Church Membership - Why Does Local Membership Matter? (Part 2)

This article is the second of a two part series on the concept of church membership.
As we discussed last time, the Bible uses the word church in three different senses: 1) an assembly (such as a Sunday worship assembly); 2) a local church (a specific group of Christians meeting in a given geographic location); 3) the universal church (the group comprised of all those who belong to Christ in all places and times). Of these senses, I believe that the local sense is probably the most neglected among those who are Christians according to the New Testament pattern. New Testament Christians understand that there is one universal church – one body of which they are apart (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:4). They also understand that they are supposed to assemble on Sunday and even sometimes call this activity “going to church,” by which they mean the worship assembly rather than the building. Sometimes though, they neglect to reflect upon what it means to be a member of a local church.

The New Testament upholds the concept of a local church. By the time the apostle Peter wrote his first epistle, he had become an elder (1 Peter 5:1). However, in his introduction to this letter, Peter doesn’t claim authority based on the fact that he is an elder but based on the fact that he is an apostle (1 Peter 1:1). In fact, when he speaks to other elders, he references the fact that there are “those entrusted to you,” signifying that not all the body of Christ had been entrusted to them (1 Peter 5:3). Peter understood that elders were appointed over geographically located congregations, groups of people who assembled for worship in a given place. Paul understood this fact too, and appointed elders over geographically gathered Christians (Acts 13:21-23) and instructed Titus to do the same (Titus 1:5).

There are several reasons why local churches are important. First, the New Testament commands Christians to show respect to those who “are over you in the Lord,” and to submit to them (Hebrews 13:7, 17). While it functions differently, the principle of submission to leadership exists even when there are not elders (1 Corinthians 11:3; 16:15-16). Christians couldn’t submit to all the elderships / congregational authority structures in the world if they tried. Imagine trying to assemble for worship on Sunday in thousands of different places, some of them meeting simultaneously! The only way to carry out the Bible’s commands to submit to church leadership is by focusing on a local congregation.

Second, the Law of Christ contains many commandments that Christians obey through actions towards fellow Christians. In the KJV, NKJV, ESV, and several other Bible translations, these reflexive commands (commands that Christians keep towards other Christians and receive the benefit of in return) are identified by the words “one another.” While these “one another” commands can be carried out through effort focused on any Christian, they make the most sense in the context of a local congregation. For example, Paul encourages the brethren in Galatia to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Would you go to a congregation you had never been before and share your intimate needs and struggles with the brethren there? Would you expect someone else to do so? The only environment that breeds the intimacy needed to carry out this command is a local congregation.

Third, the body illustration that Paul frequently uses to help us understand the church breaks down without a local church. Christians who roam around from one location to another may be able to participate in worship services, but they will never be able to fully contribute their time, energy, and abilities to a common cause. The only sense in which we can truly function as “members one of another” (Romans 12:5; Ephesians 4:25) is in the context of a local congregation.

For some, there is a great temptation to ignore the concept of a local church and try to be a Christian-at-large, that is, a Christian who aligns with no single group and only stops life long enough to worship. The temptation can also be great in the age of the automobile to ignore the need to worship with the congregation in your geographic location and instead drive to the church(es) that offer you the services you desire or, in the age of the internet, to allow online worship to serve as a replacement for assembling at all. Forgive the pun, but while the Bible calls Christians “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5), God never intended for them to be rolling stones!

Sometimes work or vacation might force us to worship with a different congregation. Sometimes it may be good to visit another congregation to work with them in an evangelistic effort or support an event they are hosting. Sometimes circumstances beyond our control may lead us to worship online at home. However, we need to remember that God’s will for us is to submit to the leadership of a local congregation and to play an active role in all that congregation does.
-Patrick Swayne   
patrick@tftw.org

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