I wonder if you've thought much about why it's so widely expected that Christians should join local churches. After all, we don't see any explicit exhortation in the Bible to “join a church.” We also know that membership in a church does not in any way contribute to our salvation. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Moreover, one might argue that this issue of church membership is just a matter of semantics. Why do I need to put my name on a list? Can't I be a part of the church just by showing up, listening to the sermons, and talking to people?

Before we begin, let me address one question you might be asking already. Perhaps you're thinking, “This lesson on church membership is all fine and good, but how's it relevant to me? I'm already a member of this church.” Well, the purpose of this is not to convince you to join a church. We want to consider how church membership provides a necessary context for a healthy church culture, and we want to make the case that commitment to a local congregation is one of the basic ingredients of a healthy, unified local church. That is why it is so important—even for people who are already church members—to think carefully about the responsibilities and privileges associated with being a member of a church.
First, we will see from Scripture that God calls Christians to commit to a local church body, to do so formally, and even—yes—to be members of that body.
Second , we will look at how the commitment of church membership facilitates unity in the church.
Finally , we will think about how we should talk to non-members about the importance of church membership.

CHURCH MEMBERSHIP IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

There's a common notion out there that the New Testament does not say anything at all about joining a local church. And of course that's true if you're just looking for the words “join a church” or “sign this card” in the Bible.
But to say that the New Testament doesn't know anything of church membership is simply not true. The New Testament does call Christians to be committed to a particular local church. Not only so, it also expects that this commitment will be a formal one, so that everyone will know who has made that kind of commitment and who has not. In fact, you may be surprised to hear that the New Testament even goes so far as to call this kind of commitment membership in the church!

It’s About Commitment

One of the most prominent themes in the entire New Testament is Christians' calling to love one another. Jesus could not have put it more plainly when he said This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12) The apostle John then reminds us in one of his letters: And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. (1 John 3:23) And Paul says in Romans 12:10: Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour. The love that Christians are called to have for one another isn't just a feeling, either. It is love that works itself out in concrete actions. Look at all the different ways the New Testament describes how Christians are to love each other:

  • Rom 12:15 tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep.
  • Ephesians 4:2 tells us to bear with one another.
  • Ephesians 4:32 says we are to be kind to one another, and forgive one another.
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:11 says we should encourage one another, and build one another up.
  • Hebrews 3:13 tells us to exhort one another.
  • Hebrews 10:24 says to stir one another up to love and good works.
  • James 5:26 tells us to confess our sins to one another, and pray for each other.
  • 1 Peter 4:9-10 says we are to show hospitality to each other, and use our gifts to serve one another.

And of course there are other passages, too. The point is that all those actions require relationships. You can't encourage, exhort, and stir others up to love and good works if you're just casually running into them at church once a week. You need to have real and vibrant relationships in place. In fact, doing all that requires an understanding that you are sharing life together, that you are open to hearing exhortation, encouragement, and even rebuke from one another when it's necessary. Put simply, it requires commitment.

Who’s In and Who’s Out

The commitment Christians make to one another in the church is not just casual and “understood.” Throughout the New Testament, it seems to be a formal one. In other words, the early church knew who was a part of their community and who was not. They had a very clear understanding of who was inside the church and who was outside of it. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul rebukes the Corinthian church for not expelling a man who is in serious sin. In verses 11 to 13, he writes, But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral, or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. „Expel the wicked man from among you.'
Notice how Paul refers to those “inside the church” and those “outside the church.” But how does he know who's in and who's out? How does the church distinguish between those who are part of it and those who aren't? The answer is that they must have known very clearly which people had formally committed themselves to the church, and which had not. That is really the only way that Paul's exhortation to “expel” the sinful man makes any sense. How could the church “put out” someone who had never been “put in?” How could they expel someone from their fellowship if they had no clear understanding of which people were already in their fellowship? They couldn't, at least not with any meaning. The church could only legitimately remove from its fellowship those who had formally committed to the church, identifying themselves with it. Later, in 2 Corinthians 2, we find that the church had indeed followed Paul's advice and expelled the man. He apparently repented of his sin sometime after that, because Paul says in 2:6 that, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him.” Look at that sentence carefully, and especially the word “majority.” That is important because you can't have a majority of anything unless you know who gets counted and who doesn't. Paul must be talking here about a majority of a well-defined whole—that is, a majority of those people who were known to be committed to the church. (Perhaps they even had a list...)

“Membership”—It’s Our Word

Where does the term “membership” come from anyway? Why do we call this formal commitment a person makes to the church “becoming a member?” Many people assume that the church has just borrowed the term from other organizations—the Rotary Club or the RSL Club, for instance. But in reality, it's the Rotary Club that has borrowed “membership” from the church! The idea of being a member of a church comes from the apostle Paul, when he describes the local church as a “body” and each person within it as a “member” of that body. He says in 1 Corinthians 12:12-19: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. And then, just to make the point explicit, he says to this local church at Corinth: Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:27) The image Paul uses here is a profound one. Each of the members in the body is dependent on all the others. As Paul puts it, the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don't need you.” Nor can the head say that to the feet. (1 Corinthians 12:21) No member of the body is independent; each depends in a profound way on all the others. So in the church at Corinth, there were some people gifted to do certain things, and others gifted to do other things. Each “member” in the church was different, yet working together they had everything necessary for the building up of the church body (1 Corinthians 14:12). When you understand what lies behind the word “member,” you see why we put so much emphasis on church membership.

