Does God’s Word Command Believers To Join The Visible Church?

Does God’s Word Command Believers To Join The Visible Church?

Some time ago I telephoned another minister to talk to him about a member of our church whom he had re-baptized and who was now attending their services instead of ours on a regular basis. I encouraged this other minister to have our (now former) member ask for a transfer of membership, since this person had rejected his former baptism and was no longer in regular fellowship with our church. In this way the elders of our church could transfer our pastoral care of this person to the church he was actually attending and with whom he was worshipping. This other minister’s answer showed tremendous biblical and pastoral confusion, as far as the Bible’s teaching about church membership.

He replied that they did not believe in church membership, but whoever attended would be viewed as a member more or less. I then replied that we would send a letter of transfer to them, since according to their teaching this person was now a member of their church, as he had chosen to attend and worship there instead of here. However, the biblical ignorance of this minister did shock me. The enormous amount of New Testament material in regard to visible church membership was being ignored or missed by this man who, according to Acts 20:27, is supposed to be preaching the whole counsel of God’s Word. I fear that this is the case among many today in evangelical circles.

The Bible knows nothing of a saved person who does not join the church. It knows nothing of an unchurched Christianity. It knows nothing of the church viewing as a Christian those who are refusing to unite with the visible Body of Christ – the Church! This is seen in several references in the Gospels, in the Acts of the Apostles throughout, and in the New Testament epistles.

Wait a minute!

 People can be visible church members without really trusting in Jesus Christ as their only Mediator with God. That is very true. However, it does not invalidate the truth that the Bible demands that all believers be members of Christ’s visible church. It does remind us that such membership is not the only qualification for being part of God’s kingdom of grace. I live in Merrimack, New Hampshire. A person must be a citizen of Merrimack to vote on a Merrimack voting issue. However, if a person is a citizen of Merrimack in prison in the state of Massachusetts for crimes committed there, I don’t think that he can vote until he gets out of jail and is back in Merrimack. However, just because all legal citizens of Merrimack cannot vote (those in prison or those under the age of 18, etc.), that does not change the fact that no one can vote in our town UNLESS he is a citizen of Merrimack. All visible church members are not saved, but the New Testament does not view anyone as a Christian who refuses to become a public and visible member of Christ’s visible church. It is my purpose to prove such a claim from the New Testament itself. When a person trusts in Christ and joins the visible church of Jesus Christ here on earth, he is obeying God’s Word!

Where does the Bible teach that God wants believers to become members of a visible Church? Though there are probably more arguments, I have chosen nine New Testament proofs that God would have all those join a church who are trusting in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Argument One: The purpose of water baptism is to signify visible membership in the visible church.

 I Corinthians 12:13, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body; whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free; and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.”

 Water baptism signifies and outwardly seals our Spirit-baptism into the Body of Christ. Most Christians agree with the logical conclusion that water baptism signifies whatever takes place in Spirit-baptism. In this text the Apostle reminds us that all Christians have been spiritually baptized into Christ’s body (rebirth). From this we must conclude that water baptism, which is the physical parallel of Spirit-baptism, signifies membership in a visible church, which is then the earthly parallel of membership in the spiritual Body of Christ. Another way of expressing this is to say that the Body of Christ is manifest here on earth in the various visible churches, and water baptism makes one a member in the visible church even as Spirit-baptism puts us into the spiritual Body of Christ. This being the case, all the commands for us to be baptized (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:38; etc.) are commands for us to join the visible church!

 Ephesians 1:22-23 affirms that the church is the Body of Christ, the fullness of Him who fills all in all, by which He means the flesh and blood church here on earth. This is seen by the immediate context, for Christ is Lord of all things in heaven (verse 20) and on earth (verses 22-23), things in this age and in that which is to come (verse 21). This interpretation of the Body of Christ as used in Ephesians is seen also in other references to the church in this Epistle.

 *The body of Christ, the church, is His flesh and bones according to

Ephesians 5:30, referring to the flesh and blood church or visible church.

 *The Epistle is written to a particular visible church according to Ephesians 1:1.

 Acts 2:41, “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.” Those baptized were added to the number of those who were considered part of the visible church at Jerusalem, because that is what baptism signifies.

