Rev. Brian Schwertley on the necessary of Church Membership

We live in a time in which many professing Christians regard church membership as optional. They consider church membership as something that men devised for pragmatic reasons; that it has nothing to do with the requirements of Scripture. One often hears statements and questions such as: “Where does the Bible say ‘Go join the local church?’” “Church membership is legalistic. It was devised so that corrupt church officials could gain control over the people.” “I’m a Christian but I don’t believe in the institutional church.” “The institutional church is totally corrupt so I worship at home with my family.” “My relationship to God is a very private and special matter. It is between me and my Savior. I don’t want to impede this relationship by joining a church with all its problems.” “I’m part of the invisible church. Therefore, there is no need for me to join the visible local church.” “The local church is a good thing, but joining it is a purely voluntary affair and I am simply too busy to get involved with it right now. Maybe I’ll join when I’m not so busy.” Is membership in a local church purely voluntary like joining the Lion’s Club or the Boy Scouts? Is it something men devised to lord it over other men and gain control over their money? No. Absolutely not. The biblical evidence for church membership is abundant and overwhelming.

Before we consider the biblical arguments for church membership let us first consider some of the reasons why so many people who claim to be Christians have such a negative, unbiblical view of church membership. First, many churches have not instructed people regarding this issue and many churches themselves regard membership as optional. When churches do not instruct Christians on this subject or themselves hold to an unscriptural view then one should not be surprised when ignorance and unbiblical views abound.

Second, industrial and post-industrial social trends coupled with American views regarding individualism have contributed to the atomization of society. Adults spend most of their waking hours away from home and community at the corporation. Americans move often and thus many times cannot set down strong roots in a community or kindle long term personal relationships.

Third, many people have had bad experiences with church officers who were heretical, arbitrary and dictatorial toward their members. Most churches today teach rank heresy from the pulpit (e.g., Romanism, Arminianism, the Charismatic movement) and are legalistic regarding ethics. When arbitrary, unbiblical demands are made by pastors and elders (such as don’t drink alcoholic beverages, don’t eat meat on Friday, don’t grow a beard or wear a colored shirt, etc.) then naturally some people are turned off to the idea of church membership altogether. The solution however is not to throw the baby out with the bath water but to join a biblical church. That is, a church that strictly holds to Sola Scriptura, where church officials acknowledge that they only have authority delegated by Christ and thus can only declare and command what is revealed in the Scripture. No pastor or elder has the authority or right to impose laws upon, or exact obedience from, a member without scriptural proof to back it up. This point is very important for it is denied by Romanists and many so called Fundamentalists and Charismatics. When this author was an Arminian Charismatic heretic in the 1970’s, he attended churches where the pastor and elders would tell church members: where to work, who to marry, what kind of car to buy, where to live, what to wear and so on. Antinomianism almost always leads to legalism and tyranny.

Fourth, many people reject church membership because they don’t want to do anything that interferes with their autonomy. Many people are materialistic, hedonistic, self-centered, selfish and therefore do not want any form of authority over them or any responsibility towards others. This selfish sinful attitude exhibits itself in different ways. Some people who claim to be Christians never attend church at all and spend the Lord’s day like any atheist. They can be found at the shopping mall, beach, park, restaurant, football game, at home watching TV, or sleeping in. For them Christ is a fire escape from hell and no more. The truth is, such people are lovers of self rather than lovers of God. They are rank idolaters living in self-deception. Another group of people who profess Christ go to church sometimes, however, they like to church-hop. They go to different churches like a person who visits different restaurants for variety. Such people like to remain strangers. They want to remain anonymous in order to live autonomously. For them, church is a spectator sport. They church-hop to ease their consciences and do so to avoid a commitment to other professing Christians. They contribute nothing to the local church. They are just passing through. Because no one really ever gets to know these church hoppers they are never challenged regarding immoral behavior or heretical doctrine. There is another group of people who do regularly attend a local church yet who refuse to join and to participate heartily in mutual fellowship, aid and edification. This group also likes to retain autonomy in their lives. They do not want to be under the authority of elders. They want to avoid the personal responsibility that church membership entails. Such people often have a record of poor church attendance. People who ignore the corporate element of the church, who dislike authority and corporate responsibility are missing church for sinful, self-centered reasons. God’s word strongly condemns all the unscriptural views regarding church membership enumerated above.1 (If your behavior is similar to what has just been described you especially need to carefully study the arguments for church membership below, for they prove that you are in rebellion against God).

While there are various reasons why many professing Christians have a negative and unbiblical view of church membership there is no excuse for refusing to be identified with the local (Bible-believing and truly Reformed) visible church.

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