One trend that I have observed in American Christianity and perhaps more so in the Northwest is what I have chosen to call “essentials-only Christianity.” What is it? Well, it is when Christians rightly identify what are the essentials for salvation. But then make the mistake of concluding that the essentials are the only things we need in order to be faithful and healthy Christians. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it is good that we identify what is essential for salvation. But it is a mistake to treat those essentials as if they are all that is important.
Advocates of this type of Christianity will often appeal to the thief on the cross as trump card in every argument. They make him the example for all Christians to emulate. If you don’t know the story of the thief on the cross, it is in Luke 23:39–43. Basically, this criminal who was crucified next to Jesus says to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus says to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” So, he didn’t get baptized, and yet he still went to heaven. He never took the Lord’s Supper, and yet he still went to heaven. He never attended a church, and yet he still went to heaven. He never joined a church, and yet he still went to heaven. He never gave a dime to the church, and yet he still went to heaven. Now, you could go on and on listing all kinds of biblical commands and priorities that he never did, and yet he still went to heaven. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think the thief on the cross is a beautiful story that shows the freeness and the incredible power of God’s grace. It shows us that we don’t earn salvation. It is a free gift that even a criminal, rightly condemned can receive with his dying breath. But it is a terrible example to model your whole life after.
First, you aren’t on a cross about to die. So, while that story is an excellent example of how to begin the Christian life and receive Jesus, it is an insufficient example for how to live the Christian life and grow in maturity. It is an excellent example of justification, but an insufficient example of progressive sanctification.
Second, we don’t think like this in other areas of life (or at least we shouldn’t). For example, we don’t go to the doctor and ask her what is the absolute minimum we have to do in order to stay alive. “What is the absolute minimum I have to eat and drink in order to just barely survive?” “Ok, I’ll do that.” “What is the absolute minimum I have to exercise in order to just barely survive?” “Ok, I’ll do that.” Now those may be helpful things to know in some situations. But they are not how you become a healthy individual.
In a similar way, church membership is not essential for you to have eternal life. It is not essential for salvation. Faith in Jesus is essential. Church membership is not. But it would be a massive mistake to conclude that church membership is irrelevant or unnecessary. It is not necessary for salvation. But it is necessary for progressive sanctification, for maturity, for health.
So, how does church membership do that? How does it produce healthy and mature Christians? Let’s look at 7 practical ways that church membership produces healthy and mature Christians and churches.
1. Church Membership Displays the Gospel
First, church membership displays the gospel. How? By displaying the reconciliation of the cross. Look with me at Ephesians 2:11–16:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated 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 once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
Now Paul here is talking about Jews and Gentiles. Formerly, Gentiles (which means all of us who are not Jews) were separated from Christ, as Paul says, we were “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” But now, through the gospel, we “have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
Now this is key: We have not only been brought near to God; we have also been brought near to each other. All of us have been reconciled to God in one body through the cross. Listen to what he says in verse 19: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” God did not just reconcile us to himself. He also reconciled us to one another. He united us together as members of the household of God. The gospel is not just a personal relationship with Jesus (Dever, 12). It is that. But it is also more. Your relationship with Jesus brings you into a relationship with other believers in a local church. This is the New Testament pattern that we see in the book of Acts and in the fact that most of letters we have in the New Testament were written to local churches.
Now, Church membership is the main way display this spiritual reality. Church membership explicitly shows that Jesus has reconciled us together by his death on the cross. Not into an uncommitted loose affiliation with each other, but into a committed, long-term, loving relationship that we call church membership. And membership explicitly shows that our unity is because of Jesus. We are not united by our race, our income, our interests, our hobbies, our age, or anything else that the world typically unites over. Our unity, expressed through membership, is because of the gospel. So church membership displays the gospel.
Mark Dever, a pastor on the East Coast, says it like this, “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. If you are passionate about the gospel, join a local church.”
2. Church Membership Protects Believers
1 Corinthians 5:1–7; 2 John 9–11; 2 Timothy 2:16–18; 3:1–9
Second, church membership protects believers. We saw this last week when we talked about discipline and accountability. Church membership gives healthy structure and guardrails to our life together as a church. One example of this is the situation in 1 Corinthians 5. Listen to what Paul says there:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Paul’s point is that by allowing this sexually immoral person who is living in sin to remain in the church as a member of the church, they are promoting sin. And sin, like leaven, will affect the whole church the way leaven leavens a whole lump of dough. So he commands the members of this church to remove this man from their fellowship until he repents. Church membership is the structure that enables a church to do what Paul is commanding.
So there is protection from sin. There is also protection from false teaching. We see this most often in what we call the pastoral letters. These are the apostle Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, two early church leaders. In them, Paul gives instructions for the church and its leaders. Paul warns them many times about false teachers. That is the primary role of elders in a church. They protect the members of the church. They guard the church from false doctrine and false teachers. They protect the church from wolves who want to take over the church and lead people astray.
By becoming a member of a local church, you are putting yourself under the protection that God has designed for his people. And you are committing to be part of that protection for other believers in the church. Now can church membership be used to harm and not protect? Absolutely. Maybe some of you have experienced that. But I don’t think the answer is to get rid of it. If there is a bad police officer, we should not abolish the police. If there is a bad soldier, we should not abolish the military. This is the protection that God intends for his church.
