Alice was livid! This was the first time she had visited this church. “The last time too,” she thought. The church had celebrated the Lord’s Supper. “I’ve been a Christian for four years and the pastor had the gall to tell me to stay away from Communion,” Alice fumed. “Well, he didn’t exactly say that. What he did do was ask those who are not right with God or his church to take steps to get right before coming to the Lord’s Table. He included me just because I’m not a church member. How dare he! What a pharisee!”
It’s not uncommon in our day for sincere followers of Christ—like Alice—to view joining a church as an option. And given the other options—Christian books, recordings, videos, radio broadcasts, TV broadcasts, Internet resources, parachurch groups, etc.—joining the church is sometimes high, sometimes low, on the list—if it’s even on the list! Many (like Alice) get upset if they visit a church that asks people not to take the Lord’s Supper until they are members of a local church. Many (like Alice) have never regarded committing to a congregation to be all that important—or all that agreeable. It’s usually a great shock to them when they are told that, historically, Christians have regarded joining a church as essential, not optional.
Is this historic Christian conviction arbitrary? Is it pharisaical legalism? Does God’s Word have anything to say about this question of church membership? We think it says plenty. In fact, God’s Word sets forth at least ten reasons why every professing Christian ought to join a local church. Let’s consider them.
Our Lord Jesus Christ commands church membership
First, our Lord Jesus Christ commands his followers to join a church. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells his disciples, “I will build my church.” He pictures the church as the temple of the new covenant, and those who confess that “Jesus is Lord” are the building blocks in this new temple (Matt. 16:16; 1 Pet. 2:5; Eph. 2:19–22).
In Matthew 28:19–20, our Lord Jesus confirms and expands his earlier statement by commanding his followers to make disciples, baptizing and teaching them. Fulfilling this Great Commission entails bringing converts into church membership. Why do we say that? Because part of the Great Commission is a command to baptize. Now, Holy Spirit baptism adds us to the invisible church (1 Cor. 12:13). But we are not to keep our salvation invisible. We are to outwardly express it (Rom. 10:9–10). Water baptism outwardly and visibly symbolizes this invisible reality.
Acts 2:41 tells how the apostolic church implemented this principle: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” According to the New Testament, to be “baptized” is to be “added.” Added to what? Acts 2:47 gives the answer: they were “added to their number,” that is, to the visible “church” (KJV). Evidently, the apostles kept track of those who were baptized and could count them.
Christ commands us to be baptized. By commanding us to be baptized, Christ therefore commands us to be added to the church. In other words, he commands us to join a church. He wants our relationship to him to be honest and observable (Matt. 10:32). He also wants it to be corporate (Heb. 10:24–25).