I see nothing in Scripture that commands me to be a member of a church. What is your opinion?
I point out lovingly that it is not my opinion that counts; it is the principles and practices of the Word. The New Testament doesn’t tell us “in so many words” that we must be a church member. Neither does it spell out how “formal” church membership is to be. Yet it gives a clear pattern to follow—believers belong to a local church (Acts 2:41–47; 11:26; Galatians 1:2). The word “church” in the New Testament is almost always used for the local body of believers. Can you find in Scripture a believer in the New Testament age, beginning with Pentecost, who was not part of a local assembly of believers? Further, we see believers’ being a part of other believers in a local church situation in passages such as 1 Peter 2, which uses terms like “brothers,” “priesthood,” “Body of Christ,” “fellowship of saints,” “sheep.”
Second, we must think of the local church as an organization here on earth, not just some nebulous entity. The New Testament church had officers and leaders (Acts 6; 14:23; Philippians 1:1; Ephesians 4:11). Ask yourself, How can a church have officers without members to elect and follow them? Where would these officers come from if the church didn’t have members?
Third, being a member of a local church identifies the believer as in no other way, even believers meeting in private homes (Philemon 2). In the world, people are joining political parties, civic groups, and the like. These organizations identify people with a certain cause. Identifying with God’s people in a local setting is even more important for the believer (Galatians 3:26–29). The word “flock,” seen in passages such as Acts 20:28, indicates that believers are to operate together in a definitive company. Since the local church is God’s program for this dispensation, the flock is just that.
Fourth, certain practices are reserved for the local church and its believers. The two ordinances to be observed by the local church in this age are baptism (for converts about to join the local body) and the Lord’s Supper (for believers who have joined the body and fulfill the spiritual requirements). Being part of the local body is essential to observing these ordinances as commanded.
Further, the New Testament stresses the importance of discipline in the local church. A person outside the local church membership cannot be accountable to those inside the local church, which is one of the key problems with many who refuse church membership; similar to those in the unbelieving world, they reject authority and refuse to submit to leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:12; Hebrews 13:17; 2 Peter 2:10; and Jude 8). On the positive side, those who are not bona fide members do not receive the loving care that those inside the church membership enjoy. It doesn’t work any other way. The pastors and deacons are shepherds of the church members. Mere friends, visitors, and drifters are not under their authority.
Another practice is evangelism. One encounters a discrepancy if he tries to evangelize souls but is not himself affiliated with a local church. First, his own example can be a hindrance. Second, where does he direct the ones he attempts to lead to Christ? In great measure, evangelism is only complete when new believers unite with other believers in a local family of God.
Fifth, we are commanded to love the brethren and serve them. Is being detached from the local body, membership-wise, the way we best demonstrate love and service? Passages such as Galatians 6:2 were written to people in the context of the local church.
Your question is especially germane to our day. Many of us know friends, neighbors, or relatives who are facing it. Church membership must never be thought of as synonymous with salvation. One can be a church member, even an active one, and not have experienced the new birth. On the other hand, it is possible to be saved and not be a church member. Being both a believer and a church member pleases the Lord and surely brings the greatest potential for obedience, joy, opportunities for service, and spiritual fruit.
Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send to email@example.com or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.