‘Blest Be the Ties That Bind’: The Duty of Church Membership

Many Christians see great value in reading the Bible and learning theological truths and in individual benevolences and good works. Many of the same, however, pause when the subject of church membership is brought up. There are duties, right responses to the Gospel Jesus has given, surely, but has Christ required believers to be covenanted to a single, local gathering of believers? The Covid-19 pandemic (and more importantly the secular culture, the state, and even the churches’ responses to it) has only highlighted the relevance of this question. Does God really expect believers to be involved in a local church? With all the advances in audio-visual technology, is it really necessary? Scripture has much to say on the importance of church membership; it is one of the responsibilities that God expects His people humbly to obey. And it involves commitments beyond those given a few hours on a Sunday. In this brief survey, we will consider first, the reality of church membership as a Christian duty; and secondly, what duties church membership entails.[1]

The Necessity of Church Membership

Church membership is a duty that comes with being chosen as a people for God’s possession and being adopted as sons by Him (1 Pet. 2:9; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5). Jesus bears all authority in heaven and on earth, and He sent out His apostles to make disciples and appoint elders in every city (Matt. 28:19-20; 1 Tim. 1:5). Those disciples are to gather themselves together to worship the Triune God, to serve one another, and to observe the commandments of Christ. The Puritan minister Thomas Boston observed, “There is a certain connection between privilege bestowed on a man, and duty required of him. If one be admitted to the privilege of any society, he must with the honour receive the burden of duty belonging to it…if we are members of a holy society whereof Christ is the head, we must be holy as he is.”[2]

This is consistent with Jesus’ teaching His followers to prepare themselves for His return in glory, in the parables of both the wise and foolish virgins of the bridegroom, and the slave awaiting the master’s return. In the former, per Matthew 25:1-13, since they are to participate in a great marriage feast (cf. Rev. 19:9), the virgins must prepare themselves for the bridegroom’s arrival. Those virgins who are negligent about their work are barred from entering the wedding feast (25:11-12); Jesus’ conclusion, therefore, is “Be on alert” (v. 13). This is not a suggestion but rather a warning against false hope and self-delusion that sometimes accompanies superficial expressions of faith. The same is articulated in comparing the Church to servants of the master entrusted with responsibilities. “And the slave that knew His master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will [Gk. mē poiēsas pros to thelēma autou] will receive many lashes” (Lk. 12:47). Those who profess faith in Christ but refuse to be about His business on earth will be unfit for conducting it in the life to come.

But at this point someone might remark, “Is church membership part of this ‘preparedness’; is it a necessary responsibility for a Christian? After all, Scripture gives no direct command for Christians to join a church.” While that might be true, per se, Hebrews 10:24-25 provides a clear exhortation: “And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” The writer assumes that the holding fast of our confession (v. 23) and the stimulation and encouraging of one another to righteousness is done within the context of assembling ourselves together regularly. Additionally, the necessity of church membership comes implicitly through the various expectations, commands, and illustrations given by the apostles in Scripture.

The Duty of Church Members Toward God

Our duty as the body of Christ toward God comes from Paul’s urging of believers to present their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable, to God (Rom. 12:1). Paul does not see this command as too great a thing to ask for; rather, he defines it as “your spiritual service of worship,” something appropriate to the reality of a believer’s being created anew according to the likeness of Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). But this new creation in Christ is not left to his own devices; he is bonded with others who have received the same grace. Church membership follows from our being living stones, built up together as the temple of the living God. The Apostle Peter stresses this in 1 Peter 2:5: “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The Apostle Paul maintains the same idea in the letters to the Corinthian and Ephesian churches. The local church is the “temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:16; 1 Cor. 3:16), being grown into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:22). This dwelling place of God is a temple in which spiritual worship is to be conducted (Rom. 12:1; 1 Pet. 2:5). Influenced by these letters, the Apostolic Father, Ignatius of Antioch concurs, “[since you are stones of a temple] you are all participants together in a shared worship.”[3]

