According to one dictionary, an oxymoron is defined as “a combination of contradictory or incongruous words,” such as “cruel kindness” or “sweet sorrow.” Is “churchless Christian” an oxymoron? Though the Bible does not have one specific verse that states unequivocally that church membership is required for all Christians, it is replete with passages that teach that once you become a Christian, you should become a professing member of the visible church. Simply put, those who are united to Jesus Christ through faith in Him are also part of His body, the church. Members of local churches not only receive wonderful privileges but also have special responsibilities.
What does it mean to be a member of the church? Being a member of a church reveals at least three truths: (1) obedience to God; (2) submission to the means God has provided; and (3) service to other members through the use of one’s gifts.
Obedience to God
A few hundred years after the time of Christ, an early Christian writer boldly stated that a Christian “can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.” He was convinced that the Scriptures were clear regarding the necessity of church membership. Being a member of the local church reveals a Christian’s obedience to what the Bible teaches.
The word used in the New Testament for church (ekklēsia) has clear connections to the Old Testament word that was used to describe the unique gathering or assembly (qahal) of God’s people Israel. In the Old Testament, God’s people were literally “called out” to gather together for worship (Deut. 12:5–12; 31:11–12; Pss. 22:22; 107:32). In the New Testament, we read that the early church followed this pattern of gathering for corporate worship (Acts 2:46; 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2).
Israel was commanded by God to be in a special covenantal relationship with Him. Part of the privilege of being part of this community included obeying the laws that God had established for them. Following this pattern, the church is a covenant community established by Christ (Matt. 16:18). As such, membership and participation in Christ’s church, especially in corporate worship, is not an option, but a requirement (Heb. 10:24–25).
Submission to Leaders
Being a member of the church includes receiving the blessings God has provided for our growth and maturity, especially as we submit to the church’s leadership. God established the church with a structure for pastoral oversight and spiritual leadership. Like weak and defenseless sheep, members of the church are blessed to have the guidance and protection of shepherds. Hebrews 13:17 calls on Christians to “obey your leaders and submit to them.” Why? “For they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” The pastors and elders of a church are called to care for the “flock” of God as they follow the pattern set by Christ, the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1–5).
As leaders under the authority of Christ and the Scriptures, pastors and elders are called upon to promote the marks of a true church: the faithful preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the true exercise of discipline. Through this, members of the church receive the grace of God in Christ.
Service to Others
As members of the church, Christians are part of the body of Christ, with each part functioning together for the glory of the head and the good of the body (Rom. 12:4–5). This reality—that we are all part of one body, called to serve one another with the gifts and skills God has given to us—reveals again that a “churchless Christian” is an oxymoron.
The Scriptures do not separate the individual member from the whole body. As those who are united to Christ, we are called to serve the body of Christ through our life together. As we attend worship, give offerings, pray for one another, and hold each other accountable, we are displaying to the world a countercultural example of grace-motivated, self-sacrificial commitment and fellowship.
The church is unlike any other group or institution. It is an organization governed by God’s Word whereby members use their gifts to bless one another under the oversight of pastors and elders. Though the communion of saints includes all Christians, in every place, both living and dead, it is best realized when individual members serve one another in love within the visible, local church.
As Christians become members of the church, they are obeying God’s Word, submitting to her leaders, and serving one another in love. They testify to their allegiance to Christ and demonstrate their solidarity with one other.