May a Christian Opt Out of Church Membership?

“What is the point of church membership? I am already a Christian and have a personal relationship with Jesus. Why do I need to become a member of a church?” Chances are we asked those very ques­tions when we first encoun­tered a Reformed church.  Church membership is a foreign concept to many. Due to the radical individualism common to American Christianity, many today find the idea of formal membership in an established church to be antiquated, unnecessary, and maybe even legalistic.

Church membership also goes against the popular notion in our culture that “organized religion” is different from “spirituality.” The former is disparaged as passé at best and hatefully intolerant at worst, while the latter is readily embraced as chic and healthy. Organized religion is viewed as something very particular that manifests itself in narrow doctrines, liturgical customs, and exclusive tradition. Spirituality, on the other hand, is seen as something universal that can express itself in a wide variety of personal faiths and individual practices that generally seek one common goal: self-improvement. Influenced by this mode of thinking, many professing Christians believe they can have membership in the invisible church while opting out of membership in the visible church.

Sadly, things do not appear to be improving. According to some market research gurus, established churches are becoming a thing of the past. Some of the so-called experts project that in the future many Americans will derive all their spiritual input through the internet. If this is true, some may not see the point in being inconvenienced by attending (let alone becoming a member of) a church when they can get the same spiritual benefits in private.

Why then do Reformed churches require membership? What exactly is church membership and why is it necessary?

What Is Church Membership?

Church membership is a formal, covenantal relationship between a family or individual and a true, local manifestation of Christ’s visible church. It begins with the understanding that Christ possesses an invisible church, that is, all the elect people of God whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21.27), and established a visible church on earth (Matt 28.18-20).

God first instituted the visible church immediately after the fall, when he separated the seed of the woman from the seed of the serpent and established them as a people united by his promise of salvation (Gen 3.15). He further established his community when he made his covenant with the patriarch Abraham and his offspring (Gen 12, 15, 17). He fulfilled his promises to Abraham, first in the nation Israel and the land of Canaan, but more fully in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Throughout the unfolding drama of redemptive history, from the days of Abraham to Christ, God kept his people as a visible covenant community marked by the covenantal sign and seal of circumcision.

With the completion of Christ’s earthly ministry and the inauguration of the new covenant, however, God no longer confined his visible church to one people (national Israel) and one place (Palestine). Having satisfied the Law of Moses in his life, death, and resurrection, Christ commissioned his apostles to preach the Gospel, baptize, administer the Lord’s Supper, and make disciples to the ends of the earth. As the book of Acts reveals, the apostles fulfilled this commission by planting churches (Acts 2.42). Beginning in Jerusalem, Christ added daily to his church those who were being saved (Acts 2.41, 47; 4.4). The visible, covenant community became a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet 2.9a; cf. Ex 19.6) made up of people ransomed “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5.9b).

After the apostles died, the visible church did not cease to exist. The New Testament makes very clear that Christ intended for his visible church to continue until the end of the age. He ordained the office of pastor to feed his flock with the preaching of the Gospel so that his sheep will be healthy and grow to maturity (Rom 10.14-17; Eph 4.11-16; 2 Tim 4.1-5; Titus 1.5-9). He has supplied his church with the tangible elements of ordinary water, bread, and wine in the sacraments, which the Holy Spirit uses to nourish our faith (1 Cor 10.16; 11.17-34; cf. John 6.41-58). He gave the office of elder so that his people will have guardians over their souls and governors keeping order (Acts 14.23; Phil 1.1; 1 Tim 3.1-7; 5.17; Heb 13.17; 1 Pet 5.1-4). He maintains the purity and peace of his church through the exercise of discipline (Mt 18.15-20; 1 Cor 5; 2 Thes 3.6, 14-15; Titus 1.10-14; 3.9-11). He has provided the office of deacon to ensure care for the poor and needy in the congregation (Acts 6.1-7; Phil 1.1; 1 Tim 3.8-13; 5.3-15). He pours out gifts upon his church so that each believer will use them for the benefit of others (Rom 12.3-8; 1 Cor 12; Eph 4.15-16). The New Testament reveals a church established by Christ that is an observable, identifiable society made up of real flesh and blood members, and real organization and structure.

Church membership, therefore, is about belonging to this visible, identifiable community as manifested in a local congregation. The church is not a store frequented by loyal customers. Nor is it a voluntary association of individuals loosely united by consumer preferences or cultural practices. Rather, the church is the people who belong to Christ, and the place where Christ meets them through the means he has ordained.

