I constantly hear sentiments about not needing the local church to be a Christian. Have you heard these too? I am sure you have. Maybe you’ve even used them.
Well, a few months ago I gave a lecture at my church on this idea—the necessity of church membership. In my studies I began searching for those who were fundamentally against formal church membership/formally gathered church worship.
It wasn’t hard to find examples. At least American examples.
I found a great one in Kelly Bean. She wrote a book called “How to be a Christian without going to Church.” I have no idea who she is but her thoughts are certainly paradigmatic of our culture. We have people like Donald Miller parading around saying that we can worship God better alone in the woods without the institutional church.
But is this true? Is the institutional church necessary for Christians? Do we really need to be a member of a physical local church to be considered a Christian?
Kelly Bean opens her book by saying, “Here I am on a bright Sunday morning curled up in my cushy orange chair, sipping tea and loving Jesus. It’s been quite some time since Sunday morning meant getting the whole family spruced up for a church service.” Let me cut to the chase. Her thesis is: “The great news is that it is possible to be a Christian and not go to church but by being the church remain true to the call of Christ.”
People seem to love this organic talk. But is she right? Need I “go” to church? Need I become a member at said church? Can I sit in my millennial fashioned orange chair with my Western cup of tea and be a faithful Christian? Because, after all, I’m part of the universal church! I can be faithful without the local church. I am a member of the invisible church and the visible church is either unnecessary or so unimportant that I can survive, even thrive, without it.
Before doling out my argument, I want to look at one more example. But this one is in the opposite direction. It might even make many American Protestants squirm with its dogmatic statements. But feeling awkward tension inside is good. It means you are being stretched and having your ideas tested. And by golly, we need a lot of testing of our ideas outside this wonderful Facebook internet echo chamber each of us has created.
In Augustine’s Confessions, he answers the question of the necessity of the local church in a roundabout way. Listen as he narrates: “Simplicianus said Victorinus read holy scripture, and all the Christian books he investigated with special care. After examining he said to Simplicianus, not openly but in the privacy of friendship, ‘Did you know that I am already a Christian?’ Simplicianus replied: ‘I shall not believe that or count you among the Christians unless I see you in the Church of Christ.’ Victorinus laughed and said: ‘Then do walls make Christians?’ He used frequently to say: ‘I am a Christian already,’ and Simplicianus would give the same answer, to which he equally often repeated his joke about walls. He was afraid to offend his friends, proud devil-worshipers…. But after his reading, he began to feel a longing and drank in courage…. Suddenly and unexpectedly he said to Simplicianus: ‘Let us go to the Church, I want to become a Christian.’”
Are Augustine and Victorinus right? Need we join the walls to be made a Christian? Most Americans will scoff, like Simplicianus, at the idea. They like Kelly Bean and Donald Miller’s idea of church much better. The local church is a mere option. But I think Augustine, Victorinus, and the converted Simplicianus are right. The church is a necessity. And I intend to defend this idea.
More, I think the idea that the local church is optional is uniquely American. And evangelical. And modern. And wealthy.
I don’t see these same sentiments elsewhere.
The impoverished hunger for the Lord (see the Beatitudes).
Africans are being killed for their allegiance to the church of Christ (see the news).
Before the advent of modernity, no orthodox believer that I know of was parading around saying they could be a Christian while staying home in their orange chair on Sunday.
To be clear, I believe that the church is a gathered and marked out community. Therefore, belonging to Christ requires an institutional manifestation. The true Christian, therefore, must join a local church.
Why am I such a proponent of the visible manifestation of the church in time and space? I argue so passionately because Jesus established it, authorized it, and commanded us to love it. And he continues to sustain it as he has done for thousands of years. More than that, the means of grace are linked to the physical church. To depart from the church is to lose out on joy.
Before I begin, hear a few of my friends and their thoughts:
“Saying you belong to *the* church without belonging to *a* church is like saying you’re married without having a wife.” – Thabiti Anyabwile
“He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” – Cyprian
“When you become a Christian the church is no longer “voluntary.” You obtain the husband (Jesus) and the wife (the church). When you’re adopted you will have dinner with new brothers and sisters.” – Jonathan Leeman
Now that you’ve heard from three others, I will share what I have to say. In the spirit of Threeness, I think there are three good and persuasive reasons that the local church is necessary.