Matthew 28:18-20, “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, `All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen.” Being baptized is the first step in being considered a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, in being considered a Christian, in being considered someone who has believed the Gospel message. Those baptized are then taught the Word of God, for they are considered members in Christ’s kingdom, whose earthly expression is the visible church.

 In commanding us to be baptized then, the New Testament is commanding us to join with the visible church!

Argument Two: The New Testament Church actually counted church members, and so should the visible church today! Therefore, there were actual membership lists in the first century church, and so there should be today also.

 Acts 2:41-42, “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.”

 Acts 4:4, “However, many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.”

 When the Bible tells us that the people of God did something, and the text indicates that they had God’s approval, and we are in the same covenant time period (e.g., the New Covenant period), then this is a command from God for His covenant people! WE DO NOT KNOW BETTER THAN THE INSPIRED APOSTLES IN THIS MATTER!

Argument Three: The New Testament Churches had visible membership lists, and this separated those viewed as saved from those viewed as unsaved.

 I Corinthians 5:7-6:6, “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually im-moral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore `put away from yourselves the evil person.’ Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers!”

 This text, both its teaching about excommunicating impenitent sinners who are an embarrassment to Christ and the prohibition against taking civil suits between Christians before those who are not part of the visible church body, is based on the distinction between those without and those within. That is, those without the visible church at Corinth and those who were visibly within that church. Being a member or not was something that could, and should, be observed.

 Colossians 4:5, “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time.”

 We must have tools by which we tell the difference formally between those within and those without the church, or we cannot obey this command. What other tool than baptism and the being counted in the “number” do we find in the New Testament?

Argument Four: The New Testament does not view as a Christian those who do not remain visible members of Christ’s church. That is, those who cannot be COUNTED among the number of those who are in the church.

 I John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.”

 These people were viewed as no longer credibly professing faith. Why? They had left the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the depository of the Gospel (I Timothy 3:15). Church membership is a serious thing to the God Who revealed the Bible!

Argument Five: Christ’s insistence that all the saved will confess Him before men, and the visible Church’s sole position as the place for that confession to take place.

 Matthew 10:32-33, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”

 Where does such public confession take place in the New Testament? At baptism as we publicly unite with Christ’s visible Church (as we have al-ready seen), and during communion (I Corinthians 11:26). Communion is given to members of Christ’s visible Church to signify their spiritual union together with and in Christ (I Corinthians 1:2 with 10:16-17 and 11:17-34).

Argument Six: The New Testament epistles were written for those who could be visibly seen as members of Christ’s visible church. The Bible, as the Book of the Covenant, was especially given to those who were observable members of the covenant by visible union with the visible church.

 Romans 1:7, “To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” With Romans 16, the entire chapter.

 I Corinthians 1:2, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours…” And II Corinthians 1:1, “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia…”

 Galatians 1:2, “.. To the churches of Galatia…” (Galatia was a region; regions and large cities in the New Testament had multiple visible churches.)

 Ephesians 1:1, “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus…” (The “saints” could be visibly differentiated from those who were unsaved.)

 Philippians 1:1, “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons…”

Note: churches in the New Testament are not just informal Bible studies in someone’s living room, but they have biblical officers who are to preach the Word (Ephesians 4:11-12), administer the sacraments (Matthew 28:18-20; I Corinthians 11:23), and discipline those members who are erring from the truth in doctrine or life (John 20:22-23 with I Corinthians 4-5, I Timothy 1:3, and Titus 1:5-9).

Colossians 1:2, “To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

I Thessalonians 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 from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” And II Thessalonians 1:1, “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…”

I Timothy 1:3, “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia; remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine..” with 3:14-15, “These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” and the rest of this Epistle.

II Timothy, written to Timothy while he pastored the Church at Ephesus.

Titus 1:5-9, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you; if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.”

Here we see that every town had at least one church, and every church had elders who met certain biblical qualifications, having been ordained by those who were already recognized elders/pastors in the visible Church.

Philemon 2, “.. to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house…”

Hebrews 13:18-19; 22-24, “Pray for us; for we are confident that we have a good conscience, in all things desiring to live honorably. But I especially urge you to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner. . . . And I appeal to you, brethren, bear with the word of exhortation, for I have written to you in few words. Know that our brother Timothy has been set free, with whom I shall see you if he comes shortly. Greet all those who rule over you, and all the saints. Those from Italy greet you.”