When a family or an individual pursues formal church membership, they are saying, “We are Christians, and therefore belong to Christ and his body.” They and their children pass through the waters of baptism, acknowledging that they are part of something much larger than their own private, spiritual experience. They recognize that Christ has set them as living stones in his one temple (Eph 4.19-22; 1 Pet 2.4-5) and gathered them as sheep in his one flock (John 10.1-29; Acts 20.28). They take public vows in the holy assembly of God’s people in which they profess their faith in Christ and their willingness to submit to his Lordship and the government of his church. Likewise, the congregation receives them and acknowledges their own obligation to these new members as brothers and sisters in the Lord.  

Why Is Church Membership Necessary?      

“All of this sounds great,” one might say, “but I just want to attend this church. Why is it necessary that I become a member?” Some people recognize the visibility of Christ’s church and enjoy attending worship services, but view membership as little more than an unnecessary formality. The Bible, however, gives us at least three reasons why membership in a local congregation is essential.

  1. Submission to Christ

Christ is the Head of his church (Eph 1.22-23; 4.15), the King of his kingdom (Matt 28.18; Heb 2.8-9; 1 Cor 15.25; cf. Ps 110.1). Christ was not only crucified and raised from the dead, he also ascended into heaven and was exalted at the right hand of the Father. In other words, he not only saves, he also rules. And the way he rules his citizens is through his Word and Spirit, chiefly through the officers he has appointed at the local congregation. Consider the exhortation the writer to the Hebrews gives at the end of his sermon-letter: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13.17). This is Christ’s design. As his subjects and possession, we must submit to what he has ordained.

This can only be done through church membership. Membership in a local congregation creates a formal relationship between the elders and the congregants. This formal relationship is a covenant that obligates the elders to watch over the souls of those who belong to Christ. It is part of our submission to our Lord. We never mature beyond the nurture of the church. No Christian can sustain himself as a self-feeder. We cannot be our own pastors. Rather, God has commanded us to submit ourselves to the preaching, teaching, and oversight of those shepherds whom he has placed over us in his love.

It has been the historical practice of Reformed churches to require a public vow to that end. For example, the fourth and final vow of Public Profession of Faith Form Number 1 in the Psalter-Hymnal (used by the United Reformed Churches in North America) asks: “Do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?”

    2. Accountability and Discipline

One of the ways in which Christ watches over our souls through the leaders in the local church is by the exercise of church discipline. Church discipline is the practice of applying the Word of God to members of the congregation who are in rebellion (i.e. unrepentant of a particular sin) or involved in some public scandal that affects the health of the church as a whole. The goal of church discipline is the restoration of wayward disciples, the preservation of the church’s doctrine, the peace and purity of the congregation, and the protection of the church’s reputation in the eyes of the unbelieving world.

Christ gave his church the authority to exercise discipline when he said to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16.19). Reformed churches have understood these keys to be the preaching of the Gospel and the exercise of church discipline. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) puts it like this:

83. Q. What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?

A. The preaching of the holy gospel and church discipline. By these two the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and closed to unbelievers.

84. Q. How is the kingdom of heaven opened and closed by the preaching of the gospel?

A. According to the command of Christ, the kingdom of heaven is opened when it is proclaimed and publicly testified to each and every believer that God has really forgiven all their sins for the sake of Christ's merits, as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel. The kingdom of heaven is closed when it is proclaimed and testified to all unbelievers and hypocrites that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on them as long as they do not repent. According to this testimony of the gospel, God will judge both in this life and in the life to come.

85. Q. How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by church discipline?  

A. According to the command of Christ, people who call themselves Christians but show themselves to be unchristian in doctrine or life are first repeatedly admonished in a brotherly manner. If they do not give up their errors or wickedness, they are reported to the church, that is, to the elders. If they do not heed also their admonitions, they are forbidden the use of the sacraments, and they are excluded by the elders from the Christian congregation, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ. They are again received as members of Christ and of the church when they promise and show real amendment.

Reformed churches confess this because it is what the New Testament teaches. Jesus gave instruction on discipline and public excommunication in Matthew 18.15-20. Paul wrote a whole chapter to the church in Corinth describing how sexual immorality amongst Christians defiles the church, and that the offender, if unrepentant, is to be excommunicated and delivered to Satan (1 Cor 5). Other examples abound (1 Tim 1.18-20; 6.3-5; 2 Tim 2.14-18; Tit 1.10-14; 3.10-11).

