The Necessity of Church Membership
May 31, 2020 / No. 4039
We come today to our last message on this little section in Hebrews 10:19-25. The writer’s aim in this section, and indeed in the entire book, is to encourage believers to persevere in their faith. His audience is made up of persecuted Jewish Christians who were tempted to go back to Judaism. So he sets before them the supremacy of Christ and the great privilege that New Testament believers have of access to God through the blood of Jesus Christ.
We have labeled these verses “A New Testament Call to Worship,” and we see that idea repeated in these verses several times. Verse 19 speaks of “boldness to enter into the holiest.” Verse 22 says, “Let us draw near” to God. Verse 23: “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith.” Verse 24: Let us consider one another.” And, especially verse 25: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is.” This is a New Testament call to Christians to join in the public and corporate worship of the church.
In our last message, which was two weeks ago, we looked at verse 25 and talked about why, as Christians, we should go to church, or, in the words of the text, why we should not forsake the gathering of ourselves together. Over against the individualistic mentality of many Christians today, whose attitude often is: “I don’t need the church and I don’t need other believers. I can read the Bible myself and have an effective relationship with God”—over against that, we saw that the practice of the early New Testament believers, and the calling for believers in every age, was to gather for public worship on the first day of the week to pray, to bring their offerings, and especially to hear God’s Word. Out of those gatherings the church, as the body of Christ in a local place, grows together. And so the writer here in Hebrews 10 also speaks of the fellowship of the saints: considering one another, provoking one another to love and good works, and exhorting one another—all of which are impossible if we do not attend worship together as fellow Christians.
Now in today’s message, I want to take this a step further and talk, not just about church attendance, but about church membership. I do that not because I think everyone should be a member of the church of which I am a pastor, or of the churches that we represent. But I do that because in the New Testament there is a definite structure and order set down for the local church, and this structure or organization is necessary not only for the church to give an effective witness and be visible and identifiable in the world, but also for the spiritual life and well-being of the individual Christian. In other words, the church is an organization that is essential to the life of every Christian. Every Christian should be a part of it through membership in a local congregation.
To be a member of a church is more than simply finding a church that you like and attending there regularly so that you get to know the other people who go to church there and become comfortable in that church setting. Many churches today offer something like that. No membership…just come…everyone is welcome…we have no discipline, no formal ties, and we offer the sacraments to all who think they are Christians…and we will not exercise any censure of anything in your personal life.
When I speak of membership, and when the Bible speaks of membership, I mean formal membership in which you go through a series of classes or a preparation process to get yourself ready for membership. And in those classes and in that preparation you are instructed in all the main teachings of Scripture as that church holds them. Then you make an official request to become a member. And you are interviewed by the rulers, the elders in the church. You stand up and you publicly confess your faith before the church. And in that you express your solidarity with and your commitment to the local church. And in formally becoming a member, you express your agreement with the teaching of the church that you are joining. You commit yourself to support the church financially. You vow to protect the unity of the local congregation. You show yourself willing and available to use your gifts in the church and to pursue the growth of the local church. And also, as you come to the elders to make your membership formal, you willingly place yourself under their spiritual care and oversight, expressing your readiness to submit to their admonition and also to church discipline should you become wayward in sin.
That, in a nutshell, is what church membership is. And in the rest of this message, I want to present the biblical argument for church membership. However, before I do that, there is one thing I want to say. I understand that there are in our listening audience many people who are in isolated circumstances. You would love to be a member of a church that is faithful to the gospel but there is no such church near where you live. And in His providence, God prevents you from moving to such a place where there is a church. To you I say this: Persevere in the truth. Do everything in your power to get yourself to a place where there is a church that is faithful to God’s Word. And remember, it is not good for the Christian to live in isolation. We need one another as believers.
In this message, however, I hope to speak especially to those who think that they do not need the church and who live quite independently as Christians even though there are faithful churches in their vicinity. Maybe this is you, and you say, “I just don’t see the need for church membership. And when I go through the New Testament, I don’t see anywhere the idea and the requirement of formal membership.” That is really what I want to address today. And I want to give you six biblical reasons that you, as a Christian, should be a member of a local, faithful church.
