78% of the New Testament was written either about the church, to the church, or to members of the church, the content of which pertained to the care of the church. The remaining books were written for the church, by church-members.
From these cursory observations alone, it is evident that church membership pervades the New Testament faith.
But delving deeper into the content of those twenty-seven New Testament documents yields this conclusion: to be saved ultimately, individuals must become faithful (functioning) members of the church of Jesus Christ.
Indeed, according to the last will and testament of the Lord, the founder of our faith (Heb. 12.2) and builder of the church (Mt. 16.18), church membership is absolutely essential to salvation.
Let’s reflect upon this matter with greater scrutiny.
Salvation In The Church
After preaching the message of Christ to a sizable crowd, Peter instructed about “three-thousand souls” who believed his sermon to repent and be baptized, a command which they promptly obeyed (Acts 2.38-41). Upon this basis, they were “saved” (v. 40).
In verse 47, we read that “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” Hence, God places the saved into the church. There is no such thing as a saved individual who is not a member of his church, for salvation and the church go hand in hand.
In Isaiah 46.13, the Lord says that he “will place salvation in Zion.” Notably, in the New Testament, the church is Zion (Heb. 12.22-23). Hence, the Lord has placed salvation in the church.
That same organization is called “the church of the firstborn” (Heb. 12.23). The term, firstborn, has to do with preeminence, particularly with reference to the distribution of the father’s inheritance (Deut. 21.17). Spiritually speaking, it is a reference to the eternal riches and joy of heaven.
Notably, the word is plural in number, not singular (“firstborn-ones, who are registered…”; not, “firstborn-one, who is registered…”). Though Jesus is God’s “firstborn” in one sense (Col. 1.18), church-members also are God’s “firstborn,” or “first-fruits” (cf. Jms. 1.18; Rev. 14.4), inasmuch as they alone are God’s adopted children and spiritual “heirs” (cf. Eph. 2.19; 1 Tim. 3.15; Gal. 4.5-7).
Hence, the church consists of firstborn-ones, who will receive the father’s heavenly inheritance. To put it another way: it is the church of the saved.
Furthermore, according to Hebrews 12.23, members of the church are “registered in heaven.” The phrase has to do with an individual’s name being officially inscribed on a scroll, as in a census to determine proof of citizenship (cf. Phil. 3.20-21). Significantly, “only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” will have the right to enter into the eternal city of God (Rev. 21.27; cf. Lk. 10.20). Heavenly citizenship, therefore, can only be obtained through church-membership. All others, “outside” of his church, have no such future reward (cf. Rev. 22.12-17).
What’s more, speaking of “Christ and the church” (Eph. 5.32), the inspired text compares the two to a matrimonial relationship — Christ as husband; the church as his wife.
Thus, Christ “loved the church and gave himself for her” (5.25); he “nourishes and cherishes” the church (5.29), like a faithful husband should. He esteems his church-bride to be part of “his own flesh” — “his body” (v.29; cf. Eph. 1.22-23; Col. 1.18), protecting her at all costs, that she may be presented to himself as a “glorious church” — sanctified, cleansed, washed, and holy (Eph. 5.26-27). It is in this church-body alone that both Jew and Gentile may obtain reconciliation with God (Eph. 2.16). Thus, Paul describes Jesus as the “head” and “savior” of the church (v.23).
In light of those points, take note of these observations:
(1) As a body-part cannot live separated from the body (and its attachment to the head), so an individual cannot live spiritually without belonging to Christ’s body, his church (cf. 1 Cor. 12.27).
(2) He is the “savior” of no “body” except “his own.”
(3) The Lord is married to only one wife (cf. v.31) — the church. His loyalties and affections reside with no other. Thus, sanctification, salvation, cleansing, holiness, and glory can only be obtained through membership in her.
God has placed salvation in the church!
The Blood of Christ
In the second place, consider the connection between these three items: the blood of Christ, redemption, and the church.
Before his death, Jesus affirmed that his “blood of the new covenant” would be shed “for the remission of sins” (Mt. 26.28). Paul wrote: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph. 1.7).
Truly, Jesus shed his blood for the “whole world” (1 Jn. 2.2; Jn. 1.29; 3.16). However, access to the redeeming benefits of that blood, though universally offered, can only be obtained through church-membership (see: “Salvation In Christ” for more on this distinction). Observe:
In his farewell address to the elders of the church at Ephesus, Paul affirmed that the “church of God” was “purchased with [Christ’s] own blood” (Acts 20.28).
