Let me address this in a round about fashion. Id like to address just what the local church is and the importance placed upon it by the Bible and the Lord Jesus Christ. Once you understand how vital the church is, I believe you will be in a better position to consider the question posed in this Thinking Cap. Church membership is formally identifying yourself with a local congregation and locating your worship of God and service with those Christians.
A. What is the basis of church membership?
While not explicitly commanded in the New Testament, it is obvious that new believers identified themselves with a local congregation in the early church. In Romans 16, Paul gives explicit greetings to people who are part of the church at Rome, many of whom have worked with him in the past but now live in Rome. Many of the letters of Paul (Romans, I & II Corinthians, Philippians, etc.) are written to specific congregations of Christians. Jesus Christ always assumed his followers would live in community, and indeed said, Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (Matthew 18:20).
B. Church Membership is the example of the Bible.
1. In Acts 2:38-41, Peter preaches a gospel message, and many respond and are then baptized. The same day there are added unto them about three thousand souls. (vs.41) Note: The example is that when people get saved and baptized, they are then added to that church.
2. In I Corinthians 5:1-13,
the Corinthian Church is rebuked for letting one of its members continue in
a. Verse 2 says that the church should have been mourning over this mans sin, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you (removed from the church).
b. Verse 7 says, purge out (remove) therefore the old leaven.
c. Verse 13 says again, put away from among yourselves that wicked person. Note: You cannot be put out of a group unless you are a member of it. You cannot be put away from something of which you are not a part. So this indicates that the early church practiced church membership.
3. Jeremiah tells us that the heart of man is sinful and deceitful (Jer. 17:9-10). To safeguard ourselves and to enable us to live lives that are glorifying to the Lord, we must be under spiritual accountability. Children are accountable to the parents. Wives are subject to husbands. Husbands and families should be submissive to the authority of the local church. How else can the pastor be held accountable for the souls of those in the local church (Heb. 13:17)?
C. What are the requirements of church membership?
I believe that membership in a local church assumes:
1. That one is a believer in Jesus Christ,
2. That the individual has been baptized by immersion after receiving Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,
3. That one is willing to place himself under the spiritual authority of that local church and its leadership, and
4. That one is willing to commit to the work and service of the church.
There is a two-way commitment in church membership. A person commits to serve God in a particular local church, and that particular local church commits to encouraging him and caring for him as a member of that church's family.
D. What are the ingredients of church membership?
The Christian life is manifested in service to God and to our neighbor. We cannot love someone without being willing and eager to serve them. We serve God by worshipping him, by living a life faithful to his will, and by giving testimony to our belief in Him through our words and actions. We also serve God by serving in the community of the people of God, the church. To be a member of this community is to serve in some way in the church's efforts to glorify God. (Mark 10:42-45)
Prayer is an integral part of the Christians life. Because of what Jesus Christ has done for us, we have been given access to God the Father through the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:18). The primary way in which we exercise this access is through prayer. God wants to hear from us in prayer! Not only does prayer benefit us, it also pleases Him.
As part of a larger community of believers, we also pray for the well-being of the church. We know that the church is the primary way in which God is revealed to the world, so we pray that the church would be strong enough and bold enough to be an instrument for Gods purposes even as it is an encouragement to us.(Colossians 1:9-10; 4:2-3)
Because Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week (Sunday), Christians historically have assembled on this day to worship God. While we seek to live worshipfully as individual Christians, there is something special (and indispensable) about the congregations corporate worship. The Greek word for church, ekklesia, literally means an assembly or called-out-ones. Thus, the church is not the church unless it gathers together for worship. (Acts 20:7; Hebrews 10:24-25).
Christians are called to give back to God a portion of our income. For most Christians, our income is in the form of money, so we give money. We give money to God for two primary reasons (1 Corinthians 16:1-2; Deuteronomy 14:22; Malachi 3:8-10):
1. To honor God. We do this by physically demonstrating that He is truly the Lord of our life. The sacrifice of giving a portion of our income is a powerful gesture and serves to remind us and testify to others that God is first in our life.
2. To support the work of the church. The church funds a local ministry staff as well as domestic and foreign missionaries. It spends money to buy and maintain a building in which to meet. And it uses funds for worship, education, discipleship, and outreach materials and programs. Our financial giving enables the church to pursue Gods purposes in the world.
In the Old Testament, by the time you added up all of the mandatory giving, and the obedient child of God was giving close to 30% of his income to the temple. This was obligatory giving! We live in the age of grace. Jesus issues no specific additional instructions about giving, other than to give cheerfully and generously and sacrificially in everything (relationships, money, etc.) (Luke 6:38) Paul picks up this teaching of Jesus and applies it to giving money for the work of the church. (II Corinthians 9:6-8) Christian giving should from a heart filled with grace. It is to be cheerful, generous and sacrificial.
E. How does this fit with Gods overall plan for the ages?
God ordained three institutions for mankind. Family (Ge. 2), Government (Ge. 6), and the Local Church (Acts).
