Biblical Church Membership
Does a Christian have to become a member of a local church?
I want to address this question for two reasons: 1) pastors don't talk about it very often, and 2) church membership among professing Christians is declining.
First, why is there so little teaching about membership today?
Unlike more acceptable topics like Christian love or salvation by faith, the topic of church membership is extremely uncomfortable for many. As a topic, it lives next-door to an even less popular topic, church discipline. Church membership and discipline require us to think of ourselves as a small part of a spiritual institution with firm standards for belief and conduct. Many people, especially American Christians, would prefer to think of themselves as autonomous individuals who can set their own standards for conduct. They feel uncomfortable, if not outraged, when that view is challenged.
Also, like church discipline, figuring out how to practice church membership in the real world requires careful examination of several Bible passages.
We don't find any verse in the gospels where Jesus states, "Truly I say to you, unless you are willing to attend a membership class, receive the right hand of fellowship from the elders, and attend services regularly, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."
But if that passage did exist, I'm sure some Christians would find a loophole in the Greek that proved it was a culturally-based command that doesn't apply to us today.
Now the second problem: why are professing Christians in America increasingly distant from the local church?
A Pew survey examined this question in 2018. You can see the results for yourself (tinyurl.com/4c4jk32u). But let me point out that 46% of evangelical protestants said that they practiced their faith "in other ways" than church attendance. And 41% of evangelical protestants gave preferential, rather than logistical, reasons not to attend.
To me this confirms a lack of understanding of the centrality of the local church to Christ's mission. Jesus expects every follower to be an active member of a local church. He expects us to align our preferences and logistics so that we participate in the institution He is building, the church.
Jesus' Teaching on Church Membership
Jesus gave the basis for church membership in Matthew 16.
Right after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it." (16:17-18)
Jesus doesn't allow Peter's confession of Jesus as Messiah to be an abstract philosophy with no conditions attached to it. Rather, Jesus states that Peter's confession puts Peter into a community Jesus is building. And Jesus guarantees that those who are part of that community have His protection from Hades (note how Paul alludes to losing this protection in 1 Cor. 5:5).
Then in Matthew 18, Jesus teaches on the removal of a church member living in sin. "And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as the Gentile and the tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:17-18).
The point Jesus makes in these two passages is clear: if you want to be identified with Christ, you must become a part of the institution He is building, the church, by confessing Jesus as Messiah and living by His teaching. To choose to remain apart from a church is to make oneself an outsider to Christ.
The Apostles' Teaching on the Church
The rest of the New Testament builds on this teaching. Let me summarize it into three main points:
1. Church membership professes one's faith in Christ. When you become a church member, you are telling the people of that church that you agree with them on the gospel and that you are committed to Christ. In the early church, this profession of faith was affirmed by baptism (Acts 2:41) and letters of commendation from other churches (Acts 18:27; Rom. 16:1; Col. 4:10; cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-2). Likewise, faithful churches today still communicate with the prior church of a new member to ensure they are not under church discipline.
2. Church membership shows one's commitment to be used by the Spirit. When you become a member, you are telling the people of that church that you aren't a church-shopper anymore; you intend to invest yourself in the church by blessing and encouraging the other believers as the Spirit enables you (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-31; 1 Pet. 4:10-11).
3. Church membership is necessary to fulfill dozens of "one another" commands. In the New Testament, there are 55 verses that command behavior toward "one another" within the church. This means that members of the church are accountable to each other (Matthew 18; Ephesians 5:21). Church members submit to the elders of a church (Heb. 13:17) as they hold it to God's standard of conduct. We don't get to replace the church with our own standards or our own spiritual community. The structure and accountability of Christ's church is His provision to sanctify us and protect us from the evil one.
In summary, you can't follow Christ and disregard the institution He created.
Now, if you have a friend who says he or she is a Christian but doesn't have a church, I can give three suggestions for how you might be able to respond.
First, your friend may be genuinely desiring a church but hasn't found one. People in this situation need encouragement to diligently seek one out. They also may need to evaluate whether their standards for a church are based on preference rather than Christ's standards. It's easy to substitute preferred Christian podcasts or the live stream of an out-of-state church for a genuine relationship with a local church. Pray for and engage that friend in discussion about their expectations. Encourage them to be both discerning and diligent in their search for a good church.
Second, your friend may be a genuine Christian who is genuinely unaware of this command. What can you do? If you know someone like that, pray for them and make time to ask what they know about the Bible's teaching on church membership. Perhaps they will respond to Christ's teaching in Matthew 16 and 18.
Third, your friend may identify as a Christian philosophically rather than practically. They may appreciate the teachings, morality, or theology of the Bible without a faithful desire to live for Jesus. This was common in Jesus' time (see John 6) and it remains common today. That person needs God to convict them of the sinfulness of their present way of life and their need for repentance and faith in Jesus. Ask God to give them a repentant heart. Ask Him to grow the depth of your discussions with them so that you can share about sin, Christ's atoning sacrifice, and then his expectations for his followers.
These reasons are fairly typical in my experience. But there may be other reasons than what I have stated. If you have a friend in a similar situation, take this as an opportunity to pray for them and help them know and obey Christ's call to true discipleship in the church.