What About “Local” Church Membership?
“Is a person required to be a member of a local church? Can he not be just a Christian, without a ‘church’ affiliation?”
Before we address this question specifically, let us lay a broader foundation concerning the use of the term “church” in the New Testament.
The English word “church” is derived from the Greek
kurikon, meaning “belonging to the Lord.” The actual word in the original New Testament text that stands behind the modern rendition, “church,” is
ekklesia, signifying “called out.” It is now generally conceded that the basic sense of the term is “assembly” or “congregation,” while still retaining the suggestion of a “called out” assembly, i.e., God’s assembly. In a non-religious sense, the word was used of a public assembly (see Acts 19:32, 39-40).
In a spiritual sense,
ekklesia is employed in the New Testament in three major ways, with serious responsibilities associated with each usage.
(1) “Church” is used of the people of God universally. This organism was equivalent to the “one body” (Mt. 16:18; Eph. 4:4; Col. 1:18) for which the Lord died (Acts 20:28). When one is immersed in water for the forgiveness of his sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16), he automatically is “added” to that body of saved people who constitute the “church” (Acts 2:47; 1 Cor. 12:13). There is no such thing in the Christian age as being “saved,” and not being a member of Christ’s spiritual body, the church. In Ephesians 5:26, Christ is described as the Savior of the body, which elsewhere is identified as the church (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:18, 24). Some religionists refer to “the church invisible,” but that is a non-biblical concept. The church consists of people, and they are not invisible.
(2) In the New Testament
ekklesia also refers to the Lord’s people in a certain locale, e.g., in Jerusalem (Acts 5:11), in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2), or in some other city, such as the seven congregations mentioned in the early chapters of the book of Revelation (cf. 1:4,11). When Paul and his companions traveled about, preaching the good tidings regarding Jesus, wherever men and women surrendered to the truth in gospel obedience, local churches were established (cf. Acts 14:23). These new Christians banded together for the purpose of corporate worship and fellowship in serving their Master. This was not some optional plan improvised by the whims of the missionaries; it was a divinely orchestrated pattern of organization.
(3) The term “church” also may be employed of a body of people who have been brought together at a certain place and time for the purpose of worshipping God in the company of one another (1 Cor. 11:17ff; 14:34; 3 Jn. 10). Christians are admonished not to neglect these meetings if they would encourage one another toward love and good works (Heb. 10:24-25).
A Sharper Focus
In view of the question submitted, we must focus more closely upon the second usage of “church,” as sketched above.
It is a bit difficult to understand why the question would ever be raised – “Must I be a member of a local church?” – in light of the abundant information on this theme in the New Testament. Think about the following considerations relative to the local church.
(1) In the early chapters of Acts, following the establishment of the church, there are numerous references acknowledging the “togetherness” of the early saints (2:42,44,46; 4:23-24,31-32, etc.). God never intended for Christians to function as isolated “islands” in a sea of worldly-oriented people. The body is not “one member, but many” (1 Cor. 12:14). It would be very difficult to miss Paul’s point of emphasis when he spoke of the spiritual body of Christ as being “fitly framed and knit together through that which every member supplies.” He takes note of the cooperative efforts of individual Christians “according to the working in due measure of each several part” for the increase of the body “unto the building up of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16-17). This divine goal can hardly be achieved if children of God meander about with their congregational membership in their pocket!
It is not without significance that when Paul came to Jerusalem, following an escape from a dangerous circumstance in Damascus, he immediately attempted to “join himself to the disciples” of that city. And once their initial fear of him was alleviated, he was accepted (Acts 9:26ff).
(2) Various New Testament texts make it clear that the early disciples assembled together as a body of people for the purpose of worship on the Lord’s day (Acts 2:42; 20:7-12; 1 Cor. 11:17ff; 14:1-40; 16:1-2). How could a Christian ever be admonished for forsaking an assembly (Heb. 10:25), if he is not even obligated to be a part of a local church?
(3) God structured the individual congregation around an organization plan. Christ is the head of his church wherever it exists (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:18), and so, ultimately, he is the head of his church in every city throughout the world. Further, however, in local churches, where qualified men exist (1 Tim. 3:1ff; Tit. 1:1ff), the group is supervised by “elders,” known also as bishops/overseers or pastors/shepherds.
The members are to submit to their overseers in matters of expediency (1 Thes. 5:12; Heb. 13:17), and regard them highly for their work’s sake. While these shepherds are prohibited from arrogating themselves to the position of “lords” over their flock (1 Pet. 5:3), their exemplary leadership is to be revered and followed.
Serving under these men, in special areas that implement other important tasks, are deacons, teachers, evangelists, etc. If Christ did not intend for his people to be a closely-bonded Christian family, why did he organize the local body in such a fashion?
Why Do Some Resist Local Membership?
Occasionally there are those who are not affiliated with any local group of saints. There may be, under unusual circumstances, some rationale for this. Frequently there is not.
(1) It may be the case that a Christian has moved into an area where there is no local congregation of the Lord’s people. In that event, where such is feasible, he may need to drive to a city of reasonable proximity where he is able to locate a good church.
If one is not able to pursue that procedure, he should worship on the Lord’s day in his home, and then seek to win others to the truth, thus establishing a new church in his town as soon as is possible. The same plan may have to be initiated if there is no faithful church nearby, i.e., one with whom he can worship and work conscientiously.
(2) Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to find maverick disciples who simply do not wish to identify with any local church. Reasons for this neglect may be varied.
Some folks are so inflexibly opinionated that they cannot tolerate being in proximity with any Christian who does not yield to their every dictum. Leave such to themselves; it is better that they are isolated.
Not infrequently is the reality that some do not wish to be held responsible for their conduct. They desire to come and go at will. They do not want to be accountable for faithful attendance, consistent giving, or any other responsibility. The do not intend to have their lifestyle monitored. They repudiate the idea that they should be under the oversight of elders.
In a word, they want the “name” of being a Christian, but without the commitment that goes with such. And perhaps most of all, they do not intend to be in an environment where they might be subject to the discipline of the local congregation.
Such folks may entertain the illusion that they are serving God; they are not, however. Such ones have failed to comprehend one of the most fundamental aspects of Christian service.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.