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The Biblical Norm of Church Membership

Mark Dever, pastor of Captiol Hill Baptist Church, once declared that “if you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, you may well be going to hell” (Joshua Harris, Stop Dating the Church, 55). His point in making this provocative statement is that the local church verifies your salvation and it is where you practice the love of God towards others. While this concept is biblically and theologically accurate, it is increasingly controversial because church membership is viewed with less seriousness than ever before.

Church membership as an institutional affiliation is increasingly seen as an unimportant identity and even an encroachment on the individual spiritual journey of people (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 66). The latest statistics state that around 10% of Christians “love Jesus but not the church” (https://www.barna.com/research/meet-love-jesus-not-church/). These are Christians who claim Christ but have not attended church in the last six months and this percentage is on the rise. It is Michael Horton’s opinion that this bifurcation between “pure religion” and “ecclesiastical faith” is a direct result of Kant’s pietistic heritage (Horton, 749). People are buying into a dualistic mindset between Jesus and his bride. Even within some Christian circles such as the ‘Jesus Movement’ and individuals like George Barna, “the visible church and its public ministry are [viewed as]…impediments to personal growth and Christian mission” because church membership is either discarded as a formal practice or it is simply “left to private judgement” (Horton, 837).

Horton is worth quoting at length here: “Taken to an extreme, this view can lead us to think the work of the Spirit in the lives of individual believers bears no necessary connection to formal membership in the church. Even preaching and the sacraments can become optional resources for an entirely personal spiritual quest. The historical institution and its public ministry may even be treated as a humanly devised impediment to genuine spiritual growth” (Horton, 863). Not only this, but with the rise of denominationalism people simply leave one church and join or start another (John Frame, Systematic Theology, 1022).

“American Christians see church membership as optional” (Tim Keller, Center Church, 97). This is a problem and challenge because church membership is a normative expectation of the Christian life Biblically. The church is derivatively and instrumentally necessary to God’s plan of salvation into the eschaton (Gregg Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, 59).If this is true, if the church is not a contingent plan or accident or unnecessary feature of the Missio Dei, then church membership, signifying our “incorporation into, participation in, and allegiance to the church of Jesus Christ,” is not just a good idea or a Biblical option, it is a necessary expression of an eternal reality (Allison, 59).

It was John Calvin who explicitly stated about the church that “away from her bosom, one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation” (John Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.4, 1016). Millard Erickson highlights the crux of the issue when he asks “can there be membership in Christ’s body apart from affiliation with some segment of the visible church, some local collection of believers?” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 1054). This is the heart of the issue and when you look at the Biblical evidence and the theological implications related to membership, the answer to that question is no.

If you’re interested in becoming a member at The Well, attend our Covenant Membership Class to learn what being a member at The Well is like. Check the calendar to see when the next class will be offered or email us at info@boulderwell.org.

(This blog was adapted from a research paper on Church Membership in Baptist and Presbyterian Perspectives. Email us if you're interested in reading the longer form).