Membership in clubs, institutions, and leagues is on the decline in America. The idea of joining oneself to an institution is becoming something of the past. Whether it is the Elks Club, the VFW, a Union, or even a political party, people today are less interested in joining themselves to something that requires their participation and their submission to the mores and norms of the institution. This cultural phenomenon is something that the church is going to have to come to terms with, and more and more, the question is going to be asked, “Is membership in the local church necessary?”
When I disciple new believers who are preparing to join the church, I usually begin with answering the question “Why do we even have church membership?”
The pages of the Old and New Testaments are filled with examples of believers joining themselves and their children to the visible church. The Old Testament has lists upon lists of names that demonstrate, in part, the importance that Old Testament believers placed upon being associated with the visible church. This did not change when the New Testament’s gospel was opening to a non-Jewish world.
When the Lord Jesus left his apostles, right before his ascension, he gave what we call “the great commission.” In the great commission Jesus said,“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
From his authority, the leadership of the church was to go forward making disciples of nations. This discipleship was to be seen in baptizing and teaching. The word “disciple” is a word that shows both submission to authority and a willingness to be taught. Those who are called disciples are to be under the authority of those who are over them. Of course, as we will see, this authority is not to be heavy-handed, and another article could be written on the responsibilities of those in ministry, but that does not negate the New Testament imperative that a disciple is one under discipleship, and that requires submitting to the authority of the local church.
In the preaching of the Book of Acts, we also get hints of this need to be joined to the local church. In Acts 2, we are given a description of the local church’s activities, which included teaching, participating in the sacraments, gathering, sharing, and worship. Acts 2:47 tells us that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Of those that were being added to the number, were they just listing names of those who had come to know Jesus and then sending them on their way? No, they were being saved and then joining themselves to this body that they may participate fully in the worship, sacraments, and life of the church. People were being added to a list—this was not merely an evangelistic crusade that came through town and then left the new disciples without discipleship.
We see this same idea in Acts 16, following a presbytery meeting in Jerusalem. The church was increasing in numbers, not just those who sit in the pews, but those who were willing to be in submission to the decisions of the leaders of the church. Here is how Luke puts it in Acts 16:4-5: “As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.”
Numbers were important to the early church—not for congregational bragging rights, but because those in the number were those who had been baptized, discipled, and those who were voluntarily in submission to the leadership of the church: members.
Many today will take an individualistic approach to this and claim that discipleship is between Jesus and the disciple or say that numbers of those being saved have nothing to do with being on some list at a local church. This may be true of invisible church but it is not true of the visible church. The invisible church is made up of believers only and yet the Lord Jesus told us that the church—the visible church—would be a mixed church, a church made up of those who believe and those who are hypocrites. Wheat and tares. They grow up together in the visible church and are separated only in eternity. The visible church is made up of members, baptized and those who have professed faith, and those who are in submission to the leadership, the under-shepherds, that Christ has given to the church, hence the church from all time has professed, “I believe in a holy catholic church.”
Louis Berkhof, speaking of the concept of the church that was reaffirmed at the time of the reformation says that the church as invisible and visible was a part of that re-claiming:
The Church universal, that is, the Church as it exists in the plan of God, and as it is realized only in the course of the ages, was conceived as consisting of the whole body of the elect, who are in course of time called unto life eternal. But the Church as it actually exists on earth was regarded as the community of the saints. And it was not only the invisible Church that was so regarded, but the visible Church as well.
Those who are a part of the invisible church—those who are converted and justified in Christ—are to be a part of the visible church, the one, holy catholic church. It is here where the membership of Christians ought to be, under those to whom God has called as elders.
Peter uses similar language when he spoke to the elders in the dispersed Christian church when he wrote, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (I Peter 5:1-4).”
Notice the words “shepherd” “flock” “oversight” and “charge.” There is no way to shepherd those who are not a part of the flock. How can elders exercise oversight to those who refuse to be in submission to their teaching? How can elders provide oversight to those who will not associate officially with them? How can Peter say that the elders have a “charge” if association is not formal, official, and required?
Shepherds have a flock and they are to care for that flock. Spiritual under-shepherds also have a flock, and through membership it is known to which flock a sheep belongs.
This same language is seen in Hebrews 13:7-17, except it is reversed. Peter charges the elders where the author of Hebrews (I like to call him Paul) exhorts the individual believers to “obey the leaders over them” and to “submit” to the leaders. This mutual shepherding and submission requires the very vulnerable placing of oneself under leaders that you can trust and that will shepherd you. It is the call of Christ that this mutual relationship occurs.
There are many other New Testament passages that would point the Christian to joining with a local body for mutual edification, accountability, access to the sacraments, and discipleship/discipline (same root word). Paul says “Respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord.” “Respect those who admonish you.” (Both from I Thessalonians 5:12-13.) In I Corinthians 5:9-13 Paul says to call those who have been disciplined “outsiders” and encourages the church to “purge” herself of those who have been disciplined. How can there be outsiders without insiders? How can there purging without acceptance? And in 2 Corinthians 2, the church is called to forgive and bring back into the fold he that was disciplined. All of this requires a formal connection to the church—membership.
The idea may be foreign to American individualism, but it is very much a part of the mindset of the New Testament. Disciples require formal teachers. Citizens require citizenship. We are called to be membership of the household of God—the church—and that membership is formal membership in the visible church. Submitting and living among those who are the saints. Isn’t that what Paul says in Ephesians 2:18-19?
For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
May you consider the value of being joined to the local church and under the discipleship of elders. When Jesus Christ said, “I will build my church” he began building an institution and he calls all who believe to bind him or herself to it.