Reason #1 for Necessary Church Membership: The Bible is impossible and confusing without it
Take out the mandate of church membership and you take out the lifeblood of Christianity. Take out the visible church and you take away the visible body of the church’s soul. When someone removes the necessity of the local church they are eliminating our ability to obey a myriad of commands and practices from the Bible. To put it bluntly, when we say the local church is optional, we are saying most of the biblical commands and practices are optional as well. Even more, they are impossible to obey. The commands and practices are bound up with the church. It would be like me asking you to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich but taking all of the jelly and peanut butter.
Remember Kelly Bean from earlier? Maybe you’ve forgotten. She said: “The great news is that it is possible to be a Christian and not go to church but by being the church remain true to the call of Christ.” I think this statement is utter hogwash. How can you be without doing? Am I a major league baseball player if I don’t play baseball? Am I a husband if I never see or care for my wife? Am I a Walmart greeter if I never show up to Walmart or greet? Put simply, I can’t be something if I don’t also do something. How can I be a Christian without obeying as a Christian?
Don’t believe me? Let my cumulative case convince you. I’ll rifle off 10 of the best reasons the Bible is impossible to obey without church membership. Could I simplify it to 2 or 3? Maybe. But I think part of the power in my argument is the overwhelming flood of examples. Most people who think the church is optional would be able to create loopholes for 1 or 2. Maybe even 3 or 4. But 10? I think not. Well. I at least intend to convince you to think not.
And most people I know like lists. 10 reasons the Bible is impossible to obey without church membership is better than two reasons. Sounds like a great click bait title, huh? I digress…
- OT Membership
In order to properly understand church membership, we need to think back to the Old Testament and its own categories. The “church” membership of the OT is national and automatic via physical birth. It is citizenship in the people of God. You’re born and you’re automatically a member of Israel.
What if you want to join but aren’t born there? You can follow a process of citizenship.
Why does this matter?
It tells us that membership is a physical reality. While it may have a spiritual component, it also has a corresponding physical reality.
- The NT Letters
How can Paul write to the church at Rome or the church at Corinth without them being an observable body that is marked out? If the invisible church is the only reality, the letters of the New Testament have no real grounding in said reality. He should’ve written to “the invisible church at large.”
But he writes to the church at Rome. A physical place. A physical group of people. They are discernable. They are members of the First Baptist Church of Rome.
- Gathering as a Body (1 Corinthians 14:23; Hebrews 10:25; Acts 2:42-47)
1 Corinthians 14:23 tells us that the whole church gathers. Paul says this kind of thing frequently throughout his letters. But how can you gather as a whole unit if you don’t have membership in the local church in a visible way? Are you supposed to invisibly join together at an invisible building with invisible spirits you’ve never met and will never meet? Can you watch a videotaped service where you comment back and forth with anonymous other watchers and call it “gathering?”
Hebrews 10:25 is the classic command to attend a church. Do not neglect meeting together. But, again, how can you obey this command without meeting in a physical manifestation of the local church? Further, can we truly disobey this command our entire lives and consider ourselves believers in the Lord Jesus who are obeying all that he has commanded?
Acts 2 is only possible with the visible church. It mentions Christians who devoted themselves to fellowship, breaking of bread, prayers, sharing all that they had with each other, attending the temple together, breaking bread in their homes, etc. How, I ask, can you do this without a physical church? How can you follow the example of the early church without joining an actual church? Such activities are impossible for Donald Miller types who are alone in the woods. Such activities are impossible for Kelly Bean types who are curled up in their orange chair at home by themselves. Which leads me to the same question I posed in relation to Hebrews 10: How can we call ourselves Christians and not act like the Christians of the Bible?
- Growing Membership (Acts 2:41)
These people are added… to the church… a visible reality for all to see. An entity that has a physical manifestation in time and space.
- Worshiping Membership
I first pose this question: how can you worship without the body on the Lord’s Day? The Bible is full of reverence for the OT Sabbath and the NT Sabbath, which I believe requires assembling for public worship… which obviously cannot be done from your living room or computer. (Sorry cool church people with your internet “church.”)
My point is this: If you don’t gather to worship in a physical place, you can’t follow the pattern of the New Testament Christians who gathered in a public physical place to worship. Therefore, not only are you not observing the Lord’s Day but you aren’t worshiping.
Let me go a little deeper.
