A Question I Was Asked:

"Where Do You Stand on Local Church Membership?"

The Question:

As a fairly new believer should I make a permanent committment to one particular church congregation? Most say that I have to, but others tell me to be flexible over this matter....Where do you stand on local church membership? My impression, from something of yours which I read, is that you do not wholeheartedly support it. Would be grateful if you could clarify.

UK Apologetics Reply

Okay, I will try.

I think that membership of a particular local church congregation has been very much part of the system of Protestant denominationalism; it has not been all bad by any means, indeed much good has come from it, but everything I see all around me tells me that the age of denominationalism is coming to an end. We now seem to be moving to a situation in which the barriers between the various Protestant groupings (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian for example), are not considered to be a major issue, rather, it is a question of whether one is truly 'evangelical' (Bible-believing, accepting the full divinity of Christ and the omnipotence of God) or 'liberal' (Christ is no more than a 'good example,' and seeking to accommodate Christian beliefs, behaviour and practices to conform to a modern, liberal and permissive society which is viewed as essentially good). True evangelicalism also insists that we get on with preaching the Gospel and that we don't go around looking for differences among one another, although it is very strong on identifying and isolating heresy. All of this is where the early church stood and I think it is very healthy if we are getting back to that. The big difference, of course, is that we now live in a 'global' environment because the world has changed; the first Christians only had an eastern Mediterranean worldview; a little was known about Africa but nothing about the New World and virtually nothing about the Far East, so let us recognise that we now live in a vastly different world. The cabling of the seas, telegraphs and telephones started to shrink the world, but all that was as nothing compared to 21st century mass-communications, internet et al.

Overall, I think it is probably very good for new Christians to be part of specific local congregations where, hopefully, they can develop a good biblical knowledge as they start to mature in the faith. Every new Christian needs a mentor and the pastor would normally fulfil that role. Whether they feel that they should specifically commit as "members" of such a local congregation, however, is a different matter. One just has to make one's own decision. One might just bear in mind that some one-time fine and biblical churches do occasionally later go into error when heretical teachings are introduced by new pastors.

What bothers me is that in some strongly tithing congregations, financial control is sought over people. Some are made to feel disloyal if they don't pay a "tithe" to the pastors, yet the New Testament gives no pastor any kind of mandate to attempt to financially control church members! Actually, some of these things are a relic of the sacramental theology of Catholicism. Under sacramental theology the priests seek to control the lives of 'members' - within that system it is considered bad for Christians to move around and not to commit to the control of specific local priests. However, Protestantism sought to fully reflect the 'priesthood of all believers' and wanted a greater freedom for the individual believer, yet denominationalism has still sought to control, sometimes overly-control, the lives of believers.

However, I am increasingly noting that older, more mature and well-seasoned Christians are tending to move away from this 'local church only' association idea. Why? Well it is an effect of Globalism: they see a big world out there; it is no longer a sustainable perspective to view the preaching and dissemination of the Gospel as a matter only applicable to one's own small locality. You could do that circa 1700-1850 (when denominationalism was at it's peak) but no longer (sadly, false preachers were the quickest to catch on to Globalism. The pernicious prosperity gospel is now going all round the world in living colour and lying propaganda: Jesus wants you to be rich and healthy!)

So a more mature Christian will - hopefully - become more aware of a big wide world of Christianity out there; he or she will not be able to only view the Christian world on a local basis. I have to say that, in my opinion, too many pastors have encouraged this myopic, local-only approach in which one's Christian life is only about the endeavours of one's own little church or chapel.
So we have now moved into the age of Globalism, and this has affected Christians and the Christian world; this was inevitable and, what's more, I think it is (generally) very good for us. Nowadays I increasingly meet older, more mature Christian believers who are moving away from strict local church membership and view themselves as simply part of the global Christian community. They don't see any reason to make a specific commitment to one local church congregation, maybe one which has accomplished very little for the last hundred years or so! In fact, that is where Tina and I stand and I don't think we will ever seek specific, local church membership again.

Seeing one's Christianity on a more global level makes one more aware of outstanding organisations such as The Barnabas Fund which reaches out to Christians all over the world, especially in countries where Christians undergo real persecution, such as Islamic countries. Yet I have heard of local churches where pastors tell their people not to support word-wide Christian causes but only to contribute to their local church. In my opinion that is entirely wrong.

The old attitude that if one is not a sterling member of some local church (however small and unenterprising such a congregation might be), then one cannot be a true Christian is thankfully starting to go; this was a foolish, somewhat narrow-minded and legalistic mindset which sometimes damaged believers very seriously in my opinion. Some have felt spiritually-suffocated when only operating within the often tiny framework/worldview of some local congregations.

Make no mistake: Our fullest loyalty should be to Jesus Christ, not to any local church priest or pastor - if we deny that, we are misunderstanding Protestantism! Having said that, I would not like to encourage a scenario in which we are all going around looking for faults in churches. There is no perfect church out there! But it bothers me when believers will not move on as their understanding grows for reasons like, "My mother went to this church until she died and so will I." Always remember that God wants us to grow in grace and knowledge (2 Peter 3:18). Loyalty is a wonderful quality, but that could be a case of giving one's loyalty to a local church when that degree of loyalty should really be reserved for Jesus Christ alone!

So I would say that specific membership of a local church congregation is not necessary for salvation, indeed, I believe it to be a relic of a system which is now rapidly passing. Yet I think that a strong local church association is usually very good for newer Christians (especially where the Christian teaching is good and strong within such a congregation), but I think that older, more mature Christians come to see the pitfalls of having a 'local scene only' approach and - at length - come to view their Christianity in a more global way. That - for what it's worth - is my considered opinion, but not everybody would agree with me; Some continue to believe that everything must be based on the authority of some local church - yes, even in this 21st century! A few of these people have even questioned our now world-wide ministry of UK Apologetics because it is not based on the authority of some local church or church council. I, of course, reject that idea totally - in fact I think the world of Protestant 'churchianity' is currently in a bit of a mess and we all need to note that fact and to pray for the Lord to show us the way ahead. Western Protestantism urgently needs divine guidance and a new direction in this early 21st century!

Yet - even now - I know that there are some excellent church congregations where leadership is excellent and where heretical teachings are kept firmly out but, I have to say, it seems that such places seem to be rapidly decreasing.
Robin A. Brace. December 14th, 2010.