"To be or not to be," for many people who profess to follow Christ, that is the question when it comes to membership in a local church.
Years ago a group of elders asked me to create a list of reasons why it was important for a Christian to be a member of a particular, local church. The church had many regular visitors who professed to follow Christ but were reluctant to fully assimilate into their fellowship. The elders wanted to urge them to make this move so they asked me to create a list of reasons that they could use to present to their "surrogate sheep."
The following material lays out the list of Biblical reasons that I came up with at that time and addresses some of the common objections to church membership.
The Biblical Mandate
As with all things, one must make their decision on whether or not to join a particular church based on what the Bible says. Certainly I will admit that there is no one verse that says, "And Jesus said, 'Make sure you become a member of a local church.'" But neither is there a verse like this regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. Like the Trinity, we must consider the whole of Scripture's teaching and the logical implications of specific verses.
In looking at the Scripture we see that we should become members of a local church for at least four reasons.
I. To be associated with Christ and his people.
In the Old Testament those who wished to be associated with Yaweh became members of the nation of Israel. Gentiles who were converted made their affiliation undeniably clear by coming to dwell alongside the rest of the children of God. In the New Testament the people who wish to be associated with God become members of the Church. A convert visibly identifies himself with those who are a part of Christ's visible body.
The Bible also makes it clear too that Christians, from the very beginning, became members of particular churches to make this reality visible. Oftentimes these churches met in certain people's homes (Acts 18:7; Gal. 1:2; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2; Rom. 16:3-5; Extensive archaeological evidence also points to the fact that there would be many of these individual churches in various metropolitan cities).
There is a very important reason for this visible affiliation too. In order to partake of the full benefits of God (as will be enumerated below), there must be a way of identifying those who are a part of that family. Publicly professing one's faith in Christ through membership is the means to that end.
The Bible also says you are saved if you "Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that He rose from the dead" (Rom. 10:9-11). While believing in the heart is an individual matter, confessing with your mouth is a corporate matter. It is a public declaration that is witnessed by God, his people, and the unbelieving world. While one can certainly make this confession each day in the market place, it is ultimately made within the context of a church body. This, of course, is the nature of a vow. One stands before God and his people and says, "I take Jesus as my God."
Of course, a confession with one's mouth must be backed up by one's life. One could easily confess that he is a police officer. But if he does not belong to a specific police department or precinct, his confession is meaningless. So too a Christian must not only confess with one's mouth, but he also must back up his confession by formally aligning himself with those who are distinctively Christ's people.
II. To come under the care and authority of the elders
Christ has charged certain men with the duty of shepherding and protecting His flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2). Correspondingly, the Bible requires Christians to submit themselves to these authorities because they are the means by which Christ manifests His care (1 Peter 5:5). The only way to fulfill these obligations is through a particular church where those elders can have people to govern and lead.
As well, the term "church" in the original language means "called out ones." This denotes the Christian's duty of holiness. The elders and church body provide the means of encouragement and accountability in this endeavor.
III. To take part in the sacraments
Baptism and the Lord's Supper are for those who have made a credible profession of faith. The Table of the Lord is for those who demonstrate a life of repentance and are in good standing with the Lord (1 Cor. 11:27-32). As the elders help to determine who is in good standing it is necessary to be under their charge in order to partake of the elements.
Likewise, elders are in charge of determining who may undergo the rite of baptism and seeing to it that it is rightfully administered (1 Cor. 4:1). Moreover, as baptism is a sign of entrance into Christ's Church (capital "C" meaning universal church), it is also the sign of entrance into the local covenant community.
IV. To be united in full fellowship with the brethren in Christ and enjoy all the rights and privileges of the church
The local church supplies the grounds for the healthy, necessary, and rightful expression of...
1. One's gifts for the mutual edification of the body (1 Cor. 12:12f); If one is not united to a local body, it makes it hard to contribute to the welfare of Christ's overall church. The local church provides the context for the full use of one's gifts.
2. Mutual care, encouragement, joy and love for the spiritual family members (Gal. 6:2, 1 Cor. 16:1f, 1 Thes. 4:18, Jn. 13:34-35). While someone may contribute to some degree to the welfare of the wider body of Christ without being united to a particular body, he cannot fulfill this obligation to the degree that they are called upon to do so with out it. It is as you are with a local body on a regular basis that you come to know people's problems intimately and grow in concern for those people. The Lord also commands us to give financially to the Lord and His work. The local church provides the proper place for such an act. Pastors can then be paid, deacons can have the means to provide for the welfare of those in need, and missionaries can be supported.
3. Aid in the mission of the church in its witness to the world (Phil. 1:5; Matt 28:19-20). In order to accomplish the church's mission the church needs organization of people, resources and efforts. If people neglect membership, then its task is hindered.
Along these lines too is the Christian's duty to participate in the election of officers, calling of pastors, and other administrations of the church (e.g. budgets). Voting in the church can only be done in and through membership. Appeals and complaints can best be facilitated through membership too (no one is going to listen to someone gripe about the church if he is not a member of that church).
While the Bible is clear about the how important it is to become an active member in a local church, many people still object to the practice. Since so many objections exist, it may be important to address some of them.
