The idea of belonging to a specific local church over a whole lifetime is a foreign concept to many people in our culture. Church membership isn’t usually even in our vocabulary, and the church is often looked at as merely voluntary. We tend to treat the church like we treat restaurants, asking “What am I in the mood for today?” and frequenting many different churches without really belonging to any single church. We’ve all church-shopped and hopped, but few of us have stayed long enough to become actual disciples of Jesus, under the pastors and elders of an established local church.
Spiritual, But Not Religious?
One of the most popular sayings today is, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” It is why that one YouTube video (Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus) went viral so fast a few years ago. Spirituality is free, it is unhinged, it is universal. Religion on the other hand, is restrictive, constraining, suffocating—or so the thinking goes. Professing Christians today believe that they can belong to the invisible church of Jesus Christ while foregoing membership in the visible church.
In addition to this kind of thinking, many people today think they can get everything they need out of church right from home. There are large conferences or events to attend every once in a while to feel a sense of belonging to the church, and for the rest of the time I can listen to great Christian music on Spotify or stream sermons from my favorite preacher. But while these things do help people grow in their faith, the Holy Spirit primarily works through the ordinary means of the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and godly discipline to build up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:4–16).
If anyone desires to become a disciple of Jesus, then he or she needs to come under the instruction and guidance of Jesus in his Word. Jesus actually disciples us, even 2,000 years after his ascension (John 14:26; Acts 1:8-11), in the following ways:
- He teaches us sound doctrine through wise, godly examples (2 Tim. 3:10; 4:2).
- He shapes us by the prayers of the church both spoken and sung.
- He corrects us in doctrine or life whenever we need it. Jesus calls us his “sheep” because, like sheep, we are prone to wander and are in need of a shepherd to lead us (Ps. 119:176; Matt. 18:12–13).
So, Do I Need to Be a Member of a Local Church?
Although there isn’t a verse in Scripture that says, “And the people of Ephesus took the five-week new members’ class and were received as official members!” What we find in the New Testament clearly demonstrates that individual Christians were a part of local congregations where they had some type of official status or membership. Through baptism, they were identifying not only with Jesus but with Jesus’ family, the church. The newly baptized entered into a binding relationship with God and his people. This set the stage for being able to fulfill the various calls in the New Testament to the Christian community. Calls like:
- “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13).
- “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groan ing, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17).
- “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Rom. 12:9–13).
- “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
For the New Testament believers, weekly Christian fellowship under the apostles’ teaching was a non-negotiable (Acts 2:42). It provided the foundation for fulfilling the various exhortations to serve one another within the church. It also allowed for accountability and submission to qualified and ordained leaders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-16). To forsake this is to set aside what the apostles themselves delivered to the church as the normal structure God ordained for discipleship. Church membership does not make you a Christian—salvation is by grace alone through faith in Christ alone—but being connected to a church through membership, under the oversight of elders, is something every Christian should long for, and church on Sunday is integral to our Christian growth.
What Does the Bible Say?
- How God works through the local church: Eph. 4:4–16; John 14:26; Acts 1:8–11; 1 Tim. 3:10, 4:2; Ps. 119:176; Matt. 18:12–13
- Church membership: Acts 2:37–47; Rom. 16:1–16; Acts 14:23, 20:29–30; 1 Cor. 6:14–20; Heb. 13:17; 1 Tim. 5:12; 1 Pet. 5:1–5
- Belonging to a Church: 1 Cor. 12:12–27
- Ordinary, by Michael Horton
- Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- The Gospel Comes With a House Key, by Rosaria Butterfield