In my own experience, Christians who think lightly or negatively about the idea of local church membership tend to offer the same few reasons over and over again. This does not, in and of itself, mean that these reasons are invalid, of course. But it does mean that as a pastor, if I want to serve these brothers and sisters in Christ well, I will need to listen to their questions and attempt to answer them biblically. Let me briefly state a handful of reasons that I am regularly given by Christians for why they avoid church membership:
1) Church membership is too formal. The New Testament describes the church as a spiritual people. I have trouble combining the ideas of formality and spirituality.
2) Church membership itself is not biblical. There is no command, “Thou shalt be a member of your local church”.
3) A Christian is already a member of the Church (universal). Isn’t that enough?
4) I feel like I can live my Christian life very well (including serve the local church) without actually uniting with a particular local church.
Well, what do you think? Are you a Christian who is wondering whether to be, or not to be a church member? Do any of these reasons sound persuasive to you? Is church membership an unbiblical idea? Is it unnecessary for strong Christians? Does an insistence on local church membership bring with it the unbiblical baggage of over-bearing expectations?
I have written on this issue in the recent past and I also plan to answer the four reasons above in a series of four blog posts, beginning with this one. My hope is that this writing will serve those who desire to know God’s will on the matter of local church membership. The doctrine of the church is dear to my heart because the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is precious in God’s sight (Acts 20:28). Ultimately, I believe these issues will be resolved as a more biblical and beautiful vision of the church is seen by those who have been purchased with Christ’s own blood.
First, the issue of formality. We live in an age where it is often said, “I love Jesus, I just don’t like organized religion,” or “I have a strong faith without all the formality.” One of the complaints is that the church is way too institutionalized and this is never what Jesus or the apostles envisioned. I suppose there are some legitimate criticisms to be made here. But is this always true? Are all kinds of organization unbiblical? Can formality coexist with spirituality, or must the former always quench the latter?
If the New Testament is our guide (and it should be), then we will see that things like formality and organization and defined relationships are all characteristics of the NT church from its very beginning. Here are a few examples:
“Now in those days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among yourselves seven men…whom we will appoint to this duty.” (Acts 6:1-3)
Here in Acts 6 is the formal organization of a certain group of men to oversee a certain task. It was not assumed that the spirituality of the early church would ensure that the need was met. In fact, the opposite was true. Here is a case, then, where formality fosters spiritual unity.
“Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age…But refuse to enroll younger widows for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith.” (1 Tim. 5:9, 11)
The early church kept and regularly maintained various lists. In 1 Timothy 5 we see the qualifications to be enrolled on a particular list. The formal criteria listed in this passage promoted the spiritual well-being of the church.
“But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor. 5:11-13)
Everywhere in the NT we see the formality of a defined relationship. The church knew who was in, and they knew who was out. Sometimes those who were formally identified with the church had to be put out. And other times those who had been put out, were brought back in (2 Cor. 2:5-8). The point to be made here is that a formal awareness of who was in the church and who was on the outside (regardless of their profession of faith) was the norm.
In all of these cases, formality, organization, and defined relationships were a means of bringing blessing to the church. As an illustration of the blessing of formal relationships, consider this story by Joshua Harris, in the book Stop Dating The Church:
Jack and Grace met through a mutual friend. From day one they seemed to be the perfect match. Grace was everything that Jack had always wanted. She was beautiful, outgoing and caring – always there when Jack needed her.
For the first five months they were inseparable. Jack could hardly think of anything but Grace. He didn’t need to look further he told his friends. “She’s the one.”
Now almost three years have passed. Jack still enjoys the comfort and familiarity of being with Grace, but the spark is gone. Grace’s flaws seem more obvious. He’s not sure he finds her as attractive as he once did. And he is beginning to resent all the time she wants to spend with him.
One night, when she asks if they can define the nature of their relationship, Jack blows up. “We’re together aren’t we?” he asks angrily. “Why isn’t that enough for you?”
Obviously, Jack isn’t ready for commitment. And its unclear whether he ever will be…
Have you ever been in a relationship like this? I’m writing this book because I believe God has something better for you. He wants you in a relationship defined by both passion and commitment. But before you can take hold of this wonderful plan, you need to know something about this couple. There are millions of Jacks walking around today. And Grace isn’t a girl.
Grace is a church.
Are you keeping Grace guessing? Do you feel like a defined relationship with the church is too much to ask when you can just live together? Do you prefer to have the security of keeping your options open in case something goes wrong with this relationship or in case a better partner comes along? God has something better. God has designed the greatest intimacy in relationships to be reserved for a relationship where there is formal commitment, whether it be a marriage or the church (Eph. 5:25-27).