“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together).
1. Scripture teaches that not only are we members of the invisible church (past, present and future) upon our salvation, but we are also to identify ourselves with other believers in physical assembly (Hebrews 10:23-25) and in that assembly we are to “hold fast” to our public commitment with other believers. “Let us, without ever wavering, keep on holding to the hope that we profess.” The plain teaching here is that we, as the physical visible church must “spur one another on” in our faith. The Bible does not know of a faith lived in aloneness, but one that is committed to others as we are committed to Christ.
2. Although scripture does not specifically teach that a person should join a local church, it is apparent that scripture assumes that if one is a Christian, they are a member of a local church. As an example, in his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul teaches the exclusion of a member of that church. Exclusion from a church presupposes inclusion:
“You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst …Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler – not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (1Cor 5:2, 7, 12-13). One cannot be excluded from something that he was never included in.
3. In 2 Corinthians 2:6-7, Paul talks about “the majority” which implies that there was a definite number of those who were identified with the local, physical church in Corinth. 6 The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. 7 Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.
4. The local churches in Paul’s day apparently kept a list of widows. It would be impossible for the churches we learn about in the New Testament to distinguish between leadership, new believers and widows and orphans in need if there was no system of accounting (1 Timothy 5:9).
5. God keeps a list of the true members of the visible AND invisible church. Indeed, true companion, I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel, together with Clement also and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life (Phil 4:3). And nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into [the New Jerusalem], but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21:27).
6. Local church membership is the public endorsement of a body of believers of a person’s salvation and forward movement in discipleship. Jesus taught the church is to “make disciples”, the first step of which is baptism. New believers need nurture, care and discipline that is provided for in the local assembly of believers. In scripture, the assembly (ecclesia) was established as a community of faith both in the old and new testaments in which specific responsibilities of spiritual community and discipline are spelled out. Scripture, in other words, does not contemplate spiritual aloneness.
7. Scripture teaches that the church is the “Bride of Christ”. It is understood that this in the fullest sense represents the universal church past present and future as stated in the book of Revelation. But there is a specific application to the local church in Ephesians 5, as Paul is writing to a local physical body. This relationship implies commitment and identity as a Bride identifies with her husband in a covenant relationship, binding herself to Him and taking His name. As there is a local physical understanding of this metaphor used is scripture, logic would say, “if I love Christ, I will love His bride!”
8. The Church in the New Testament is reflected by the nation of Israel in the Old. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with Gods people and members of Gods household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22 ).
As such, the Old Testament priests, sacrifices, and sanctuary are superseded by the mediation of Jesus, the crucified, risen, and reigning God-man (Heb. 1-10), in whom believers now find their identity as the seed of Abraham and the people of God (Gal. 3:29; 1 Pet. 2:4-10). The word “assembly”, translated “ecclesia” in the Septuagint is found throughout the Old Testament and identifies the gathering of the people of God in worship and spiritual community. The disciples identified the church in this same way, and as such saw themselves as the physical gathering of a people identified with each other and responsible together to live out their faith as a people of God. There is great power in the words, “a people belonging to God”. Membership is the language of belonging.
9. The Bible commands that we submit ourselves to spiritual authority. Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves (Hebrews 13:17). One who does not commit to the local Body in membership has in effect said, “I will not submit myself to any authority”.
10. I will let Packer make the final point: The New Testament assumes that all Christians will share in the life of a local church, meeting with it for worship (Heb. 10:25), accepting its nurture and discipline (Matt. 18:15-20; Gal. 6:1), and sharing in its work of witness. Christians disobey God and impoverish themselves by refusing to join with other believers when there is a local congregation that they can belong to. (from John Piper)