The word, purchased, written in the middle voice, has to do with obtaining something for himself (cf. 1 Tim. 3.13). The church belongs to Christ, because he redeemed (i.e., to “buy back”) it with his own blood. The value of the church to the Lord, for which he was willing to pay the ultimate price, stands in bitter contrast to those who view the church with indifference, or, worse yet, with animosity. The church is redeemed by his blood. It is therefore an essential component to heaven’s plan of redemption.
To the churches of Galatia, Paul wrote that Jesus “gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil age” (1.1-4). He also insisted that the Lord “gave himself for her [the church]” (Eph. 5.25). “Gave himself” refers to his sacrificial death — the shedding of his blood. Hence, the church is the only place in which the saving blood of Christ may be appropriated, so as to enjoy the “remission of sins.”
In the book of Hebrews, coming to the “church of the firstborn” was equivalent to coming “to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Heb. 12.22-24).
In addition, it is only in the “one body” of Christ (his church) that humanity can be “reconciled…to God” “through the cross” (Eph. 2.16; cf. 1.22-23). The cross of Christ, which reconciles the world to Christ, cannot be accessed through any other means, or in any other place, save his church.
The Domain of Christ
In the next place, the church is the Lord’s domain — his spiritual “territory;” the realm of his blessedness. True, he exercises dominion over “all nations,” inasmuch as he rules them fiercely “with a rod of iron” and will destroy them all ultimately (Rev. 2.26-27; 1 Cor. 15.24-25).
But the church is the only “nation” he has made “his own special people,” by giving them “light” and “mercy” (1 Pt. 2.9-10). To live under the salvific reign of Christ is to belong to his church.
Consider a few other descriptions of the church, as the domain in which Christ extends his blessings.
The church is described as the “body of Christ” (Eph. 1.22-23; Col. 1.18); the “kingdom of his dear son” (Col. 1.13; Heb. 12.28); the “household” or “family” of God (1 Tim. 3.15; Gal. 6.10; Rm. 8.17); and the “temple” of the living God (Eph. 2.19-22). It is also characterized as the “city of the living God,” and the “heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12.22-23). It consists of those who have been “called out” of the world to be “conformed to the image of his son;” these have been “justified” and “glorified” (Rm. 8.28-30; 1.6; 1 Cor. 1.2).
Furthermore, the church is described as a “flock” of sheep (Acts 20.28), while Jesus is the “chief shepherd” (1 Pet. 5.4). At judgment day, he has forewarned that he will save his sheep (the church); while he will cast out the goats (who are not of his fold) into “everlasting fire” (Mt. 25.32-46). In that context, in fact, only the sheep will be “blessed of the father;” they alone will “inherit the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world” (v. 34).
The church is also described as “the fullness” of God (Eph. 1.22-23). In a manner of speaking, the church completes God. Even so, the church is made “complete in him, who is the head of all principality and power” (Col. 2.9-10).
Who, in the light of these descriptions, could maintain the notion that church-membership is not essential to Christian salvation? To reign with Christ is to belong to his church!
Duties of Discipleship to Christ
Finally, being a disciple of Christ requires church-membership. It demands participation in church activity.
Christians in the first century were not isolated islands of faith, operating independently of one another. Rather, they met together, worked together, prayed together, worshiped together. They did nearly everything together (cf. Acts 2.42, 44, 46; 4.23-24, 31-32).
Scripture reminds us that we are “not one member, but many” (1 Cor. 12.14). As such, we have a responsibility to “conduct” ourselves as functioning members of the church (1 Tim. 3.15). Every individual disciple must “do its share” to cause “growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4.16).
Likewise, the disciples of Christ were warned against the habit of “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (Heb. 10.25). Since that is so, how can a disciple of Christ fulfill his duties to the Lord while he is ignoring the Lord’s instruction to assemble with the church?
In light of these duties, the disciples of Christ in the first century identified with a local church (Acts 9.26f; Col. 4.15-16), and became “one of” them (Col. 4.9, 12). The Lord expects no less of us.
In previous articles (see below), I have demonstrated that the church has been part of the plan of God from eternity (Eph. 9-11). Think of the sad irony in that! In essence, God has been thinking about the church for all time — since before the foundation of the world. Yet, in these fleeting moments of earthly life, the church is constantly snubbed and forgotten by the indifference of humanity.
Then there is this. The building of the church was one of the final ambitions of a grave-bound savior (Mt. 16.18), only to be dismissed as insignificant and unworthy of man’s attention or care.
If, then, the church is not essential to salvation, then God’s eternal preparations for it were meaningless, and the Lord dying for it was in vain. Who, in the name of reason, could ever embrace a belief of that nature?
May we learn to cherish the church as God cherishes it!
This is a series of articles, with the following parts:
The Lord's Church (4): Its Essentiality