Belong before you believe, or believe before you belong?

Some of our leaders recently visited a local church holding a seminar on how to welcome new visitors. The practical advice and suggestions were all very helpful, but there was a phrase that caught our attention. During the seminar the speaker made a case for allowing non-members to serve in various ministries. The understanding seemed to be that if one gets plugged into the church they are more likely to return for subsequent Sundays. The hope was that eventually said person would come to know Jesus through exposure to other Christians, and eventually place their membership with the church. The speaker summarized this ministerial philosophy with the slogan, “belong before you believe.” In other words, whether one is a Christian, or simply a seeker there are no practical “lines in the sand” so to speak.

I get the heart and logic behind this statement, but I wonder if it’s biblical. It sounds pious but it may be missing the mark. It is definitely more pragmatic and yields immediate results, but is it the most healthy pursuit? Should we not call people to “believe before you belong?” Didn’t Jesus live out this philosophy? Some will reply—“Yeah but Jesus was accused for hanging out with drunks, prostitutes, and the unclean!” True, but we must ask ourselves—did Jesus hang around these people arbitrarily without any call for a change of lifestyle? Or did Jesus hang around these people for the sole purpose of calling them to “repent for the Kingdom is at hand?”

  • It was Jesus, was it not, who told the rich man to sell all of his possessions and give it to the poor before being allowed in the Kingdom (Matthew 19).
  • It was Jesus who said to the man who requested he bury his father before following Jesus, “let the dead bury the dead (Matthew 8).”
  • It was Jesus who said the road to eternal life was narrow and few would find it (Matthew 7).
  • It was Jesus who said that in order to follow him you would have to love him more than your entire family (Matthew 10).
  • It was Jesus who said that one would have to deny themselves, and  take up their cross in order to follow him (Matthew 16).

In other words, have we as a church become so obsessed with attracting people into our community that we have neglected to set any standard by which one can come in? Perhaps instead of leaving the front doors of the church wide open and the back doors closed it should be the other way around.

A Case for Local Church Membership.

Nowhere in the New Testament do we find the words “thou shall be a member of a local church.” However, the absence of the word “Trinity” doesn’t seem to keep us from believing in a triune God either. The reason involves simple logical deduction or inference from a holistic reading of scripture, which moves us to conclude that God is one in being yet three in persons. Similarly, while the words “local church membership” are not found in the Bible, a serious reading of the text cannot but persuade one to its validity.

With that said the following is my attempt to list details from the NT that, I believe, accumulatively make a strong case for the NT’s teaching of local church membership. But first allow me to define exactly what I mean by my terminology:
Local—I mean a specific geographical area where the church meets regularly to worship God, in contrast to what’s typically termed “the universal church,” that is, true believers throughout the entire world.
Church—I mean the assembly of believers for the purposes of worshipping God, edifying the saints, and manifesting the glory of God.
Membership—I mean the intentional and apparent recognition of each individual who has pledged their lives to a particular local church, for the advancement of the Gospel in the local community, and throughout the world.

With our terms set before us here are ten biblical reasons why, when put together, make a strong accumulative case that every believer should be a member of a local church:

  1. The word for “Church” implies in itself a group of people who gather regularly, in a particular place, for a uniting purpose. The word translated “church” comes from the Greek Ekklesia meaning “a gathered assembly.”
  2. When the apostle Paul wrote his letters they were written to specific churches in a specific geographical location.
    • To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours (1 Corinthians 1:2)
    • and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia (Galatians 1:2)
    • Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons (Philippians 1:1)
    • Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.(1 Thessalonians 1:1)
  3. The NT describes the first church as being established and having elders appointed to each local church.
    • And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.(Acts 14:23) (see also, 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9)
  4. The NT teaches that believers met regularly to worship God together.
    • I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.(1 Timothy 3:14-15)
    • And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.(Hebrews 10:24-25)
    • But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse (1 Corinthians 11:17).
    • If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds. . . What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn. . .(1 Corinthians 14:23,26)
    • See also, Acts 2:42-27
  5. Paul at the conclusion of his letter to the church at Rome sends greetings to a number of individual believers. It seems from this list that there was a clear understanding of who had identified as being devoted to that particular local congregation.
    • See Romans 16:1-16
  6. The call for church discipline involves a mutual understanding between each member of a local church that they’re held accountable to each other for what they believe and how they behave.
    • Matthew 18:15-20
    • 1 Cor. 5:1-13
    • 2 Cor. 2:5-11
    • Galatians 6:1-5
  7. The call for church discipline implies that to be put out of fellowship with a congregation means that one would have once been in fellowship with a congregation. 
    • See passages in previous point
  8. The body/member metaphor given by Paul points to the design of a local church.
    • 1 Corinthians 12:12-26
  9. Leaders of the church being accountable for the souls in their flock assume they know who is in their flock.
    • Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
  10. Jesus established and taught the importance of the Local church 
    • Matthew 16:13-20
    • Matthew 18:15-20
    • John 17:20-26