Is Church Membership Essential?
As we consider the decline in church membership in the United States, we must consider whether or not most Americans believe that one must be a member of the church (in their concept, just any church) to be saved. A good many Americans have reached the conclusion that they can be just as good a Christian without going to church as they can be while attending a church (J. Russell Hale, Who Are The Unchurched?, p. 40). "Can a person be a good Christian or Jew if he or she doesn't attend church or synagogue? Seven out of 10 of the churched segment, and eight persons in 10 of the unchurched, answer in the affirmative" (The Unchurched American [Princeton Religion Research Center], p. 9). How essential one considers church membership to his personal salvation surely affects his attendance and affiliation with the church.
The problem faced by many Americans is that they have become rather disgusted at what they see in modern denominationalism and have simply quit attending any church. The fact that most American churches are apostate groups, having departed from sound doctrine, does not alter the fact that ,God designed, planned and built His church. Just because there are counterfeit bills floating around does not stop Americans from using our currency; why should one decide to throw out the church because there are religious counterfeits existing?
Furthermore, the religious leaders themselves have been telling the, populace that a person can be saved without ever becoming a member of a church. When one couples this with their doctrine of "once in grace, always in grace," a person concludes that a person can be saved without ever even affiliating with a church. All that he needs to do is to accept Jesus as his personal Savior, he will be immediately saved (before and without baptism) and can -never fall from grace! So, why go to church?
I think that you can see the need to teach the place of the church in God*s-eternal plan. One cannot be saved without being a member of the- church. Failure to work with the church will result in one's complete apostasy from God.
The Church In God's Scheme
1. The church is a part of God's eternal plan in Christ. Paul wrote,
Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; and to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph. 3:8-11).
Whatever concept one forms of the church, it must be such that it is a part of God's everlasting plan of Christ Jesus. To make the church a secondary plan born of necessity because of the Jewish rejection of Jesus, an invention of men for worthy or unworthy reasons, a religious accessory not essential to man's salvation in God's scheme, or some other depreciatory concept is to make the church less than what God intended. God planned the church from the beginning of time in conjunction with His plan to send Christ into the world to die for our sins.
2. Jesus built the church. Matthew recorded Jesus to have said, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock (confession of faith in Christ) I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18). The church has both a divine architect and a divine builder. Christ built the church!
3. The church was purchased with Christ's precious blood. As Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders, he said, "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28). It is a blood-bought body. Its importance was such that Christ died to purchase it.
4. Reconciliation to God is in the one body. Discussing the reconciliation of both Jews and Gentiles to God through the cross, Paul said, ". . . and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby" (Eph. 2:16). The body is the church (Eph. 1:22-23). Hence, reconciliation occurs in the church.
5. The saved are the church. Upon the day of Pentecost, the first gospel sermon was preached; three thousand people, desiring to be saved, obeying Peter's command to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins. Luke reported, "And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved" (Acts 2:47). Paul later added that Jesus is "the savior of the body" (Eph. 5:23), which is the church. The church is made up of those people who have heeded Christ's call to depart from the world of sin and darkness; they are the "called-out" people of God.
I think that these statements should demonstrate the importance of the church in God's everlasting plan. Hence, any man with a concept of the church which treats it as some sort of unimportant spiritual accessory certainly misunderstands its place in the scheme of redemption.
The Purpose of the Church
God had certain definite purposes in mind when He planned the church which Jesus built. He did not create a church for no reason whatsoever. Though I do not pretend to know every reason God had for bringing the church into existence, I do know that God had the following reasons in mind when He brought it into existence from these clear statements of Scripture.
1. To edify the members. Paul wrote that everything which is to be done in the assembly of the saints is to be done for edification (1 Cor. 14:26). Encouraging one another to do the will of the Lord is also associated with church attendance in these verses: "And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: 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. 10:24-25). The congregational assembly is designed to encourage us to live as we should. This is the reason that time is spent in presenting apostolic doctrine (Acts 2:42; Acts 20:7). The presentation of God's revealed word should teach members their responsibilities before God. If a man can understand that the first century church needed this period of edification and had it, he should be able to understand that twentieth century saints need it as well.
