“Church membership is merely a manmade construct. Right?”
How would you have responded?
At the time I didn't know what to say. In fact I was stunned… not unlike the proverbial deer in the proverbial headlights.
Clearly this faithful brother was laboring under a serious misunderstanding regarding a clear teaching of Scripture.
While it is true that the Bible doesn’t have a single specific verse that categorically says “all believers are required to be members of a local church,” church membership does seem to be the normative pattern for God's people in Scripture. The fact is there are a number of passages demonstrating that when people became Christians they also became professing members of the visible church. And this makes perfect sense, doesn't it? If a person has been united to Christ by faith it only follows that he/she will be united to Christ's body on earth, the church.
And we should welcome this!
Because being a member of a local church carries with it a number of amazing privileges. Moreover it reveals a number of truths about the credibility of a person's profession of faith.
In the space remaining allow me to highlight just two of these truths:
1) Church Membership Demonstrates A Desire to Obey God’s Word
“The question of whether or not to join the church or belong to the church is (biblically speaking) not one that is open for the Christian believer.”
The clear point is this - that being a member of a local church is simply an indication of a person's obedience to God's Word. To put it more bluntly, obedience to God's Word is consistent with a credible profession of faith while disobedience to God's Word is inconsistent with a credible profession of faith. We become church members because God tells us to. We obey His commands and thereby demonstrate we are His.
In a helpful article on the subject of church membership, Dr. Julius J. Kim of Westminster Seminary explains that church membership is nothing new. In fact God has always required it of His covenant people.
As Dr. Kim puts it:
“The word used in the New Testament for church (ekklēsia) has clear connections to the Old Testament word that was used to describe the unique gathering or assembly (qahal) of God’s people Israel. In the Old Testament, God’s people were literally “called out” to gather together for worship (Deut. 12:5–12; 31:11–12; Pss. 22:22; 107:32). In the New Testament, we read that the early church followed this pattern of gathering for corporate worship (Acts 2:46; 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2).
Israel was commanded by God to be in a special covenantal relationship with Him. Part of the privilege of being part of this community included obeying the laws that God had established for them. Following this pattern, the church is a covenant community established by Christ (Matt. 16:18). As such, membership and participation in Christ’s church, especially in corporate worship, is not an option, but a requirement (Heb. 10:24–25).”
2) Church Membership Demonstrates A Desire For Growth
“A Person who says he believes in Christ but never goes to church is like one who says he believes in education but never goes to school.”
Fry’s point is obvious - if you believe in Christ and desire to grow in your faith, you will have a meaningful attachment to Christ’s body, the church.
The New Testament makes this point very clear as well. Consider, for instance, that it refers to Christ's followers as His "disciples" - and not just the original 12, but even those of us who follow Him today (John 8:31). But what does it mean to be a disciple? The word literally means “learner” and it implies an lifestyle of ongoing upward progress in our knowledge of God. Make no mistake! God has not left us to our own devices regarding this ongoing upward progress. He has graciously provided us with "means" for our spiritual maintenance and growth. All He asks us to do is to make effective use of these means of grace.
But where are these means of grace to be found?
How shall the Lord, who is in heaven, dispense these means to us who are on earth?
The answer is very simple. If you want to make use of the means of grace you must go to church.
God has established the church and entrusted the ordinary means of grace to her care. Within the church, God, according the the specifications of His word, appoints under-shepherds to oversee the flock and to use the ordinary means of grace for the flock's spiritual maintenance and development.
It is in the church that the Word of God is preached and received by disciples as a means of grace. It is in the church that the sacraments are administered according to their institution and are received by disciples as a means of grace. And on and on we could go talking about the corporate prayers of God's people, the gift of Christian fellowship and the other hallmarks of church-life through which disciples receive the grace of God in Christ.
If you are a true disciple you will desire spiritual growth. If you desire spiritual growth you must make effective use of the means God has given. If you want to make effective use of the means God has given you must be part of the church.
Think back to that friend of mine who asked me if church membership was merely a manmade construct. When he asked I wasn't sure how to respond to him. But should I see him again I think I will respond in the words of Malcolm Watts, who said:
"We must meet with the Church Militant if ever we hope to meet with the Church Triumphant. Together in grace, God’s people make ready for glory."