Recently, I observed many of my fellow Christians expressing serious frustration and embarrassment on social media regarding a number of public figures (one in particular trumps them all) who self-identify as Christians. To many of my friends, the words and actions of these famous persons who claim a Christian identity not only seem out of step with the Christian faith but bring ridicule and shame upon the Church. My fellow Christians did all they could to signal to others that these people don’t represent Christianity.
This frustration and embarrassment is understandable, but it’s a necessary symptom of ignoring the importance of church membership as most American churches, pastors, and Christians have done. In other words, if we deny the importance of church membership and if we accept the claim that a person can be a Christian and part of the “invisible church” without covenanting with a local body of believers under proper biblical government, then there will always be individuals out there who claim to represent the Christian faith who will deny core doctrines and embrace behaviors out of step with Christ’s kingdom, and we won’t have any basis to deny it.
My point here is this: If you are embarrassed by people who refuse to live repentantly and yet still claim to be Christians, then become a member of a church where church discipline and real membership is practiced. If you float from church to church, if you attend a huge church where there is no possible way pastors can know the sheep and watch over them in any meaningful way, if you are a member of a church that keeps people on its rolls that haven’t been around in years, if your church doesn’t practice restorative discipline, then you are part of the problem and the reason why we will continue to be embarrassed by famous people claiming to represent Christ who will be believed by the world. However, if all of us start taking church membership and discipline seriously, we’ll simply be able to ask such persons, “To which church do you belong? To whom are you accountable?”
When asked if he is a Christian, the famous Neo-Anabaptist theologian from Duke Divinity School, Stanley Hauerwas, has said many times something like this in response: “My friends tell me that I am.” His point in answering this way is to refuse to claim authority as an individual to self-identify with Christ. Hauerwas is getting at the idea that Jesus has given authority to the church to recognize who belongs to him. There is a sense in which none of us has the right to claim to be a Christian apart from baptism and membership in a particular body under biblical lawful government.
With that in mind, here are 6 basic biblical arguments borrowed and summarized from How Jesus Runs the Church by Guy Waters on why Christians must join a church.
- The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) requires that we baptize people into communities where they continue to learn to obey all Jesus commanded.
- Many New Testament commands assume and require membership in a particular and defined church body in order to be obeyed, particularly those “one another commands” and those calling Christians to respect, submit to, and esteem those “over you.”
- The teaching of Jesus and Paul on church discipline in which the unrepentant are set outside the community assumes church membership.
- The practice of the Lord’s Table requires a concrete and particular fellowship to be a meaningful practice where those who have professed Christ are welcomed.
- Many passages in the New Testament, like Ephesians 4, speak collectively of spiritual growth. The body of Christ is to grow up together as members are joined to one another.
- Elders are given responsibility before God for a particular group of Christians under their care.