“Membership” is not just a word—it is a description of what we intend our commitment to Christ and to each other to look like.

In that light, it starts to sound ridiculous to talk about being a “member” of the RSL, doesn't it? But “membership” is the perfect word to describe the deep and practical commitment we share with each other as members of the body of Christ in this local church.

CHURCH MEMBERSHIP PROMOTES UNITY

Church membership fosters unity within the church. Specifically, there are two primary ways that this happens:
Unity With These, But Not Those
First and most importantly, church membership defines the group of people with whom we seek unity. Simply stated, church membership unifies because it requires members to be Christians. We unite with people who have repented of sin and trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation. It is astonishing how often this truth is ignored in churches today. And as you can imagine, this has drastic consequences for church unity. When churches are filled with unregenerate, non-Christian people who hold offices and teaching positions, the result is almost always a church that is full of strife and division. That's why, when we interview a prospective member of this church, we ask him/her to tell us how he/she became a Christian and also to explain briefly the gospel of Jesus Christ. When a church allows into membership people who do not give evidence of faith in Christ, they are left having to force unity on a group of people who are not indwelt by the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit.

Church membership fosters unity because it makes the nature of our task clear.

We are to demonstrate the glory of God's wisdom by uniting in the local church with a specific group of people—those who are fellow believers in Jesus Christ.

Unity With the Whole Body, Not Just a Part of It

The second way that church membership fosters church unity is by calling us to commit to the entire church, not just a part of it. In the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul rebukes the Corinthian church for its quarrelling and divisiveness. Some were claiming to be followers of Paul, others of Apollos, and still others of Peter. Paul tells them in 3:4-5: When one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not being merely human? 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. If some of us decided that we were only going to attend church on the Sundays when the pastor is preaching because we like his sermons best, and others of us decided that we would only attend when the associate pastor is preaching because we prefer his sermons, we would quickly become a divided church. Similarly, if we commit to a small group of friends who are like us in some way, rather than to the church body as a whole, the church will become divided. As Christians, our primary commitment must be to the congregation at large, not to a smaller group of friends. We want to encourage Christians to invest energy in relationships with everyone that God brings to this church, not just with people who are similar to us in socio-economic level, occupation, race, ethnicity, or even interests. Far from being based on any of those things, our unity is grounded in our shared love for Jesus Christ and his gospel.

ENCOURAGING CHRISTIANS TO JOIN A CHURCH

How can we encourage Christian friends who are not members of a church? This is a very practical question because there are thousands of people out there who claim to be Christians, but who have not joined a church. Some of those people are simply afraid of committing to something for fear of being hurt. Others say they have a “theological” problem with the whole idea of church membership, and wonder why they can't be a part of the church simply by showing up. How should we talk to people like that?

You Xenophile!

First and foremost, we should go out of our way to make such people feel welcome in our church. In Romans 12:13, Paul commands Christians to be hospitable. Specifically, the word he uses there is “xenophilia.” You may be familiar with the opposite of this word, “xenophobia,” which means a fear or dislike of strangers or foreigners. Paul calls Christians not to be xenophobes, but xenophiles! So the next time you're trying to decide who to talk to after church, or who to invite over for lunch, remember your calling to be a friend of strangers.

Join A Church!

I'm sure many of you know people who claim to be Christians, and yet for one reason or another refuse to commit themselves to a local church. How can we help those people to see the significance of church membership? There are many good points you could make, but let's concentrate on three.

  1. First, not joining a church is dangerous. We are sinful people, and therefore we simply cannot trust ourselves. By joining a church, we ask others to hold us accountable to live as Christians and, if necessary, even to discipline us if we are not living as Christians. Proverbs 12:1 is instructive: Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid. When we commit to a church by becoming a member, other members can help us guard against our own self-delusion and hold us accountable.
  2. Second, joining a church brings glory to God. Perhaps you've had conversations with Christians who reject the idea that we need to join the church. And perhaps these friends appear to be strong Christians. They are active witnesses for the gospel, they read Scripture regularly, and they pray frequently. 
    All these things are good, but by refusing to join a church, a person betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of God's plan for displaying his glory. As we discussed some last week, God displays his glory through the church. God's plan is not about us as mere individuals. It is far larger and grander than that. God wants people to unite around his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ—people who have many different faults and peculiarities, people who may be very different from you, people who may not always even be your favourite people, but people with whom you have Christ in common. That's what Paul means in Ephesians 3 where he says that it is through the church that God's manifold wisdom is made known.
  3. Finally, joining a church identifies us with Christ. In Acts 9, the risen Jesus appears to Saul as he is heading toward Damascus to persecute Christians. Do you remember what Jesus says to him? He doesn't say “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting those Christians?” He doesn't even say “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting the church?” He says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Jesus so closely identifies with the church that he refers to the congregation of Christians at Damascus as “me.”
    If Jesus himself so completely identifies with the church, shouldn't we do the same?

CONCLUSION

We started by asking why anyone should bother with church membership. I hope that by now you have a good understanding of why membership is so important. We are not called to live the Christian life as isolated individuals, but rather as members of Christ's body—that is, as members of a local church. That is not just some arbitrary requirement, either. When we commit our lives to one another in the church, we are given the encouragement and accountability we need, and God is glorified by the amazing spectacle of people from utterly different backgrounds uniting solely for the sake of his Son Jesus. Ultimately then, church membership is both for our good and for God's glory!