In the past several decades we have seen a growing number of churches that either do not have church membership or see church membership as a cumbersome appendix to the life of the church. Many have pointed out that church membership is assumed on every page of the New Testament. For example, how can Paul tell the church in Corinth to discipline a man for sexual immorality but neglect to call for the same treatment of the woman involved? Clearly, it is because the man is a member of the congregation and the woman is not. The elders have no authority over this particular woman, but they do over this man. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (1 Cor. 5:12, 13).
Abolishing or downplaying membership is an extreme and harmful move for any church to make. It results in lazy elders who fail to truly shepherd the flock (1 Pet. 5). Also, expelling membership can lead to a congregation filled with unrepentant sinners for, as Paul put it, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6).
But there is an opposite extreme that can be dangerous as well. Sometimes, people trust in their status as members in the visible church to an unhealthy extent. Membership in the church is not meant to guarantee salvation. It is true that ordinarily people come to the Christian faith through interactions with the Bible, the sacraments, and God through prayer. And, yes, these are three ordinances given particularly to the church, not just individuals. But, we can’t forget the important lesson that John the Baptist taught as he rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3.
John the Baptist’s ministry was all about repentance, a change of heart and mind toward God. His baptism was a baptism of repentance. The first words we hear from John the Baptist in The Gospel of Matthew is “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (3:2). This same emphasis is found in the ministry of Christ (Matt. 4:17), which is the fulfillment of John’s ministry.
One day, while John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing, some of the religious leaders came to him. They came to hear what John was saying. John the Baptist noticed them and knew that they had not come to participate in repentance, only to spectate and criticize. John knew that these men trusted in their status as religious leaders and as ethnic Jews. John attacked these false comforts by saying, “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (3:9). John also told them that if they do not show fruit of true repentance for their sin, they would be cast into the eternal fires of Hell (3:10, 12). John doesn’t mince words!
So Christians, be members of a church, for it is your Christian duty (Hebrews 13:16, 17). But, do not trust in your membership alone. John certainly didn’t accept the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ membership as sufficient fruit of repentance (Matt.3:8), and nor should you!
Do not flee to church membership as a foundation for your status before God. Flee only to Christ. John saw himself as a road sign pointing to Christ. John the Baptist was leading people into the waters of the Jordan just as Moses led Israel into the Red Sea. For John, he was taking them on a journey out of their bondage to sin and into the only location where genuine forgiveness could be found. But this location of redemption was not to be found in a physical land but in a person, namely Jesus Christ.
To have the spiritual benefits of forgiveness, repentance, joy, love, humility, and holiness, you must turn to Christ and have an intimate knowledge of him through faith (Eph. 1&2). It is dangerous to place our trust in anything or anyone other than this Savior, as John clearly told the religious leaders of his day.