow for differing viewpoints. But we all must agree on, grow in understanding, and uphold the essential teachings and practices of the faith.

4. Membership is a commitment to the church’s members, to give and receive loving service and to help one another grow in Christ.

The church will only be healthy to the extent that every member is committed to using his or her gifts to reach the lost and disciple the saved (Rom. 12:3-21; Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Pet. 4:10-11).

5. Membership is a commitment to follow the church’s leadership as they seek to help you grow in Christ.

Again, this isn’t blind submission to abusive leaders. Rather, it is willing submission to imperfect men, but they are men who are seeking the Lord and seeking to be faithful shepherds of His flock (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2-3).

6. Membership is a commitment to help support the church with your finances, as the Lord prospers you.

Last year, a self-appointed street preacher told me via email that I’m going to hell because I receive financial support for my ministry! But Paul wrote (1 Cor. 9:14), “So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.” Churches are to support elders who work hard in preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17-18) and support missionaries (3 John 5-8). I plan to do a message in this series on the church and finances.

Conclusion

So, to use Joshua Harris’ analogy (Stop Dating the Church [Multnomah Publishers]), are you just dating the church or have you fallen in love and married it? To be an obedient Christian, you must go beyond just attending church and become a committed, serving member. Since Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her, if we love Christ and want to be like Him, we must do the same.

Application Questions

  1. Why is the concept of being a casual church attender not biblical? How does this phenomenon reflect our consumer culture?
  2. What problems should be a red flag against joining a local church? When should you consider leaving a church?
  3. How should a believer determine where he or she should serve the Lord? Should every believer, no matter what his gifts, be involved in discipleship? Why/why not?
  4. Submission to imperfect leaders is a scary idea for most of us. What does this mean practically? When (if ever) should leaders exert their authority?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Ecclesiology (The Church)