The Meaning of Church Membership and Accountability
In his book Biblical Doctrine, John MacArthur quotes Charles Spurgeon when he calls the church "the greatest place on earth." Unfortunately, some "churches" today think the church should be known as the greatest show on earth, much like The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus—a place that should entertain, attract, and welcome everyone! This idea of "entertaining" is far from the biblical truth of worship and church membership.
Being a member of the body of Christ begins and ends with Christ. Church membership is not for the world and its ways; it is to be treasured and protected because the Lord Jesus Christ gave His life for her, His bride. We are to build His church.
What, or More Accurately, Who Is the Church?
The church indeed is the greatest place on earth. It is the church of God, made up of freed people from all over the world—from every tribe, every tongue, and every nation (Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Revelation 7:9). In the New Testament, the church is defined as the ekklesia, or "those who have been called out." In a broad sense, the church—the universal church—is a body of believers, those in Christ who are scattered throughout the world. In a narrower sense, it is the assembling together of God's people in a local congregation.
The church is God's people whom He has called and whom He will call out from slavery to sin through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29-30). The church is comprised of people who, at one time, walked according to the course of this world until God, in His mercy, grace, and kindness, called them out of the domain of darkness and transferred them into the kingdom of His Beloved Son (Ephesians 2:2; Colossians 1:13).
The church is God's possession. We are not our own; Christ paid the price to set us free (1 Corinthians 6:20). Once upon a time--before our conversion--you and I were not fit to untie the thong of Christ's sandals, but now, by Christ's doing, we are a royal priesthood, a holy nation set apart to proclaim His glory:
"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light." 1 Peter 2:9
Church Membership Starts at Our New Birth
When God saves an individual, he or she immediately becomes a member of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). Not only are we united to Christ, but we are also united with other members of the body of Christ—we are no longer many, but one body. Paul also illustrates this truth in Romans 12:3-5, stating that those who are in Christ are one body with each other and are now qualified to become a member of a local congregation.
At this point, you may have a couple questions, such as, is local church membership biblical? And if so, why is it important? It is my goal to help answer these questions and to help each of us understand the importance of church membership and accountability.
Local Church Membership Is Biblical
There are many who claim the Bible does not directly command the universal church to come together on a local level; however, the New Testament is flooded with texts that support the assembling together of believers in this specific context. The first text that comes to my mind is Hebrews 10:24-25. The writer of this letter is instructing Christians not to neglect our coming together for encouragement as we wait for the return of Christ to take us home. We also see in Acts 2:41-47 that souls were saved, baptized, and were continually coming together—assembling together—in devotion “to the apostles’ teachings and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
One other text of Scripture that speaks directly to assembling together at a local level is the book of Titus. Paul writes this letter to Titus, a leader in the church, to appoint and train elders in all of the cities in Crete. It stands to reason that if elders—leaders—are being appointed and trained, it is being done for the purpose of leading and directing a local congregation.
What Does It Mean to Be a Member of a Local Body?
If one is truly saved and in Christ, the next step is to unite herself with a local body of believers. Local church membership means one is formally committing herself to other members of the body of Christ who join together for the ordained purposes of the church. These purposes include receiving and obeying the instructions from God's Word, the preaching and teaching of the Bible; using our individual spiritual gifts, given through the Holy Spirit, to encourage, build up, and serve one another (1 Corinthians 12: 1-41, Romans 12:3-8, Ephesians 4:11-16); participating in the breaking of bread, observing the Lord's Supper; and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ—corporately and individually—to a lost and dying world.
Local Church Membership Edifies Each Believer
Being a Christian is not a Lone Ranger existence. We are called to be of the same mind, maintain the same love, and be united in the Spirit, intent on one purpose: to look out for the interests of our brothers and sisters in Christ (Philippians 2:2). This one purpose includes many goals, one being the edification of one another. In 1 Corinthians 14:26, Paul says to the believers when they assemble together—each one having psalms, teachings, revelations, or tongues with interpretation—that the exercising of these individual spiritual gifts are all to be done with love for edification. Edification is the act of building up and promoting growth in Christian wisdom, affection, grace, virtue, and holiness. Notice in 1 Corinthians 14:26 that edification is mainly accomplished when individual Christians assemble corporately—this being accomplished under the leadership of godly men (1 Thessalonians 5:12).
Local Church Membership Protects by Holding Us Accountable
When we join a local church, we are also putting ourselves under—submitting ourselves to—the protection and leadership of a biblically qualified, godly leader. A Bible study that meets one day a week without qualified leadership is not meeting as the church. There is a place for Bible study with other members of the body of Christ, but that is not church membership as prescribed in the Bible.
Local congregations are led and governed by elders who are responsible for keeping watch over the souls of those who place themselves under their care (Hebrews 13:17). We live in a time when no one wants to be held accountable for anything, but, believer, we need guidance, protection, and accountability. Praise God, He knows this and puts all of these things in place for us! The Bible also gives instruction for church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17); its purpose is for the purity of the church and loving restoration of someone who has fallen into sin. Each one of us needs this accountability and protection, and without local church membership, we would not have it.
Are You a Member of a Local Church?
I have gone to church since birth. I committed my life to Christ when I was 13 years old. For as long as I can remember, I have been a member of a local congregation. Sometimes when we have been in something for so long, we can lose sight as to why we are there. Writing this article has brought me back to the reasons why church membership is important. If you have been in church your entire life or are new to the body of Christ, I hope looking at what the Bible says about being a member of the local body has helped you understand its importance. I would like to close with a quote from Charles Spurgeon. I think he summarizes the importance of church membership very well:
"Nothing in the world is dearer to God's heart than His church; therefore, being His, let us also belong to it, that by our prayers, our gifts, and our labors, we may support and strengthen it. If those who are Christ's refrained, even for a generation, from numbering themselves with His people, there would be no visible church, no ordinances maintained, and, I fear, very little preaching of the gospel."
Lisa Morris is a student of God’s Word, Bible study writer, and creator of Conforming To The Truth. She is wife to her high school sweetheart, Roy, and mom to three of the greatest kids ever! They make their home in good ole Rocky Top, Tennessee, the volunteer state! Go Vols! Lisa is passionate about defending the truth of God’s word so that He is high and lifted up.