Should a Christian join a local church? After all, many opportunities for teaching are available on TV and radio, through books, and on the Internet. Associating with other Christians is also possible through Bible studies, fellowship groups, and Christian friendships. Is membership in a local church merely a tradition, or is it a pattern that Christ himself calls his people to follow? We believe the Scriptures teach that every Christian should seek to be vitally and publicly committed to a biblically faithful local church.
The normal Christian life is a life lived in fellowship with other Christians.
The Bible uses at least four metaphors to describe Christ’s people in the context of the local church—a flock (Acts 20:28), a temple (Ephesians 2:21), a body (1 Corinthians 12:27), and a household (1 Timothy 3:15). All of them speak of connectedness and togetherness. All of these pictures underscore the fact that the normal Christian life cannot be conceived apart from fellowship with other Christians.
According to Ephesians 4:11-16, Christ has given gifted men to his people to build them up in the context of the local church. This passage describes a dynamic of spiritual growth in which people acting in the role of individual body parts build up one another as a body. All of God’s people have been given spiritual gifts and are called to play their part in building up one another (v. 16, Romans 12:6-8). This dynamic is Christ’s ordained method for maturing his people.
Christ has ordained not only a system of growth but a system of accountability as well. Christians are called to confess their sins to one another (James 5:16) and to confront one another when sin takes root (Matthew 18:15-17). Likewise, shepherds are appointed to watch over and protect the sheep (1 Peter 5:1-4). Christ uses committed fellowship in the body to prevent his people from being ensnared by sin.
Joining with other believers allows us to obey Christ in reaching others with the gospel more effectively. We can encourage one another and complement one another with varying spiritual gifts to reach out. We give a clearer testimony as a unified body than we would otherwise as isolated individuals.
If we refuse to live a life of committed fellowship with other Christians, then we have placed ourselves outside of God’s household. In effect, we have chosen to live on the streets and forage for scraps in the gutter when we could be feasting in a banquet hall.
The New Testament pattern of membership requires a mutually understood commitment.
Call it “formal” or “official” membership or something else if you will. The Bible assumes that the commitment to a local church was not a mere private resolution. Rather, it was an attachment known to the other members as well as to the God-ordained leadership in the church. The evidence for this practice is clear.
The metaphors mentioned previously underscore this point. No one is a casual member of a household or a flock or a temple or a body. Each of these has organization and structure. There is no doubt whether a part is in or out. Members of a family know with certainty who the other members of the family are. The head of the household knows whom he is to oversee (1 Timothy 3:5). Likewise, shepherds (i.e., elders, overseers or pastors) must know whom they are commanded to watch over (Acts 20:28).
Acts 5:13 speaks very clearly of the concept of joining the church. The Greek word translated “join” means to glue or cement together or to join or fasten firmly together. Clearly, this term meant more than an informal relationship; it involved a serious public commitment. We know from 1 Corinthians 14:16, 23 that unbelievers regularly attended their gatherings. Yet a clear distinction is made between the church and those who merely attended. Furthermore, Paul instructed the church at Corinth about what to do when the “whole church” was gathered together. How would they know when the whole church was gathered unless the members were committed to one another in a public, formal way?
God has entrusted the church with the duty and authority to discipline its members. According to 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, God will judge “those who are outside”, but the church must judge “those who are inside”. This contrast implies a sharp distinction between these two groups. Confusion is created for believers and unbelievers alike when the distinction between those inside and those outside is blurred. Those who are “inside” but persist in acting like an unbeliever must be “put away” or placed outside the fellowship so that the distinction between the church and world remains clear before a watching world. On the other hand, those who are genuine believers ought not to remain outside but should come inside the recognized fellowship so that the distinction between the church and the world is maintained. Since unbelievers (those on the “outside”) were free to attend the meetings of Christians, putting someone “outside” could not have meant barring them from meetings. Instead, to “put away” must have meant removing them from the membership of the church and refusing to treat them as fellow believers. The church cannot put outside someone who is not inside—someone who has not been formally received into the membership.
Since the church was entrusted with decisions concerning church discipline, how is one to know who makes the decisions if there is no clearly defined membership? According to 2 Corinthians 2:6, discipline decisions were to be made by majority vote of the church. Therefore, the membership of the church had to be clearly defined.
Being a part of a formally defined body greatly increases our assurance of grace. Godly shepherds exercise the “keys of the kingdom” (Matthew 16:19) on our behalf, testifying that our profession of faith is credible. A body of believers also welcomes us formally as one of their own—saints by calling (1 Corinthians 1:2) and citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). Our visible joining gives testimony that we are not ashamed to identify with Christ and his people (Mark 8:38). What a blessing from God!
