Why should I be a member of a local church?
That is a great question that we hope this pamphlet will briefly explore. Today, church membership is a touchy subject in many protestant churches. Part of this stems from the culture we live in. Our cultures (Canada and the United States) pride themselves on independence. The goal in our cultures is to establish ourselves and not need the help of others. Membership, or being a part of a larger group, is therefore counter cultural and a struggle for many. Yet, even in our desire of individualism membership is still recognized. Retail memberships still exist. Costco is doing well and American Express still advertises that “membership has its privileges”. Gym memberships are acceptable, as are memberships to societies and community clubs. While our culture strives for individualism it recognizes some benefits of belonging to groups. Yet bring up church membership and these same people begin to squirm. Why is that?
Today if you ask people what the church is you will receive many varied answers. The most common response is a recognition that the church is larger than the local church. This is wonderful but then some take this a step further and declare therefore there is no need to be a member of a local church. Some boast “I am a part of the universal church.” As Presbyterians, we wholeheartedly agree. All who profess the true faith and their children are a part of the visible church. The issue is, how is that done? How does one actually come into the visible church? Most today would say by baptism. That again is excellent but who then baptizes? You see, at some point one must acknowledge the way one gains membership into the visible church is through the local church.
Now often to combat this idea people will demand a Bible verse to prove the need for membership within the local church. Again, they are right to look to scripture. Often, however, there is a demand for an explicit verse; something along the lines “Thou shalt join…” Scripture implicitly and explicitly governs our lives. We are assuming one approaches this as scripture being the final authority of life and practice. So does scripture speak in favor of the local church? We would whole heartily affirm this is the case. We just have to look at a few places in scripture to see the importance of the local church.
Look at the letters in the New Testament. Have you ever noticed the greetings? For instance, take Galatians. How is it addressed? “…To the churches of Galatia:” (Gal 1:2 ESV)
Paul is addressing multiple churches in a region. If his concern had merely been for the visible (universal) church, why use the plural? Paul recognizes that the visible church is made up of local congregations; therefore, he addresses the multiple churches. We see the importance of the local church in several of his greetings. In Romans Paul asks them to greet the church that meets in Pricilla and Aquila’s house (16:5). In Colossians 4 Paul asks that they greet Nympha and the church that meets at her house. When Paul addresses Philemon he mentions the church that meets with Philemon. 2 Corinthians ends with Paul stating all the churches in Asia greet them. For Paul the visible church is not an ethereal body, but a tangible body made up of local congregations.
Paul does of course sends corporate greetings as well. For instance, in 2 Corinthians Paul begins with this greeting: Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia: (2Co 1:1 ESV) Notice that Paul addresses a specific church (Corinth) and also a larger body (whole of Achaia). Paul has no problem with addressing both the local and larger visible church. Through these greetings we see that local churches were not merely assumed, but seen as important. It is not just the greetings but also the instructions that reveal the importance of the local church. What were Paul’s instructions to Titus? This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you– (Tit 1:5 ESV)
Why was it important for elders to be in every town if it was not for the establishment of local churches? In Acts 20 we see Paul instructing the elders of the Ephesian church to faithfully oversee the flock appointed to them by God. Peter issues a similar charge to elders in 1 Peter 5. Elders are to shepherd the flock that is among them. Peter was addressing a rather large region, but he assumes the elders are among the flock.
The Apostles do not address the visible church without notice of local congregations. They give instructions that reveal the local congregations are the building blocks of the visible church. So in scripture we can clearly see the importance of the local body or church.
But what about membership? How do we know there was membership in the New Testament? First, because the apostle’s instructions show authority of the church over individuals. For instance, Paul instructs the Corinthian church to expel an immoral member (1 Corinthian 5). How could that be done if there was not some type of binding authority over the individual? This passage reveals the individual was accountable to that specific congregation. We also see this in the commands in Hebrews. The Christians were to remember their leaders and imitate them. (13:7) They were to obey and submit to their leaders for their leaders were accountable for them. (13:17) If membership in a local body was not required, then who were the leaders they were to imitate? How were Christians to obey and submit to leaders? If there was no membership, for whom are the elders accountable? In 1 Timothy 5:17 the elders who ruled well were to be acknowledged. If membership in a local body was not expected how did elders rule and who acknowledged them? In 2 Corinthians Paul asks the church to restore a brother. If there was no membership, to what was he restored? How was that done if there was no authority in the church over membership to expel and restore? You see, when you examine the New Testament the conclusion one reaches is that all the instructions to the church imply membership in a local body that had authority to care, teach, and admonish them.
This makes sense when you take all the Bible into account. The Bible has always had a way to identify who were God’s people and who were not. In the Old Testament one came into the nation of Israel. One was either born into the nation or brought into it. (Ex.12:48-49)
The people of God have always been a body that is distinguished from the world. Membership in the church is therefore expected in the New Testament. One is brought into God’s people through being united to Christ. Christ’s church is described as a body with many parts all having a role to play.(1 Cor. 12) Every Christian is brought into the church to worship and serve God. Membership is not optional in scripture. It would be like a toe deciding to not need the rest of the body. The result is death of the toe and pain for the body. Scripture sees the local church as essential for everyone who professes the true faith. The church is so essential that scripture warns us against separating ourselves from it: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb 10:24-25 ESV)
The church is where we grow in our faith through the ordinary means of grace (word, prayer, sacraments). It is where we are encouraged, strengthened, challenged, and nurtured. So, back to the question of why church membership. The simplest answer is the Bible expects it. No Christian can be united to Christ and separated from His body. The visible church is greater than the local church, but no Christian can enjoy the benefits of the visible church without partaking in the fellowship of the local body through membership.
Are you a member of a local body? If yes, then we encourage you to serve there and imitate your leaders as they imitate Christ. If you are not, then we would encourage you to speak to our session about becoming a member of our local body so that we can grow together in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Resources on membership to guide you in further study:
Life in the Father’s House by Wayne Mack and Dave Swavely
(we have two copies available in our library)