"Apart from the church, salvation is impossible."
“If you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, you may well be going to hell.”
“In fact, anyone who claims to be a Christian yet is not an active member of a church may not actually be a follower of Christ.”
“So highly does the Lord esteem the communion of His church that He considers everyone a traitor and apostate from religion who perversely withdraws himself from any Christian society which preserves the true ministry of the word and sacraments.”
Shocking quotes. No doubt, much of the American dismissal of the importance of local church membership is a reaction to the Medieval Roman Catholic dogma that salvation came from being a member of the Roman Catholic Church. But as these quotations reveal, even the Reformers understood the importance of the local church. Further, they believed that all that were part of the Universal Church would be active, functioning members of a local church. But these sentiments unfortunately don’t represent the current evangelical perspectives of the local church. Bumper sticker quotes like, “I don’t go to church; I am the church,” and “I love Jesus; it’s the church I can’t stand” are more representative of the current view of local church participation and membership. What are the major reasons for dissing the local church? Consider ten reasons why Christians don’t join local churches.
10. The church has a questionable history and a whole lot of hypocrisy.
We use to sing a song written by the Gaithers when I was a boy named, “I’m So Glad I’m a Part of the Family of God!” This excuse for not becoming a member of a local church basically changes the song to “I’m Surprised You’re a Part of the Family of God!” This excuse could also be referred to as the strange place and weird people syndrome. After all, the critic quips, “the church has a history of racism, the Crusades and worldwide moral and financial scandals.” In addition, the church is accused of being peppered with self-righteous, plastic people. Church rolls are also filled with the weak-minded, emotionally needy, and the socially awkward. In some ways, the only honest response to such arguments is a regretful: “guilty as charged.” But, is that a valid reason for rejecting one’s family? Being born again, regenerated, and saved all refer to being adopted into the family of God. The church is called a “chosen generation” (I Peter 2:9) which means we all enjoy the same Ancestor and are part of the same “household.” Now, the Scriptures teach us very clearly that this new family is not necessarily made up this world’s “beautiful people;” just the opposite (I Cor. 1:27-28)! So, “I am surprised that I AM a part of the family of God!” The old proverb, “you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family” is true, not only in our physical families but in our spiritual family as well. Ever go to a family reunion just to be reminded of the “nuts” that fall every time your family tree is shaken?! But, we learn to live with and love through these idiosyncrasies because, after all, they are family! Pastor Mark Dever asks, “Do you want to know that your new life is real (I John 2:9-10)? Commit yourself to a local group of saved sinners. Try to love them. Don’t just do it for three weeks. Don’t’ just do it for six months. Do it for years. And I think you’ll find out, and others will, too, whether or not you love God.”
9. I don’t believe in spiritual leadership or pastoral authority.
There’s some “baggage” oftentimes with this one. Having been under “pastoral” leadership as a child that claims they are untouchable (“touch not God’s anointed”), as well as church leadership that “lords it over one’s faith” causes, even me (and I am a “pastor”!), to bristle and chafe somewhat. But, instances of sinful oversight does not excuse the wholesale rejection of the church for which Christ died. Speaking eschatologically (end times), there seems to be only one institution that the Lord created that is eternal. The family (as we know it), and human government both have expiration dates. But, the church, as the Bride of Christ, exists eternally with her Groom. With that said, those that argue against the leadership roles and offices in the local church have a difficult time explaining how the same God who established the roles in the family and the authority of human government, also established the leadership and oversight of the church (Titus 1; I Tim. 3). In addition, the qualifications and expectations for the two offices of elders and deacons in the local church significantly exceed the requirements for both family roles and human government. Acknowledgement of familial and governmental leadership logically requires consent to ecclesiastical leadership. It is impossible to submit to spiritual leadership according to Hebrews 13:17 without being a member of local church. The commission of Matthew 28 assumes that the one doing the baptizing and teaching will be the one who the believer is to be submissive to (Heb. 13:17).
