Our next new members class begins March 2. Consider attending that class if you want to learn more about SGC or if you want to brush up on certain core teachings of ours. It's a good time to consider, though, why we even practice church membership. Below is a brief excerpt of our book, Exploring Membership, the resource we give to those in the class (available as a download). It looks at the issue of why we believe you should join a church—not necessarily ours, but some Christian church.
Why Join a Church?
It's a big deal to join a church. It's a statement that we need others and that we are not alone as we live our Christian life. It's a commitment to partner with a group of Christians as we love God and love the fallen world around us. It is a declaration that when the Bible says to "love one another," these are the particular "one another's" we will love. It is a willingness to give our time, energy, financial resources, prayer, and heart to a specific community of the people of God. Further, since we know we aren't the only Bible-believing church in the area, we know it's a big deal to join this church. This is why we want you to know what we mean by membership. In any kind of long-term commitment, it's important we define our terms so everyone's expectations are the same.
Does the Bible Teach Church Membership?
Now perhaps it's not a given to you that we should even practice church membership. For this reason, we should say a few things about it. The truth is, we believe in church membership because the Bible teaches church membership. Let's look at the New Testament to see it.
First, when the church was initially formed at Pentecost, the thousands came together to form a church. They did not scatter back to their own homes and continue in their own personal spiritual journeys. Luke describes it this way: So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:41-42) They "were added" to the church in Jerusalem and dedicated their lives to all that this apostolic community included. We should follow this example.
Second, God speaks of church leaders as "shepherds." Shepherds watch over a particular group of sheep. This is why Peter commands pastors (the same Greek word as "shepherd") to "shepherd the flock of God that is among you" (1 Peter 5:2). The sheep belong to God, but they gather in a particular flock at a particular place and time, and it is the elders who are to "shepherd" them (cf. Acts 20:28). So, pastors have a particular flock they shepherd, and people are to know who their particular shepherd is. To us this implies church membership.
Third, related to that, God says to "obey your leaders and submit to them" (Heb. 13:17). As Christians we don't submit to all leaders everywhere, but only the ones we can call our leaders. This implies the leaders know who their people are, and the people know who their leaders are, something not possible without church membership.
Fourth, as Paul writes letters to different churches in the New Testament he will often include messages like this one in Colossians: "Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house" (4:15). He doesn't speak of "Christians" that meet at Nympha's house, but an actual "church." This implies some areas will have multiple churches that are clearly identifiable. People belong to one church and not another. Thus, people in the New Testament were members of specific churches and not merely Christians at-large.
Fifth, the teaching about church discipline in the Bible implies church membership. When the Corinthians are told to remove the unrepentant sinner from their church (1 Cor. 5:1-13) and when Jesus says to remove the person who "refuses to listen even to the church" (Matt. 18:15-20), this shows there is a clear line between those who are inside the church and those who are outside.
Finally, the New Testament is filled with what we call the "one another" commands. These are the commands to "love one another" (1 John 4:7), "serve one another" (1 Peter 4:10), "bear one another's burdens" (Gal. 6:1), and "build one another up" (1 Thess. 5:11). There are about fifty of these commands. But the question for us is, how can we obey these commands without church membership? I can love others without a church, but the picture in Scripture is one of reciprocal love: I love you, you love me in return. Being part of a church gives us a way to fulfill these commands. We believe the New Testament is clear on this point: Churches should have some form of membership. That's why we do it.
The Benefits of Joining a Church
But not only is joining a church important for obeying the New Testament, we also need it. A passage that shows us at least some of the benefits is Ephesians 4:11-16. Here Paul begins with a list of the God-given leaders and then describes their key task. Then we read about the overall goal of God's people in the church. He closes with a vivid picture of the loving connectedness we are to experience as members of the body of Christ. Listen to these words, and then we'll unpack some of the benefits of church membership we find in it:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Eph. 4:11-16
This is a passage we'll return to many times in this book, but for now, let's pick out a few benefits of church membership that it identifies. We are built up for ministry when we join a church. God has placed leaders, especially those "shepherds and teachers," to equip us for ministry (v. 12). We are the ones who do the "work of ministry," and it is leaders who enable us to do it better.
We also grow up in our faith when we join a church. We are all to become mature in our faith, character, and knowledge, and it is the church that helps us achieve this (v. 13).
Membership in a church also provides protection. Every generation is filled with "waves and…every wind of doctrine" that threaten to derail our walk with Christ and sideline us in the church. The church is there to remind us of truth, expose lies, and save us from such destructiveness.
Finally, being a part of a church connects us to others in love and unity in a powerful way. God's ideal is that our church would be a picture of "the body of Christ"—unified, loving and being loved, serving and being served (vv. 15-16). We link arms with brothers and sisters from a variety of backgrounds and gifts and abilities and experiences. It is not just that we now show up at the same meeting on a weekly basis, but God wants us to walk in love, unity, and truth as we each act as a particular part of the body of Christ.
Of course, sin exists. Thirty seconds in any church will remind you of that fact. So at times the benefits above aren't quite as obvious. But a local church is still the place to go for them. God help us to be a church that benefits us and benefits others.