Is Church Membership Necessary for the Christian Life?
I find myself in more and more conversations with people who profess to be Christians and yet do not belong to Christian churches. They will usually reason something like this: “I am a member of the kingdom, but I will never belong to a church.” Or this one: “I worship God everyday. I don’t need to be a part of a church. I have fellowship with my Christian friends.” Of course I am not surprised by such statements. They are becoming more common in an anti-institutional, anti-authority loving culture. Yet some anti-church membership sentiments stem from the pain of being hurt by carnal church leaders or from belonging to false authoritarian churches or simply from never having belonged to a healthy church to begin with. Others have come to believe that the whole enterprise of “church” is corrupt so they avoid it altogether. This problem is compounded by the fact that many churches in modern-day America do not practice church membership. These churches have no clear accountability structure. People can come and go as they please, no questions asked. The membership-less church is a kind of event that happens each week at a certain location. People show up but with no sense of corporate identity regarding who they are and who they are not. I do not say that as a critique at this point; it simply is what it is.
So what about church membership? Is church membership necessary for the Christian life? Is church membership a necessary practice for churches? My answer to these questions is simple: Yes. I can hear someone sighing right now, “O c’mon! Show me one verse in the Bible that talks about church membership. Church membership is an artificial control mechanism invented by pastors and other church leaders to gain power over people. You will never find church membership in the New Testament.” Well let me add a little fuel to the fire. I would go so far as to say that a Christian who refuses to join a church is in sin and needs to repent. And churches that do not practice membership are, at the very least, irregular churches. Obviously I am not referring to Christians who have moved to a new area and are looking for a church to join or the person who was saved in a frontier missions context and has no church to which he can belong (though this new convert and his evangelizer could form the first church in this area!). Neither am I talking about Christians who have left an unhealthy church and are in the process of looking for a healthy church. I am talking about the renegade Christian who refuses to submit to a local gospel-preaching, Bible-belieiving church. That person is in sin. Now that I have stepped on some proverbial toes, let me offer the biblical rationale for my claim.
Matthew 16 and Peter’s Confession
Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi is one of the most famous passages in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 16:13–20). Here Jesus asks his disciples the most important question they will ever answer: “Who do you say that I am?” The disciples know that many people have various opinions concerning Jesus identity. Some say that Jesus is John the Baptist, some say he is Elijah, others think he is Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Many opinions were swirling around in their day concerning the identity of Jesus—much like today! But when Jesus directs his question specifically to the disciples, Peter chimes in the with right answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Jesus responds to Peter’s confession by informing Peter about the divine origin of his confession: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (v. 17). Peter’s ability to confess rightly the truth about Jesus does not originate from himself. God enabled Peter to understand the truth about Jesus’ identity. In other words, a true gospel confession is the result of God’s intervention in a person’s life. God alone can save people and reveal to them truth about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Clearly the person who does not understand who Jesus is and what he came to do does not have salvation. The muslim who thinks Jesus is merely a great prophet or the Mormon who thinks Jesus is a created being—the spiritual offspring of an exalted man—does not know the Jesus who can save. God has not revealed the truth about Christ to them.
This point is important because to say that church membership is necessary for the Christian is not to say that church membership is necessary for salvation. One does not get saved by belonging to the church. God alone can save. But church membership is, nevertheless, a necessary part of the Christian life. By “necessary,” I mean that church membership is an essential part of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. In fact, we will see below that faithful followers of Jesus Christ can only be identified in so far as they belong to a church.
Matthew 16–18 and The Keys to the Kingdom
After Jesus affirms the heavenly origin of Peter’s confession, he declares his intention to build his church: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (v. 18). Anyone familiar with this verse knows that it is one of the most debated passages in the history of interpretation. Is the “rock” on which the church is built Peter or Peter’s confession? Catholics say Peter; Protestants say Peter’s confession. Personally, I agree with Edmund Clowney: “The confession cannot be separated from Peter, neither can Peter be separated from his confession” (The Church, 40). Admitting that the “rock” includes Peter himself and not just his confession does not substantiate popery any more than Jesus saying “eat my flesh” substantiates transubstantiation. Both are unbiblical conclusions built on false assumptions. The important point to observe here is that Jesus will build his church on the foundation of the apostles (Peter) and the apostolic gospel (Peter’s confession).
But what exactly is this “church” that Jesus will build? Or perhaps a more appropriate question in light of Matthew 16 and the context Matthew’s Gospel as a whole is, who is this church and how do we identify these followers of Christ? The answer, I think, is found in verse 19 of Matthew 16: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Before we get to the meaning of the “keys” and the language of “binding” and “loosing,” we should be able to admit that Jesus authorizes Peter here to speak on earth on behalf of heaven. This comes as no surprise if, as we observed, Peter’s confession had a heavenly origin (v. 17). The Father in heaven revealed to Peter the truth about Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Son of God who came from heaven to earth. As one who testifies the truth about Jesus Christ, Peter represents heaven on earth as a true confessor of the true gospel confession. With this heavenly confession comes the responsibility of wielding the “keys” of the kingdom of heaven and the ability to “bind” and “loose” on earth on behalf of heaven.