Reason number one. Jesus Christ Himself loves and is interested in local churches. Now it is true that the word church in the New Testament is used in reference to the universal body of Christ. And the church is universal. It is not limited to any one place or time or people, but is worldwide and history-long. And it is true, too, that Christ’s love if for His universal church. She is His bride, and He lays down His life for her. But, even though all of that is true, that does not mean that it is enough for a Christian to say, “I’m a member of Christ’s universal church.” That is because the church in the New Testament, the word church, is also used in reference to local congregations. In fact, of the 110 or so times that word is used, about 90 times it is in reference to a specific local church. For example, the epistles are written to local churches in Rome, in Corinth, in Galatia, in Ephesus, in Philippi, and so on. And in Revelation, chapters 2 and 3, Christ Jesus pens the letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor. He is interested in those churches. His love for them is not limited to the cross, but it is an on-going care for His church in local institutions. This is a reason for us to be committed to the local church. Christ loves the church, so we should too. In Acts 20:28, Paul says to the elders of Ephesus that the flock over which they were appointed as overseers, the congregation in Ephesus, that flock God had purchased with His own blood. Jesus loved that local church and He gave His life’s blood for her. And, as Christians, we are called to love what Christ loves. If He loved the church so much that He gave Himself for her, then should we not also ourselves love and give ourselves to the church?
Reason number one: Jesus loves the church, so we should too.
Reason number two. The local church is a spiritual family. The husband of the church is Jesus Christ. And that means that all the other members of the church are His bride and are all spiritual brothers and sisters. We are, the Bible says, of the family and the household of God, with God as our Father. And now the question is: If you have problems in your family or in your marriage, what is it that you do? How do you show your faithfulness to your spouse? Do you run from her? No, you stick together. And you work on things. And through this process you grow together, not only as husband and wife, but also as believers. And that kind of commitment that we would have in our families is the kind of commitment that we should have to other believers in the local church. If the church of Christ is a family, how could a true Christian go it alone? As a spiritual family, we need one another and we come together to Jesus Christ for family fellowship—spiritual food and spiritual fellowship.
Reason number two: the local church is a Christian family.
Reason number three. In the early history of the church recorded in the New Testament, those who were converted were brought into local congregations and were called, as Christians, to live their lives in the context of a local church with fellow believers. In Acts 2:47 we read that “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” Which church? Was it just the universal body? No, it was the congregation at Jerusalem.
And so Paul, when he went on his missionary journeys in the book of Acts, went out with the goal of establishing congregations in each of the cities that he visited. And then when we look at the New Testament we see that the majority of the books of the New Testament were written to local congregations or to men who pastored local congregations. And in many places these letters speak about how believers are to live their lives with each other in the local church and to seek the unity of the Spirit in the expression of the church in a local congregation. So believers were added to the local church. This speaks against individualism and against the idea so common today of home churching. You cannot simply dismiss the local church and say, “I can, as a Christian, belong to the universal body of Christ. I don’t need the local church.” In the New Testament, this is the third reason, believers were added to local churches.
Then, reason number four. A part of the biblical structure for the local church is the office of elder. The elder cannot function in his office without members in the church. In Hebrews 13:17 we read this: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” The rulers spoken of here in this verse are spiritual rulers, not civil rulers. They watch for your souls. In their care of souls, they must give account to God. And so, to make their work enjoyable, more pleasant, and our life in the church more profitable, we are called to submit to them. These words are written to the same people who are exhorted in chapter 10:25 not to forsake the gathering of themselves together. So, a part of their gathering themselves together was that there was in the local church an organization, with elders who took oversight of the lives of the people who came together for worship. This implies membership.
So, when Paul organized the churches in his missionary journeys, he ordained elders in every city (Acts 14:23). Those elders are given in the Scriptures a specific duty with regard to the members of the church, not general duties for anyone and everyone who might visit a worship service as a visitor, but specific duties to watch over and to shepherd the souls of the flock. And now, without a commitment from an individual to the local church to obey and to submit to the men who were elders in the local church, it is impossible for elders to fulfill their duties.
Reason number four: As part of the biblical structure of the local church, there is the office of elder, and it cannot function without membership.
