In 1754 Benjamin Franklin published a cartoon called “Join or Die.” It pictured a snake cut into eights representing the British colonies in the New World. Franklin argued that unless the colonies formed one body they would never be able to resist the powerful threat of the French and their Indian allies.
Considering the fierce enemies assaulting believers in every age (1 Pet. 5:8; John 15:19; Gal. 5:19) Franklin’s plea speaks to one of the most basic questions every believer has to answer: “What is the relationship between the Christian and the church?” Increasingly, more people see less of a connection between the two. Sixty percent of Americans who never attend church during the course of a year view themselves as Christians.1 But a sincere perusal of Scripture shows a much tighter relationship between the Christian and the church. In fact, contrary to the practice of most Americans, God not only calls believers to attend church but to bind themselves to a local, Bible-believing congregation in a visible and vital way.
The Question of Attending Church
This question is answered definitively in Hebrews 10:25. “Let us not [forsake] the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but [exhort] one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” This verse requires more than regularly attending worship services, but it doesn’t require less. Believers go to church. In fact, the writer says that church attendance is more important today than it was yesterday!
Salvation is never merely a personal experience. The fall brought individualism; Adam and Eve hid from God and from each other (Gen. 3:7–8). God sought them out to become his worshiping people (v. 9). Redemption creates a new community. The Bible speaks to God’s people in the plural: “Come let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Ps. 95:6).
Both Catholics and historic Protestants have maintained that outside of the church there is no salvation. While allowing for exceptions, as a rule the only place God promises to save is in the church (Matt. 16:18–19). No one who disregards the body may claim to be united to the head of the church. At almost no point in the history of the world would someone who neglected corporate worship be regarded as a Christian. Without regular church attendance we cut ourselves off from the means of grace and lose contact with a vital counter-cultural experience.
The more knotty question is, “Must I join a church? Must I pledge to meaningfully belong to a local congregation until for weighty and justifiable reasons I am called elsewhere?”
Necessity of Joining the Church
The difference between attending and joining a church is analogous to the difference between dating and marriage. When it comes to our church life, the Bible clearly steers us toward the latter.
The Old Testament Assumes Membership
God’s threat that covenant breakers be cut off from his people (e.g. Gen. 17:14) is meaningless apart from a robust understanding of membership. Likewise, outsiders could only join the covenant community through membership rites. No non-Israelite could simply say, “I read Torah, go to temple, and tithe, so I’m part of the people of God.” “When a stranger…wants to keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as a native of the land” (Ex. 12:43, 48). Church membership no longer requires circumcision (thank God!). But the principle of initiation into God’s tangible community (through baptism and membership vows) remains.
Church Analogies Symbolize Membership
The members of the church are living stones (1 Pet. 2:5) which are vitally connected together. The church is a body (1 Cor. 12) which cannot be constituted only intermittently. The church is the family of God (Eph. 3:15), an image that assumes cohesiveness and commitment. The church is the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2–3). Far from an abstract concept, Jesus says the flock can be numbered (Matt. 18:12).
Pastoral Care Requires Membership
Elders are responsible for the souls under their care (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17). Likewise, believers must submit to the oversight of their shepherds (1 Thess. 5:12–13). Such a reciprocal relationship of oversight and submission requires more than church attendance. It calls for a membership commitment.
The Great Commission Implies Church Membership (Matt. 28:18–20).
Baptism, discipling and teaching are all to be done in the context of a visible church with an ordained leader and a duly constituted church body. For this reason, the historic church practiced membership and developed The Apostles’ Creed as a rule for church membership.
Church Discipline Requires Membership
Church discipline is a gift that God gives to the church for the maturity of her members and the purity of her body. Matthew 18 requires that those who refuse to submit to church discipline are to be identified as unbelievers, that is, those who are outside of God’s community of grace (cf. John 9:22). Excommunication assumes communication, a word that implies intimate participation.
Sanctification is Connected to Membership
Sanctification takes place in the context of union with Christ and other believers (Heb. 2:11–12). If you want to grow in grace commit yourself to a healthy Christian community whose members will sometimes disappoint you. Attendees often scatter under duress; mature members stick out church problems and grow. Those who never join a church rarely learn to bow their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; his yoke is not heavy or burdensome, but it does demand submission (Matt. 11:28–30). Your loved ones also benefit from your church membership. Long-term membership in a faithful church conveys a kind of commitment that is rare today.
Expressions of Living in the Church
Assuming the biblical necessity of church membership, what are some of the basic commitments that members make?
Church Members Prioritize Worship (Heb. 10:25)
Corporate worship should never be reduced to a duty. But unless we know our duties we might never learn to delight in them. Regular corporate worship is both a duty and a delight. Yet, some of us skip worship more often than work. Some of us wouldn’t miss an episode of our favorite T.V. show, but aren’t bothered by missing worship. Some of us may be altering our future family tree by attending worship with less frequency than our parents did. We need to learn to say “no” to commitments that conflict with corporate worship.
Prioritizing worship also means that coming to church is more about meeting with God than about meeting with our friends. Suppose all your church friends moved away and were replaced by an entirely different but orthodox congregation. Whether you would retain your membership or not depends on your priorities.
Church Members Maintain the Unity of the Church
Believers must not retreat from the world (John 17:15). We must love even our enemies (Matt. 5:44). But our primary commitment is to God’s family. As we cultivate deep friendships among God’s people we will be more likely to handle disagreements with care and more reticent to create unwarranted division.
Church Members Receive and Give Instruction and Discipline
If we want to know God’s will for us the most important thing we can do is go to church. Believers welcome preaching “not as the word of men but as is in truth, the word of God.” Those who carefully hear the preached word find that it “effectively works in them” (1 Thess. 2:13). It also works through them. Church members edify their brothers and sisters through their time, talents, and resources (Rom. 12:4–8), energized by the lively preaching of God’s word.
Church membership is a gift and a duty. It’s sort of like making children eat their dessert. Christ saves and sanctifies sinners in the church. Where else would we want to be?
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