Without giving a full orbed explanation of the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath, I will pose a few questions and then assume agreement. First, do you believe that one of the Ten Commandments was wholly revoked and done away with (Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy)? Even as it is fulfilled in Christ, it certainly is a manifestation of the character of God and continues to have importance, right? Besides, the Sabbath was instituted in creation itself, before the Covenant with Moses. God rested on the seventh day. Seems like that would be a pattern for all of creation. Even in Exodus 20 it is said that God blessed the Sabbath and made it holy because of his pattern in creation. Second, 1 Corinthians 16:2 says that the churches are to gather their giving on the first day of every week (a.k.a. Sunday). Revelation 1:10 says that John was caught up in the Spirit “on the Lord’s Day.” So, I ask this: how can there be an assumed reality such as the “Lord’s Day” without any explanation of the concept? How can John throw out this term and not give us any clarification as to what it is? Reason: because the Sabbath is assumed. Christ does transform it. But it is not unrecognizable. John doesn’t need to drop what he is doing and explain the concept of the Lord’s Day because it is already present in the minds of all of the Christians. Duh. I take one day a week and dedicate it to the Lord. That’s what God has been calling his people to do for centuries. Why would that change?
That long winded excurses for this reason: The Lord’s Day matters. It can’t be rightfully observed without gathering as a public entity to proclaim the Lord’s death and resurrection. Sipping tea in your house by yourself cannot fulfill the glory of the day.
The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 speaks to this matter of public worship. It says: “Those thus called, he commands to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requires of them in the world.”
The Second London believes that the command to walk together in real life local church is partly required in order to worship. We can’t practice public worship without a physical church. And we can’t observe the Lord’s Day without public worship.
Let’s take a test case. How do I worship through singing with my brothers and sisters in Christ without the local church? Colossians 3:16 commands me to teach and admonish others through singing. How can I do this without public worship in a real church?
I can’t. That’s why it’s necessary.
- Reducing Membership (1 Corinthians 5)
In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul speaks of insiders and outsiders. Removing the erring “member” from their group. But how can you have the ability to remove someone from inside if there is no formal membership? No formal and visible local church with guidelines for what constitutes a true member? Hint: You can’t.
- Electing Officers (1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1)
Quite simply, how can you obey the commands to elect officers without having a local expression of the church? And how can you know who gets to be privy to this election without a church membership?
Must we simply suppress 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1? Must we think God gave these commands as superfluous because we do not need a local church? Or are we to vaguely be members of the universal church and follow whoever the loudest and most popular voice is? Look for the platform?
- Shepherding Members (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-5; 1 Timothy 5:17)
Building on the officers question… imagine you somehow have church leaders without the visible church. Who do they shepherd in this invisible church? How can they know who to shepherd without membership? Without a real church in time and space and formal membership, obedience to these commands is all but impossible. It is a nice fairy tale.
It is like me giving you a list of anonymous authors and telling you to be their writing mentor and you will be held accountable for how your particular mentee progresses. I wish you luck in your endeavor.
- Partaking of the Sacraments
How can we benefit from Baptism and the Lord’s Supper without the local church in time and space? How can we benefit from their empowering grace without the means to partake of them?
We can’t. It is impossible to truly take the Supper without the members of the church. 1 Corinthians 11 is clear. The ordinance is only to be taken when the whole church is gathered. Not fragments. If all we have is the universal invisible church, then we really need to institute a yearly pilgrimage in order to allow us to take communion.
As far as baptism goes, it is certainly impossible to baptize yourself. I don’t know anyone who has tried that. And who has the authority to baptize you apart from the local church? Can I ask my neighbor?
- Submitting Members (Hebrews 13:17)
Similar to the shepherding question, how can you as a Christian obey Hebrews 13:17 without being a member of a real church? How could you do this if you simply follow Donald Miller into the woods and make that your “church?” Do you submit to the trees? Or some really vague internal feeling? Are you simultaneously elder, deacon, and member?
And who do these leaders give account for without church membership and the local church? Do they give account for every Christian in existence? Every Christian who is a member of the invisible church? Seems a tall order. If so, I think I will politely decline pursuing church leadership. And I would advise everyone else to do the same.
Reason #2 for Necessary Church Membership: Jesus established it and requires it
Now for the nitty gritty. If I’ve convinced you this far that the Bible is impossible without the visible church, I now want to convince you of the bigger theological reasoning. Or in smaller words: the foundation. I think Jesus establishes the church and promises to sustain it. Let’s dig in.
