Why Join a Local Church?

Every Christian should be a member of a local church. That is to say, every Christian should attend, love, serve, and submit to a local church. But is it really necessary to be a member of a church? Do churches have to offer formal membership? Is church membership biblical?

I believe church membership is found in the Bible, but perhaps not in the way you might think. There are clear implications of church membership in the Bible, and the following is a brief overview of those implications.

Christians belonged to churches from the beginning

In the book of Acts, every time someone was called to God through the preaching of the gospel, they were also called to a church. After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, the believers functioned as one church in Jerusalem. They devoted themselves to God’s word and fellowship, and God added to their number, increasing from over three thousand to five thousand (Acts 2:41-47, 4:4). They held meetings as a church (Acts 5:11-12, 6:2-5). Even when the church in Jerusalem scattered across Samaria and Syria due to persecution, the Christians continued to gather in churches, as more were added to the Lord (Acts 11:19-26).

As the apostle Paul preached the gospel on his first missionary journey, churches were being planted (Acts 14:20-23). On his second and third missionary journeys, he planted churches further west, in places like Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and Ephesus, and he strengthened the churches and the elders he could revisit (Acts 16:5, 20:28).

All of Paul’s epistles were written to churches or men serving in a local church context. He wrote letters to churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae. He also wrote letters to Timothy, who was serving the church in Ephesus, Titus, who was serving the church in Crete, and Philemon, who was hosting a church in Colossae. John’s epistles were probably intended for the church in Ephesus, and churches in the surrounding area. John explicitly addresses Revelation to the seven churches in the province of Asia. In other words, a majority of the New Testament is addressed to Christians located in the local church, where they belong.

The biblical pattern is when one belongs to Christ, he or she also belongs to the people of Christ, and this is evident in how a Christian is tied to a particular body of believers—the local church.

Christians are led by their church elders

Implications of church membership are often found in the descriptions of an elder’s role in the local church. Elders are called to shepherd God’s people (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-2), have charge over them (1 Thessalonians 5:12, 1 Timothy 5:17, 1 Peter 5:3), and watch over their souls (Hebrews 13:17). God will hold elders accountable for those under their care (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:3-4).

The question then arises, given that elders are to shepherd the flock, who is their flock? Who do they have charge over? Which souls do they watch over? For whom are elders held accountable? Is it for every Christian they come into contact with? This can’t be the case. It benefits the elders to know, through some form of church membership, who is and isn’t under their care. Without formal church membership, much of an elder’s calling would be more burdensome than God ever intended.

It also benefits individual Christians to know, through their membership in a local church, who their shepherds are. They need to know who to submit to. Without formal church membership, it would be difficult for congregations to be obedient to Hebrews 13:17, which says to “Obey your leaders and submit to them.

Christians know and serve their church

Much of the language we find in the New Testament suggests some form of church membership with well-defined boundaries. People always knew who belonged to a local church and who did not. For example, consider 1 Corinthians 14:23:

If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?

This verse assumes the Corinthians would know when the whole church comes together, and who is outside of the congregation.

It’s important that Christians know who belongs to the church so that they know who to serve and how to serve them, to the glory of God. Scripture calls Christians to love one another, show hospitality to one another, serve one another, and gather together (1 Peter 4:8-11, Hebrews 10:24-25). Christians are called to rejoice with one another and weep with one another (Romans 12:15). They are to forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32). This is all meant to be done in the context of a local church.

Another way to serve God and one another is through church discipline. The purposes of church discipline include revealing the seriousness of sin and protecting the gospel of Jesus Christ. The final stage of church discipline is putting someone outside the church. (See Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13.) This implies churches must have some form of church membership to help each other know who belongs to the church. You can’t put someone outside the church unless you know who is inside the church.


In summary, any time God joins someone to Christ, God joins them to the body of Christ—the church. As a member of the body, they are to love and serve the other members in a local church, gather together, submit to their elders, and discipline those who do not appear to belong to the body. This would all be difficult to do (and confusing) without formal church membership.

While there is no explicit command in the Bible to formally join a local church, the implications of church membership throughout Scripture are compelling. For that reason, it would be unwise for a believer to neglect membership to a local church.

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Congregationalism: Part 6 – Authority For Maturity

keysWho is really responsible for the ministry?

In my job, when I write a report, my supervisor is required to sign it below my own signature. Why? Because my supervisor is ultimately responsible for the report I wrote. She has the final say in whether or not what I write is valid. Make no mistake, I am responsible to write that report. It will not get done unless I write it. I bear a big responsibility in getting it done. But its validity will ultimately fall on my supervisor shoulders, no matter how sure I am that my report is valid.

Is this what the ministry is like? Do church members do the ministry, while elders have a final say in what the ministry is actually doing? If only elders have the authority to affirm who is a member, for example, then that is exactly what is happening.

