By Matthew Bowerman
Confession: I. Hate. Country. Music.
I was born and bred in Birmingham, AL. I draw out my vowels much longer than necessary. Sometimes my singing voice is hoarse on Sunday because of the cheering I did for the Crimson Tide football team the day before. But even though I have repeatedly tried to adopt this southern music custom, I cannot bring myself to enjoy country music. One of the many reasons are found in the lyrics to Brad Paisley’s, ‘Me and Jesus’. Paisley sings,
Me and Jesus got our own thing going
Me and Jesus got it all worked out
Me and Jesus got our own thing going
And we don't need anybody to tell us what it's all about
We can't afford no fancy preaching
We can't afford no fancy church
We can't afford no fancy singing
But don't you know God's got a lot of good people out doing his work
Me and Jesus. No formal religious association. I’m just gonna read my Bible, sing my songs, and maybe have some spiritual conversations with my friends from time to time. But attending church? Church membership? You mean actually join a church? Absolutely not!
Unfortunately, non-membership has become the norm and the expectation for many. If you asked most Christians why church membership is important, or where church membership is taught in the New Testament, I don’t think many could provide a good answer. To be honest, if you asked many pastors this question I doubt the results would improve much. In order to help correct this, here are some biblical and practical reasons why local church membership is so important.
Assurance of Faith
That might sound like a stretch. How can simply joining a church give someone any confidence that their faith is genuine? Matthew 16:13-20 is the first time that Jesus ever mentions the Church. After Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus responds, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Then in v. 19 what appears to be an odd shift occurs. Jesus says, “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.” Jesus, on behalf of heaven, just affirmed Peter’s true profession of faith. And in v. 19 he is handing his authority over, symbolized by the giving of the keys, to the Church to make the same judgment. Just as Jesus had the authority to recognize Peter’s true confession, the Church now has that same authority to affirm or deny a person’s profession of faith.
When a church admits a person into church membership, that church, insofar as they are able, are telling that person, “We believe that your belief in Jesus is genuine.” Not that a church has spiritual X-ray vision that turns green if the Spirit is detected or turns red if the Spirit is absent. But applying for church membership is simply setting yourself before other believers who will examine your life and doctrine. Being admitted into membership is not a guarantee of salvation, but it is an encouragement to the individual that their faith is bearing fruit that is in keeping with repentance (Mt. 3:7-8).
Spiritual Guidance and Protection
As a pastor, one of the most sobering passages in the New Testament is Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” One day I am going to stand before God and give an account for how I pastored the souls who were under my care. Am I going to be able to say that they were faithfully taught the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27)? Were they prayed for regularly and by name (Acts 6:1-7)? Did I guard the flock from fierce wolves and from those who speak twisted things in order to draw believers away from the faith (Acts:20:29-30)? These are the kinds of things that keep pastors up at night. And while pastors are sometimes less rested than they would prefer to be, I hope that members of any church would see the seriousness with which their pastor takes his responsibilities as an act of love. So why become a church member? Because the pastor of the church that you have joined is now responsible for your soul. And that means you are going to receive faithful, well-rounded biblical teaching, personal prayer, and protection from false teachers that can lead you astray from the gospel.
Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5 are both about church discipline. These passages discuss Christian brothers and sisters who are unrepentant of their sin despite being lovingly confronted. And while this person may never repent and ultimately be required to leave the Church body, that is never the goal. The aim of church discipline is repentance. The purpose is to point out sin in a Christian’s life so that they can repent and be restored to the Lord and to their fellow believers. While this kind of discipline may sound harsh, its actually the most loving thing a church can do for its members.
What kind of personal trainer wouldn’t correct improper weight-lifting technique in a student? The confrontation might be initially awkward or embarrassing, but because the trainer wants what is best for the student and doesn’t want them to eventually hurt themselves, they gently, but firmly, point out the error. Similarly, in a church, the members hold one another accountable. They promote holiness and godliness in each other. And if a person is not a member of a church, they have no one who is committed to seeing them grow in godliness. Without church membership, a person has much less security and accountability to know if they are following the Lord in a God-honoring way.
Bottom line: membership doesn’t save you. But it does give you assurance, protection, and guidance in your walk with the Lord.