Membership in the Local Church
When one considers the teaching of the New Testament, one realizes that not only is the concept for church membership taught, but also one can see multiple reasons for being a faithful member of a faithful local church. First, we must realize that when one has been scripturally baptized, the Lord by that act adds them to the church universal (Gal. 3: 26, 27, cp. Acts 2: 47, KJV). The church universal is essentially a relationship, a relationship between God and the Christian. The "kingdom" or "church" in this respect has no organization or tangible features as such (Lk. 17: 20). As we shall see, the scriptures teach that the Christian is to be a functional part of a local church.
The fact of local churches. While the Lord adds one to his church universal, one must identify with a local church. Concerning Saul or Paul we read:
"26: And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. 27: But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus" (Acts 9).
There are about 33 separate local churches mentioned in the New Testament. For instance, there was the local church at Philippi described as, " all the saints at Philippi, which the bishops and deacons" (Phili. 1: 1). The church at Philippi came into existence when Lydia and the Jailer and their respective families heard and obeyed the gospel (Acts 16: 15, 33). These 33 local churches consisted of Christians in a geographic area that had banded together as a local church. Hence, we read of the church "unassembled" and also "gathered together" church (Acts 14: 27, I Cor. 11: 18, 14: 28). It should be obvious to the casual reader that these churches were not an optional matter, but were, in fact, an essential part and feature of pristine Christianity.
Let us now revisit Saul desiring to join himself to the church at Jerusalem (Acts 9: 26, 27). The word translated "join" is the Greek kollao. This word is observed in the Greek New Testament as descriptive of close and intimate relationships. This is the word Jesus used when describing the relationship and proximity of husband and wife (Matt. 19: 9). Kollao is simply defined as, "To glue or cement together, then, generally, to unite, to join firmly " (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, by W. E. Vine). Thus, kollao is indicative of the importance and the nature of membership in the local church. When one "joins himself" to a local church, one becomes an identifiable and contributing part, one who views very seriously one's membership. This person is not one, therefore, who is ready to leave at the sign of any problems, one whose feelings are easily hurt and he runs off, or one who steals away in the night. "Joins" (kollao) implies firmness and immovability.
The Christians comprising the church in Jerusalem at first did not accept Saul, " they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple." Saul had acquired a reputation that did not lend itself to being viewed as a Christian (Acts 9: 1ff.). Fellowship is a conditional matter (Eph. 5: 10, 11, 2 Jn. 9-11). Only those "walking in the light" are to be fellowshipped (I Jn. 1: 7). The church in Jerusalem was correct in not accepting Saul, based on their current knowledge of Saul. However, Barnabas offered proof that Saul was a faithful Christian, one to whom they should extend fellowship and membership (Acts 9: 27). One reason for the "letters of commendation" was to verify the eligibility of one to be accepted into the local fellowship (2 Cor. 3: 1, cp. Acts 18: 27, see the addendum). There should always be knowledge of prospective members and this often entails checking with the church where they were previously a member. Unconditional fellowship as practiced by some churches of Christ is not only unscriptural, but it also contributes to accepting divisive and problematic people. Notice the twofold responsibility: It is the responsibility of the Christian to "join himself"" and it is the duty of elders and the local church to ascertain the fact of the prospective member "walking in the light."
Membership in the local church is presupposed by the command to not forsake the assembling. The writer of the Hebrew Epistle wrote thus:
"Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching" (Heb. 10: 25).
What was this "assembling" to which the writer refers? The assembling was obviously the matter of "come together in the church" (I Cor. 11: 18, cp. Acts 2: 42). Some believe that they can justifiably practice just being a detached or free lance Christian, not being a member of any particular local church but visiting around. Notice the language, "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together ." The writer is addressing specific people and a specific act, the practice of themselves coming together. This assembling is also set forth as not being optional or without serious consequence if ignored (Heb. 10: 25-31). In fact, to thus "forsake" is to " sin willfully" and to sin willfully means, " there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins" (vs. 26).
Membership entails contributing into the local treasury to support the work of the local church. Paul wrote:
"Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come" (I Cor. 16: 2).
While there was a specific and temporary need prompting the command to give in the instance of I Corinthians 16, there is an ongoing and constant need to financially support the work of the church (cp. I Cor. 9: 14). Most scholars and Christians agree that this specific example and teaching is obviously meant to serve universally.
The Greek kata mian sabbatou (the first day of the week) literally means, " on the first day of every week" (see Marshall's rendering in Nestle's Greek-English Interlinear). "In store" is from thesaurizon (consider our word treasury) and also indicates that this regular contribution is to be made into the church treasury as opposed to individual and private storing up (see also " no gatherings when I come"). Indeed, the church (collectivity) does have work to perform (I Tim. 5: 16, 3: 15). The constant, regular, and dependable giving of the members of a local church finances the work belonging to that local church. Just think of the total chaos that would result if the work depended on free lance contributors.
