Is Membership of a Local Church Congregation Necessary For Salvation?

I received this thoughtful and deep-thinking e mail recently:

Is membership of a specific local church necessary for salvation? My pastor says it is not, but that I should still make a commitment to his congregation. I am reluctant because of previous bad experiences. Within the last 15 years I have twice been a member of a church but with a bad final outcome. On the first occasion shortly after becoming a member of a church I was involved in a very deeply hurtful incident with a member of that church. The pastor assured me of his support but his words meant nothing because although he knew I would not be able to attend for a while, within mere weeks I was apparently no longer even considered a member and he never rang me even once. I was apparently just forgotten about. This deeply hurtful and very disappointing episode was noticed by my non-Christian family members -hardly a good advertisement for Christianity!
Then for a few years I considered myself 'independent' which was brilliant because I could travel all over the country and visit my friends in their churches.
When I was at home I seemed to vary church attendance between about three places but sometimes I simply stayed at home. I gave my offerings to a famous Christian charity during this time rather than to any local church and my conscience was entirely clear about it. Then two years ago I finally decided to take on 'church membership' again, but within weeks I knew that I should have resisted the arm-twisting. The pastor insisted that I stopped supporting my charity and give the money to them instead. Looking back it was obvious that he only saw my membership as a way to increase their money takings. My experience of the last 15 years is that I have taken “church membership” more seriously than the pastors who talked me into it have. The second pastor told me to travel less because they needed my money!! (Not exactly subtle!!) I am now resisting membership of a local church. Am I doing right? What is your view?”

( B.L.J., N.C., USA)

Now here is the truth: There is not a single Scripture which anybody can quote to show that we should make an ongoing commitment (financial or otherwise) to a specific local church congregation! If I were you, to be perfectly frank, I would continue to resist it. I am afraid that evangelical churches (which should really know better) are often the worst at encouraging commitment or “membership” to/of a specific congregation. I also have to sadly agree that “church membership” is all too often seen as a purely financial affair. Our own experience is strangely not too dissimilar to the lady who e mailed. The very last place where I was put under pressure to become a member, I plainly told the leaders that my commitment was to my websites and not to them (our websites are reaching 20,000 plus people per year with biblical truth - Update: By late 2006 our sites were receiving 100,000 plus 'hits' per year), but that we were happy to attend their congregation for the time being. I told the senior pastor that there is a big world out there and many folk urgently need biblical truth and I see Museltof Countercult and Apologetics as an evangelistic mission which the Lord has presently graciously granted to me. But he was completely disinterested in that, only having interest in the tiny group of people he was able to influence (about 35-50 local people per year).

In our city a small group of evangelical ministers meet regularly to consider their evangelistic tactics. They (perhaps somewhat arrogantly) undoubtedly see themselves as the final bastions of Christian truth in our city, yet, in a single year and through my websites, I am influencing about ten times as many people as this group of ministers put together! They have a 'local focus only' approach. I am also increasingly reaching the sort of people that local churches can never reach: the sort of people who would never dream of walking into a church hall yet who do have genuine questions about the gospel. I feel that the myopic approach toward the evangelistic potential of one's local congregation (but, mostly, not to other local congregations!) is, at times, not only legalistic but is an example of the religiosity which Jesus observed in the Pharisees!

To be utterly frank, some of the strongest and most commited Christians that I know are no longer members of any local congregation although they all (as we do) have many Christian friends. My judgment – for what its worth – is that specific local church congregation membership may well be a part of a system which is coming to an end. I don't think Christians can deny that Globalism is where we are right now (with its good side and bad side) and we should proceed and be prepared to evangelize within that current reality. Yes, as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, we do need to meet together for fellowship and worship but there are many ways we can do that. Some Christians seem to really prosper as long-time members of a particular congregation and I don't think we can knock that, but many other believers are increasingly challenging this 'local-focus only' approach, as I do. At the present moment neither my wife nor I are members of any local congregation (although we have good relations with several such congregations) and I do not anticipate this changing. I realise that my position challenges many long held assumptions about church worship patterns - especially among evangelicals - but I believe there is a time to challenge religious assumptions and traditions.

Traditionally we evangelicals have advised new believers to 'Join a local evangelical church' but I think I would say, 'Seek a warm association with 2 or 3 local evangelical churches.' Our commitment should be to the Lord Jesus Christ and to Holy Scripture but not necessarily to any single local congregation which might be fine now but – with any future change in pastor – could go into serious error! My advice to Christians would be: be careful and cautious what you might be agreeing to as an ongoing commitment!

Robin A. Brace