Writing to perhaps the most troubled of the New Testament churches, Paul said: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” Consequently, unity is an important feature of the Church.
Unfortunately, the Church is not always as unified as we would like. We’re all familiar with the different denominations within Christianity, and every one of the many different denominations represents a different view on some area of theology or of practice. Nevertheless, the Christian Church is more unified than people usually think. For example, the Roman Catholic Church has approximately 1.2 billion members who generally agree on theology and practice. Similarly, my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, is the largest Protestant denomination in the US with over 47,000 churches and an average weekly worship attendance of over 5 million. On a large scale, the Christian Church has several large, unified bodies.
On a local level, the people who go to most Protestant churches show their unity with one another through church membership. Becoming a member of a Baptist church doesn’t happen by sitting in the pews, however: To become a member of a Baptist church, you must go through a formal process. Though it means different things in different places, being a member of your local church means that you agree with your church’s doctrine, goals, and lifestyle requirements.
Church Membership and Doctrine
First, being a member of a church means that you agree with your church’s doctrinal positions. All churches have a position on the different areas in theology. When the preacher delivers a sermon, he’s telling you what the church believes about whatever topic he’s covering. If you listen to the preacher and you agree with what he’s saying, then you’ve taken an important first step towards becoming a member of that church.
When you go through the formal process of joining a church, what you’re saying to the congregation is that you’ve done the work to understand what they believe and that you agree with them. Furthermore, you’re saying that since you agree with their beliefs, you want to be a full part of their community so that you can serve Christ alongside them. In all of this, the shared doctrine serves to bind you to your fellow church members. Because you agree on doctrine, you can agree on what the church should do and why it should do it.
At my church, we accept The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which is the official doctrinal position for the Southern Baptist Convention. You can also find what we believe by going to our “What We Believe” page on our website.
Church Membership and Church Goals
Though they may not always express it, churches always have a goal that shapes everything they do. At Hessmer Baptist Church, we have two goals: to know Christ and to make him known. Churches then use their goals to figure out what they’re going to do with their resources. Since our first goal is to know Christ, we use our resources to develop individual believers through things like Bible study, sermons, and relationships. To accomplish our second goal of making Christ known, we use our resources to do different forms of outreach such as handing out food boxes, training people to share their faith, and supporting believers who are being evangelistic.
When you join a church, you’re saying that you also agree with the church’s goals: You’re saying that you see why the church exists, and you want to be a part of accomplishing the church’s goals. Properly understood, church isn’t a place we go; instead, church is a lifestyle we live. When you join a church, you’re saying that you understand the lifestyle that your church wants to develop and that you want to be involved.
Church Membership and Lifestyle Requirements
According to the New Testament, Christians have a responsibility to hold each other accountable to biblical ethics. One of the main ways we do this is through the local church. By being a member of a church, you’re giving the people in your church the ability to hold you accountable to living a godly life. Though this may sound scary, it’s an important part of being a faithful Christian.
By joining a church, you’re saying that you know Christ and that you want to live a life that is consistent with God’s commands in the Bible. When you fail, the church offers you support and friendship to help you get back on your feet. However, if you begin to live a life of blatant, unrepentant sin, the local church has an obligation from scripture to point it out to you. In doing this, the goal isn’t to make you feel awkward; instead, the goal is to hold your hand as you fix whatever the problem is. Most churches will even offer a concrete plan to fix whatever the problem is! Of course, if a person chooses not to fix the problem, they can lose their church membership.
This final point is why Baptist churches insist on baptizing people before they become members. Since we believe the New Testament commands that all believers be baptized, we must believe that a person cannot live an entirely obedient Christian life without being baptized after their salvation. Thus, since we want to make sure that everyone is being obedient to scripture, we require all potential members to be baptized.
If you’re attending a local church and haven’t joined, I encourage you to join it. When you don’t join the church you attend, you’re sending a signal to the congregation: You’re saying that you want to come to church but you don’t want to be overly involved. This, however, is not how the Bible describes church. Being a part of a church is not about hearing a sermon once a week or sitting in a pew; being a part of a church is about serving Christ alongside likeminded believers in your community. If you’re just going to church without being a member, you’re missing out on what the New Testament meant church to be because you’re not serving to the fullest extent possible.
Notes & Sources
 1 Corinthian 1:10, NIV.