Why Church Membership? The importance of community in an individualistic and online world
Why should I join a church? Is there really a difference between joining a church and attending regularly? I can now go to church "online" and watch a famous preacher on my TV - isn't that just as good as joining a local church?
In our day, where both technology, individualism, and a consumer approach to religion are rampant, these are all questions that come up and need to be answered. This is especially true for churches like ours that still hold to a high view of church membership as both Biblical and beneficial. In this post, I want to make a biblical case for church membership. In a follow up post, we will consider the importance and benefits of church membership.
Is church membership in the Bible?
Because there is no verse in the Bible that directly states "Thou shalt become a member of a church," it is claimed by some that the whole concept of church membership is not a biblical practice. Yes, believers ought to go to church, but actually becoming a member by taking the vows which constitute church membership is extra-biblical, and should not be required. Some Christian churches have abandoned the practice of membership altogether.
It is certainly true that there is no verse that directly mandates church membership in the Bible. Nor is there any example of people taking membership vows in order to enter a church. But the issue cannot be settled so simply. The important question to ask is not, "does the phrase 'church membership' show up in Scripture?" Rather, the question is "Are the requirements and responsibilities which are captured in church membership vows taught in Scripture?" When we ask the question this way, the answer is, I believe, an emphatic yes.
Think of it this way. We have all heard the saying "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it probably is a duck." The point of this expression is that we can often identify something by its characteristics, without needing to see an exact label for that thing. If I see a bird that walks like a duck and quacks, I can safely assume it is a duck even if the bird is not wearing a sign around its neck that says "I'm a duck." This same reasoning applies to church membership. There may not be a sign in the N.T. that says "Church membership," but there is a lot of walking and quacking that suggests the reality is present. While the exact terminology may be absent, the substance of the vows of church membership are definitely there.
In the PCA we require individuals to affirm five vows to become an official member of the church:
1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save [except] in His sovereign mercy?
2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
3. Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
4. Do you promise to support the church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
5. Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the church, and promise to study its purity and peace
What is important to notice about these vows is that none of them go beyond Scripture, but all of them reflect a God given requirement from Scripture. The first three vows require the candidate to affirm that they believe the Gospel, trust in Christ for their salvation, and are committed to living a life of obedience and repentance. Certainly no one will argue, I hope, that these are extra-biblical requirements. The Bible clearly teaches this responsibility for all those who would consider themselves Christians.
What about the fourth vow? The fourth vow highlights the responsibility to worship together with a local body of believers, and to support the church through their service and finances to the best of their ability. Again, these are all requirements clearly supported by Scripture. The author of Hebrews reminds us "not to neglect to meet together as is the habit of some" (Heb 10) and Paul highlights the importance of using our spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12) and our money for the work of God's kingdom in and beyond the local church (1 Cor 16:2; 2 Cor 8-9). I would also add that Paul's teaching on Spiritual gifts in 1 Cor 12 makes no sense apart from membership in a local church. The whole point of spiritual gifts is that they are used for the edification of the church for mutual good. Moreover, the passage also implies that God has given other Christians gifts that each of us need, and will not receive if we are not associated with a body of believers.
Finally, we come to the fifth vow, which I think is where much of the resistance to church membership lies. The fifth vow expresses a commitment to be accountable to other Christians, and particularly the elders of the church. In our individualistic society, we do not want accountability, and so we don't like the idea of taking vows committing ourselves to the government and discipline of the church. Nevertheless, this vow is also very clearly biblical. Not only is the concept of elders who have spiritual authority present (see Heb 13), but in so many places of Scripture we see the responsibility we have to one another to hold each other accountable in our life and beliefs. Paul writes, for example, in Gal 6:1 that if any are caught in a transgression, those who are spiritual should "restore him." James finishes his letter by encouraging Christians to go after and bring back a brother who "wanders from the truth." God, in other words, expects us to be in communities where people have the authority to restore if we begin to wander in our conduct or belief. Communities where people have commitments to us, and we have made commitments to them.
So are the commitments of church membership biblical? Yes. And all of these commitments are incredibly important and beneficial to our lives as Christians.