Reason number five. This one is closely connected to number four. Christ has given to the church the right to excommunicate from its fellowship those who walk in sin without repentance. In Matthew 18 the steps of what we call church discipline are laid out by Jesus Christ. First, if your brother sins against you, you go to him privately and talk to him. This puts an obligation on every member of the church with regard to the other members. Second, if your brother will not repent of his sin, then you take a witness and you talk to your brother. So first, you deal with it privately, and then you have another person in the church who is aware of the situation help you to deal with him. And then Jesus says, if your sinning brother still will not hear you, you are to tell it to the church. And He does not mean by that that you stand up and tell everyone in the church about the sin that someone has committed. But you bring the situation to the attention of the leaders in the church, the elders. And they become involved in admonishing the sinning brother. And then, if he will not hear them, Jesus says, he must be put out of the fellowship of the church—excommunicated.
Let me ask a simple question here. If a person is not a member of a church, how is it even possible for the elders to put that person out of the church? The church needs members so that the elders can do their work of oversight; so that there can be proper accountability between believers in the church; and so that there can be a purging out of the leaven of sin and false teaching through discipline and excommunication. Church discipline is impossible without church membership. That is the fifth reason.
And then there is one more reason: reason number six. The local church is the main instrument through which Christ administers His grace to believers. The church is not here only to reach the unconverted by the preaching of the gospel, but the church is here in this world with the calling to teach and preach God’s Word to those who are already Christians. So that believers, as they hear that Word of God, may continue to grow in faith and maturity as Christians. Believers need the church. The church is the proper place for this spiritual growth because Christ has given the church the right to proclaim the gospel and to administer the sacraments and to exercise Christian discipline. When we distance ourselves from the church, we take ourselves away from the proper and ordinary means of grace. And this becomes spiritually detrimental to a Christian.
So these are the six reasons that every Christian should be a member of the local church. Let me recap all six of them. One, because Jesus Christ loves local churches. Two, because the church is a spiritual family. Three, because in the New Testament believers were added to local churches and exhorted to live in the context of the local church. Four, because elders can do their work in the church only when there are committed members. Five, because Christian discipline is impossible without church membership. And, six, because the church is the main instrument by which God administers His grace to believers.
Now, there remains one question: How do you know which church to join? Will just any church that goes by the name of Christian do? Here we need to be discerning as Christians. There are at least three things that we should look for in a local church.
The first is this: Whether the gospel is faithfully and purely preached from Scripture. That is, the content of the preaching is God’s Word, not human ideas. God Himself is extolled in all His attributes as the righteous and just and holy God who, in sovereign love and mercy, has saved His people. The preaching declares that Jesus Christ died on the cross in the place of sinners in order to satisfy the justice of God. And the preaching calls sinners to repent and believe on Jesus Christ. In short, the question is this: Is God’s Word faithfully proclaimed in all its aspects? That is the first thing to look for in a church.
The second thing we should look for in a church is this: Whether the sacraments are administered in a biblical way? Some teach that the sacraments are a magical way of being saved. Others say that anyone who pleases can receive the sacraments. But with discernment, we have to ask this question: Does the church administer the sacraments in a way that agrees with biblical teaching, so that the sacraments are administered to believers to confirm their faith? And sacraments are to be viewed as a secondary means to the preaching of the gospel. The sacraments themselves do not save. That is the second thing we must look for.
The third thing we must look for in a church has to do with the structure of the church along the lines of what we have already talked about in this message. Does the church have a leadership of elders who administer Christian discipline and guide and care for the church in a spiritual manner? The church, even though it is an earthly institution, is a heavenly organization. Its focus must be on spiritual things. Today many people look for churches based on external things: how large is the church, how friendly is it, how many ministries does it have, and so on. But the standards of the Scripture are spiritual—you should look for Christ and His presence in the preaching of the gospel, in the administration of the sacraments, and in the leadership of the elders.
Until Jesus comes again and gathers the church as one in its final glory, He calls us to gather with other believers to be a part of His church here on the earth.
Let us pray.
Father, we give thanks for the church of Jesus Christ. We pray that she may be found faithful here in the earth even in evil days. We ask that there may remain on earth a committed core of Christians who will give themselves and their resources to the church so that the church may continue in her calling to proclaim the gospel to all nations until the day that our Lord returns. We pray this for Jesus’ sake, Amen.