Do We Need Church Membership in an Individualistic Society?
Some years ago I encountered, after our morning worship service, a visitor from the neighborhood in the narthex of our church building. In the course of our conversation it became clear to me that he was a man of Christian conviction and apparently well read in certain areas of Christian theology. When I queried him about his church membership, he smiled and said, “My membership is in the invisible church.”
The church with the invisibility cloak
My mind was reeling with different ways to take this conversation. I wanted to ask him, how do you know where to show up for worship at the invisible church? Are the elders invisible too? How about the sacraments? Are they invisible signs of invisible grace? Is the invisible church populated with invisible members?
It has become so popular in contemporary evangelicalism for people to say, “What matters is not whether you are a member of a church, but whether you believe in Jesus.” People have construed a personal relationship with Jesus to mean an individual relationship with Jesus. “So long as I say my prayers, read my Bible and support Christian charities,” people think, “I'm in God's good favor. I'll leave church for those who prefer a communal Christianity”
It's all a little comparable to me as a Canadian alleging that I am American because I support the American president and enjoy Americana. Becoming an American, however, isn't so much a matter of intellectual, political or cultural commitments as it is a matter of being received, officially and judicially, into a civic community called the United States of America. Likewise becoming a Christian isn't so much a matter of praying to Jesus and reading the Bible as it is being received into the church, the body of Christ.
It's completely different in Islam. What makes an individual a Muslim is subscription to certain rituals and practices (e.g., the five pillars of Islam). It's very possible within Islamic ideology to be both a private and individualistic Muslim, though there are points to be scored with Allah by, for example, praying in the mosque.
This is one of the reasons why baptism is so important. Baptism, according to the Reformed creeds, marks admission into the church of Christ and as such distinguishes a person from the unbelieving world, making him, as William Willimon puts it, “odd.”
For so many of our evangelical siblings baptism is simply a diploma you hang on the wall, indicating that you have professed your faith. But baptism isn't so much what you say to God as it is what God says to you. And at baptism God says, “You don't belong to the Canaanites around you; you belong to me.”
Sometimes unbelieving communities understand this better than Christian ones. In a June 2007 interview in Christianity Today, the brilliant Singaporean theologian Simon Chan wrote,
“In our context in Singapore, the act of baptism is seen even by non-Christians as the most critical moment of a person's life. Traditional Chinese do not mind their children going to church. In fact, they'll say, well, the church can teach you good things – but don't get baptized. Because the moment you get baptized, you burn your bridge with traditional religion. They understand baptism better than some of our evangelical Christians!”
Being a Christian is belonging to a community called the church, the body of Christ. And outside of this church there is no salvation (Belgic Confession, Art. 28; Westminster Confession, 25:2). In his Enchiridion, Augustine writes,
“For outside the church they [one's sins] have no remission. For it is the Church in particular which has received the earnest, the Holy Spirit, apart from whom no sins receive remission.”
None of what I say here, of course, diminishes the absolute necessity of faith and repentance. The church is not just any community, but a believing community, a community of faith. There is no room in this community for the unbeliever. Right from the get-go we teach our children to sing to the Lord and to pray. Those songs and prayers, initially not understood by our children, are like oversized clothing into which our children grow until they nicely fit.
Six Biblical reasons in support
Do we need church membership in an individualistic society? The answer is, yes. In what follows I will identify, all too briefly, six biblical reasons in support of church membership.
- First, God commands us to meet together to worship before. Like old covenant believers before them who met thrice annually at the central sanctuary or weekly in holy convocations, new covenant believers are summoned to assemble together to worship the Lord (Hebrews 10:25). God always calls those he loves into a community.
- Second, God commands us to submit to the authority of elders. It's clear from Hebrews 13 alone that believers are to remember their elders, hear them teach the Word of God, imitate their lives over time, consider the outcome of their behavior, obey them and be mindful of their responsibilities, all of which is impossible if you have no elders or don't know who they are.
- Third, God commands us to partake of the Lord's Supper. The bread we break and the cup we drink at the Lord's Table is a participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16) who is our life (Colossians 3:4; John 6:52-56). When the church eats from the one loaf and drinks from the one cup it shows itself to be one body.
- Fourth, God commands us to acknowledge the power He has invested in the church to admit people to, and exclude them from, the Lord's Supper. Jesus gave his disciples stewardship of the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16:13-20; 18:15-20; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 6:1-4).
- Fifth, God commands us to fellowship together as a covenant community. In this community we must be familiar with the joys and sorrows of other members so we can weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. Moreover, we must be willing to volunteer our God-given gifts for the effective functioning of this community (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).
- Sixth, God commands us to enter the covenant community by (baptismal) vow. Like the Israelites who were admitted to the privileges of the covenant by circumcision, so we are admitted to the church by baptism. Circumcision and baptism are, among other things, vows of allegiance to God and to His people (E.g. Acts 8:37). Many today do not remain in the church in which they were baptized. It is appropriate, therefore, when one joins a new local body to reaffirm publicly baptismal vows.