I believe the responsibility of the ministry of disciple-making is fully given to the whole church. Elders equip the saints for the ministry, they guard the gospel, they teach sound doctrine, and they shepherd the flock. They are authorized to do so. The whole church, however, is authorized to decide what the gospel is, and who belongs to the gospel. I think that is what is gathered from Matt. 16, 18, and 28.

Besides the biblical evidence for congregationalism, I also think there’s a pastoral reason to consider this view. Congregations that are responsible for deciding who does or does not belong to the gospel, are going to know the gospel better. They are going to better understand repentance, grace, the effects of sin, the power of the Holy Spirit, and anything else connected to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Going back to my work example above, a lazy worker will write a report carelessly, and depend on the supervisor to bring to light any mistakes. The lazy worker knows the supervisor will care enough to catch the flaws, since the supervisor is ultimately responsible. I bet if every worker was fully responsible for what’s in their report, they would exercise more caution.

If your interpretation of scripture leads you to believe the elder-rule model is biblical, then you’re possibly taking away an important opportunity from the members. In every church that takes membership seriously, elders need to regularly practice discernment over their members so they know who belongs to the gospel, and thus, who belongs under their care. Exercising those discernment muscles is a blessed work. You will know the gospel better through this blessed work. Why exclude the members from this work? Why wouldn’t God give the members the authority to do such a work?

I believe God wants members to mature, and grow in the knowledge of the gospel, and he gives the church a certain authority that enables them to do exactly that.

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Congregationalism: Part 5 – Objections

keysThe following are objections I’ve heard, and the best response I can give:

In Matt. 18:17, final judgment by the “the church” should be carried out by the elders who represent the church.

Both the church and the office of elders were in place by the time Matthew wrote his gospel. So Matthew’s choice of the word “church” over “elders” is significant. Jesus’ choice of the word “church” is also significant, as we know he was speaking to a Jewish audience. They viewed the word church as an assembly of God’s people (Lev. 8:3-4, Num. 20:8). Besides this, having a council of elders make the final judgment takes away from the obvious progression in the passage, from one witness to the whole assembly. The point is not who is confronting the sinning brother, but how many. Simply put, elder-ruled churches are forced to go against the plain meaning of “church” in order to be obedient to Matt. 18:15-20.

Matt. 18:17-20 is a prescription for congregational involvement, not a teaching on congregational authority.

The inclusion of verse 18, where Jesus uses the same “binding and loosing” metaphor he used in Matt. 16:19, tells us Matt. 18:17-20 is more than just a matter of participation. The connection between the two uses of the “binding and loosing” metaphor is hard to deny. In both cases, God is giving an ability and authority to an entity to carry out a gospel-dependent responsibility. In Matt 16., Peter is given the authority to know Christ, and build the church with people who belong to Christ. In Matt 18., the church is given the authority to know who belongs to Christ—those who make up the church. In both cases, the same God given skill set is required: know Christ, and know who belongs to Christ. So unless you ignore this parallel, Matt: 18:17-20 is clearly about authority.

Paul and Barnabas were church leaders and they appointed elders in Acts 14:23, therefore congregations don’t appoint elders, church leaders do.

Paul qualifies as an apostle, appointed by Jesus himself. Apostles seemed to have the authority to wield the keys to the kingdom (from Matt. 16:19) as individuals, as Peter and Paul did throughout Acts. Today, Christians wield the keys to the kingdom as churches, not as individuals or through a council of elders. Churches continue the ministry of the apostles, not just elders. Therefore, it actually makes sense that Paul would initially appoint elders during the age of the apostles, and for churches to appoint elders today.

In 1 Tim. 4:14, Paul references a council of elders appointing Timothy as an elder.

Timothy wasn’t an elder, at least not when Paul wrote this. Timothy was Paul’s liaison. Timothy may have been qualified to be an elder, but he was acting as an extension of Paul, not an elder. The laying of hands by the elders was in relation to Timothy’s gifts of exhortation and teaching, not eldership.

Timothy was to appoint elders in 1 Tim. 5:22, and Titus was to appoint elders in Titus 1:5.

Again, Timothy was Paul’s liaison in Ephesus, while Titus has a very similar (if not the same) role in Crete. They are both an extension of Paul and directed by him. They are simply acting on Paul’s authority. Furthermore, Timothy laying hands on elders or Titus appointing elders does not necessarily exclude congregational approval. Today, congregationalist churches usually have elders lay hands on and ordain new elders that the congregation approved. Perhaps Timothy and Titus did the same.

I’ve heard other objections based on what people think would or wouldn’t work in church life. I prefer to focus on what the bible is actually saying, and go from there. I trust wisdom and God’s grace can take care of the details. There are faithful and fruitful ministries in both camps. There’s always a way to make it work. I just want to know what’s biblical.