The “you”s are plural in the original language, i.e., “you, the church.” The Epistle to the Hebrews was written to a certain group of people to whom it was to be read (i.e., a church) and with whom the writer hoped to be reunited (a visible church then). This group of people had elders or rulers, and a membership (i.e., all the saints), and was greeted by another Christian group from Italy (i.e., another visible church).

I Peter 1:1, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,…”

How could this Epistle have been delivered to the Christians in all these various regions, unless the intent is for it to be delivered to visible churches, that is, to observable groups of Christians in these various locations?

II Peter 1:1, “Simon Peter, a bondservant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained like precious faith with us by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ…” With 3:1, “Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder)…”

Not only was I Peter written to specific groups of Christians in various regions to whom mail could be delivered (i.e., visible churches), but Peter wrote a second time to the same groups (visible churches to whom could be delivered).

II John 1, 4, 12-13, “THE ELDER, To the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth…. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth… Demetrius has a good testimony from all, and from the truth itself. And we also bear witness, and you know that our testimony is true. I had many things to write, but I do not wish to write to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face. Peace to you. Our friends greet you. Greet the friends by name.”

Here the Apostle appears to be writing to a pastor of a visible church, and wants the members to be greeted by him from John (“the friends). John sends greetings from the church members of the place he is staying at while he is writing the Epistle (“our friends”). Why “friends”? It may be that this was during a time of persecution, and so the language is more general to protect the carrier if persecuting officials inspect the mail. There were specific groups of people in both places, i.e., visible Christian churches.

Revelation 1:11, “.. saying, `I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,’ and, `What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.'” With chapters 2-3.

Beloved, if we interpret the message and promises of these New Testament books of a person who is NOT a visible member of Christ’s church, we are taking that message and those promises out of their Holy Spirit-given context!

Argument Seven: The New Testament commands for disciplining believers all depend on an actual visible and outward distinction between those who are members of the church and those who are not.

Matthew 18:15-20, “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that `by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

I Corinthians, chapters five and six, in entirety.

II Thessalonians 3:6-15, “But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. For you your-selves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you; nor did we eat anyone’s bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us. For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread. But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary in doing good. And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”

Revelation, chapters two and three, in entirety.

These commands cannot be fulfilled according to their original intention apart from the biblical reality of visible members within visible churches.

Argument Eight: New Testament officers of the church (elders and deacons) are taken from those who are visible members of the visible church. Without a visible membership list, this cannot be done consistently.

Acts 6:3 “Therefore, brethern, seek out from among you seven men…”

I Timothy 1:3, “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia; remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine…” With 3:1-16.

Titus 1:5-9, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you; if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.”

Argument Nine: The New Testament commands for readers to submit to their spiritual leaders (i.e., pastors and elders) suggests a list of members over whom these men are appointed by the Holy Spirit as shepherds.

Hebrews 13:7, 17, “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct. . . . Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”

I Peter 5:1-4, “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock;

and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.”

Acts 20:17, 28, “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. . . . `Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.'”

These texts (and many others in the New Testament) are either written to members of churches commanding them to obey officers of the church, or they are addressed to those officers commanding them to shepherd identifiable, visible churches over which they have been appointed as shepherds. Pastors and elders do not have spiritual authority over those who are not visibly identifiable as members of the visible church (see I Corinthians 5:9-13), but over those who are visibly identifiable as members of the visible church. Therefore, all commands for Christians to submit to the authority of their own shepherds and all commands for such authorities to faithfully shepherd the particular charges over whom they have been given such authority necessarily imply an actual membership list.

What then?

*If you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Lord, God would have you join a local, visible, organized church, which has an actual membership list and biblical officers who preach the Bible, administer the sacraments and discipline those who wander from the faith.

*The Christian faith is not just a personal matter only, for Christ died to save His Bride and His Body here on earth (Ephesians 5:22-33). You are commanded to be a member of a local church, and to worship and fellowship with your church every Lord’s Day (Hebrews 10:24-25).

“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.”

*If you need help in finding a biblical church that preaches and practices the whole counsel of God, please do not hesitate to contact me. I will do my best to help you get in contact with such a body of believers.

Pastor Allen Tomlinson
First Congregational Church of Merrimack
Merrimack, NH 03054