Many professing believers today are asking, “Is it really necessary at all to be a member of a visible, local church? If I am a member of the invisible, Universal Church by nature of my spirit baptism, then why should I join a local church?”
I think the Bible teaches that it is necessary to formally join a visible, local church, for two primary reasons.
Reason One: Pastoral Accountability.
The first reason is this: the accountability a pastor has for his flock is possible only with formal membership. Hebrews 13 makes the pastor’s responsibility to his flock clear:
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you (7).
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account [lit. “they watch for your souls”]. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you (17).
Pastors will have to one day give an account for their flock. They will be responsible for how they led, taught, and counseled their people. If there were no visible, formal membership in local churches, there would be no way for pastors to know for whom they are accountable. Are they accountable for the people who come only on Christmas and Easter? Are they accountable for those who just come and go every other month? Or are they just accountable for those who faithfully attend? What if someone faithfully attends for several years but then starts to fall away? It the pastor still accountable for him? You see, without a visible, formal commitment, a pastor has no way of keeping track of those for whom he will one day give account.
Furthermore, this accountability will make a pastor very careful about whom he will allow to share the teaching and leading responsibilities within the church. Formal membership in which a person publicly declares that he is in agreement with the doctrine and practice of the church and will be dedicated to it allows the pastor to better protect his flock.
This leads to the second reason. If someone is harming the flock, especially someone in leadership or with influence, what means does the pastor and the church as a whole have to protect the church’s purity? Church discipline.
Second Reason: Church Accountability
The second reason visible, formal membership is important is that the accountability a church has for its own purity is possible only with formal membership. 1 Corinthians 5 is helpful in this regard:
11 But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked man from among you (5.11-13).
According to this passage, if someone calls himself a Christian but lives in persistent, unrepentant sin, we should “expel the wicked man from among [us]” for the sake of the purity of the church. Well, what does this mean? Who is the “among you”? If there is no formal count of who is and who is not a member of a local church, then there would be no way to expel someone. It is only when someone is formally a members of something that he can be expelled. Paul clearly speaks here of those who are “outside” and “inside” the church. The only way to know whether or not someone is “inside” the church and therefore open to judgment on the part of the church is if there has been some kind of visible, formal membership commitment.
The point is this: without formal church membership, there is absolutely no way to preserve purity and unity in the local church. People can come and go as they please with no recourse. There is no way to distinguish between Christians and unbelievers who are simply attending. There is no way for a pastor to be held accountable for his flock. And there is no way to obey the biblical mandate to expel someone who is living in sin.
You see, when you formally join a visible church, you are saying, “I agree with the doctrine and practice of this church. I am committed to being faithful and serving in any way possible. And I am accountable to this church for my spiritual life. If I ever leave the faith or fall into sin, I am submitting myself to the discipline of this assembly.”
So formally joining a visible, local church is important for these reasons. Joining a church is kind of like a marriage ceremony. Really, the ceremony itself does not make you married. Marriage is a covenant before God. Yet a formal marriage ceremony publicly confirms the commitment between two people. People who just live together come and go as they please, but people who are formally married reveal proper commitment. So it is for church membership.
The great preacher C. H. Spurgeon wrote this about those who refuse to join a local church:
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 clear about that? You can be as good a Christian by disobedience to your Lord’s command 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” (Spurgeon at His Best, 33–34).
Becoming a visible member of a local church is your purpose, and if you refuse to do it, you are missing your purpose. And as Spurgeon says, you do injury to the body because of it.