Next, we will look again at why any of this matters.

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Congregationalism: Part 4 – Authority Over Elders

keysIf the congregation is both able and authorized to affirm or deny who belongs to God and God’s gospel, then this must mean the congregation is able and authorized affirm the gospel itself, and reject a false gospel.

Jeremiah says the law is written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33-34). Paul says we have the Spirit of God and understands things given to us by God (1 Cor. 2:12-13). John says you are anointed and this comes with the necessary knowledge (1 John 2:20, 27).

In Don’t Fire Your Church Members, Jonathan Leeman says this abut recognizing true teaching:

The saints don’t need seminary degrees. They don’t need to be ordained. The Spirit of God provides all the training they need for recognizing a true knowledge of God. And Christ provides the office. The alternative is difficult to fathom: why would God grant that his people be “taught by the Spirit” about “the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10, 13 NIV), and yet not grant them veto power over a false teacher? Paul couldn’t fathom it. He upbraids the Galatian churches for tolerating false teachers (Gal. 1:6-9). (53)

Let’s look at that example in Galatians:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

This letter is written to the churches in Galatia, and Paul’s condemnation is against the churches. This is not written to an elder or a council of elders. Perhaps the false teachers were the elders. If that were the case, Paul’s command to reject false teaching would certainly mean removing the elders responsible for the false teaching. Paul demands that even if an apostle teaches falsely, the churches have the responsibility to do something about it. And I doubt the course of action should be handed off to another office.

Leeman puts it this way:

Paul does not tell the churches in Galatia to remove these false teachers pending the presbytery or the bishop’s approval. One can only imagine the splatter of angry ink on parchment in Paul’s next letter as several members of the Galatian congregations responded to this first letter by writing, “Thank you for your counsel. We have referred this matter to the presbytery for further investigation.” No. Paul expected them to have recognized the problem for themselves already and to have acted. (111)

Indeed, based on this clear command from Paul, every church should give the whole congregation some means to remove false teachers, including elders. The congregation has the responsibility, and therefore the authority, to do so.

I would also assume, if the congregation has this responsibility to remove false teachers, they also have a responsibility to affirm true teaching and its teachers. Therefore, every church should give the congregation some means to appoint elders, who are entrusted with teaching and leading the church in sound doctrine.

Next, we will look at some objections to these interpretations.

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Congregationalism: Part 3 – Authority Over Members

keys

If one has the authority to recognize who is God’s representative, they also have the authority to recognize who is not. You will know them by their bad fruit (Matt. 7:19-20). You will know them by their sin.

In Matt. 18:15-20, Jesus instructs his disciples on what to do when they come across a brother who will not repent.

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Jesus is simply instructing the disciples to confront their brother who is committing sin, and bring the truth to this brother: God’s representatives shall not sin. If he listens, and accepts that truth, his union with Christ is confirmed. If the sinning brother does not listen, Jesus advises to bring more believers to confront him. This allows the God’s truth to be affirmed by others, and it protects the accused from false accusations. If the sinning brother does not listen, Jesus commands the whole church to affirm God’s truth in unity. If the sinning brother still does not listen, Jesus says this man cannot be recognized as having any union with Christ, as he bears no good fruit.

While this may just seem like a wise strategy, there is also a clear point when the disciples are authorized to say this brother is an unbeliever. It is not until the church has addressed the matter. The words in verse 17 make it clear, only after he does not listen to the whole church, is he to be considered an unbeliever.

Why is it that the church has the authority to decide who is or isn’t a believer?

Because the authority that Jesus gave to Peter, he also gives to the church. Notice verse 18:

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Jesus uses the same “binding/loosing” metaphor he used in Matt. 16:19, when Jesus was giving the keys of the kingdom to Peter. In that context, what Peter was confessing on earth, so it was affirmed by God in heaven, for God gave Peter the ability to make the confession.

In Matt. 18, what the church is declaring about the sinning brother here on earth, so it shall be affirmed by God in heaven, for God is giving the church the ability to recognize bad fruit. In other words, they are, by God’s grace, recognizing what is already true in heaven.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Paul condemns the Corinthian church for not removing a sexually immoral man from the church (1 Cor. 5:1-5). Paul even expects them to do this as an assembly (v.4). After all, this is a letter to the whole church, not just to the elders.

What about the churches ability to recognize good fruit?

As the ministry of the word goes out into the world, God will bring more into the fold, and naturally the church has the authority to affirm their membership into God’s kingdom. Consider the Great Commission in Matt. 18:18-20. Few disagree that the ministry of evangelism and disciple-making is a call upon all Christians and therefore, a call on the local church. While this passage says nothing of church membership, it stands to reason that if churches are making disciples, they have to decide who they are discipling. Jesus again brings up the issue of authority:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This isn’t just a commission. God deputizes the church to make disciples with the same authority Jesus possesses. To put it all together, the local church is given the authority to preach the gospel, recognize who is responding to the gospel by their good fruit, and raise them up as disciples. Elders equip the church for this ministry, but the church was given the authority to carry it out.

