(This is part 3 of a 3-part series on the local church)
I remember well the day that an entire family got up and walked out of our sanctuary during the Lord’s Supper. I was serving as a pastor and explained that a person should only take the Lord’s Supper if they are a baptized believer, a member of a local church, and in good standing with their local church. This family, who had been seeking a church home, could not understand why I would ask them to exclude themselves from the Lord’s Supper if they were not church members. However, they later changed their mind (even joining the church) when I helped them understand the role of the Lord’s Supper and church membership.
The Bible says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor 10:17-18), In the same book, believers are urged not to eat with those who are under church discipline (1 Cor 5:11-13). Of course, these principles of a corporate church body and church discipline assume a local church membership. God designed church membership and attendance as the primary means by which people can grow in their faith and their relationship with him. The Bible presents several evidences of this principle, and reasons for church membership.
Jesus Anticipated that his Followers would be Members of a Local Church
The term “church” was first coined by Jesus himself when he told Peter, “on this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). Yet just two chapters later, Jesus began to speak of how churches should exercise discipline. He said that if another believer sins we should confront them; if they do not repent to bring two or three others; and “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” (Mt 18:15-17). But how exactly could one “tell it to the church” if there is no established church membership, should we tell every Christian we meet of a brother’s sin? Of course not, Jesus anticipated there would be a defined membership in local congregations.
Church Membership Guards the Church against False Believers and Teachers
Church membership is the safety net among a local body of believers to help distinguish between genuine followers of Christ and false believers. When the church was first established by the apostles, we read that, the initial gathering of believers was about 120 people (Acts 1:15), but after the day of Pentecost “there were added about 3,000 souls” (Acts 2:41), and as they continued to fellowship, “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Eventually, “the number of men came to about 5,000” (Acts 4:4). God didn’t just save people, he added them to the church. If the church didn’t have a membership, how did they know how many people they had?
As the church grew in number, the apostles chose to create the position of deacon. In doing so, the apostles told the church to, “pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (Acts 6:3). Note that both the deacons and those who selected them were part of a clearly defined group: “from among you” (cf. “the whole gathering,” Acts 6:5). The church could have assurance in these men because they had been baptized into the church by the apostles; the apostles would know and be able to appoint these men because they were recognized as being part of the church body.
Later, Paul warned the elders of the church of Ephesus that “fierce wolves” would come into the church, and charged them that they, as the shepherds of the flock were called to protect it. Paul said, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28) When Paul says “all the flock” does he mean every Christian on earth? Were the elders called to shepherd every believer everywhere? Such a task would be impossible instead Paul meant all the believers who were part of their congregation.
How were the elders to guard the church from such false believers? By excluding them from the Lord’s Supper and church fellowship until they demonstrated repentance (Mt 18:15-18, 1 Cor 5, 2 Cor 2:5-11). Participation in the local church was so closely tied to one’s identity as a Christian that multiple authors warn that those who do not continue with the church may not be saved. John says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 Jn 2:19). Consider the stern warning from the author of Hebrews:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 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. For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Heb 10:24–27)
Believers and the Local Church need Each Other
The Christian faith was always meant to be lived in the context of a local church. God has gifted each person in the church to serve the body of believers in some capacity. In fact, the term “member” means “part of the body.” In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul explains how the local church is supposed to work. He says that each person is given a gift from the Spirit for the common good of the church (v.7). Each part, regardless of its function, is part of the body (v.14-15). None should think that they are not important, and no should anyone think they are so important that they do not need the others (v.21-22). Rather each of us should care for one another, suffering as one body, and rejoicing as one body (v.25-26).
This care and building up, in large part, happens under the directions of the elders who “shepherd the flock” and “exercise [sic] oversight” (1 Pt 5:2). The church is charged to, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb 13:17). But pastors can only shepherd, oversee, and keep watch over those people who have voluntarily submitted themselves to their authority. Pastors can only be accountable for the people under their care.
Church membership is not merely a duty, it is a gift. Being part of a church body means that I have the responsibility to care for others in my congregation who are hurting, but that they also will care for me when I am hurting. My church holds me accountable in my walk with God. I have leaders who teach me the Scriptures and I have brothers and sisters who help me bear my burdens. The book of Ephesians says that God so constructed the local church so that, “when each part is working properly, [it] makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:6). I am so thankful to be a part of a local church body.
Live for Jesus.