Theology | Culture | Race | Politics
Church Membership: Who Needs it Anyway?
When you hear “church membership,” what word comes to mind? Perhaps, “enigma”? After all, there is no commandment that says “thou shall be a member of the local church.” We are living in an age where people call themselves Christians and believe themselves to be a part of the invisible church, yet refuse to join the visible, local church. In fact, many of these people believe that their “Me and Jesus” approach to Christianity is more “spiritual” than those who are committed members of the local church. This individualistic approach to Christianity is not supported anywhere in Scripture, and is an unbiblical phenomenon that is wholly rooted and perpetuated in individualistic American culture. The pervasiveness of this message cannot and should not be underestimated.
From the outset, it is important to note, that church membership did not begin in the New Testament; rather, it began in the Old Testament. Before we discover what the Bible has to say about church membership, it is necessary to define the church. According to the Bible, the church consists of those who have been effectually called by God the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit and have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb through faith in Christ Jesus. The Bible affectionately refers to the church as: the elect (Matt 24:22; Rom 11:7), the bride (Rev 21:9, 22:17), beloved (Ps 60:5, 2 Cor7:1), the people of the God (Judg 20:2; 2 Sam 14:13), and the body of Christ (Rom 7:4; 1 Cor 12:27). God’s love for the church is from everlasting to everlasting, nothing can separate the church from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:39). Jesus Christ came to earth in order to save His bride, the church.
I. Church Membership in the Old Testament
The story of the church begins in the Old Testament. Exodus 19 is considered the first church gathering in the Bible, because God commanded Moses to consecrate and assemble the people of God before His presence. Deuteronomy 33:2-3 describes church gathering at Sinai in this way, “The Lord came from Sinai…he came from the ten thousands of holy ones,…yes, he loved his people, all his holy ones were in his hand” (Deut 33:2-3). This passage captures an eschatological glimpse of future glory; in it, heaven meets earth there at Mount Sinai. Exodus 19 also presents an eternal reality which cannot be overlooked. That reality is the dynamic of the visible and invisible church. Edmund Clowney defines the invisible and visible church in this way, “the church invisible is as God sees it, and the church visible is as we see it.” Church members only interact with the visible local church, and have no access to the invisible church, because God alone knows His elect ones. A profession of faith does not necessarily indicate a possession of faith. Those who are members of the invisible church will indeed be members of the visible church if they are not already, but membership in the visible church does not guarantee membership in the invisible church. Therefore, the redeemed and the unredeemed will remain in the visible church until Christ returns.
II. Church Membership in the New Testament
Jesus gathers the members of His church. During His earthly ministry, He was determined to preach the message of the kingdom to sinners so that by faith, they would be saved and become members of His church. Upon Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ in Matt. 16:18, Jesus says that He will build His church. The great commission in Matt 28:18-20 is another passage that shows the necessity of church membership. Jesus’ great commission presupposes the existence of the church; if this were not so, then baptism and teaching the whole counsel of God—as set forth in the great commission—would not be possible. In order to teach the full counsel of God, the people of God had to gather together consistently, so that new converts would learn to become disciples of Jesus apt to teach and fulfill the great commission. Jesus said, “I will build my church…” (Matt 16:18) and He is still building His church, through the gathering of the elect until the full number have been brought in; He will not lose one (John 6:39).
Acts 2:42-47 describes a glorious picture of the early church. The members of the early church were committed to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship with those of like precious faith, prayers, and the breaking of bread—which is the Lord’s Supper. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). This passage describes the church, the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments. The members did not neglect to meet with one another; they were unified and shared all that they had, so no one wanted for anything. Again, we see that the Lord is the One who added the members of the church through His sovereign election. The members of the church were not added, for the sole purpose of enjoying their union with Christ exclusively, but also in communion with fellow believers in the church. God’s people are to glorify Him and image Him in all that they do; God is primarily glorified when His people assemble together in the community of the church.
III. Church Membership is Not an Option
Though our salvation does take place individually, there is a corporate aspect to our salvation clearly demonstrated in the canon of Scripture. When an individual is saved, he is saved unto Christ and brought into the community of the church, this is the divine pattern laid down in Scripture. The church is a corporate entity comprised of individual people whom God has elected with the intent to be glorified within the community of believers. Just as a mosaic tile piece is only a mere tile apart from the collective body of tile pieces, so it is with those individuals who practice their Christianity apart from the community of the church.
There is no salvation outside of the church. Individualistic Christianity is nowhere to be found in the pages of the Bible. If you say you love Jesus, you will love what He loves—His church. Church membership is required for those who name the name of Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. He died for His bride and gave Himself up for her. Those who insist on practicing their Christianity individualistically are separated from the church. Hear the words of early church theologian, Cyprian, “whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”
 Edmund Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 109.
 Cyprian, “The Treatises of Cyprian: Treatise 1—Treatise on the Unity of the Church,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed October 30, 2013, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iv.v.i.html.
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