Next, we will see why the authority of the church extends over elders.

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Congregationalism: Part 2 – Authority Given

keysAfter Jesus came, fulfilling the old covenant and inaugurating the new covenant, there was an issue that would need to be resolved. The issue was of public recognition. In the old covenant, the nation of Israel was God’s people, and they were supposed to represent God on earth (Ex. 19:5-6). The nation of Israel was easy to recognize. They had God’s law, they had circumcision, they had their genealogies and ethnic identity, and they sometimes had a land.

Jesus, who represented God perfectly (Matt. 3:17), inaugurated a new covenant. Through our union with Christ, the church is supposed to represent God on earth (Matt. 5:48). But unlike the nation of Israel, the church is not as easy to recognize. Anyone can claim to have faith in Christ, even the unregenerate, and Jesus warns us about this in Matt. 7:21-23.

So who really belongs to the church? And who has the authority to say so on this side of heaven?

Jesus resolves this in Matt. 16:16-19, which says:

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Notice the following:

  1. Peter was able to recognize that Jesus was God’s representative.
  2. Jesus teaches that God gave Peter the ability to recognize God’s representative.
  3. Therefore, Jesus says that the church will be established through Peter, who is able to recognize God’s representatives.
  4. Jesus gives Peter some kind of authority (keys of the kingdom), presumably related to the task of establishing the church.
  5. Jesus explains that whatever Peter declares authoritatively on earth will, so it shall be in heaven. Again this presumably goes only as far as it relates to the task of establishing the church.

So how does this resolve the issue of public recognition? The important lesson here is that God gives the ability to know Christ, and those who live in Christ. In Matt. 16., he at least gives Peter the authority to recognize who is God’s representatives, with heaven’s approval.

The next question is: Does only Peter have this authority?

Next, we will see how this authority is also in the hands of the church.

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Congregationalism: Part 1 – Authority Taken Away

keysHow should a church govern itself?

I never put much thought into this until I moved from a congregationalist church to an elder-ruled church. To put it in the simplest of terms, in an elder-ruled church, the elders hold the highest authority in the church, while in a congregationalist church, members have authority in certain decisions that even the elders must submit to. This is of course all relative to the ultimate authority of Christ, as the head of the church. I know there are other models of church government (Episcopalian, Presbyterian, etc.) but my focus will be on congregationalism and the elder-rule model, both of which are independent church models with a plurality of elders (or at least they should be). I will also focus on the issue of authority within these two models.

Is one polity more biblical than the other?

In my study, it appears that both models of church government are biblically informed, and both have important similarities. For example, both models say elders should lead the church, and members should submit to their teachings and recommendations (Heb. 13:17). But I think congregationalism is the more biblical model, and it allows church members to experience and understand the gospel in ways the elder-rule model does not. I think the difference depends on who is authorized to do what.

The authority of elders in the elder-ruled model is primarily based on examples in the early church as described in the New Testament. This model teaches the elders have the authority to manage the church’s membership as Paul excommunicated an unrepentant sinner in 1 Cor. 5:3-5, or as Titus rejected a sinner in Titus 3:10-11. Some say “the church” in Matt. 18:17 refers to the council of elders as representatives of the entire church. If that’s the case, that would be a clear instruction for the elders to exercise final authority over removing a member. They also believe elders have the authority to appoint elders as Paul and Barnabas did in Acts 14:23, as was done to Timothy in 1 Tim. 4:14, and just as Titus was directed in Titus 1:5. Practically speaking, elders in an elder-ruled church have the responsibility and authority to decide who is a member of their church, and who isn’t, as well as who is an elder and who isn’t.

As a congregationalist, I believe the congregation as a whole, has the final say in their membership and eldership. In the following posts, I’ll go over the scriptures that lead me to that conclusion, but first I want to say why it even matters.

If elders have the final say in who the elders are and by extension, what gospel is being preached, and if elders have the final say in who is or isn’t member of the gospel community… what ministry is the congregation really entrusted with? If elders are supposed to equip the saints for the ministry, but have final authority over the main elements of ministry, who is really doing the ministry?

In Don’t Fire Your Church Members, Jonathan Leeman states:

When Jesus places the keys of the kingdom into the hands of the gathered congregation, he grants every member the ability to do his or her job. After all, possessing the responsibility to do something requires the authority to do it. (104)

To hand final rule of the church over to the elders fires Christians from the work that the Holy Spirit has equipped them to do and that Jesus has authorized them to do with the keys of the kingdom. (121)

Next, we will look at how authority was given in the first place.

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