1. We are added to a family for nurture, training, love and growth.
2. We are a part of a government for civil order.
3. We are a part of a local church to carry out His 5 part Great Commission: Evangelism, Adding to the Church by baptizing the saved, Maturing believers through Discipleship, Conforming ourselves to Christ, and Bringing Glory to God.
In like manner,
1. We say I do to join a new family by marriage, and in so doing submit one to another (Eph 5:21).... we don't just live together.
2. We say I belong to the government as a citizen by participating, paying taxes, and voting, and in so doing submit to civil authority (Ro. 13:1-4)... you don't just leech off of society.
3. We say I join to the local church body for ministry and in so doing submit (Heb. 13:17) to spiritual accountability.
There is a dangerous idea sweeping our country that it is not necessary to be married to enjoy the fruits of living together and family; that it is not necessary to be a contributing member of government and that it is not necessary to be an active member of a local body of believers to be in good fellowship with God. The modern man demands rights and shuns responsibility. That is not only dangerous, that is just plain unbiblical. Its an ox-cart ... its a Philistine way of doing things.
F. The Expression of Gods Grace and the Local Church
Paul begins his letter to the Thessalonians with an emphasis upon Gods grace, and he closes his letter in much the same way. When the beginning and the ending of a passage of Scripture, or in this case the entire book, have the same theme, this is a literary device called inclusio. The inclusio sets boundaries for a thought unit in Scripture. It also is used to describe an important theme included in the material between the bookends. Thus we can expect that the material contained in I Thessalonians is somehow related to the bestowal of Gods grace upon the church. Paul's closing to his letter is not the ordinary way to close a Greek or Roman letter. Rather than the typical wish for the good health of the recipient, the grace of which Paul speaks is bestowed upon the church as a group (In I Thes. 5:28, you is plural, not singular).
The Christian assembly is an important element in God dispensing His special grace toward individual Christians:
1. The gathered Christian community grows in godliness by means of the work of each Christian in the group helping other Christians in the community grow (Ephesians 4:16).
2. Individuals are kept from sin by interaction with other believers (Hebrews 3:12-13).
3. The interaction with other believers provides encouragement for us to continue living for Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Titus 3:15 illuminates the idea that grace comes in a unique way to Christians as a corporate body (a local church). At first Paul addresses Titus personally. Paul says we greet you (singular). Next he gives a command to Titus, singular, to greet those who love us in the faith. Finally, Paul concludes by saying grace be with you all, plural. He ceases speaking directly to Titus alone, even though the letter is addressed to Titus specifically. In 2 Timothy 4:21-22, Paul does the same thing in his address to Timothy. This does not mean that God does not give His grace to individuals. But there does appear to be a special way in which God gives His grace to groups of Christians who gather together, functioning as a body. This emphasizes the importance of the local church. Our involvement with a local church is an avenue in which God dispenses His grace toward us.
Should it be any surprise that the happiest, most vibrant Christians appear to be those who are involved with a local church? God hasn't designed the Christian to be by himself. We need each other, and this is an avenue through which God blesses us. The connection Christians have with Jesus Christ is further explanation why involvement with a local group of Christians is an important avenue for Gods grace.
Grace comes from Jesus, who is our Lord. Jesus is the unique bestower of grace. According to John 1:16-17, the coming of Jesus is the height of the realization of Gods grace to mankind. There was grace and truth under the law given by Moses (Exodus 34:6), but nothing like the grace which has come through Jesus Christ. A better translation of the thought in John 1:16 is grace replacing grace. What we have in Jesus is so much better. Jesus is uniquely qualified to bestow grace. He is Lord. Jesus was given all authority in heaven and earth because of His exaltation to the place of authority at Gods right hand (Philippians 2:9-11).
Salvation is due to Gods grace (Ephesians 2:8). Yet this salvation comes through Jesus, for He is the one who has the authority to bestow salvation to those who call upon Him for salvation (Acts 2:21; 4:12). Grace comes because of our relationship with Jesus (Ephesians 1:6). Because of our unique relationship with Jesus, and His working in our lives, we grow together in grace.
Ephesians 4:15-16 brings this whole concept of grace to the local body, from Christ, into perspective. Jesus is the one who empowers us for spiritual growth, unto whom we grow in Christ-likeness. Through His powerful working in our lives, we are instruments God uses to produce Christ-likeness in other members of the local body. Grace comes from Jesus through each other, as well as for the benefit of each other.
G. What does this mean?
It means that finding a local church in which one can fellowship, grow and serve is one of the most important decisions an individual will ever make. It is a vital ingredient for the personal health and spiritual maturity of the individual believer. It is a critical resource for the family. Newcomers to a church should carefully and prayerfully seek the Lords direction regarding membership in the church. This process could take a week or a couple months. But in that period of time, the Christian should be able to make an informed decision. Once a person makes that decision, he should follow whatever process that local church has for becoming a member. Since those who serve in a church are extensions of the church and represent the pastor in areas of ministry, it would be logical that they have placed themselves under spiritual accountability to the church body by membership and service.
So, back to the question at hand. Can you be a good Christian and not go to church? A Christian? Theologically, yes. But, a good Christian? I don't think so.
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