Yes, church membership matters:
Sometimes people try to impress you with how spiritual they are, but often all they end up doing is demonstrate how much confused thinking they have, and even how far from Scripture they actually are. I get cases of this happening all the time. For example, some folks will tell me they are not into creeds and doctrine – they just love Jesus.
Um, no. These ‘Jesus-only’ Christians are simply kidding themselves. The truth is, if you chat with them for ten minutes you will almost always discover that they DO believe certain things, and do reject certain other things. They do have some creeds and doctrines in other words – just like we all do. I discussed this in more detail here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/01/31/creedless-christianity/
Another group of Christians who think they are more spiritual and biblical than others – but are often just arrogant and unbiblical – are those who tell you they have no need for the church. They either think they can make it as some lone-wolf Christian, or they will try to tell you that they are part of the body of Christ, and have no need of some local church.
I got one of these folks coming to my site recently, all rather perturbed about a piece I had written: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/07/11/church-visitors-versus-church-members/
He assured me that I was out to lunch, and that he was a superior Christian because he had somehow transcended things like mere church membership. I won’t reprint his whole comment here, but here are a few representative lines from it:
Church membership is not mentioned in the Bible for good reason, it’s manmade. I serve and have for decades the true body of Christ and not an unbiblical membership in an organization that seeks government approval and tax status with the federal government. Christ adds to the church, not man. . . . Church membership is unnecessary and divisive to the true born from above adopted child of God.
Oh dear – where to begin. When you have so much fuzzy and even unbiblical thinking it is hard to be able to properly respond. But let me try. First, when you raise red herrings and straw men, you are not being very helpful. What does state approval and taxes have to do with anything?
No Christian I know of talks about such things when they discuss the nature of the church as found in Scripture. They deal with the New Testament data, not modern distortions. And that data tells us this: when the church is spoken of, it is discussed in two main ways. One, it is the body of believers past and present from the world over.
Just two verses on this. Paul said: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Or as Peter put it: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
This is the universal church. It involves all born-again believers from all places and all times. It is the whole body of Christ. But of interest, so often when the church is spoken about in the New Testament, it refers to a specific, local body of believers. Thus we read about the following:
-“the church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2)
-“The churches of Asia” (1 Corinthians 16:19)
-“the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Thessalonians 1:1)
-“a servant of the church at Cenchreae” (Romans 16:1)
-“the church in their house” (Romans 16:5)
-“the churches of Judea” (Galatians 1:22)
-“the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea” (Revelation 1:11)
-“all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Romans 1:7)
-“the saints at Jerusalem” (Romans 15:26)
-“the saints who are in Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1)
-“all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi” (Philippians 1:1)
Plenty more such texts can be mentioned, but I think you get the point. These were local bodies of believers. And they were NOT just some folks who floated in and out with no commitment, no close relationships, and so on. These were people who were committed to their local church and to one another. They also took part in things like corporate worship, teaching, the sacraments, and church discipline.
All that is what we today would call “church membership”. Call it what you will, but the NT knows nothing of lone-wolf Christianity, or of believers who are not part of a local body of Christians and in some sort of covenant relationship with them.
So this critic’s aversion to church membership is simply unwarranted and quite unbiblical. Again, he may think he is being all rather spiritual and godly, but he is not in this case. He is denying the very means by which God calls individual believers to grow together and be part of one another’s lives in accountable and mutually dependent relationships and commitments.
That is what biblical body life is all about, not some airy-fairy ‘oh I belong to the body of Christ and have no need of church membership’ nonsense. However, has commitment to a church sometimes been misused and abused? Sure. Think of the shepherding movement of the 1970s and 80s that ended up going way overboard in terms of how believers were supposed to submit to their leaders, etc. And cults operate this way too.
But we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. If anything, today the problem is just the opposite: most Christians are so non-committal and so uninterested in putting down roots, that they just waltz in and out of churches. If one is not to their liking, they check out another – and another.
We live in a commitment-averse culture, so we find this happening in the Christian world as well. Everyone wants to be fully independent and autonomous, with no commitments or obligations to anyone, including to other believers. But with no accountability and connection, that is a prime way in which Satan can derail the walk of a believer.
The truth is, we really do need each other, and we need to be accountable to one another. That in good measure is what church membership and discipline is all about. We commit to a local body of believers and they commit to us. That is how God intended things to be.
Let me conclude with two quotes, the first from Leeman:
When people ask, “Where is membership in the Bible” the problem is they’re looking for something like a club to join, because the word membership is a club word. Clubs and political parties and labor unions have memberships….
Clubs begin with a point of common interest. Service providers begin with a common need or desire. Churches have all this, but they have something more: a king who requires the obedience of his people. The church begins with this fact: Jesus is Savior and Lord. . . . This means the Bible doesn’t talk about church membership quite as you might want it to. It talks instead about how God’s people gather together under his supreme rule. It’s interested in the citizens of a kingdom, not club members.
The second is from Kimble:
In rightly conceiving of the definition of the church, one must understand that the church is not a building, but a people. God calls for his people to gather corporately (notice, for example, that most of the NT epistles are addressed to specific churches), to submit to qualified leadership (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), to come under the teaching of the Scriptures and faithfully administer the ordinances (Acts 2:37-47; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; 2 Tim. 4:1-2), and to exercise the authority Christ has given to them (Matt. 16:19; 18:17). Thus, a local church gathers for a specific purpose, and they do so as the people of God who have been redeemed through faith in Christ (Col. 1:13-14).
I speak further to these matters here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/04/on-church-membership-and-discipline/
For further reading
Dever, Mark, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible. B&H Academic, 2012.
Dever, Mark, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Crossway, 1997, 2004.
Dever, Mark, What Is a Healthy Church? Crossway, 2005, 2007.
DeYoung, Kevin and Ted Kluck, Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion. Moody, 2009.
Hammett, John and Benjamin Merkle, eds., Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline. B&H, 2012.
Jamieson, Bobby, Committing to One Another: Church Membership. Crossway, 2012.
Kimble, Jeremy, 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline. Kregel, 2017.
Leeman, Jonathan, Church Membership. Crossway, 2012.
Leeman, Jonathan, One Assembly. Crossway, 2020.
And an older bibliography on ecclesiology is found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/08/29/recommended-reading-on-ecclesiology/