When you hear “church membership,” what word comes to mind? Perhaps, “enigma”? After all, there is no commandment that says “thou shall be a member of the local church.” In our age, some call themselves Christians and believe they are part of the invisible church, yet refuse to join the visible, local church. In fact, many of these people believe that their “Me and Jesus” approach to Christianity is more “spiritual” than committed members of a local church. This individualistic approach to Christianity is not supported anywhere in Scripture. It is an unbiblical phenomenon that is wholly rooted and perpetuated in individualistic American culture. The pervasiveness of this message cannot and should not be underestimated. Pursuing Church membership over individualistic Christian living demonstrates a clear understanding of the critical function that the church plays in the life of the believer.
Before we discover what the Bible says about church membership, it is necessary to define what it says about the church. It consists of those who have been effectually called by God the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit and have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb through faith in Christ Jesus. The Bible affectionately refers to the church as the elect (Matt. 24:22; Rom. 11:7), the bride (Rev. 21:9, 22:17), beloved (Ps. 60:5; 2 Cor. 7:1), the people of God (Judges 20:2; 2 Sam. 14:13), and the body of Christ (Rom. 7:4; 1 Cor. 12:27). God’s love for the church is from everlasting to everlasting and nothing can separate the church from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:39). Jesus Christ came to earth in order to save his bride, the church.
Church Membership in the Old Testament
From the outset, it is important to note that church membership did not begin in the New Testament, but rather in the Old Testament. Exodus 19 is considered the first church gathering in the Bible, because God commanded Moses to consecrate and assemble the people of God before his presence. And in Deuteronomy we read a description of the church gathering at Sinai, “The Lord came from Sinai…he came from the ten thousands of holy ones…yes, he loved his people, all his holy ones were in his hand” (Deut. 33:2-3). This passage captures an eschatological glimpse of future glory where heaven meets earth at Mount Sinai.
Exodus 19 presents an eternal reality of the dynamic of the visible and invisible church. Edmund Clowney defines it this way, “the church invisible is as God sees it, and the church visible is as we see it.” Church members only interact with the visible local church, and have no access to the invisible church, because God alone knows his elect ones. A profession of faith does not necessarily indicate a possession of faith. Those who are members of the invisible church will indeed be members of the visible church if they are not already, but membership in the visible church does not guarantee membership in the invisible church. Therefore, the redeemed and the unredeemed will remain in the visible church until Christ returns.
Church Membership in the New Testament
During his earthly ministry, Jesus preached the message of the kingdom so that by faith, sinners would be saved and become members of his church.
The great commission in Matthew 28:18-20 shows the necessity of church membership. Jesus’ Great Commission presupposes the existence of the church. If this were not so, then baptism and teaching the whole counsel of God—as set forth in the Great Commission—would not be possible. In order to teach the full counsel of God, the people of God had to gather together consistently, so that new converts would learn to become disciples of Jesus. Jesus said, “I will build my church…” (Matt.16:18). And he is still building his church, through the gathering of the elect until the full number has been brought in. And he will not lose one (John 6:39).
A glorious picture of the early church is described in Acts 2:42-47. These members were committed to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, prayers, and the breaking of bread. The members were unified, did not neglect to meet together, and lacked nothing because they shared all that they had with one another. And in verse 47 we see that it was the Lord who added the members of the church through his sovereign election. They were not added for the sole purpose of enjoying their union with Christ exclusively, but also in communion with fellow believers in the church. As we see in the early church, God’s people are to glorify and image him in all that they do. God is glorified through his people assembling together in the community of the church.
Though our salvation does take place individually, there is a corporate aspect to our salvation clearly demonstrated in the canon of Scripture. The church is a corporate entity comprised of individuals whom God has elected with the intent to be glorified within this community of believers. Just as a mosaic tile piece is only a mere tile apart from the collective body of tile pieces, so it is with those individuals who practice their Christianity apart from the community of the church.
Individualistic Christianity is nowhere to be found in the pages of the Bible. If you say you love Jesus, you will love what he loves—his church. he died for his bride and gave himself up for her. Those who insist on practicing their Christianity individualistically are separated from the church. Hear the words of early church theologian, Cyprian, “Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”