- Affirming True Confessions of Confessors (Matthew 16:13-20)
Building the Church on the Rock
*A warning in advance is proper. I ripped off a lot of my ideas for this particular section from 9marks. Especially Jonathan Leeman. I’ve adjusted it at points and repackaged it, but a lot is from him. My wife also has been tremendously helpful in thinking through the nature of the rock in Matthew 16.*
“He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
This portion of Scripture was always really confusing to me as a kid. I thought it was part of the Catholic Bible or something. Doesn’t this mean Peter is the Pope? Not quite… but this passage is gargantuan for our understanding of the church—especially its visible manifestation.
Jesus will build his church. That much is sure. But on what? What is this “rock?”
Is it on the confessor (Peter)? Is it on Peter’s confession (You are the Christ)? What is it?
I think we need to make sure to attend to the context. Jesus has just given a beautiful Trinitarian explanation for this correct confession. The Father revealed the truth of the Son through the Spirit to Peter.
This, therefore, is the rock.
If we know our rocks in the Bible, we know the rock is Christ.
It echoes Matthew 7:24 and the wise man building his house on the rock of Christ’s words.
It is like the rock of Romans 9:33, causing stumbling, which is Christ.
It is like the spiritual rock of the wilderness in 1 Corinthians 10:4, which is Christ.
The church is built not on words and not on people but on Christ. He is the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). It is the Trinitarian rock that builds his church on himself by revealing himself to true confessors to give right confessions of who this rock is.
He is not Elijah or John the Baptist but the living Christ. And only through the work of the Holy Trinity is this revealed.
This leads us to the second part of the text…
The Keys of the Kingdom
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Now we get to the fun part. The church is built on the rock that is Christ. Cool. What does that mean for church membership? It means that Jesus established a real entity in time and space that is to have an actual authority to bind and loose on earth, in the physical reality of this world, what is true in the spiritual reality of heaven.
This is big time stuff.
Jesus gives the power of the keys.
What is the power and what are the keys? And who does he give them to?
The power of the keys is to bind and loose. It is the authority to make a public recognition of the citizens of the church. On earth and in heaven. A public declaration of the forgiven citizens of heaven. The keys are given to the church—the official representative for affirming true gospel confessions and confessors. The church will affirm the truth of the confession “You are the Christ!”
1 Timothy 3:15 concurs. The church is the pillar and buttress of the truth. It is the church who guards the good deposit and affirms true gospel confessions and confessors. The what and who of the gospel. Which is built on the rock of Christ.
Jesus establishes the church to be a public, earthly (and heavenly) institution that marks out, affirms, and oversees those who profess to believe in him. Therefore, the church is established for the purpose of publically declaring those who are followers of Jesus in order to give the world a display of the truth about him.
Jesus intends his church to proclaim to a watching world who belongs to him and who doesn’t. For those who intend to reject this physical church in time and space, claiming privilege to the universal or invisible church, they reject the very plan of Jesus which began to take shape here in Matthew 16. His creation of the church is meant to be a marked out people that gathers together. A visible and public group that images him.
Jonathan Leeman says it well: “The local church is the authority on earth that Jesus has instituted to officially affirm and give shape to my Christian life and yours.”
Historic Baptists agree. The Second London Confession of Faith says: “To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind declared in his word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe; with commands and rules for the due and right exerting, and executing of that power.”
Authority has been given to the church by Jesus. And this is a physical reality in time and space realized in the local church. Christians are to become members of these local bodies and so fulfill his plan of the church. But in the churches authority, more than merely declaring who is a citizen of the kingdom, they also provide spiritual care and oversight. Therefore, membership is both about declaring and caring.
- Disciplining False Confessors (Matthew 18:15-20)
Matthew 18 gives us further clarity on binding and loosing and who has the authority. In order for us to understand chapter 16 rightly, we must know chapter 18. They are to be read together and interpret each other.
First, who has the authority? The church. Matthew 18:17 commands us to bring unrepentant sinners before the church who will finally excommunicate them if unrepentance continues.
Not the church leaders.
Not the Pope.
Second, after explaining church discipline and excommunicating the false confessors of Christ, Jesus explains that such discipline is binding and loosing. The practice of church discipline is exercising the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose. To define who is inside the community and represents the king. Therefore, this earthly institution of the church has the responsibility to mark out all who follow Christ, to affirm or reject their confession, and to oversee their confession throughout their life.
- Defining the Church
Now let’s put these two puzzle pieces together. What is Jesus telling us?
