FERGUSON: Membership to us is a kind of official thing, but the word means “being a member” and that is a deeply biblical thing. If we trust in Jesus Christ, we are members of the body of Christ. Different churches regard membership in different ways and bring people into membership in different ways, but the “officialese” is far less important than the notion, “I really belong here and am absolutely committed here.” To turn away from that, to reject it, or to deny it is really to repudiate what Christ has brought you into. He has brought you into His body. So, it is of supreme importance, first of all, because it’s what the Scriptures teach.
Secondly, it’s important because it is what we need. The idea that an individual is sufficient unto himself or herself to live the Christian life is actually an extraordinary form of arrogance from a biblical point of view. Think of the New Testament’s teaching about the extent to which we need one another. Think of the fact that every gift the Lord has given to people, He has not given to them chiefly for themselves. Rather, He has given that gift to them for the sake of others. So, if I separate myself from the church, for whatever reason, I am really saying to the Lord, “I despise the gifts that You have given and I don’t want anything to do with them.”
As we go through the Scriptures, we could find many more reasons why church membership is important. For example, Jesus is our Shepherd, and when He calls His sheep to Himself, He is inevitably calling them nearer to one another.
Another reason is that the chief New Testament picture (actually it’s more than a picture; it’s a reality) is that it’s a family. That is the central way of thinking about the church in the New Testament. To think that I would say, “I don’t need my family,” even at the ordinary human level would be appalling. When we think of what it has cost God to create this new family, to say—“I don’t need to belong to the family of God; I don’t need the friendship; I don’t the ministry”—seems to be like spitting in God’s face.
There are many different lines of teaching in Scripture that coalesce into the church. “Christ loved the church,” says Paul, “and gave Himself for the church” (Eph. 5:25). For me not to love the church that He loved and gave Himself for is, in a sense, not to love the Lord Jesus Himself. It is certainly not to love what He loves.
BINGHAM: I was reflecting on this question recently. Someone was sharing that a friend of theirs had stopped going to church and had said: “I can just do church at home. I can pray at home, read the Bible at home, and listen to a sermon at home.” As we were reflecting on where they used to worship, it seems a sad case that the church lacked so much theology. They had a very low view of the church itself. In some sense, I can empathize with them because if the church is as low as they were being taught, then perhaps they don’t need the church. But that is a misunderstanding of the role of the church.
FERGUSON: Yes, if Christians are taught that the really important thing about their Christian life lies outside of the church or that the church is secondary to their spiritual growth, then it’s like the church has put a dagger through its own heart.
When I look back on my own Christian life, I am what I have been helped to be by the church, as is my family. I sometimes have said to parents: “God never gave to parents all the gifts that are needed to raise one child for Christ; that’s what the whole church is for. It takes a village. It takes a congregation.” When we realize that, then we begin to see the extraordinary blessings that are released not just into our individual lives, but into our family lives. If we are parents, we see them released into our children’s lives in the most wonderful way. It’s not an accident that Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).