To claim to be a Christian, saved by God’s grace and by the power of Gospel of Jesus Christ, and not to belong to a local body of believers, is to claim that you are committed to the Head but not to the Body.
“I don’t think the New Testament knows anything about a Christian that doesn’t belong to a local assembly. By belong, what do I mean? I simply mean who is fully identified with a local body of believers.”
I can hear the objections and excuses coming through the NoCo airwaves, or in this case, blog waves. You are imposing this on people. Where do you find this in the Bible? Glad you asked. I figured if you are a genuine Christian, one who is born of God, you would want to know what the Word of God might have to say about this.
So, what are the biblical grounds for church membership? Let me list them for you and explain them.
1) The New Testament commands commitment to the local church.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
This was one of the first verses I memorized as a young Christian. Notice how the habit of some is to neglect to meet together. Actually, nowadays, that seems to be the habit of most. And what are the reasons or motives given for meeting together. There are three. To stir up one another to love. To stir up one another to good works. And to encourage one another. These “one anothers” cannot be fulfilled apart from a local church.
2) The epistles were written to specific local churches. For instance, Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonika(1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1) to the church in Corinth(1 Corinthians 1:1-2; 2 Corinthians 1), to the saints at Philippi(Philippians 1:1), to the saints at Colossae(Colossians 1:1-2), and to the saints at Ephesus(Ephesians 1:1).
3) 95% of the time the Greek term ekklesia is used it is a reference to the local church, not the Universal church.
4) Church discipline is impossible without local church membership.
Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, lays out for us the process of church discipline. Why church discipline? For the purity of His Bride. That is after all why He loved the Church and gave Himself for her(Ephesians 5:25-27).
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 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.”(emphasis added)
So if the sinning brother is unrepentant the first time after 1-2-1 meeting and still unrepentant the second time after meeting with one or two others, then Jesus says we are to tell the church. So does that mean as a pastor I would have to call my pastor friends in Greece and tell it to them so they in turn can inform their congregations. Of course not. How silly.
But even more, if the sinning brother is unrepentant the third time after he refuses to listen to the church, he is to be as a Gentile and a tax collector, that is expelled from the fellowship, So which fellowship is he not to be a part of. The fellowship of believers around the world? No, that particular local fellowship of believers.
That is why Paul used such strong terminology in his letter to the Corinthians when he said “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”(1 Corinthians 5:2) and “Purge the evil person from among you.”(1 Corinthians 5:13). Paul was not joking around with such terms as “removed” and “purge”. But note that it was to be “from among you.” From among whom? The removal and purging of this unrepentant sinner was to be from among the local church in Corinth. If it doesn’t mean from the local church in Corinth, then Paul’s command makes absolutely no sense!
5) Church leadership is impossible without local church membership.
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
For you who still hold on to your excuses, I have a couple of questions for you that I would like you to answer. First, which leaders are you to obey and submit to? And furthermore, for whose souls will pastors have to give an account to God for? Is it not yet clear to you that the command to obey and submit to leadership can only be obeyed in the context of a local church body? And is it not yet clear to you that God would not expect pastors to give an account over anyone other than the specific flock they are shepherding?
And that is why when Paul met with the elders of the Ephesian church(Acts20:17-18) he exhorted them to pay careful attention to their flock and to care for it(Acts 20:28).
6) People were numbered in the early church.
“So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”(emphasis added)
“But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.”(emphasis added)
7) The ordinances of the Lord’s Supper, Communion, and Believer’s Baptism can only be practiced in the context of a local body.
8) Widows were to be put on the list if they met the criteria(1 Timothy 5:9) and the early church kept a list of names of deacons(Acts 6:1-6).
9) Letters of commendation were sent from one local body to another(Acts 18:24-27; Romans 16:1-2; Colossians 4:10)
10) The clear distinction made between those inside the church and those outside the church presupposes formal church membership.
“And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. 13 None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.”(emphasis added)
Acts 5:11, 13
The pronoun “them” mentioned twice in verse 13 is a direct reference to “the whole church” of verse 12. The terms “rest” and “people” in verse 13 are references to those outside the church.
No more excuses. Find a local body of believers that exalts Jesus Christ through the preaching of the Word of God and enquire about becoming a member there so you can be held accountable and serve. Maybe I am passionate about this because I teach the New Members class at my home church, Bethlehem Bible Church. Or maybe I am passionate about this because to claim that you are committed to Jesus Christ but not His Church is to believe the heresy of a decapitated Body.