3. Church Membership Strengthens Believers
Ephesians 4:16; Colossians 2:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:14
Third, church membership strengthens believers. Listen to Ephesians 4:15–16:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph 4:15–16)
Now listen to Colossians 2:18–19:
Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. (Col 2:18–19)
And listen to 1 Thessalonians 5:14:
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
Church membership is simply committing to do those things with a particular group of people, a church. And it is committing to receive that love, encouragement, and correction from other believers. You and I need each other. We need other believers and other believers need us. God has designed the Christian life to be a dependent life. We are dependent on God, yes, but we are also dependent on one another. God made it that way. Church membership is how we express and show our dependance on one another and commit to one another. Church membership strengthens believers.
4. Church Membership Assures Believers
1 John 2:19–20; 5:13; 2 Timothy 1:5
Fourth, church membership assures believers of their salvation. We saw in 1 John how important assurance is. It is the whole reason why John wrote that letter. He wanted them to know that they had eternal life (1 John 5:13). In chapter 2 of that letter, he says this about the false teachers who left that church:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. (1 John 2:19–20)
There is an assurance that comes with remaining in a faithful, gospel-believing, biblical church.
Your feelings should not be your only assurance of salvation. Feelings can come and go. And when the storms of doubt, despair, and suffering come, you will question if your faith is real. And in those moments, you need to have a community of members and leaders who can assure you and remind you of what is true. People who know you and know what you believe.
One of the prerequisites of becoming a member is that you are a regenerate Christian. What that means is that the Holy Spirit has made you alive to God and dead to sin. You have real faith in Jesus. And you have repented of your sin and started following Jesus. When you become a member, we as a church are saying that we are confident that you truly are a Christian. We are confident that you rightly understand the gospel and that the Holy Spirit is in you. In times of doubt and uncertainty you can lean on your church and your leaders for assurance. Church membership assures believers.
5. Church Membership Evangelizes the World
John 13:34–35; Acts 13:1–4; 14:23
Fifth, Church membership evangelizes the world. Jesus told his disciples in John 13:34–35:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Our love for one another shows the world that we are disciples of Jesus. That is what church membership is. It is a committed love for other believers that shows the world that we are disciples of Jesus. This kind of love causes the world to sit up and take notice and want to know more about this Jesus guy we follow. That is what church membership is, or at least should be. It is a committed love for other believers.
We also see that church membership is integral to the spread of the gospel in the book of Acts. In Acts 13:1–3 we see an example of how God raises up and sends out leaders to advance his kingdom. Luke tells us that there were two men, Barnabas and Saul (also known as Paul), who were “in the church at Antioch.”
Then it says,
“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:2–3)
God works through the local church to raise up and send out leaders to advance his kingdom. His mission moves forward through the church. The example we get in the book of Acts is not a bunch of random Christians all doing their own thing according to their own desires. There aren’t any solo Christians. Even the apostle Paul did not presume to be a solo Christian doing his own thing.
By becoming a member of a local church, you are partnering with that church in its ministries and evangelization efforts. You are able to be an integral part of the mission of the church and you are engaging in evangelism the way God intends. Church membership is one of the means that God has established in order to evangelize the world.
6. Church Membership Encourages Leaders
Hebrews 13:17; 3 John 4
Sixth, church membership encourages leaders. Look with me at Hebrews 13:17:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Now notice the last part of that verse: “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” By submitting yourself to the spiritual care of a church’s leaders (elders), you are helping them do their job with joy and not with groaning. And as the verse says, it is to your advantage that they are able to do their job with joy and not groaning.
We see this also in 3 John 4 where John says, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” That is what we as elders want for you, for this church. That is what we want for every true believer here. And if, as we saw last week, church membership is biblical, then walking in the truth includes becoming a member of a local church. If you want to support and encourage your leaders, commit to them and what they are doing through church membership.
7. Church Membership Glorifies God
1 Peter 2:12; Matthew 5:16;
Seventh, church membership glorifies God. One of the objections to church membership that I have received is that it doesn’t seem to make much practical difference. Perhaps they see it taught it Scripture but it seems pointless to them. I think what they mean is that there is no immediate, tangible, positive effect on their life. Perhaps you feel that way too. Maybe you have experienced it being done poorly or inappropriately. Or maybe you are unconvinced by all of the things that church membership does that I have presented so far. And you don’t feel like you will get anything out of it by becoming a member of a local church.
Well, what if you are right? What if there was no immediate, tangible, positive effect that church membership had on your life? What if you didn’t really get anything out of it? Would it not be enough to know that it glorified God and that God delighted in your commitment to a local church? If church membership is biblical, then it is one of the ways we glorify God. The Apostle Peter tells us that this should be our goal as Christians (1 Pet 2:12; 4:11). Is it not enough to know that this glorifies God and that he, therefore, delights in it?
Conclusion: Join a Local Church
My point is quite simple and can be summed up like this: If you are passionate about the gospel, if you care about protecting yourself and other believers from sin and false doctrine, if you want to grow and mature in the faith, if you want to have assurance of salvation, if you want to see people come to faith in Jesus, if you want to encourage your leaders, and if you want to glorify God, then join a local church by committing to that church through membership.