The Case for the Local Church (Church Membership, Part 3)
Before answering the question that we ended with last time (What is the point of church membership if it is neither a requirement nor a guarantee of salvation?) we need to take a brief look at the legitimacy of even talking about a local church.
Why become a member? That's not even the right question if we're talking about the church in the general sense. The church with a capital C. The church universal. In 1 Corinthians 12:27 Paul affirms, "Now you (plural, the believers, the saints, y'all) are the body of Christ and individually members of it." That's pretty clear. As a Christian, you are a member of the body of Christ. There's nothing more you need to do to become one.
But that's not what we're talking about here, is it? When we're asking the point of membership, we're not questioning being a part of the body of Christ. We're questioning whether it's fair to apply that same language to a local gathering of Christians. What is the point of being formally connected to a specific group of Christians in a specific location? Is this something Scripture even considers? I believe it is, and we'll see the evidence of that scattered over the next few entries.
First, let's look at how Scripture uses this word "church." When the Bible talks about the church, is it talking about a local gathering of Christians? Or the big picture view? The truth is, it's both. The Bible doesn't speak of the local church except as an expression of the church universal in a particular place. The church at Galatia, the church at Corinth, etc. In Colossians 4:16, for example, Paul speaks of the church at Nympha's house (see also Romans 16:5, Philemon 2, and other examples). And so Paul rightly speaks in Romans 16:16 of "the churches," a word that would not be appropriate if there was only one church. Treasure Coast Presbyterian Church is a corporation that exists on paper for the sake of legal propriety. When we gather on Sunday morning for worship or throughout the week for fellowship, study, and ministry, we are - more accurately – "the church at the Treasure Coast."
For the sake of worship, for the sake of order, for the sake of shepherding and leadership, for the sake of discipleship and community, it has always been necessary for believers to organize according to where they live. But those local gatherings are not something distinct from the great body of Christ to which they belong. And so membership in any local church – including TCPC – is never about loyalty or commitment to the corporation, but rather about expressing your membership in and belonging to the body of Christ, which is the church.
In the verse we looked at to start this discussion - 1 Corinthians 12:27 - we should note that Paul is writing "to the church of God in Corinth" (1 Corinthians 1:2) when he said "you are the body of Christ." Paul is not saying that the body of Christ is only represented in the whole assembly of all believers in the world. He is saying that the church at Corinth, a specific local gathering of disciples, is the body of Christ. And as he argues throughout chapter 12, being a member of that body entails a commitment to participate in the life of that body - to use your gifts for others and to in turn be blessed by the service and ministry of others. So it would seem that the answer to our original question - "What is the point of membership?" - is that active participation in a local church is how God desires us to express our belonging in the body of Christ.
But what makes a local church a church? Can't our gifts be expressed in other types of fellowship and ministry? Coffee with a group of Christian friends, online discussion with other believers, singing praise songs on the beach at night - isn't the church present when we do those things? Doesn't Jesus say that wherever two or more are gathered in his name, he is there with them (Matthew 18:20)? Yes, he does say that. But he does not say that such a gathering is the church. In fact, in those same verses, he makes a distinction between a gathering of two or three believers (Matthew 18:16) and the church (verse 17). There is something unique about the church that is not true of a Bible Study, a prayer group, or any other gathering of believers. Those other things may be a part of the church and its life. I would even say they are necessary expression of the local church. But they lack at least one crucial element that defines the boundaries of a church, and we'll explore that element in our next article.