What do we make of this language? In his book, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule, Jonathan Leeman offers an extensive analysis of the meaning of the Matthew 16:19. He concludes that wielding the keys for the purpose of binding and loosing is an act of authority to identify true gospel confessions and true gospel people. In Leeman’s words, “The keys are the authority to judge a ‘what’ (doctrines, confessions, practices) as well as a ‘who’ (the people who speak those confessions)” (Political Church, 340). Put more simply, “To exercise the keys . . . is to render an interpretive judgment over statement of faith and church members” (Political Church, 341). Or to use the language of Matthew 16:19, the authority of keys is an authority to bind true gospel doctrine and true gospel people or to loose false gospel doctrine and false gospel people. Thus, in Matthew 16:19, Jesus authorizes Peter—and by extension the other apostles—to render authoritative decisions on behalf of heaven. They were authorized by Jesus to render verdicts about who belongs to the kingdom of heaven and what constitutes heaven’s doctrine.
If you have made it this far, perhaps you are thinking, “The apostles are not around anymore! So who can exercise the authority of keys today?” Great question. The answer is found in the words of Matthew 18:18: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.” Jesus repeated the same words he spoke to Peter, but now he speaks these words to the church. These words appear in the context of how to handle a brother in unrepentant sin. If this brother continues in his unrepentant state, he is to be brought before the church. The church will then make a verdict to loose this individual by regarding him as a “Gentile and tax-collector” (18:17). In other words, the church will exercise the power of the keys by declaring the unrepentant individual to be an imposter, someone who does not belong to the kingdom of heaven.
Considering Matthew 16 and Matthew 18 together, we can conclude that, in the absence of the apostles, the church is responsible to wield the authority of heaven on earth. Local assemblies (where 2 or 3 are gathered, 18:19) are able to speak on earth on behalf of heaven. They have been authorized by Jesus to declare to the world what constitutes a true gospel confession and what does not and who is a true gospel confessor and who is not.
So here is the important question: “How does a church exercise its God-given responsibility and duty to wield the keys of the kingdom of heaven if it does not practice church membership? In other words, how does a church declare to the world who is a citizen of Christ’s kingdom and who is not? Apart from membership, how does the church effectively declare that Jane Doe is one of us? Perhaps you are thinking, “We make that declaration through baptism.” Good point and I agree. In fact, I would argue that baptism is the effective sign of church membership. A church that fails to recognize the relationship between baptism and membership has no mechanism in place for loosing the baptized individual who proves himself to be a false professor (the unrepentant brother of Matthew 18:15ff).
That’s the church side of things. What about the individual who refuses to belong to a church? In light of Matthew 16–18, does it make any sense for a professing Christian declare to be a member of Christ’s kingdom and simultaneously refuse to be a member of Christ’s church? Would it make any sense for an American citizen in Russia to demand that the Russians recognize him as an American citizen if he refuses to have the American Embassy validate his citizenship? The American embassy has a type of authority on behalf of the kingdom of the United States of America that the individual American citizen does not. The American embassy is able to speak authoritatively on behalf of the USA in regards to who its citizens are and who its citizens are not. The person who refuses to become a member of a local church is like an American citizen in Russia who refuses to submit to the authority of the American embassy. Of course the danger is even greater for the professing Christian who refuses to submit to Christ’s church if the church is God’s kingdom authority on earth. Such a lack of humble submission may reflect the posture of a heart that has never truly submitted in repentance and faith to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
So is church membership necessary for the Christian life? Absolutely. Is church membership a necessary practice for churches? Undeniably. If you are a professing Christian and you believe yourself to be a citizen of Christ’s kingdom in a foreign land and you do not belong to a local church, let me just ask you gently, “Who has stamped your kingdom passport? Who is overseeing your walk with Christ to help you maintain your gospel profession and your gospel faithfulness? Who has given you the authority to declare yourself a citizen of Christ’s kingdom apart from the authority structure that Jesus has put in place?”
Church membership is not the invention of power-hungry pastors and church leaders. Church membership is the invention of the Lord Jesus Christ. Church membership is Jesus’ idea. Church membership will help protect Christ’s sheep until the day he returns. On that day, his kingdom will no longer be concentrated in local embassies manifesting Christ’s end-time-rule in the midst of enemy territory. On that day, heaven will come to earth with such power that the whole creation will be made new and the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven.