Many Christians today question the necessity and propriety of membership in a local church. Some even challenge it as an unbiblical concept. They wonder why Presbyterians declare that people must be members of an evangelical church to partake of the Lord’s Supper. They wonder why they should join a local church. Why can’t they just attend worship whenever they want to, or float around to various churches?
Here are a few thoughts on this question, certainly more suggestive than exhaustive:
1. People who doubt that church membership is a Biblical mandate often fail to understand a key tenet of Biblical interpretation – the Bible does not necessarily have to teach something explicitly for it to be a Biblical truth. The Bible also teaches things implicitly. The Bible expects that its readers will use their rational minds to draw conclusions from the text. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (WCF I.6). There is no verse that we can go to that explicitly tells a person to join a church – just like there is no verse that teaches explicitly that infants should be baptized, that women should receive the Lord’s Supper, that the Trinity is the true understanding of God, or that the first day of the week is the Christian Sabbath. The Bible is not an encyclopedia or a topical guidebook, and so we must use logical thought to deduce truth from various streams of teaching in narratives, poetry, and epistles. Just because there is no verse that says expressly, “Thou shalt join a church,” does not mean that the Bible does not teach the necessity of church membership.
2. The Old Testament clearly teaches the concept of membership (and non-membership) in the covenant community. In Genesis 17:14, after commanding Abraham to circumcise his male descendants as well as his servants, God makes this statement: “But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” The whole notion of being “cut off” from the people of God implies that there are boundary lines to the church (to use Stephen’s name in Acts 7:38 for the people of God under the old covenant). That is, there was such a thing as not being in the visible church, not being a member of the covenant community. As redemptive history progressed, the sign of being a member of the covenant community changed from circumcision to baptism. If someone claims to believe in Jesus, but refuses to be baptized, they are rejecting the outward sign of initiation He has appointed for His people, and ought not to be recognized as members of the visible church.
3. Some people will argue that if they have believed in Jesus Christ and have been baptized, then they are members of the invisible/universal church, and therefore do not need to be a member of an particular local, visible expression of the “big-C” Church. This is a misunderstanding and misapplication of the notion of the invisible/universal church, which our Westminster Larger Catechism defines as “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head” (WLC #64). To be sure, some of God’s elect are not at this time either converted or members of the visible church. And it is possible for someone to profess faith in Jesus Christ and be baptized and be a member of the visible church, yet not be truly converted; “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (Rom. 9:6); “he is not a Jew [or Christian] who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision [nor baptism] that which is outward in the flesh…” (Rom. 2:28-29). But where in Scripture do we see any warrant for being a member of the invisible church and not being a part of the visible church? When the Bible speaks of the church, it is most frequently speaking of a visible entity, with officers, discipline, structure, organization, etc. Boundaries, definition, and limitations are presupposed. Jesus is building an institution that the world can see. When our Westminster Confession of Faith declares that outside of the visible church “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation,” it is not guilty of a Roman Catholic view of the church, that mere membership saves someone, but is affirming the biblical truth that we cannot love Christ without loving His bride, and that it is in the church where the means of saving grace (the word, the sacraments, prayer, fellowship, and discipline) are manifested and provided.
4. Hebrews 13:17 tells us, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who must give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” This verse (and others like it) presupposes that the people of God know who their leaders are, know to whom they must submit, know who is keeping watch over them. How can Paul tell the elders of Ephesus to shepherd the flock of God, if they don’t know who is in that flock? Which elders do you call when you’re sick (James 5:14)? How do elders know who has been allotted to their charge (I Peter 5:2)? Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-18 about church discipline mean nothing if there are no parameters as to who makes up the local church. Paul’s words concerning the offending brother make no sense if there is no such thing as being a member of a local church (I Corinthians 5:1-5; II Corinthians 2:6-11).
5. If you claim to be a member of the invisible/universal church, the body of Christ, then you should want to be in a position to function as a member of the body – to use your gifts, to edify your brothers and sisters, to “one another” the saints (I Peter 4:10; I Corinthians 12:7). If you are a sheep in God’s fold, a brick in His building, a member of Christ’s body, a branch of the vine, etc., then you must be connected to His people in a tangible way. Certainly, there are exceptional situations, and seasons of transition, but as a rule every Christian should be under the care and oversight of elders, and involved in the vital life of a local family of believers. When a move from one city to another occurs, the first thing one should do, perhaps even before finding a place to live, is finding a church to transfer one’s membership into, to join, to worship in, to serve, to be served and to be held accountable. The big question, as Brian Habig and Les Newsom put it in their book The Enduring Community, is this: Why in the world wouldn’t a person want to be a member of a local church?