According to one dictionary, an oxymoron is defined as “a combination of contradictory or incongruous words,” like the phrase “cruel kindness” or “sweet sorrow.” Is the phrase “churchless Christian” an oxymoron? Though the Bible does not have one specific verse that states unequivocally that church membership is required for all Christians, Scripture is replete with passages that teach the idea that once you become a Christian, you should be a member of the church. Simply put, when you become united to Jesus Christ through faith in him, you are also part of his body, the church. As a member of a local church, you receive not only wonderful privileges, but also have special responsibilities.
What does it mean to be a member of the church? Being a member of a church reveals at least three truths: (1) your obedience to God; (2) your submission to the means God has provided; and (3) your service to other members through the use of your gifts.
Membership: Obedience to God
A few hundred years after the time of Christ, an early Christian writer boldly stated that a Christian “can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.” He was convinced that the Scriptures were clear regarding the necessity of church membership. Being a member of the local church reveals a Christian’s obedience to what the Bible teaches.
The word used in the New Testament for church (ekklesia) has clear connections to the Old Testament word that was used to describe the unique gathering or assembly (qahal) of God’s people Israel. In the Old Testament, God’s people were literally “called out” to gather together for worship (Deut 12:5-12, 31:11-12; Psa 22:22, 107:32). In the New Testament, we read that the early church followed this pattern of gathering together for corporate worship (Acts 2:46, 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2). From its inception, the church gathered for worship together on the first day of the week following this pattern set in the Old Testament.
Israel was commanded by God to be in a special covenantal relationship with him. Part of the privilege of being part of this community included obeying the laws that God had established for them. Following this pattern, the church is a covenant community established by Christ (Matt 16:18). As such, membership and participation in Christ’s church, especially in corporate worship, is not an option, but a requirement. Being a member of the church reveals our obedience to God’s Word (Heb 10:24-25).
Membership: Submission to Leaders
Being a member of the church includes receiving the blessings God has provided for our growth and maturity, especially as you submit to the church’s leadership. God established the church with a structure for pastoral oversight and spiritual leadership. Like weak and defenseless sheep, members of the church are blessed to have the guidance and protection of shepherds. Hebrews 13:17 calls on Christians to “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” Why? “[F]or they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” The pastors and elders of a church are called to care for the “flock” of God as they follow the pattern set by Christ, the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:1-5).
"Like weak and defenseless sheep, members of the church are blessed to have the guidance and protection of shepherds.""
As leaders under the authority of Christ and the Scriptures, pastors and elders are called upon to promote the marks of a true church: the faithful preaching of the Gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the true exercise of discipline. Through this, members of the church receive the grace of God in Christ. Even in discipline, as members submit, they promote the peace and purity of Christ’s body as they are held accountable for their sins.
Membership: Service to Others
Church membership not only reveals obedience to God’s Word and submission to the church’s leaders, but lastly, the service Christians provide to the other members of their covenant family. As members of the church, you are part of the body of Christ, with each part functioning together for the glory of the head and the good of the body (Rom 12:4-5). This reality—that we are all part of one body, called to serve one another with the gifts and skills God has given to us—reveals again that a “churchless Christian” is an oxymoron.
Some Christians think that their personal relationship with Christ is vital and church membership is optional. But the Scriptures do not separate the individual member from the whole body. United to Christ, we are called to serve the body of Christ through our life together as a communion of saints. As we attend worship, give our offering, pray for one another, and hold each other accountable, we are displaying to the world a counter-cultural example of grace motivated, self-sacrificial commitment and fellowship.
"Scriptures do not separate the individual member from the whole body. United to Christ, we are called to serve the body of Christ through our life together as a communion of saints."
The church is unlike any other group or institution. It is an organization governed by God’s Word whereby members use their gifts to bless one another, under the oversight of pastors and elders. Though the communion of saints includes all Christians, in every place, both living and dead (the invisible church) it is best realized when individual members serve one another in love within the visible, local church.
As Christians become members of the church, they are obeying God’s word, submitting to her leaders, and serving one another in love. They testify to their allegiance to Christ and demonstrate their solidarity with one other. They become part of the life-receiving and life-giving body of Christ. What a priceless gift!
This blog first appeared in Table Talk (Sept 2016).