Why Should I Commit to the Local Church?

In a Western society where individual rights are exalted above all else and the pervasive assumption is that each person’s primary obligation is to him- or herself alone, one of the basic questions that the church has to be able to address is why the church is necessary in the first place. New believers who have spent most of their lives focusing exclusively on their personal needs may not immediately understand why their repentance of sin and faith in Christ carry with them a call to belong and commit to a body of fellow believers. But those who have walked with the Lord and participated in the local church for many years also need to regularly revisit the significance of the church. The stories of the world and the desires of our sinful hearts draw us back to an individualistic selfishness that makes consistent commitment to the church less appealing and more difficult. And when times are hard in the local church—whether due to personal sin or relational conflict or intense need—the temptation to withdraw and take care of ourselves only grows.

Here are nine reasons to commit to a local church that emerge from God’s word. This isn’t an exhaustive answer to the question, but I hope it’s a faithful and beneficial approach that not only clarifies what Scripture teaches but also demonstrates the beauty of life with the church of Christ.

1) God commands us to commit to the church

The most basic reason to commit to the local church is that God explicitly calls us to do so in his word. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 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.” We often hear commands like this with the same reaction that children express when they hear a parent say, “Because I told you so,” but that’s not how we should receive this command.  

The Triune God redeemed us from our slavery to self, sin, and death and gives us his word so that we might know how to live into his purposes and flourish as his children. God’s command therefore isn’t intended to stifle or oppress us; it’s intended to direct us in the way of true freedom that is actually best for us. In the gospel, we see that God gave up his son so that we might be his adopted children and he might be our gracious Father, and that ensures us that any command he speaks is ultimately for our good. 

2) Our identity in Christ

The call to commit to the local church isn’t just an arbitrary command. It flows from the message of the gospel and our new identity as recipients of grace. Jesus lived, died, and rose again so that sinners might be reconciled to God. When the Holy Spirit sparks faith in the believer’s heart, he also unites us to Jesus so that we share in everything he accomplished. But when we are united to Christ by faith, we are also united to every other believer who belongs to Jesus. Our commitment to the local church is simply an expression of the spiritual unity we already share through the gospel.

Scripture consistently uses two metaphors to describe the unity and connectedness of believers in the church. First, the church is referred to as a body with many members that are knitted together as one under Christ the head. Second, Scripture calls the church a family in which God is our Heavenly Father, Jesus is our elder brother who shares his inheritance with us, and believers are our brothers and sisters. These metaphors help us understand that God didn’t redeem us so that we could merely have a personal relationship with him as individuals; he redeemed us into a body and a family where we are united to other believers and thus have obligations to care for them.

3) Love requires commitment

Bear one another’s burdens. Pray for one another. Confess your sins to one another. Encourage one another. Exercise hospitality. Meet one another’s needs. There are a whole host of commands that God gives his people as he directs us in the way of love. But these commands are only possible to obey if we are committed to other believers in the local church. In order to actually serve one another in these ways, we must be present with and devoted to the members of the body in intimate ways. The type of love commanded in the New Testament simply can’t happen when we refuse to submit our lives to one another in the local church.

It’s important for us to also notice that, while this sort of commitment will indeed be more demanding and more taxing than a life of care-free individualism, it’s also more beautiful. When our relationships are grounded in mutual exchange (what we can do for one another) and convenience (how easy it is to be around one another), then those relationships are necessarily fragile and unable to truly weather difficulty. But when we belong to a church family that is bound together by the gospel and committed to one another in love, there is a security, a stability, a resilience to our relationships that gives us confidence that, even when we sin, we can depend on our brothers and sisters to stand by us in grace.

4) Jesus gave pastors as gifts

In Ephesians 4:12, the Apostle Paul writes that upon ascending to the right hand of God the Father in heaven, Jesus gave pastors (also called elders, shepherds, and overseers) to help equip the saints for the work of ministry and build up the body of Christ into maturity. In our cultural context, we often chafe and recoil at any notion that we ought to submit to authority or oversight or instruction, but the Bible calls pastors a gift given by Christ for the good of his church. None of us would claim that we are completely self-sufficient, perfectly wise, or faultlessly knowledgeable on our own. That would sound blatantly arrogant. But when we refuse to submit our lives to the local church and the oversight and teaching of godly pastors, we’re essentially saying with our lives that we lack nothing and require no assistance from anyone to help us along in the Christian life. As sheep in Christ’s flock, we need to be shepherded by qualified elders who’ve been set apart to minister God’s word to us.