At its core, church means assembly. A gathering of people.
Before attaching any other meaning to the church, an assembly of people must be seen as foundational.
Therefore, no person should claim to be a member of the universal church if they do not regularly assemble as the church. How can you make sense of the Christian life without actually doing the fundamental reality of the church? Gathering?
Watching something online is not assembling in one place at one time like the church. It requires being physically present in time and space at an appointed location with other gospel confessors.
A deeper definition could be as follows: The Church is a gathered institution having government, officers, members, discipline, doctrine, and sacraments.
Said differently, the Church is a gathering of members governed by officers, both of whom regularly worship, partake of the sacraments, and practice discipline.
Jonathan Leeman says it this way: “a local church is a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christs name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and his kingdom through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances.”
What does this mean? It means what I presented in the first reason with 10 reasons inside itself: The Bible requires a corporate and public reality of the church. We need our fellow saints in real life.
Now, I know it’s a bit theological and technical to wade (briefly!!) into the pool of anthropology here… but I think this theological datum is important.
Most everyone can agree that people are made up of two main parts: the material and immaterial. However you break that up is not important. The importance is this: there is a physical substance and non-physical substance.
If you were to remove one of them, the person would no longer be a full person but part of a person.
Let me apply this to the church: Jesus gives spiritual and physical substance in the church. Like our being as soul and body. Immaterial and material. There is a deep disunity and incompleteness if one is missing. When we become Christians we are united to Christ immaterially as members of the universal church. BUT we also are given a material and corresponding reality: the local church.
Those who refuse the material church are out of step with the gift that God has given them. Both immaterial and material. Soul and body.
Reason #3 for Necessary Church Membership: The Means of Grace are bound to the local Church
Finally! My last reason. And this should be short (I hear the collective sigh of relief!).
I believe God has ordained particularly means by which he gives grace to his people. These means are providentially attached to the church. To depart from the church is to depart from the means.
This means that if you want the most grace. The most joy. You have to be a member of a real local church in time and space.
But what do you mean by means of grace? I am confused, you say?
The Baptist Catechism, patterned after the Westminster Catechism says it as follows:
Q 95: What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?
A: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are His ordinances, especially the Word, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and Prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation. (Rom. 10:17; James 1:18; 1 Cor. 3:5; Acts 14:1; 2:41,42).
The Second London Confession agrees in 14.1 when it says: The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened.
God has appointed things like baptism and the Lord’s Supper to encourage our faith in him. To strengthen us along our path. We can only obtain these in a physical church. To neglect the visible church is to neglect the means of the Christian life!
John Calvin says: Believers have no greater help than public worship, for by it God raises his own folk upward step by step.
Who wants to survive without the main gifts Christ has given to his church?
And truly, who can survive without the gifts of Christ to his church? Deuteronomy 8:3 teaches us that we live not by bread alone but by the true bread of Christ. If the church is the central location of giving the bread… how can we survive without it? Some who are richly fed may last for a month, maybe even two, but years? Decades? Without food, we die. Without the church, we die.
So, after all of this… Is the institutional church really all that necessary for Christians? Do we really need to be a member of a physical local church to be considered a Christian?
You can’t make sense of the Bible, much less obey it, without it.
You can’t agree with the definition and calling set out by Jesus without it.
You can’t enjoy the means of grace tied to it without it.
What good reason would there be to depart from the call of Christ to join a local church? I could throw out 25 different ones I’ve heard but none stand up to the truth of Scripture.
So go join a church if you haven’t! Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it’s inconvenient. But this is where God is doing his work and showing forth his glory (Ephesians 3:10). I want in on that.
I need to give two quick caveats to my thesis here. First: Yes. I am defending the necessity of local church membership for the Christian. However, this does not mean that God cannot work outside of its walls. God can do whatever he wants. But he has made plain that he wants to work through the church. And I am trying to be polemical in this piece. I’m not trying to win friends and influence people. I am trying to convince you to become obedient to the Lord Jesus for his glory and your good. Hear Herman Bavinck when he says: “And it is really a Reformed doctrine that, though God ordinarily grants the benefits of Christ by means of Word and sacraments, he is not bound to this method and, be it very rarely, also grants salvation outside the institution of the church.” Second: I will use terminology like church membership, the visible church, the institutional church, and the local church in synonymous fashions. My arguments for church membership are the same as my arguments for the visible or local church.