Man is created in the image of God, and this imago dei implies that man must worship the God whose glory and image he reflects. It is a truism that all men are by nature religious, ascribing worship to something, whether the one true God or a menagerie of false gods. The Apostle Paul observes this in Romans 1:21-23, that even those who do not acknowledge God nevertheless substitute [Gk. allassō] the glory of God with that of either man himself or created things, worshipping them in the process (v. 25). As a result, worship is not something optional; it is not a matter of whether we will worship, but of what (or Who) we will worship.[4]

Consequently, what Christians as a church owe to God based on His commandment (Ex. 20:8-11; Heb. 4:9-11) is the gathering of the local assembly at regular intervals to worship corporately together. Conducted within that worship are the things instructed by Christ and His apostles: observance of the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), the proclamation of the Word of God in preaching, corporate prayer and confession of sin, and the public reading of the Word.[5] These means of grace are given for our sanctification and Christlike growth; many of the means, especially the ordinances, cannot properly be done apart from the gathering of a local church. In all this, Christians ought to be circumspect in their faithfulness to the doctrines God has taught in Scripture. Thus, Scripture must be our “final word” in evaluating all teaching and instruction. [6]

The Duty of Church Members to Their Pastor(s)

In considering the duties of a church toward their pastors, the question may be asked whether there are duties unique toward pastors that do not apply to every believer. In answer, John L. Dagg observes, “The ministers of Christ [are] separate from ordinary Christians” because these men “have been called to special service in the Lord’s cause.”[7]This office comes with necessary spiritual gifts. Dagg writes further, “[ministerial gifts] are not given to confer a privilege merely, but they are a solemn call to duty – a call demanding the service of the whole life.”[8] Incumbent upon that duty of pastors is to care for their people. When the Apostle Paul instructs the Ephesian elders, he commands, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). This instruction, when combined with that of the apostles to appoint deacons to administer the physical needs of the church, thereby freeing the elders to the Word and to prayer (Acts 6:1-7), necessarily implies a local gathering of known people to be governed and cared for.

Since pastors have this responsibility, church members therefore have responsibilities toward them in turn. Chief among these is the duty of submitting to and obeying the elders’ rule. This obedience is not primarily for the exalting of pastors (since they are their bondservants for the sake of Christ, 2 Cor. 4:5), but for the good of church members. Without such submission, it “would be unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17). This submission includes counseling and, in extreme cases, biblical church discipline by the elders and the church. A believer may be redeemed from a backslidden way through a Christlike love that refuses to allow him to continue in unrepentant sin with impunity.[9] Incidentally, church discipline – part of the duty of the church to the pastors as well as to one another – outlined in these passages is another proof of the necessity of church membership, for how can a “majority” (2 Cor. 2:6) discipline and restore a delinquent member if there is not a faithful, active body of believers “on the rolls”? 

Just as profitable, for pastor and congregant alike, is the need for persistent prayer and encouragement on the pastor’s behalf. The Puritan John Owen remarks, “the great need of the pastor for prayer is not for his own good, but for the saints’ good…help the one who carries the burden, Eph. 6:18-20; Phil. 2:17; Col. 1:24.”[10] Owen’s observation reinforces the organic relationship between the pastors and laypeople as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12 ff.).

Furthermore, pastors should be sustained in their earthly needs by the church. This is something, of course, that must be left “to voluntary contribution, and the dictates of individual liberty,”[11] but it remains a duty nevertheless. Financially supporting a pastor and his family is not a charitable donation[12] – it is what he is owed as a worker of Christ and His kingdom. Paul, appealing to the Old Testament civic law, applies its general moral character in reference to supporting elders: “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages” (1 Tim. 5:18). What a poor example of submission to Christ by believers who purposely neglect the minister who pours out his life in service for our good (Phil. 2:17).

The Duty of Church Members toward Each Other

Christians have a duty toward members of the same congregation. The New Testament consists primarily of letters addressed to individual churches whether in cities or in regions of the Roman Empire, or to the church generically. These individual Christians, as established on the pattern of the first church in Jerusalem, possessed a “fellowship” (Gk. koinōnia) with each other just as they had with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2:42, 1 John 1:3, and 2 Cor. 13:14). Within those epistles are numerous references to “one another,” and from these we can discern many of the responsibilities expected of believers corporately. All of the duties are summed up under Peter’s instruction[13] in 1 Peter 1:22-23, 

“Since you in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again, not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is through the living and enduring word of God” (emphasis added).