5) The church is a context for mutual edification

In the local church family, believers have a context for mutual edification. In other words, the church community is a place to be served by others while you serve them too. In the same way that we need pastors to help us toward maturity and conformity to Jesus, we need other believers to serve us through all the ins and outs of everyday life. We need them to pray for us, to help us see our sin, to apply the gospel to our hearts, to exhort us to holiness, to share wise counsel, to open up their homes, to generously meet our needs, and to be strong where we are weak. But the church community also provides us with a family that we can serve. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 12 that every believer is equipped and empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve the church for the common good. So as other members are ministering to us, we are called to serve them as we depend upon the gospel and walk in the power of the Spirit. Only when there is a commitment to one another in the local church can this sort of mutual edification take place. 

6) The keys of the kingdom

The church is the community created by the New Covenant in Christ’s blood and the family of redeemed sinners who’ve been granted citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. Jesus gave his church the keys of the kingdom—the message of the gospel in word and sacrament—so that the covenant community, led by its elders, could distinguish who belongs to the kingdom of Christ and who does not. By preaching the gospel, the church declares the good news by which people enter the kingdom through faith. By administering the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Table, the church visibly marks those who belong to Jesus.

The concept of the keys of the kingdom helps us understand just how foreign the idea of the solitary, individual Christian is to the Bible. Jesus gave his church the message of the gospel and the signs of the gospel so that the church could mark those who belong to Jesus and vouch for their confession of faith. The assumption is that entering the kingdom of God by grace through faith in Jesus means entering the local church through baptism and continuing in fellowship with the church through the Lord’s Table.

7) The discipline of the church

As recipients of the keys of the kingdom, the local church is charged with ensuring that its members are in fact walking with the Lord in faith and repentance by exercising church discipline when a professing believer’s unrepentant sin calls his or her confession of faith into question. To modern ears, discipline sounds frightening and threatening, but in God’s design for the church, discipline is in fact a precious blessing. Christians have a family of other believers who keep watch over our life and doctrine and regularly help us repent of sin and honor Christ. We are often blind to the presence and extent of sin that grips our hearts, so a community of grace that’s committed to our faith and holiness can help us discern what we might otherwise be ignorant of. This is a true gift.

Discipline happens all the time in informal interactions where fellow Christians recognize sin, call one another to repentance, and apply the gospel to one another’s lives. In the event that a church member indulges in unrepentant sin, discipline may take the form of excommunication, where the church withholds the Lord’s Table because the body can no longer affirm with confidence a person’s confession of faith. This kind of discipline protects the wider church, demonstrates to the world that such unrepentant sin is inconsistent with faith in the gospel and the Christian’s identity, and is intended to wake the unrepentant person up to the seriousness and danger of sin so that they might be restored to the church family. Though such discipline is admittedly painful for a time, God calls the church to exercise discipline for our good. Apart from the local church, we can all too easily rationalize away our sinful desires, practices, and patterns, but the body of Christ is able to care for us by exhorting us to put to death our sin and by encouraging us with the gracious and empowering message of the gospel. 

8) The life of the church forms us for discipleship 

We’re always being formed by the stories we hear, the practices we embody, the rhythms we inhabit, and the people with whom we participate in life. The message, practices, rhythms, and people that make up the life of the church in turn shape us for discipleship that trusts and obeys the Lord Jesus. Just consider corporate worship. The weekly practice of coming together with the family of God to hear God’s grace in the preached word, to receive the signs and seals of his covenant in the sacraments, to offer corporate prayers, to confess our sins to God and one another, and to sing songs of praise to the Triune God helps to form our expectations for the Christian life and to cultivate the habits of our hearts. We’re not only gaining information; we’re training our hearts together so that we know how to depend on and worship God through all of life. Our participation in the worship of the church and the life of the community exercises a remarkable formative power that serves to equip and prepare us to live faithfully in the world as God’s people.

9) Faithful witness

The natural impulse of the human heart is to celebrate, praise, and share with others the things that bring us the greatest joy. As Christians grow in our delight over the grace of the gospel and the fellowship we enjoy in communion with God, we also grow in our desire to exalt God, reflect his character, and make his gospel known to others. Individual Christians can certainly speak the truth of the gospel, but it takes a church community to truly engage in holistic, faithful witness to the world.

The church shows the world that the gospel creates a covenant community, a body, a family of grace. The church reflects the restoration that the gospel brings to relationships that would otherwise be characterized by hatred, conflict, and division. The church demonstrates the character of Christ’s kingdom through the love believers express for one another and the world. No individual Christian is able to witness in these ways; these components of faithful witness that display the renewed corporate life under the Lordship of Christ are only possible when believers are committed to one another in the community of the local church. If we desire to faithfully witness to the gospel and the kingdom of God, then we must do so together. Faithful witness can’t be accomplished alone. 

God crafted our redemption to be a salvation from sin into the covenant family of the church. While committing to the local church certainly brings its share of inconvenience and hardship, by the merciful design of God the church also provides us with abundant benefits and blessings. May God captivate us with his wisdom, humble us with his grace, and delight us with the prospect of living in community with his people.