2. To do the work of the Lord. God has given the church, as a collectivity, certain obligations. The church is to spread the word of God through financially supporting gospel preachers (2 Cor. 11:8; Phil. 4:15-16); it is the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). The church is to care for the needy among them (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37; 6:1-7; 11:27-30; 1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 8-9). God plans for the church to function like a body with every individual part doing its part (1 Cor. 12:13-27; Eph. 4:16). He never intended for the Christian not to work in association with other Christians to accomplish the works given to the church.
The need for this collective work is easily seen. We cannot expect the non-believers to spread the word of God inasmuch as they do not believe it; we cannot expect those who refuse to obey the word of God to teach the world. The immoral are not going to accomplish the work given to the church. The denominationalists are not going to teach God's plan of salvation. Hence, if the Christians, working individually and collectively, do not do the work of God, it will not get done! If God's work is not optional, then one's association with the church is not optional.
3. To offer worship to God. The church assembles together to sing praises to God (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; 1 Cor. 14:15), to commemorate the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord (notice that the Lord's supper is to be observed "when ye come together . . . into one place" - 1 Cor. 11:20), offer prayer (1 Cor. 14:15), hear the word of God preached (Acts 20:7; Acts 2:42) and to give of their means (1 Cor. 16:1-2). The contribution and the Lord's supper can only be done in a collective capacity; every individual does not have the right to have his own private communion and contribution, choosing not to participate in the public worship of the church. Such an action would be contrary to the community action of the Lord's supper (1 Cor. 10:17). Consequently, the individual is expected to participate in the worship of the local congregation.
4. To practice discipline of the membership. The congregation is expected to discipline wayward members (1 Cor. 5; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15). This work is to be done "when ye are gathered together" (1 Cor. 5:4). Hence, the church has a responsibility to discipline members who refuse to walk in the paths of God's word. This activity would cease if every member of the body of Christ decided to go to heaven without being a part of the Lord's church. Consequently, I conclude that members must work together to be pleasing to God.
The Danger Of Ignoring God's Plan
The person who decides to ignore God's plan for his salvation acts in rebellion to God's revelation. He presumes to know more about what he needs than God does, despite the plain statements to the contrary in God's word (Jer. 10:23). God has revealed what man needs for his own good; the child of God will abide within God's revelation.
One time a preacher approached a man about his lack of attendance at the local church. The man related to him that he could be just as faithful to the Lord without attending the worship services as he could be attending them. They were sitting in front of an open fireplace full of glowing embers as they talked. The preacher did not say a word; he simply picked up the fireplace thongs and picked out a glowing ember and sat it on the hearth. The two of them watched its glow growing dimmer until it was extinguished. The bed of coals continued to burn and give off heat whereas the part left to itself was extinguished. The preacher picked up the extinguished coal and put it back on the bed of coals saying, "That is why you need to be at church every service."
What has been your experience? Are the most spiritual people you know church goers or not? Are those who miss services to attend sports events, recreational outings of another kind, and whatever else might please them, the people who sacrifice to support the preaching of the gospel, help the needy, and whatever other good works they can do? Are they the ones who study God's word daily to understand His will? My experience has been just the opposite. Those who forsake the assembly of the saints are usually the weak members of the body of Christ. I am certain that you will have to confess that is the case with those whom you know as well.
My friends, you cannot be saved without being in the Lord's church. You cannot stay saved without associating with the local congregation and serving as you have the opportunity. Despite what denominational preachers might be telling you and what your personal assessment of the situation might be, this is what God's word reveals! Church membership is essential to salvation.
Truth Magazine XXIV: 30, pp. 483-485