BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 12
Copyright 1990, Biblical Horizons
The Church is not in good shape. Nearly every week we hear about another prominent Christian leader who has fallen into scandalous sin. Many shepherds feed their flocks a diet of baby food, if not outright poison. Few Churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper regularly, and few Christians appreciate its importance.
In the face of these facts, we can ask the question in the title of this essay with great urgency. Does God really require that I join a local Church? Do I really need to take formal vows of Church membership?
We believe that the answer to both questions is, Yes. Membership in a local congregation of Christ’s Church is not an option. Christians should join a local Church, and their effectiveness as Christians suffers if they do not. The following are biblical reasons for joining a local congregation.
God commands us to meet together to worship before Him. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded to meet at the sanctuary three times a year to celebrate feasts (Ex. 23:14; Deuteronomy 16:16). In addition, they met every Sabbath in a "holy convocation" (Lev. 23:3). In the New Testament, God’s people are again commanded to assemble to worship their Lord (Heb. 10:25). There are no solitary Christians in the Bible; God always calls those He loves into a community.
God commands us to submit to the authority of His representatives, the elders of a local Church. The apostles set up an organized government for the Church. The community of God’s people is an organized community. Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders in each city (Tit. 1:5). Throughout the book of Acts, we find references to these rulers of local Churches (Acts 11:30; 15:2ff.; 16:4; 20:17ff.) Hebrews 13:17 instructs us to obey the leaders who keep watch over our souls. Clearly, this verse refers to the elders of a local Church. If God wants us to submit to the authority of a local Church government, He surely wants us to join a local Church. Otherwise, who keeps watch for our souls? Who warns us when we stumble?
In the Lord’s Supper, we share in the body and blood of Christ. We have no life in ourselves. Christ is our life (Col. 3:4). Whoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood has eternal life, and will be raised, because His flesh is true food and His blood is true drink. By eating the flesh and blood of Christ we abide in Him, and He abides in us (John 6:52-56). The bread we break and the cup we drink at the Lord’s Table is a sharing in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). Faithful participation in the Lord’s Supper is the source of our life. Moreover, when the Church eats the one bread, it shows itself to be one Body. Just as full citizenship in Israel was marked by participation in the Passover, so citizenship in the One Church is marked by participation in the Lord’s Supper.
The Church, through its leaders, has power to admit people to and to exclude them from the Lord’s Supper. This is shown in the fact that the most serious Church censure is excommunication, that is, exclusion from communion at the Table of the Lord. Jesus gave the apostles stewardship of the keys of the Kingdom (Mt. 16:13-20; 18:15-20). This power was granted to the Church, and is exercised in Christ’s name and in His place by the courts of elders of the Church (1 Cor. 5:1-5; 6:1-4). In order to eat from the Table, one must be admitted by the elders.
The Church is a covenant community. When Peter described the Church in his first epistle, he quoted several phrases from the Old Testament, all of which describe the covenant relationship between God and His people (1 Pet. 2:9-10). Just as Israel became God’s people through the covenant at Sinai (Dt. 5:2-3), so also the Church was constituted God’s covenant people by the covenant sealed with blood on Calvary.
Admission to the covenant community is by vow. In the Old Covenant, Israelites were admitted to the privileges of the covenant by circumcision, and in the New Covenant, admission to the Church is by baptism. Both circumcision and baptism are, among other things, vows of allegiance to God and to His people (e.g., Acts 8:37). Many people today, however, do not remain in the Church in which they were baptized, and some go for years without being a member of any Church. It is appropriate, therefore, when one attaches himself to a new local body, to reaffirm publicly the vows taken in baptism.
Finally, to show that this view of the importance of Church membership is the historical Reformed, Calvinist, and Presbyterian view, let me end with two quotations:
From the Westminster Confession of Faith, XXV.22:
"The visible church . . . consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation."
From John Calvin, Institutes IV.1.4:
". . . because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title `mother’ how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her [i.e., the Church]. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives" [emphasis added].
Jesus taught us to pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." We should strive, then, not only to make sure that our names are enrolled in heaven, but also to have them inscribed on the gates of the earthly Zion (Heb. 12:23).