Parishioner, Member, or Partner?

What are we supposed to call a person who belongs to a particular church? That’s an interesting question to consider since the term has changed over time. For a long time when churches were organized by perishes, the people were called “parishioners.” In a time when there was less denominational diversity and when the relationship between nation and church was stronger (think of Anglicanism in England, Lutheranism in Germany, and Reformed Churches in  Holland), everyone who lived in a certain region was thought to belong and be a part of the local parish church. As places like the United States became more denominationally diverse, people living in the same region might belong to a variety of local churches. So churches began to start using the term “membership” to refer to the particular body of people who belonged to a particular church and “member” to refer to one person in that body.

Recently it has become fashionable for local churches to designate those who belong to their local church “partners” rather than “members.” The thinking here is related to how the term “member” can be and has been distorted. In our culture, we can be members of country clubs, volunteer organizations, athletic clubs, consumer advantage programs, and pools, just to name a few. The term conveys a special status possessed by someone who has certain privileges as a consumer. Given how the term “member” is so frequently used, it is understandable that no church wants people to think that this is what is meant when a person joins a local congregation. Belonging to a church is not about possessing privilege or about being an insider with exalted status. Jesus didn’t save us to bring us into a community where we could just sit there and enjoy special perks not afforded to others. The church isn’t supposed to be a community of consumers.

So it is understandable that many churches have begun shying away from using “membership” and “member” language and replacing it with “partners.” To be a partner suggests that you have joined a team of people who share a mission together. Now this sounds perfect, right? This is what churches who want to be on mission are all about. By rejecting the term “member,” these churches are not just leaving behind a confusing and somewhat elitist sounding term but are actually fostering a shift from a consumer mentality to a mission mentality. Churches making this shift see this as a move toward greater biblical faithfulness. This is how the thinking seems to go.

There is also something else going on in this shift from “member” to “partner” though. Many who have been frustrated with the church for its failure to understand its mission have distanced ourselves from the forms of ministry that have dominated Evangelicalism for decades. And much of this shift from “traditional” parish and attractional forms of church to missional forms is good. But abandoning “membership” for “partnership” isn’t one of the shifts we need to make.

The problem with this shift is that it overlooks or ignores the fact that the Apostle Paul believed “member” to be a perfectly good term to use to denote a person who belongs to a particular local church. The body metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12 makes it clear that the church community is the body of Christ and that each person is a member of that body empowered by the Spirit to carry out Jesus’ mission in the world. Yes, it is true that the term “member” has many other connotations in other settings. But we don’t need to toss a perfectly good word because of this, especially when that word is part of a larger biblical metaphor for the church. Rather than chuck it, denigrate it with a smug attitude, and replace it with another term that isn’t used in Scripture to describe those belonging to a local congregation, we should keep it and continually teach what the Bible says about what it means. Now before you object, I am aware that Christians are called “partners” in the New Testament (Philippians 1:3-6). I like that word, and I think it is a good one we should keep and use. But the term is not used in the particular way some churches today are using it. Sure, when we work together with Christians, particularly through financial support or by traveling on mission trips together, we are partners in the gospel. But there is something richer about the term “member” because of the body metaphor.

To be a member of a body is to have an organic and functional unity with others. It communicates belonging, common mission, unity, and shared life. A body is a living thing, and we are all part of Christ’s body through the Spirit. Furthermore, there is another important biblical metaphor for the church—the family of God. And guess what? We are members of God’s family, not just Christ’s body. There is a richness to the term “member” that Paul unpacks in his metaphors for the church that is lacking with the term “partner.” And I don’t mean to denigrate the term “partner” at all. I think it is used in a different context, an important context. But let’s conform our use of these terms with Scripture so that we don’t miss the richness of what we have and what we are called to as Christians.

So what are we supposed to call a person who belongs to a particular church then? We cannot go back to “parishioners,” and frankly, I don’t see any reason why we went there in the first place (That is another discussion. No need to need to get into the issues with Christendom here). There are no good reasons why we should abandon “member.” Sure, some people might get the wrong idea, but honestly, that is true of “partner” as well. A partner can be a lawyer with a firm, a lover of the same sex, a co-owner of a business, and a work out buddy, just to name a few. It certainly suggests a co-laboring, but the body of Christ is much more than a group of co-laborers. In fact, it is because we are a body and a family that we co-labor. Having been united to Christ through faith in the power of the Holy Spirit, our very life is in Christ as his people. We belong to one another just as we belong to God. So let’s stick with the term Paul uses and work to clarify what that means so that we don’t reduce the local church to one thing and lose sight of the richness of her life in Christ.