In my last blog we took a brief look at the big picture of God choosing to have a people for Himself. Now we shall look at the following question:
Why should we join a local church?
In the book of Acts, on the day of Pentecost we see 120 cowering followers of Jesus waiting fearfully in an upper room, not even quite sure what they are waiting for. Suddenly the Holy Spirit comes and fills them with power, Peter preaches and 3,000 people are added to their number. The word “added” is important here-it is evidence that a local church was organised and had actual members. We see later in Acts how elders are established and how home groups spring up as people fellowship together and practice their new found spiritual gifts. (Incidentally ‘lone ranger’ is not listed in the bible as a spiritual gift!!).
We see further through the book of Acts how churches are planted and established and how leadership in each congregation is developed. None of this would have happened without organisational and membership structures. Have you ever tried to organise and motivate people into a team who are not committed to each other or to you as a leader? If you haven’t I’m sure you can imagine what it would be like.
Most of the letters that Paul and the other apostles wrote were to specific churches, for example the churches at Ephesus and Corinth. Much of the content of these letters included how Christians should be and act with one another and how they should submit to leadership. A lot of this would not make sense if people were not committed members of these congregations. A good example of this is found in 1 Corinthians 5: a member of the church is found to be immoral and Paul urges them to put this man out of fellowship. How could they have put him ‘out’ of fellowship if he was not ‘in’ in the first place?
This leads me to the role of leadership and specifically Elders. Elders are exhorted to look after those under their care. In Acts 20 v 28 it says “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Again in 1Peter 5 v 2-3 it says “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock”. On the other hand the members of the church are instructed to “have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” (Hebrews 13 v 17). None of this makes sense unless a person is submitted to a leader through church membership. A leader cannot perform his shepherding care if no-one is submitted to Him.
Analogy of the body
Paul uses a very good analogy of what the church should be like in 1 Corinthians 12: 12-27
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
This for me is one of the strongest arguments for having church membership. God has put us together to rely on one another and be part of each other. If you are an errant body part you need to get back into the body. How strange a body would be if an eye was over here and a hand over there etc… It wouldn’t be an effective body at all.
“There is something unnatural about a Christian attaching himself to a body of believers and not being a member of the body”. John Piper (sermon, July 13, 2008)
Another reason for being a member in a local church is so that we can use our gifts in a safe environment, whether they be spiritual gifts or practical ones. In the local church we can prophesy knowing that our contribution will be ‘weighed’; we can practice hospitality; teach and encourage. We can also exercise our gifts of serving or helps; we can be part of a programme that ministers to the poor. We can find a myriad number of ways to serve in the context of membership within a local church.
In a local church there will always be somebody who can disciple you in whatever area you need it. You may be a new parent and you can look to couples who have successfully brought up children; you may feel you don’t pray very successfully and you can get alongside real prayer warriors and learn from their passion. Of course, your own contribution is vital as you in turn disciple others and play your part in the growth of your church.
Just because membership of a local church is not highlighted in a specific verse, the concept of being a member is implied countless times in the New Testament. It’s not necessary to keep looking for the ‘perfect’ church because it doesn’t exist and if you did find it and joined, it wouldn’t be perfect anymore! Until we get to glory, every Christian has imperfections and we will all have difficulties with each other from time to time. But God in His wisdom has chosen this imperfect group to be His people, bought with His own blood, to declare His glory to the rest of creation. We are His people and His delight and He has chosen us to be built together in Him. If you are still not quite convinced, go through the New Testament again and see the skill with which God builds his church together and then consider getting stuck in where you are. You have a part to play.