Being a member of a biblical church is essential to the Christian faith, not an optional addition. A true church is one that faithfully preaches the Bible and rightly administers the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
And the reason being a member of a church like this is essential is because the Christian faith is all about believing in and following Jesus. We are forgiven for our sins and declared righteous before God the Father only through faith in Jesus, who died and rose from the grave as our substitute.
He did what we could never do, which was to offer a satisfying payment to God for our sins, and He did this so that we could have a reconciled relationship with God now and forever.
In Jesus we are spared the wrath of God, because He took it in our place in His suffering and death.
And when Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to His disciples, He said:
18 All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. 19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
Jesus wanted the apostles to go out to the world and tell them about who Jesus was, and to follow that preaching with baptizing all who believed on Jesus.
But the Christian life does not end at baptism. It is marked by a lifetime of learning, and teaching others, to observe all that Jesus commanded.
These commands are not limited to the words Jesus spoke in His earthly ministry. Jesus is the Word, and all the commands of Scripture are therefore the commands of Jesus.
So we must know the Bible, and we must follow God’s commands. Trusting and obeying Jesus is fundamental to Christianity.
And when it comes to obeying Jesus, there are many commands given to us in the Bible that require membership in a biblical local church. What follows is a handful of these commands that make church membership a necessity.
Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.
The Bible requires us to be in submission to rulers (elders or pastors) in the church. We are supposed to have pastors who teach us the Word of God, shepherd us, and whom we can follow.
Pastors are given command to oversee their flocks with diligence and care.
28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
A command like this to pastors is nonsensical is those pastors do not have an identifiable flock. How can they be accountable to God for the way they lead their people if they do not know who their people are?
Peter gave a similar command to the elders of churches. Faithful oversight is a requirement of elders (pastors), and this oversight requires a knowledge of who needs oversight.
1 The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: 2 Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; 3 Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.
1 Peter 5:1-4
This flock needs feeding by their pastor, but how can the pastor do this well without knowing who it is he is charged by God to feed? The fulfillment of commands requiring submission to church authorities for members and shepherding/oversight for pastors require church membership.
In Matthew 18, we see the process for church discipline, which is arguably the third mark of a faithful church. Churches must practice biblical church discipline.
15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
Again, being a Christian requires believing in Jesus and following His commands. And the process God has set up to keep His church pure and to prevent us from straying from God’s commands is church discipline.
When a Christian begins to not walk in holiness (Heb 12:14; Phil. 2:12-13; Gal 5:22-33), or is failing to love others in the church (Gal. 6:2; Rom 12:15; Matt. 5:43-48), that Christian needs to be held accountable for their sins.
Christians should not be able to walk in their sins without consequences. This is a grace, because ultimately we know we will stand before God and answer for our lives.
The grace is that we have a symbol here and now in church discipline as to our standing with God through our relationship with the church. We should not have confidence in our relationship with God if we do not have good standing with His church.
Church discipline is a warning sign to us that we need to turn from our sins that we have grown to love. We must repent and turn to Christ, and this will also reconcile us to Christ’s church.
Christians should be disciplined if they are walking in their sins. Whether it is drunkenness, gossip, theft, failing to love their wife and children, or anything else, Christians need a formal source of accountability.
12 For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? 13 But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.
1 Corinthians 5:12-13
But church discipline only works in the context of church membership. The process laid out in Matthew 18 assumes the structure of church pastors and members. It assumes a definable church to which a charge can be brought.
We are also commanded in Hebrews to not forsake gathering together. Church attendance, gathering with the saints, is a biblical necessity.
24 And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: 25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
On top of this, we are to spend our Lord’s Day (Sunday) honoring God. We are to put off our own desires and worship God as He has called us to do.
13 If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: 14 Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
God promises to bring us great blessings in honoring His holy day. And a large part of this blessing comes in worshiping with God’s people in a faithful church.
Another aspect of obedience that requires church membership is the concept the apostle Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 12.
12 For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. 14 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? 16 And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? 18 But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. 19 And if they were all one member, where were the body? 20 But now are they many members, yet but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. 22 Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: 23 And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. 24 For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked. 25 That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. 26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. 27 Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.
1 Corinthians 12:12-27
We are called by God to serve with the gifts He has given us and to do our part within the body God has placed us in.
We are not all the same, but we have different gifts. And those gifts were given not for ourselves but for building up the body, for blessing others.
This again assumes a definable body; a group of people in which your gifts can be discerned and used for the good of those in that church body.
The Bible is not ambiguous as to the importance of church membership. Christians are a part of the universal body of Christ, but being united to Christ and His universal body is to manifest itself by uniting yourself to a local expression of that body.
These local expressions of the universal body of Christ are local churches. Churches with a pastor or pastors who preach the Word of God faithfully, rightly administer the sacraments, and practice church discipline.
Love for Christ is to express itself in love for His body, His church. The Christian faith involves individual belief in Jesus, but it is not an individualistic faith. Jesus is the Head of His church, and His church is a united body.
God is saving a people, and we are to be united to those people. And because this is what God commands of us, we know that walking in line with these commands is full of blessing. God’s commands are always for our good, and to be received with thanksgiving and joy.