8. The pervasive influence of aggressive American individualism.
The rugged, Lone Ranger approach to life will collide with the Bible’s use of collective nouns and metaphors to describe the church. In fact, it is well-nigh impossible to read the New Testament without discovering the plural nature of the Church. In I Peter 2:9, the apostle Peter uses collective nouns to describe the church: chosen race, royal priesthood, and holy nation. Think of the collective metaphors: flock, family, body, and building. Compare the metaphors with such an individualistic mindset. One sheep doesn’t equal a flock. One person doesn’t make a family. One limb doesn’t make a body. And one brick doesn’t make a building. Add to this the enormous amount of “one another” commands that are to be discharged as we are a community of believers, and you get the clear impression that Christianity is a team sport! While a person can only enter the family of God individually, by faith alone, in Christ alone, he is to live out his life of faith collectively and not in solitude. Clearly, I need the church even if that pushes against my desire for independence. John Piper says, “Sanctification is a community project!”
7. Not being a member provides a quick exit strategy!
Jesus addressed the problem of disposable marriages and the no-fault divorce mentality in Matthew 5, 19, Mark 10, and Luke 16. There is an unnerving similarity today with how so many Christians view their commitment to a local church. Having such a variety of churches to “hop” in-and-out of, has caused many conservative Christians to view their local church as a divorce-for-any-reason concession. So, the reasoning goes: “let’s not commit to membership with this local church so that if we find something we don’t like, we can “get out of Dodge.” In the military we call this kind of abrupt ejection being Absent Without Official Leave, and in a family setting we call it desertion. But in a church we say things like, “the Lord is leading us on,” “stirring our nest,” or “redirecting our paths.” Sometimes, because of the common-law relationship (attendance without membership), that a person has with the local church, they end a 15-20 year relationship with a simple email.
6. I am part of the universal, invisible church and there is no imperative for membership in one locally.
Wouldn’t it be cool to be invisible every now and then? I mean, if you could just disappear, wouldn’t that remove you from all responsibility and accountability for the moment? Or, how neat would it be if we could escape paying our town’s property taxes by appealing to our loyalty to the U.S. Government that would exempt us from any local restrictions or regulations? That is similar to what Christians are implying by their appeal to “I am part of the universal” or “invisible church.” Truthfully, there is certainly an invisible church. It is invisible to us but visible to God. It is invisible in the sense that we can’t determine who is actually repenting and believing the Gospel. Only the Lord knows that. Those who have been actually baptized by the Spirit into the Body of Christ are invisible to us, but visible to God. The Protestants insisted on the adjective invisible to clarify the distinction that just because a person was part of a visible church did not make someone a child of God. The Lord Jesus taught that such a determination would be done at the end of the age when the real Christians are revealed (Matthew 13:30).
The Bible also teaches the truth about the Universal (catholic) Church. Now don’t be alarmed by the use of “catholic.” The word simply means universal. The Roman Catholic Church believes in what they call the universal church but not the invisible church. Roman Catholics believe that the Universal Church represents all the visible members of the Roman Catholic (Universal) church. What we believe the Bible teaches about the Universal church is that it includes both the Christians that are already “with the Lord” and all the Christians presently on the planet. Maybe this summary would help:
Invisible Church: All the True Christians.
Universal Church: All the True Christians in Heaven and on Earth.
Local Church: Professing Christians gathered together in a committed relationship of accountability and love.
Some would refer to the Invisible Church or the Universal Church as the Church with the big “C” and the local church as the church with the little “c.” That is a mistake. The word “church” is used repeatedly in the New Testament. Nearly 90% of its uses, however, are in the context of a local church rather than the invisible or universal church. The Letters of the New Testament were written to local churches. Letters like Philippians actually names some of the bickering members in the local congregation! So, what we see in the New Testament is that God expects every member of the invisible, universal church to be a functioning and active member of a local church. The best way for you to prove your membership in the invisible, universal church is for you to be actively functioning in a local church.