Josh, a podcast listener from Evansville, Indiana writes in: “Pastor John, I have a question about the local church. I have seen a lot of people my age — college-age — go to different churches (what’s known as church hopping). I continue to tell them about covenanting with one particular local church and why it’s beneficial for their growth. They continue to say that we are all the body of Christ, and we as believers are free to go wherever we want. What would you tell my friends?”
Well, I would ask them a question, first of all. I would ask, “How do you know those two things — that we all belong to the body of Christ, and we are free to go wherever we want?”
And if they say, “Because the Bible teaches that,” then I would ask, “So you are saying you want to submit your will to what the Bible teaches about church membership. Is that right? Are you saying that you will do what the Bible says about church membership?”
And if they say “no” — because maybe they are feeling trapped, like, “Whoa, where is this going?” — then we have a bigger issue to deal with, right? We have to talk about the folly of presuming to create your own reality out of your own head when God is the one who creates reality and tells us what it is. But if they say “yes” — which I hope they would — then I would try to say, “Okay, if you want to live your life in submission to the Bible then let’s go to the Bible and see what it says about church membership.” And I would point them to at least five passages of Scripture.
Five Biblical Arguments for Church Membership
1. The church is God’s final appeal to unrepentant sinners.
I will just mention them and give a trajectory here, and people can head off and study that. But I would say, “Have you considered the implications of Matthew 18:15–17?” Jesus is making the church — the body of believers called the church — the final appeal when considering the case of unrepentant sin: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone . . . But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two others along with you . . . If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” And how would that church make any judgments if there weren’t a number of people who regarded themselves as the church? At a meeting like that with such sensitivity, you can’t just walk in off the street and say, “I am a Christian, so I belong to this group that can determine the membership here of whether this person stays in or out.”
So it seems to me that calling the church to make that kind of sensitive rendering assumes there is some kind of definable group that can be counted on to do that. That is the first passage.
2. The church is responsible to remove unrepentant sinners from membership.
The second passage is 1 Corinthians 5:12–13, where Paul deals with the necessity of putting someone out of the church: “What do I have to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’” I see at least two implications there. One is that there is an in-the-church group and an outside-the-church group that he referred to. Being in the church is definable. So how is it definable if there is no such thing as membership?
And the other implication is that a person can be removed from being in the church. So I would ask Josh’s friends, “Are you part of a body of believers so that it would be meaningful for them to remove you if you walked into open sin and wouldn’t repent? Are you accountable to a group where that could happen? Because if you are just jumping around, I don’t know how that could happen — how exclusion from an accountable group would make any sense.”
3. God commands Christians to submit to church leaders.
The third passage would be Hebrews 13:17, where it says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls.” If you downplay the importance of membership, it is hard for me to see how you could take these commands to submit to leaders seriously. We have to know who our leaders are if we are going to submit to them. But if we are jumping from church to church, we are not likely, it seems to me, to come under that kind of leadership and give ourselves to that kind of submission.
4. God will hold church leaders accountable for the flock he has given them.
And here’s the fourth one. The question of how leaders will know whom they are accountable for seems to me even more significant, because the Bible is pretty serious to us pastors when it says in Acts 20:28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”
This is one of the biggest struggles for me in all my years at Bethlehem: For whom am I accountable at the last day when the Lord says to me, “Did you keep watch over your flock?” You will give an account for their souls. Who they are and covenant membership became really crucial to us because lots of people came through the doors at Bethlehem and there is no way I could fulfill this command for the thousands of people who rotated through those doors. But I think there was a body of believers who said, “We are here. We belong. You are our shepherd. We are your people. We expect you to hold us accountable. We are going to hold you accountable to be a faithful shepherd.” That kind of relationship then becomes definable and I can be held accountable for whether I have cared for those people as I ought.
5. Believers are a part of a local church body.
And the last one I would point to is 1 Corinthians 12, where the members of the body are described as members of a local body. And if the person says, “Yeah, but in Ephesians 1 and Ephesians 4, Christ is the head of the universal body— that’s the body I am a part of.”
I would say, “Right, right, yes you are.” But it is different and more specific in 1 Corinthians 12 because the head — we know this — in verse 21 of 1 Corinthians 12 is not Christ. It says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:21). This means that we are all part of a local body and we are functioning as a foot or a hand or an eye or an ear. And in that body, we are called to fulfill that gifting and that responsibility.
Meaning in Community
So I don’t think Jesus died to create unattached, free-floating Christians. I think he died to create the church where the real, true individuality of every believer comes into its own. The more disconnected we are from a local church, the more confused we will be about who we are and who God made us to be. We find our true individual selves in relationship to others.