Objections to Church Membership
I. Churches are muddled theologically
It is true that all churches contain a mixture of truth and error. Some are so corrupt that they have ceased to be true churches of Christ and have become synagogues of Satan (Rev. 3:9). But that the fact that there is some theological imperfection is not a reason to avoid membership in a church that at the very least holds to the central elements of the gospel.
That theological impurities exist in the church actually serves as an argument for church membership. The way to combat this imperfection is to become a member and do one's part to teach and work for the greater purity of that church. Standing outside of it does nothing to move it any closer to Scriptural fidelity. Rather it serves to increase the corruption as there is no one to stand against it.
II. Churches are full of corrupt people and practices
Jesus said that he came not for the healthy, but for the sick. As well, he told us that the church would be a mixture of wheat and tares. For that reason it should be obvious that the church will be chuck full of sinners, both who are redeemed and unredeemed. But this should not stop us from being a part of a church.
Rather, as stated above, the fact that there are sinners in the church should be an argument for membership. It is through the local church that one can work for purity through the exercise of church discipline. Certainly excommunication requires the ability to cast someone out of the church. That can only occur through if there are churches to be cast out of. (Of course, the one cast out can claim to be a Christian, but outside the official affiliation with a local church, his words are void of meaning).
III. "I'm a part of the universal /invisible Church"
This is one of the most popular objections, and it is one that I used myself when I was in the non-committal camp. But as was stated above regarding the OT converts joining Israel, the invisible/universal church is supposed to be visible to some degree. As one has stated, "The invisible Church presently manifests herself in visible congregations of professing believers."
This is why the Apostle Paul commended Phoebe to the church in Rome (Rom. 16:1-2). It wasn't enough for Phoebe to be a random Christian in Rome going around claiming to be a part of the universal church. Paul wanted her to be received into a particular house church in that city. He wanted her to make visible the invisible reality.
Another refutation of this objection comes from a pastor I once overheard on the radio (sorry, I can't remember who it was). He was talking about this very thing and he gave an example of a personal encounter he had with someone who said that they were a part of the invisible church. His reply went like this, "O that's great! I'm sure that when you are sick or on your deathbed it will be comforting when your invisible pastor comes to call on you to comfort you."
I know that I sounded pious when I used such high theological language regarding my membership in the invisible and universal church. But in all reality, it was a theological platitude born out of ignorance of the Scriptures.
IV. Jesus doesn't believe in denominations.
Yes, there is a church on every street corner, and they are all completely different churches (the Baptist, the Reformed, the Presbyterian, the Methodist the Anglican, the Independent; the Non-Denominational etc. etc. etc.!). When one looks at all the varied assortment of churches one can easily become disillusioned and say, "Doesn't the Bible say we are not to have factions, and doesn't Paul rebuke the Corinthians for saying, "I am of Apollos' and 'I am of Paul.' (1 Cor. 3:4f)
First, let me say this: Those who typically refrain from attending and joining a church for this reason actually refute themselves. Choosing to go your own way and have church in your own little manner only makes the faction all the more worse (I am of me!). Certainly this is not the cure as it does not do anything to bring anyone closer together.
Next, we need to dispel a myth. People who use this argument often think that organizational unity is Biblical unity. We can just look at the Catholic church for an example of this. The Catholic church claims superiority over the Protestant churches because it has its "oneness" in tact and the Protestant churches are manifold. But a quick look at the church will reveal that though the Catholic churches have the same name, they are hardly unified. It may be said that the unity of the Catholic church is in name only. Theologically they might have one official catechism, but its priests are not altogether united on it.
Even so, erasing the names of Protestant churches does nothing to heal the differences between us. I'm still going to baptize my babies and believe in predestination, and my Baptist brother will still do the opposite.
So what do we make of denominations? First let us remember that we Protestants confess that there is "one, holy catholic church." Yes, ONE! Though we go by different tags and differ at some points, we still all belong to Christ. Our unity is not so much to be thought of structurally as it is spiritually. Though we hold distinct practices and areas of belief, we are united together under the headship of Christ through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit and upon the fundamental truths of the gospel.
The other day I, a hard core Presbyterian, was sitting in at at Brethren church here in town watching a video with a Baptist minister presenting. It was great! None of our churches would hire any of the other pastors due to our doctrinal distinctives. But despite all of our differences, we are all brothers in Christ united together on the most essential things of God.
The second thing we need to remember is that denominations are healthy in that they help keep some semblance of the unity and connectional nature of the church. The Bible displays a church that is united. The house churches were individual churches, but they were united to the church in their region (e.g. the church in Rome, the church in Asia Minor, etc.). Then all the regional churches are united as one (Acts 15). Though denominations are separate entities, they do help to preserve the this biblical unity to some degree. Those who avoid such structure, again, just add to the disunity.
The third point is that denominations are bound to creep up because we are still ignorant sinners! While we agree on the essentials of the gospel, we so frequently err when we go beyond that.
What I'm saying is that denominations, like wars, are "necessary evils." We would all agree that war is evil. It stems from sin and involves needless death and evil. But sometimes war is necessary to protect life and preserve peace. Likewise, denominational factions are wrong. They are a result of brothers not being able to agree on the Scripture's teaching. But they are evils that help Christians stay united to some degree and live under Christ the Supreme Head of the Church.