The modern idea of church membership isn’t found in Scripture, but the admonition to live as members of the body of Christ is frequent and clear. Membership is simply our culture’s method of identifying with a particular group of believers with like-minded theology, who meet regularly and work together to carry out God’s commands and pursue His kingdom purposes.
Many churches have a structured format for “joining” their local body, i.e., a membership class to attend, a card to fill out, and a “spiritual gifts survey” to determine where you should serve. If we’re not careful, we can mistakenly believe that church membership is just a spiritual club, that our tithes are “dues,” and that joining a church gives us extra points with God. By adding too many human ideas to God’s divine blueprint, we can even become an active, contributing part of a local church in good standing without ever experiencing true salvation.
For that reason alone, it is important to understand exactly what the church is before we decide if membership is a valid idea.
What Is The Church?
Ephesians 1:22-23 – “And He [God] put all things in subjection under His [Jesus] feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”
Throughout the New Testament, God uses the picture of a physical body to help us understand the spiritual body of Christ – the church. When a person comes to salvation, they become part of the universal Church, the body of Christ. Beyond denominations, church buildings, theology, liturgy, and man-made traditions, the body of Christ is a spiritual entity. Jesus is the head, and every Christ-follower a member of His body.
Ephesians 2:11-16 – “Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh who are called ‘Uncircumcision’ by the so-called ‘Circumcision,’ which is performed in the flesh by human hands – remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.”
The death of Christ on the cross reconciled us to God. There is no longer a wall of broken commands between us and God – by the blood of Jesus, that wall was removed, and we are now at peace with God. In reconciling both Jews and Gentiles to Himself, God formed a new body – a spiritual group of redeemed humans, united by the Spirit of God and led by the Head, Christ. If you are a Christ-follower, one who has been saved by the blood of Christ, you are part of that body.
Ephesians 2:19-22 – “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.”
1 Peter 2:4-6 – “And coming to Him as a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For this is contained in Scripture: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.’”
Here we have another beautiful picture of the body of Christ – a holy temple, or a building. We see Christ Himself as the cornerstone. A cornerstone is the first and most important stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. It is important because all other stones are set in reference to this stone. Just as a physical cornerstone ties the walls together at the corner, Jesus is the center reference point between the Old Testament (the Jewish law and the prophets) and the New Testament (the apostles). A church is not a true, biblical church unless it centers in Jesus.
What Does the Church Do?
- The church is a spiritual body, made up of gifted individual members with Jesus as its head.
- The church is a spiritual building, made up of individual living stones, with Jesus as its cornerstone.
How does the universal church, the spiritual body of Christ, accomplish its purpose? The body of Christ is manifested in the local church body – the group of individuals meeting in community together in a specific location.
As a child, did you own a kaleidoscope? I thought they were such amazing things. You pointed the end towards the light, and as you turned the cylinder, the most beautiful and interesting pictures would appear. To me, this is a great illustration of the church. The members of the body are like the pieces of mirror and glass in the kaleidoscope. Separately, we aren’t very special. But when we are pointed toward the Light, Christ, and we come together as a local church, just as each piece slides into place when you turn the cylinder, a beautiful picture emerges. Each picture is different, just as each local body has its own personality and giftedness. But we are all parts of the whole – the beautiful kaleidoscope of the body of Christ.
It is in the local church body that the spiritual body of Christ becomes visible to a watching world.
What is the purpose of the church, and why is it important that every believer identify with a local body of Christ-followers? Just as a building cannot stand without each individual stone bearing its weight, and a body cannot function properly without each individual part performing its designed role, the divinely inspired idea called “the church” is contingent on believers being united to carry out God’s kingdom purposes. This happens both in spirit (the universal church of all believers everywhere) and in the practical realm (the local church).
Ephesians 4:11-16 – “And He gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of people, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, that is, Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”
This passage is a wonderful explanation of how the church functions. The goal of a believer is to grow up into maturity – into Christlikeness. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are gifted by the Spirit to carry out their ministry. The original twelve apostles established the New Testament church. Today, men and women are called and gifted to establish and equip one another in the local church.
We are given six specific results of a saint who is properly equipped.
– An equipped saint carries out the work of ministry or service.
– An equipped saint strives to attain unity of the faith.
– An equipped saint grows in his knowledge of Christ.
– An equipped saint is mature and Christ-like.
– An equipped saint is doctrinally stable.
– An equipped saint loves the members of the body.
The local church is where a saint can be fully furnished or equipped. Participation in a local church that is biblical in its teaching, whether formalized by membership, or simply by faithful personal covenant commitment, is vital for every believer. It is the only way we discover what it truly means to be a Christ-follower.
Why Is Church Membership Important?
The word “membership” is defined as “the fact of being a member of a group.” A member is simply “one who belongs to a specific group.” Viewing membership in a church through this lens vastly underestimates the powerful, living, life-changing entity that the church actually is. Rather, we should view membership through God’s unique and challenging standard that every member of the body is important to the whole and must contribute to its growth and effectiveness (see 1 Corinthians 12).
A local church is not something we “join,” but a group of fellow believers to which we covenant ourselves, our resources, our gifts, our service, and our very lives. Consider the example of the very first local body of believers:
Acts 2:42-47 – “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Ultimately, we are called to connect our lives to one another in the context of a local church because Christ died to make this possible. The cross was the price paid to create the church, the body of Christ. As we learn to love, care, and serve one another, hold each other accountable, and spur one another on to good deeds, we will grow and mature into the people of God He desires us to be. Spiritual gifts are given to believers to use in the local church, and for the benefit of other believers in our body.
Is Church Membership Necessary?
Membership helps us understand the idea of belonging to a local church, but it is the spiritual covenant we make with one another that reveals us as true members. Scripturally, there is no requirement for signing a card or attending a class to be part of a local church; likewise, there is no command against encouraging believers who commit to your church to do so in order to encourage participation and accountability within the body.
The better question to ask ourselves is, “Are we fully committed to live in covenant with other believers, actively pursue our own spiritual growth and the growth of the body of Christ, and live sanctified, gospel-centered lives that proclaim our allegiance to the Head, Jesus Christ?” Perhaps that is the kind of membership better designed to proclaim Christ to the world.
This article was written for, and first appeared on the BibleStudyTools website. You can find the original article here.