Note: I’ve had occasion to work on several essays recently for different things I’m doing. This is the first of them; I figured I’d post it here if anyone is interested.
The Church (both big and little ‘c’) is a big deal in God’s story. This shouldn’t surprise Christians, but often it is overlooked. Scripture resonates with concern for the community of Christians in the world. The Church, Paul writes to Timothy, is the “household of God”, a “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). He elsewhere pictures it as Christ’s “body”, as if our Lord who is physically absent from the earth is at the same time really and physically present through His Church (1 Corinthians 12). While it sometimes makes evangelicals comfortable, the oldest creedal confession of Christianity includes belief in the “holy catholic church”, and this profession is echoed by church fathers, theologians, mystics, monastics, reformers and missionaries throughout the ages.
It is for this reason that we talk about the importance of “church membership” as something undertaken by the individual Christian. It is true, in one sense, that one becomes a part of the Church simply by believing in Christ. Some theologians have called this the “invisible church” – the communion of all saints through the ages – and it is an important doctrine. However, Christianity is a religion where invisible and internal truths are always meant to be joined with external realities. Faith in one’s heart must be joined by outward profession, belonging by baptism, new life by obedience, and so on. Our concern is not with whether we are invisibly and internally a part of the Church but what implications this has for our visible, external lives.
Church membership, while its specific forms vary, is the way we act out our invisible membership in Christ’s body in the visible world. We join ourselves to a local expression of the body of Christ in a public and binding way precisely because we are to act out with our lives what Christ makes true of our hearts. If we are part of the Church, we should also join in membership with a local church.
In what follows, I’d like us to spend a little time looking at the biblical commands, the practical needs, and the missional blessings of church membership, then end with a few practical recommendations for those seeking to obey Scripture in this area. Continue reading