A friend of mine (who is also a theologian) commented to me recently that one of the greatest weaknesses amongst modern day evangelicals is our doctrine of the church. My own pastoral reflection is that our ‘ecclesiology’ is indeed inadequate, and this is manifested by more than a few Christians unwillingness to join a local congregation. They’re happy to regularly attend—and even serve—for quite some time as ‘adherents’, without actually becoming members.
It’s as though they’re happy to have a de facto relationship with the body of Christ. To enjoy all of the benefits without any responsibility that comes with making a formal commitment. And this can go on for years until some significant situation arises, and they all of a sudden leave. But in so doing, the congregation is left grieving their departure and the pastoral issue itself is never properly addressed.
Mark Dever has recently published a short, fifty-page booklet, Why Should I Join a Church? (Crossway, 2020) in which addresses this very subject. While explicitly denying that membership is what makes someone a Christian, Dever says that he often says to people that, “If you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, you might be going to hell”.
The reason why Dever makes such an attention-grabbing statement is because he says, ecclesiology is one of the first-fruits of soteriology (salvation). Dever then goes on to outline seven reasons why every Christian should view church membership as an act of obedience.
First, to display the wonder of Gospel. The Gospel doesn’t just reconcile us to God but to others who are also His people. Hence, the Gospel has both ‘vertical’ (Eph. 2:1-10) as well as ‘horizontal’ ramifications (Eph. 2:11-16). As Dever rightly states:
It’s not enough to merely have Christian friends with whom we occasionally gather – friends we pick and choose according to our own tastes. What truly displays the gospel is when we commit to love and care for a group of people that includes folks utterly unlike us. We display the gospel when we gather each week to serve people who sometimes share only one thing in common with us: Jesus. We show we are reconciled in Christ when we commit to love those people in that place – no matter what faults and foibles they may have.
Second, because the Bible actually requires it. This is probably Dever’s most contentious—but ultimately, persuasive—point of all. This is because there is no explicit command “Thou shalt join a church”. Nonetheless, Dever gives five reasons why this is so:
- New Testament churches kept membership records (Acts 1:15; 2:41, 47; 4:4).
- The commands of Scripture assume church membership. E.g. Love (John 13:34-35) Unity (Rom. 12:16) Edification (1 Cor. 14:12-26) and forbearance (Col. 2:12).
- 1 Corinthians 12 explicitly teaches that we are ‘members’ of Christ’s body.
- New Testament images for the church imply church membership. E.g. God’s ‘household’ (1 Tim. 3:15), ‘stones’ that are part of a ‘spiritual house’ (1 Pet. 2:5) and ‘sheep’ who are part of Christ’s flock (1 Pet. 2:25; 5:2).
- Texts in Scripture relating to church discipline assume formal church membership (i.e. Matt. 18:15-18; Gal. 6:1; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 1:20; 5:19-20; Titus 3:9-11).
Third, to demonstrate love and be loved by other believers. Sadly, too many Christians view the church as consumers, assessing its value in terms of what they can receive. But being committed to a local church is primarily about how you can worship with, serve alongside and be an encouragement to other Christians.
Fourth, to be more effective in evangelism. One of the beautiful things of belonging to a local church is that you get to benefit from the spiritual gifts that the rise Lord Jesus has distributed amongst His people (Eph. 4:9-13). And this is especially true when it comes to evangelism. Sharing the Gospel with unbelievers is more a team effort than an individual performance (John 17:20-23).
Fifth, to gain a deeper sense of personal assurance. The Bible says that the love we have for others is the sign as to whether or not we have truly been saved (see 1 John 3:11-15). What’s more, it’s through the body of His church that Christ has planned for His people to be brought to spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:11-16)
Sixth, to expose false Gospels and protect the true one. Belonging to a church not only means that our own faith matures, but that it is also strengthened against the threat of false teaching (Acts 20:29-31; Eph. 4:11-15). Following on from this, church membership also brings us all under the corrective discipline of Christ’s under shepherds (Heb. 13:17; Psalm 23:4).
Seventh, to bring glory to God. Significantly, there is only one thing the NT says that Christ is building, and that is His church (Matt 16:18). It’s also crucial to remember that whenever people mistreat the church, they are actually mistreating Jesus Himself (Matt 25:45; Acts 9:4).
Are you a follower of Jesus but not giving His body the value and importance Christ Himself asks? Membership in a local congregation should not just be a duty, but a spiritual delight. For we are a chosen people who have been redeemed so that together we may declare the praises of Him who called us out of darkness and brought us into His wonderful light (1 Pet 2:9-10).