by Bruce Mills
We live in a day when many professing believers focus on their personal relationship with Christ and either neglect or completely reject the biblical instruction on the importance of their relationship to other believers within the context of the local church. I have encountered many individuals who see no need to attend or join a local church because they feel their personal Bible study, prayer life, and relationship with the Lord do not require their participation with others within the formal structure of a church body. They even attempt to defend their position with words such as "Well, I'm a member of the universal church; just not a member of a local church." Others don't attend church because of a sin issue in their life for which they do not wish to be accountable to others. Still others attempt to "replace" church with attendance and participation in some kind of other Christian group which is, in reality, more of a social function than a gathering of believers for worship and praise to their King.
Such reasoning couldn't be further from the truth that is taught in God's Word about the believer's responsibility to join with and actively participate in a local body of believers known as a church. It is within that context that believers join in corporate worship, study of the Scriptures, live out the biblical injunctions regarding ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of other believers, and where they submit themselves to one another and hold each other accountable in their walk of obedience.
The local church is a group of people; not a building, denomination, or activity. The apostle Paul directed most of his letters to specific local churches in specific cities or regions (Rom. 1:7, 1 Cor. 1:2, 2 Cor. 1:1, Gal. 1:2, Eph. 1:1, Phil. 1:1, Col. 1:1, 1 Thess. 1:1, 2 Thess. 1:1). Most of those letters then go on to describe how life within the local church is to be lived out. Clearly then, God, in giving us the Word through the apostle, expects that believers will join themselves together with other believers within the context of a local body of believers which gathers for the purposes of worship, study of the Word, and mutual encouragement and admonition.
In fact, Scripture clearly commands us not to forsake "our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near" so that we can "stimulate one another to love and good deeds" (Hebrews 10:24-25). Apparently when the letter to the Hebrews was written, there were already those who were neglecting their responsibility to join with the local church, and the Holy Spirit, in inspiring this text, wanted to make it clear that church attendance and membership is not simply a good idea for Christians, it is a mandate! And thus, if God has mandated such, for those who profess to be believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, it is sin not to do such. Charles Spurgeon spoke directly to this issue over one hundred years ago. He wrote:
I know there are some who say, "Well, I have given myself to the Lord, but I do not intend to give myself to any church." Now, why not? "Because I can be a Christian without it."
Are you quite sure about that? You can be as good a Christian by disobedience to your Lord's commands as by being obedient? There is a brick. What is it made for? To help build a house. It is of no use for that brick to tell you that it is just as good a brick while it is kicking about on the ground as it would be in the house. It is a good-for-nothing brick. So you rolling-stone Christians, I do not believe that you are answering your purpose. You are living contrary to the life which Christ would have you live, and you are much to blame for the injury you do.
Now, some come along and say, "I believe in attending a local church; I just don't believe membership is a biblical concept." My response is this: If God expects us to be involved in a local church in all of the ways I have mentioned, then He clearly expects a commitment to the local church. It is not enough for us to say that we are merely a part of the universal or invisible church; we must also commit ourselves to a local or visible church, and that commitment is demonstrated through our membership. As Jay Adams says, membership clarifies the difference between who should be treated as believers and who should be treated as unbelievers. The leadership then knows who should be evangelized and who should be encouraged toward greater service for Christ. In fact, if membership is not biblical, why would the Lord command us to put an unrepentant sinner out of the church (Matt. 18:15-17)? If the sinner is not a member, you should assume he is an unbeliever and evangelize him. But if he is a member, he has identified himself as a believer, and in that case, you exercise loving discipline by excluding him from the church. That does not necessarily mean you tell him he cannot physically return to the church building; but that you no longer consider him a part of the church and, instead, consider him to be an unbeliever because he is acting like one. This is only possible if formal membership is a part of the Scriptural understanding of what it means for a believer to be joined to a local church.
So if you are a professing Christian, you have a God-ordained responsibility to join and participate in the body life of a local church of Christ-following believers who gather each week to praise and worship our Lord, who will help you on your walk of faith, and help you stay accountable before God and men for that walk. Please be obedient to the Word and do not neglect that responsibility.