The Bible gives guidance concerning the church we should join.
The scriptures are clear that every believer should embrace the privilege of seeking out a biblically faithful local church to join. The following biblical criteria should be considered when choosing a church:
- Look for a church that is committed to preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God (all of the Bible, humbly received as God’s Word) faithfully, systematically, and accurately, and to applying it to everyday life (Acts 2:42, 20:27; Romans 16:25).
- Look for a church that worships joyfully and reverently and observes baptism and the Lord’s Supper scripturally (Psalm 2:11, Acts 2:41-42).
- Look for a church that manifests consistent love and service to one another in the body (John 13:34-35).
- Look for a church that understands the bad news—our standing and our condition before God outside of Christ; and the good news—Christ’s death on behalf of sinners and his continuing work to make us like himself (Titus 2:14). Look for a church that applies these truths constantly to the body of believers and shares them freely with those who do not yet know Christ.
- Look for a church that takes membership seriously and practices discipline (Matthew 18:18-20).
- Look for a church that is committed to growing members to maturity (Ephesians 4:16).
- Look for a church that respects the biblical pattern of spiritually qualified elders and deacons in church leadership (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Timothy 3:1-15).
In addition to these general principles, a believer should seek to line up his formal membership with the local church he attends most regularly. Do not make the mistake of failing to join a church in a timely manner because “I will only be in this area for a few years” or “I have not found a church yet that I’m totally comfortable with”. Remember that there is no perfect church. We should be discerning but not hypercritical. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” The leaders to whom we submit should be those who can watch over us—that is, those who are nearby and have regular contact with us. Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the Word of God to you.” Our leaders—those we have formally submitted to—should be those who are our regular teachers.
Church membership involves many responsibilities. Yet to be a part of Christ’s body, to be a sheep in his flock, a stone in his temple, and a child in his household is one of the greatest privileges imaginable. Let us rejoice in God’s goodness to us and join ourselves to a biblically faithful local church.
Becoming a Member of Grace Heritage Church
Our goal is to be as welcoming as Christ is in receiving sheep while at the same time maintaining a clear conscience in following the principles of church order that we find revealed in Scripture. Therefore, the church will require the following for church membership:
- A credible profession of both repentance toward God and orthodox, evangelical, and personal faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Jer. 31:33, 34; Acts 2:41, 9:26, 27; 2 John 1:9).
- Baptism by immersion as a public identification with Christ in accordance with the command of Christ (Matt. 28:19, 20) and the practice of the New Testament church (Acts 2:41).
- A general understanding of the Confession of Faith and a willingness to submit to and live at peace with a teaching ministry guided by the biblical convictions expressed in it.
- An understanding of and commitment to undertake the biblical responsibilities of church membership as expressed in this constitution and the church covenant.
- A willingness to promote the unity and well being of the church by understanding and submitting to its form of church government.
- No unresolved biblical corrective discipline from a church where membership was previously held.
We want prospective members to have an opportunity to learn and ask questions about GHC and to have a clear understanding of member responsibilities before joining. Therefore, we offer a prospective members class that is required of everyone who offers themselves for membership.
Admission to Membership
- Anyone desiring membership may express this desire to an elder verbally or in writing. The applicant shall meet with two or more elders in order for them to hear his or her testimony of repentance and faith (Acts 20:20,21). There shall be a meeting or meetings for anyone interested in membership that explains the specifics of membership at Grace Heritage Church. This allows a potential member to explore the doctrinal position, the leadership and church government, the vision and purpose, and other areas of the church without obligation by either party. A prospective member is not required to agree with every doctrinal position held by the elders, but must understand that the ministry and teaching will be shaped by those positions as expressed in the Confession of Faith.
- Upon a positive assessment from the elders, the name of the applicant shall be brought before the congregation. An elder shall testify before God and the congregation that the applicant, according to the limited view of the elders, meets the biblical requirements for membership (Acts 9:26, 27). The elder shall then give appropriate opportunity for the applicant to testify before the church to the grace of God in his life, either through testimony or answers to questions from the elder. The church will then affirm reception of the applicant by a majority vote at any business or worship meeting of the church, at which time membership in other churches shall be relinquished.
Grace Heritage Church also offers the possibility of associate membership for students and others who are in the area temporarily as well as for those who may have an issue of conscience with some minor aspect of our membership requirements