Without church membership, however, the church cannot fully use the keys which Christ has given to her. The elders cannot excommunicate an unrepentant offender who was never in communion with the church in the first place. Church membership, therefore, provides every member of the congregation – including the minister and elders – with accountability. It allows the elders to fulfill their duty of ensuring that purity of doctrine and holiness of life are practiced; it permits the deacons to care for the needy within the church (Acts 6.1-7; 1 Tim 5.9); and it makes every member in the congregation responsible for his doctrine and life.

    3. Spiritual Nurture through the Sacraments

Church membership allows a disciple to participate in the sacraments and thereby receive the spiritual benefits which the Holy Spirit provides through them (1 Cor 10.16). A person who does not join a true congregation of Christ’s church, however, does not have this privilege. Christ’s sacraments are inseparably related to membership in his church.

For example, one does not have the right to be baptized without joining the visible church. Christ instituted Christian baptism as a one-time, initiatory sacrament that not only signifies the washing away of sins with his atoning blood, but also identifies the baptized person as a member of God’s visible covenant community, much as circumcision did in the old covenant (Matt 28.18-20; Acts 2.39). Thus, one is baptized into church membership and under the oversight of a local body of elders. Baptism cannot be separated from church membership.

Likewise, one does not have the right to partake of the Lord’s Table without church membership. Christ established the Lord’s Supper as a holy meal for the members of his church. It not only signifies his body and blood offered on the cross, but also nourishes the faith of repentant sinners (1 Cor 10.16; cf. John 6.22-60). As the governors and overseers of the church (Rom 12.8; 1 Cor 12.28; 1 Tim 3.1-7), the elders have the responsibility of supervising participation in the Lord’s Table and ensuring, as much as possible, that people do not partake in an unworthy manner (1 Cor 11.17-34). The Heidelberg Catechism summarizes the New Testament’s teaching in this way:

81. Q. Who are to come to the Lord’s Table?

A. Those who are displeased with themselves because of their sins, but who nevertheless trust that their sins are pardoned and that their continuing weakness is covered by the suffering and death of Christ, and who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to lead a better life.

Hypocrites and those who are unrepentant, however, eat and drink judgment on themselves.

82. Q. Are those to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper who show by what they say and do that they are unbelieving and ungodly?

A. No, that would dishonor God’s covenant and bring down God’s anger upon the entire congregation. Therefore, according to the instruction of Christ and his apostles, the Christian church is duty-bound to exclude such people, by the official use of the keys of the kingdom, until they reform their lives.

In Reformed churches, we have sought to apply this teaching by requiring a public profession of faith and membership in good standing from all who come to the Lord’s Table.

The bottom line is that participation in the sacraments requires biblical church membership. While Christ has appointed the sacraments as visible signs and seals of the Gospel for the nourishment of our souls, he did not design them to be individualistic practices. The sacraments are acts of divine service to his assembled people on the Lord’s Day. He condescends to his flock so that he can feed them with his means of grace.

Thus, we confess in Article 28 of the Belgic Confession: “We believe, since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his status or standing may be.” The fact that in this life the visible church is imperfect and mixed with hypocrites gives no Christian the right to depart from it. Except in otherwise extraordinary cases, a person cannot belong to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church without also belonging to a visible manifestation of the same, which, according to the New Testament, is the local congregation that preaches the gospel, administers the sacraments, and exercises church discipline.

If we profess to be Christians, we must practice the Christian faith according to the New Testament and not according to our opinions. The New Testament makes it clear that every Christian is to be baptized into the body of Christ and accountable for his doctrine and life. It tells us that God has provided us with pastors, elders, and deacons, as well as the communion of saints in the local church.

If you have been baptized but you are not a member of a true congregation of Christ’s church, you are living an irregular life that the New Testament does not recognize as Christian. The Lord calls you to repentance. He calls you to come home to the safety and benefit of his sheepfold. We urge you to join a true church, a body of believers that confesses the truth, submits to the authority of Christ as delegated to elders, and meets each week to receive Christ in Word and sacrament. You are not free to roam as a spiritual drifter on the internet or as a perpetual visitor from church to church. Find a good church and join it, for in this life we can do no better than to take up our place in the body of Christ, receive the means of grace, and enjoy the communion of saints.