Here’s a question for you: Do you need to attend church to be a Christian? What about being a member of a church? Is that necessary for a believer to grow and mature as God intends?
To hear many Christians talk—and this would probably be the opinion of many more if you could read their thoughts—the idea of being a vital, connected member of a church seems strange, unnecessary, maybe even a little antiquated. After all, if the goal is to grow as a Christian—to learn more about God, to understand and act out our faith more consistently—why should we think the church is so important? The best Bible teachers on the planet podcast their preaching; there are energetic parachurch organizations where a Christian can serve well; and a small group meeting in a home provides excellent opportunity for fellowship. Really, when you get right down to it, what good is a hidebound, outdated thing like the church? And why should I be a part of one?
The answer, to put it simply, is that the church isn’t just an invention of Christians who were trying to fulfill certain needs—fellowship, teaching, and so on. It’s much more than that. In fact, the Bible seems to hold the local church out as a unique organization, one unlike any parachurch organization, any other ministry, or any other institution in the world. It is, by Jesus’s own royal prerogative, the embassy of the kingdom of heaven to this rebellious world. This reality is mostly lost on Christians today, and yet that’s essentially how the Bible describes it.
Constituted, Chartered, Commissioned
Do you remember when the church was established in the Bible? It wasn’t in the book of Acts, though that’s what many people guess. It was during the ministry of Jesus himself, when Peter became the first person to recognize Jesus for who he really is—“the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). When Peter made that confession, it was as if the troop ships had landed, and the King’s counterinvasion of a rebellious world began in earnest. Jesus immediately told Peter that, upon this rock—that is, upon him as the first to confess Jesus’s true identity, and later upon all those who would recognize Jesus in like manner—he would build his church, his “assembly,” and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.
Then, just as a king would do for an ambassador, Jesus gave that church the right to speak with his authority. That’s what he meant when he said the church would hold the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and that whatever it bound or loosed on earth would be bound or loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:19; cf. 18:18). In effect, Jesus was giving his church a royal charter of authority; it and it alone would be his embassy on the earth. Finally, he commissioned it with a charge that, until he returned, that embassy was to be about the work of proclaiming his gracious kingship and making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–20).
The church, then, wasn’t the idea of a bunch of pastors who wanted some job security. It was Jesus’s idea. He constituted it, he chartered it, and he commissioned it; and now the church plays a grand and unique role in God’s plan of salvation. That’s why Paul could say in Ephesians 3:10 that it is “through the church” that God’s “manifold wisdom” is going to be made known to the universe. It’s not primarily through parachurch organizations, ministries, or podcasts, Paul says, but through the church that God is carrying out his purpose of glorifying himself.
Looking to Scripture, Not the Fitness Club
If that’s true, then it’s no wonder Paul expects every believer in Jesus—everyone who, like Peter, understands who Jesus is and relies on him for salvation—to be a vital, committed part of a local church. Sometimes people shy away from the words “church member,” as if membership is a concept foreign to Scripture, something the church ripped off from a fitness gym or something. But the fact is, “membership” is right at the heart of the Bible’s description of the church. It’s a concept having to do with the body, which is arguably the Bible’s most important way of describing the church and its life. Just as an arm or a leg is a vital member of a body, so Paul says to the local church in Corinth, “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). To be a member of a local church is to be vitally connected to it, to feel what it feels, to contribute to its life, to be a part of it in a fundamental and even intimate way. That is something God expects of every Christian, and the benefits are amazing.
In Ephesians 4, just after saying it’s through the church that God is showing his glory to the world, Paul says that through life in the local church we all are maturing in the faith of Jesus, growing up to the full measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13). That’s what life in a healthy church does. But how?
Body Building in the Word
The main means by which we grow into mature Christians in the church is through hearing and responding to God’s Word together. From the beginning of the Bible, God has always given spiritual life by his Word. He called the universe into existence by his voice. He gave Adam life by the breath of his mouth. He made the dry bones live by the preaching of Ezekiel. He called dead Lazarus out of the tomb by calling to him with his voice. And now he calls us as Christians to hear his Word preached week in and week out (2 Tim. 4:1–2). And as we do, we are challenged and taught and encouraged and rebuked and trained (2 Tim. 3:16).
Moreover, and crucially, you cannot benefit from everything God does through the preaching of the Word in a church by listening to recordings. There’s nothing mystical in that claim. It’s just that part of what God does through the preaching of the Word is that he molds and shapes a church together as they hear and respond to the Word together. They are made more like Jesus together. Look how Paul describes the effect of all this:
Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph. 4:15–16)
That kind of thing just won’t—indeed can’t—happen in solitude, no matter how solid the teaching on your iPod is.
An Embassy, Not a Cruise Ship
But there’s more. As the Holy Spirit uses the Word to draw a church together and make it more like Jesus, he also makes us effective as an embassy of the High King—both to model to a rebellious world what life ought to be like, and also (and even through that life) to proclaim the good news of King Jesus’s offer of mercy to that world.
The fact is, the church is not a social club or a cruise ship to heaven. It’s a military unit, and one under constant assault from the enemy. So the author of Hebrews says we should not “neglect to meet together,” but rather “stir up one another to love and good works” and “encourage one another” (Heb. 10:24–25). Similarly, Paul tells us part of what we do as a church is keep watch over each other, restore each other when we fall into sin, and bear each other’s burdens and sorrows (Gal. 6:1–2). We pray for one another, confess to one another, watch out for one another, and encourage one another to press on—and all because we know that one day soon our King is coming back to take us home (James 5:16; Heb. 10:25).
Locking Arms with Others
So let’s think back to the first question we asked: Do you need to be a member of a church to be a Christian? Well, no. But unless there are extraordinary circumstances preventing that for you, you should realize that Scripture simply doesn’t even contemplate a follower of Jesus who is not vitally, obviously, genuinely, and sincerely committed to a body of believers.
God did not intend us to be lone soldiers. For the duration of the battle—however long it is before the King returns—he intended us all to lock arms with other soldiers, protecting them, watching out for them, bearing them up, and step-after-step encouraging them to press on in the life and faith of Jesus our Lord.
This excerpt is adapted from the ESV Men’s Devotional Bible (Crossway, 2015).