It is because believers are born again of God that they are to behave this way toward each other. Believers are woven together into a new people, one new man (Eph. 2:15b), and their attitudes to each other are a manifestation of that newness of life wrought in them by Christ through the Spirit; “we share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear.”[14]Love is the sum of all Christian duty (Matt 7:12; James 2:8), and from this broad category of love, we can discern in the Scriptures that believers must:

  • Serve one another with humility and submit to each other (1 Pet. 4:10; 5:5; Eph. 5:21; Phil. 2:3).
  • Encourage each other with the truths of the Gospel (Heb. 3:13; 1 Thess. 5:11).
  • Strive to be of one mind, through teaching and admonishment, as well as forgiveness of sins (Rom. 12:16; Col. 3:16; Rom. 15:14; Eph. 4:32).
  • Support widows and orphans in the church’s care (1 Tim. 5:3-16; James 1:27).
  • Bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2; Rom. 15:1).[15]

Even harsher measures, such as admonishment and church discipline, are exercised under the rubric of love and concern. John Calvin comments, “We must not indulge or overlook the sins by which our brethren are pressed down, but relieve them, – which can only be done by mild and friendly correction.”[16]

This list is not exhaustive, of course, for every duty given in Scripture has application to circumstances that must be considered. But the New Testament clearly emphasizes the corporate participation of individual Christians in a local church. It is through living out and applying the principles of these “one another” passages that we comfort and build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11).[17] Many of the duties even toward God and pastors described earlier – doctrinal fidelity, financial support, attendance – are intertwined with responsibilities toward fellow church members. If believers do not teach, encourage, correct, and rebuke one another, how shall doctrinal purity be maintained? If I do not attend church regularly,[18] how will I be blessed through the gifts of others, or bless them with my own gifts? If a church member does not faithfully give, how will Gospel work be supported, or the widows and orphans, or the ministers? 

The Duties of Church Members to the World

The last duty we will highlight is the one that believers in a church have to the world. Since the church is the light of the world (Matt. 5:16), believers must display their brightness for all men to see. The duties involved in this are comparatively simple. The foremost duty of believers as a church is to cooperate in the evangelization of the world around them. As inheritors of the commission of Christ to His Apostles (Matt. 28:19-20), we are to go and make disciples for Jesus. Therefore, churches should encourage an evangelistic and apologetic spirit and cultivate habits to the same, so that the members may always be ready to give an account or defense for the hope within them (1 Pet. 3:15).

Moreover, churches should be Christlike in their deportment, serving as good examples of their Lord. This is in keeping with the teaching of Christ that believers are salt and light, and that those characteristics should be manifested to all. Connected with this purpose of being ambassadors for Christ, Christians must live as good subjects and citizens of earthly authorities and dominions, striving to be at peace with all men. They do this, not because such earthly authorities have ultimate authority, but out of obedience to Christ as King of kings (Rom. 13:1, 14). Through these duties, God utilizes his representatives to be instruments of salvation and judgment to the world (1 Pet. 2:11; Matt. 5:16).

It is in this missional living in the world, where the Gospel is hated and those following the Christ are hated for His sake (John 15:18-19), that the imperative of church membership is clearly seen. The temptations of sin and the cares of the world pull at the heart of the Christian believer, and the remedy is the encouragement and staying hand of those brothers and sisters who strive along the same pilgrim path. Our united worship of God, our remembering the work of the Savior for us that was completed, our bearing with each other, is what “ignites our hearts” anew week by week when the burdens of the world would have otherwise “cooled our hearts to stone.”[19] The hope of Christian fellowship “revives our courage by the way”!

The duties of church membership, far from being extreme or unimportant, are in truth nothing less than the substance of our reasonable service to God. It is how we manifest the grace of God wrought in us; it is how we live properly amid like-minded believers and in the world hostile to the lordship of Christ. No high-quality recording or flawlessly edited video can replace interaction with people who know our needs and even our weaknesses and can apply the means of grace to us. Rather than striving to pursue Christlikeness apart from the church, we should relish in the truth that God has united us in Christ the Savior and seek out persistently the comfort and grace of Christian fellowship. We should delight in the ties that “bind our hearts in Christian love.”

