Is It Necessary To Be a Member of a Local Church? (I)
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 4:33pm
INQUIRY: I have a friend who has gone to college and has stopped meeting together with a church. Her argument has been that “you don’t need the church to have God,” and “you don’t need to ‘go to church’ to have God.” She still studies and reads on her own, but how can I explain to her that she needs to connect with the local body? She recently started going to a denominational Bible study, and so she has been counting that as “church.” But this is obviously not the same as being a part of the ekklesia. How can I explain to her that she really NEEDS to be a member of a local church?
REPLY: It is definitely the case that EVERY Christian has an obligation and a need to be a vital part of a local congregation of Christ’s church. God’s people are often compared with sheep (see Psalm 23), and sheep need shepherds for their safety and well-being. Though Jesus is our “Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4), he has appointed the elders of each local congregation—each congregation being a flock of sheep—to be the shepherds who are responsible for our well-being. Paul commanded the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17) to “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 has purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Peter exhorts the elders to “shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Peter 5:2).
We “sheep,” on the other hand, are commanded thus: “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” (Heb. 13:17). Here we see that not only are the shepherds (elders) responsible FOR us sheep, but also that we sheep are responsible TO the elders for our behavior and life-style. Just as the elders must give an account to God for how well they do their job as shepherds, so also must we Christians give an account of our lives to these leaders. All of us need to be held accountable; this is a form of spiritual discipline. Church attendance is one thing we are accountable for, since we are warned against “not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some” (Heb. 10:25).
Not to be a part of a local church and thus under the care of shepherds is therefore an act of direct disobedience to God’s commands; it is an act of rebellion against God’s authority, and against the authority of our Chief Shepherd himself. It is also an act of arrogance, since one is assuming that he or she does not NEED the help and guidance of spiritual leaders, and does not NEED to be held accountable to anyone. It is also an act of recklessness, in which one is closing his or her eyes to the many sources of spiritual danger that threaten us in this world (and especially in college!). When Paul was addressing the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, he warned them to “be on guard,” because “savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (vv. 28-29).
Sheep not only need shepherds; they also need the support and protection that come from being part of a large group. We have all heard the aphorism that there is “safety in numbers.” We have seen nature films where predators stalk large herds of antelope or wildebeests, waiting for one member of the group to wander off by itself where it can be taken down, killed, and eaten. Similarly, Christians who try to “go it alone” are easy prey for our “adversary, the devil,” who “prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
If we are not willing to accept our identity as sheep, and to abide by God’s instructions to us on how to be a part of a local flock under the care of elders, then we do not really belong to Jesus. Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). Can we say we are following Jesus if we do not listen to His voice as he speaks to us in His Word?