By: Rev. Peter Kemeny, pastor of Good News Presbyterian Church of Frederick, MD
Many Christians faithfully attend a church for years but never take vows of church membership. They view church membership as an option rather than as a Scriptural mandate. Does the Bible command Christians to join a church? Consider the scriptural case for church membership.
The first reason you should join a church is that church membership is biblical. The Bible does not explicitly command Christians to join a church – it assumes it. The New Testament presupposes membership, for example, in the command, “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). If you never join a church it is impossible for you to obey this command. Similarly, I Peter 5:2 directs elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” How can elders identify the particular flock that God holds them responsible to shepherd unless Christians formally align themselves with particular congregations?
Throughout the Bible, God draws a clear line between those inside and those outside the community of believers. For example, Paul wrote a letter “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Philippians 1:1). This implies that the church in Philippi was a clearly defined body of believers with a formal governing structure: overseers (elders) and deacons.
Some Christians justify their reluctance to join a local church by saying, “I am a member of the universal church.” While the Bible does speak of the universal church (e.g. Ephesians 5:25 tells us that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her)” it also refers to local congregations such as “the church in Jerusalem” and “the church of God that is in Corinth” (Acts 8:1; I Corinthians 1:2). To claim membership in the universal church without joining a local congregation is to overly spiritualize something that Scripture makes concrete.
The second reason you should join a church is that church membership is good for you. We all need a group of Christians who will help hold us accountable. Taking vows of church membership invites fellow believers to hold you accountable to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Earl Blackburn, a Baptist pastor in California, tells a story of a Sunday when his church excommunicated a man for beating his wife and not showing repentance. The church leadership announced the man’s excommunication during the morning worship service. On that Sunday there happened to be a family visiting the church for the first time. After the service, the man of that family walked up to Pastor Blackburn in tears. He said, “I want to become a member of this church. I need to become a member.”
When Blackburn asked him “why?” the man explained, “I’ve never seen anything like this, and I believe it is so biblical. I’m on a worship team in a big megachurch in this area. I’ve committed adultery on my wife two times. By the mercy of God, both times she’s taken me back. The senior pastor and the pastoral staff all knew about me having an affair with the woman in this church, but they didn’t stop me from being on the worship team. I had two different affairs with two different women. Everyone on the pastoral staff and everyone on the worship team knew about me having these affairs. I continued to play every Saturday evening and every Sunday morning on the worship team and no one said a word. I had no fear of God. And after they did nothing the first time it was easier for me to do it the second time. The church knew about it and the church condoned it. They didn’t like it, but they didn’t do anything about it. And no one came to me. It was a brother with whom I worked, who was not a member of this church, who kept confronting me with Scripture. This is what led to my repentance.”
We need to join a church because we need accountability. True accountability can exist only when we are under authority, in a committed relationship with others in a congregation. If there is no authority, there can be no true accountability.
The third reason you should join a church is that church membership is good for the church. Someone said that the difference between involvement and commitment is like the contribution that a chicken and a pig make to a ham and egg breakfast. The chicken is involved but the pig is committed. People who are merely involved do not build strong churches. People who make a blood earnest commitment to its people and mission build strong churches.
Christian, are you a member of a church? You may have reasonable reservations that keep you from joining. I encourage you to examine your reservations in light of Scripture.