[1] Two excellent resources on the duty of church membership can be found in John Angell James’ The Church Member’s Guide (reprint, Solid Ground Christian Books, 2003), and Earl Blackburn’s Jesus Loves the Church and So Should You (Solid Ground Christian Books, 2010). Both have been immensely helpful in the process of writing this article.

[2] Thomas Boston, Complete Works, Vol. 3 (Richard Owen Roberts, 1980), 612-613.

[3] Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians, 9:2 in The Apostolic Fathers (ed. Michael W. Holmes, Baker, 2007), 191.

[4] Consequently, the Second London Confession (chapter 22, paragraph 1) declares: “The light of nature shows that there is a God who has dominion and sovereignty over all…He is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, invoked, trusted, and served by men with all their heart and soul and strength.” A Faith to Confess: The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 Rewritten in Modern English (Carey Publications, 2010), 50.

[5] Details concerning the rationale and content of public worship can be observed in chapter 22 of the Second London Confession (“Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day”); a helpful discussion of the public and private means of grace can be found in Blackburn’s Jesus Loves the Church, 89-100.

[6] The validity of the “regulative principle of worship” is relevant to mention at this point; God alone determines what is acceptable worship offered to Him. For sound resources on worship and the regulative principle specifically, see Thomas J. Nettles, Praise Is His Gracious Choice (Founders Press, 2021), and Ernie Reisinger and D. Matthew Allen, Worship: The Regulative Principle and the Biblical Principle of Accommodation, revised ed. (Founders Press, 2022).

[7] John L. Dagg, Manual of Theology (reprint, Gano Books, 1982), 241.

[8] Ibid., 243.

[9] Compare 1 Cor. 5:1-5, 12-13 with 2 Cor. 2:6-11.

[10] John Owen, Duties of Christian Fellowship (reprint, Banner of Truth, 2020), 21. This modernized version of his treatise, Eshcol: A Cluster of the Fruit of Canaan, can be read in its original form in the Works of John Owen, Vol. 13 (Banner of Truth, 1983), 51-87.

[11] James, Church Member’s Guide, 65.

[12] Ibid, 66.

[13] This can also be observed in Paul and John’s letters, specifically Rom. 12:10, Gal. 5:13, 1 Thess. 4:9, 2 Thess. 1:3; 1 John 3:11, 4:7, 12; 2 John 5.

[14] The Second London Confession (chapter 27, paragraph 2) observes: “Saints by profession are obligated to maintain a holy fellowship and communion in worshipping God and in performing spiritual services that promote their mutual edification…[and] aid each other in material things according to their various abilities and needs.” Confessing the Faith: The 1689 Baptist Confession for the 21st Century (Founders Press, 2013), 54.

[15] A helpful tool for the duties of church members toward each other is found in John Flavel’s A Two-Column Table of the Sin and Duties Attaching to Church Membership, in volume 6 of his Works (Banner of Truth, 1986), pgs. 586-89. Another helpful description is in James’ Church Member’s Guide, pgs 67-98.

[16] Commentary on Galatians 6:1, Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 21 (Baker Books, 1981), 173.

[17] From these verses the Second London Confession states: “Since [saints] are united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces and are obligated to carry out these duties, both public and private, in an orderly way to promote their mutual good, both in the inner and outer aspects of their lives.” Confessing the Faith, 53-4.

[18] This is assuming, of course, that a church member carries no physical limitations that would prevent him from regular attendance.

[19] I first heard this illustration as a young man from Dr. Cary Kimbrell, currently Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Laurel, Mississippi, at a Regional Founders Conference in Shreveport, Louisiana in the early 2000s, and from it I have always been impressed with the necessity of church membership and attendance for soul prosperity.

Paul M. Taylor is a member and Pastoral Intern at Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, and a Master of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Paul is currently a Th.M. student at SBTS. He and his wife Michaela have been married since December 2022.
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