The Christian is to be an active member of a local church. As seen, the collectivity (local church) has assigned work (cp. I Tim. 5: 16). This work essentially consists of teaching the lost, edifying the saved, and when the need is present, assisting needy saints (I Tim. 3: 15, Eph. 4: 16). Paul taught relative to the functionality of each member of the local church:
"From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love" (Eph. 4: 16).
These words were not addressed to the Christians at large at Ephesus, but to the saints who had banded together to form the local church (cp. Eph. 1: 1, Rev. 1: 11). Each member is to contribute to the overall growth of the church. Again, this is not an optional matter, but a specific responsibility enjoined on every Christian. One cannot fulfill this responsibility, I submit, and simply be a member at large, randomly meeting from place to place.
The act of partaking of the Lord's Supper. Regarding the memorial called the Lord's Supper, we read the following:
"23: For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: 24: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25: After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. 26: For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come. 27: Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28: But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. 29: For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body" (I Cor. 11).
The breaking of bread, as it is sometimes called, was a regular part of the Lord's Day worship of the early church (Acts 2: 42, 20: 7). In this event, Jesus is remembered and celebrated. One thing some do not seem to realize is that the Lord's Supper is an act performed in the assembly (cf. I Cor. 11: 18, 20). The text indicates that Paul waited at Troas to break bread with the church (Acts 20: 6, 7). Paul could have saved time had he privately partaken on another day, but he did not. He waited until the next Lord's Day assembly (Acts 20: 7). While I am not saying that one may only partake where one is a member (Paul's example shows this is not true), it is evident that this is the assembly in which one normally observes the Lord's Supper (Acts 2: 42, I Cor. 11: 23-29).
Membership is presupposed in the act of "withdraw yourselves." The scriptures explicitly teach discipline and withdrawal. Paul said, "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us" (2 Thes. 3: 6). Notice verse eleven, "For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly ." (vs. 11). The "among you" (en umin) is referring to the local church at Thessalonica (2 Thes. 1: 1). These Christians in the local church setting were in close physical proximity. Regarding the immoral member at Corinth, they (the church) were to, "Purge out therefore the old leaven " and when they "came together," "To deliver such an one unto Satan " (I Cor. 5: 7, 5). This immoral man was a stigma "among them" (vs. 2). It was especially with the local church in mind that Paul mentioned, "I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators" (vs. 9).
While "withdraw yourselves" implies the local church, this is not to say that "marking" cannot be done relative to those not members of the same local church (cp. Rom. 16: 16, 17).
Submission to the elders. Elders, as I am addressing, are men who have met certain qualifications and have been appointed by the local church to serve in that capacity (Acts 14: 23, I Tim. 3: 1-7, Tit. 1: 5-10). Bishops or elders do have rule and oversight to exercise (I Tim. 3: 4, 5, 5: 17, KJV.). However, the oversight of elders is limited to the local church where they serve (I Pet. 5: 2, notice "among you," en umin). As seen in such verses as Acts 14: 23 and Philippians 1: 1, it is God's desire and teaching that every church have qualified elders. Please consider the duty of members:
"Remember them which have the rule over you .Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account ." (Heb. 13: 7, 17).
Elders are part of God's safeguard for individual Christians and for churches. However, the free lance is not part of this arrangement because they are not members of any particular local church.
Allow me to close by making a strong statement: One cannot be a faithful Christian without being a member of a faithful local church. I say this based on what we have seen taught in the scriptures. Please understand that what we have seen does not in any way advocate denominationalism, but rather condemns it. Many churches, teaching diversified doctrines is contrary to the scriptures (I Cor. 1: 10ff.). Nonetheless, pure and biblical Christianity demands one be an active member of a scriptural local church, one teaching and practicing only the "doctrine of Christ" (2 Jn. 9-11). (To read more about elders, click on "Elders, Their Work and Qualifications." Another article of interest could be, "The Church Jesus Built.")
Addendum: Paul is not disparaging these letters of commendation. After all, Paul was well known among the Corinthians and it was an insult to Paul to think he needed such introductory letters. The venerable David Lipscomb wrote: "Against the usefulness of such letters in general Paul here says nothing. Such letters of commendation deserve notice as an important element in the early church. A Christian traveling with such a letter from any church was certain to find a hearty welcome at any other. They guaranteed at once his soundness in the faith and his personal character, and served to give a reality of the brotherly love existing between those in Christ" (A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles, pg. 47). Such letters, again I stress bespoke the importance of accepting only those walking in the light and bringing the truth (2 Jn. 9-11).