Should a Christian Join a Local Church?

Keith Sharp | via christistheway.com

Scripturally, there is such a thing as a local church (congregation) in distinction to the universal church, which is the one body of Christ (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:4). Paul wrote “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Here is a list of 71 verses in which, if I have counted correctly, direct reference is made to the local church a total of 73 times (Matthew 18:17; Acts 8:1; 11:22, 26; 13:1; 14:23, 27; 15:3-4, 22, 41; 16:5; 18:22; 20:17, 28; Romans 16:1,4-5,16,23; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 4:17; 6:4; 7:17; 11:16; 14:33; 16:1,19; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 8:1,18-19, 23-24; 11:8, 28; 12:13; Galatians 1:2, 22; Philippians 4:15; Colossians 4:15; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:1, 4; 1 Timothy 3:5; 5:16; Philemon 2; James 5:14; 3 John 6, 9-10; Revelation 1:4,11, 20; 2:1, 7-8, 11-12,17-18, 29; 3:1, 6-7,13-14, 22; 22:16). This does not count the times when plural terms such as “disciples” and “brethren” are undoubtedly direct references to a local church. Do you get the idea that this is an important biblical topic?

When Saul came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples. What does this mean?

It doesn’t mean he tried to become a disciple in Jerusalem, for he was already in Jerusalem, and he was already a disciple, as Barnabas demonstrated to the apostles.

Nor does it just mean he tried to assemble with them, for even the “uninformed” and “unbelievers” were welcomed into their assemblies (1 Corinthians 14:23), even as they are into ours today.

The phrase “to join” (New King James Version) is a translation of the Greek verb “kollao.” Thayer’s Greek lexicon defines it thus: “prop. To glue, glue to, glue together, cement, fasten together; hence univ. to join or fasten firmly together;… to join one’s self to, cleave to” (353). Vine says it means “primarily, to glue or cement together, then, generally, to unite, to join firmly, is used in the Passive Voice signifying to join oneself to, to be joined to” (2:276). Arndt and Gingrich define it thus: “join closely together, unite. act., fig. Bind closely, unite … someone with or to someone … 2. pass.- a. cling (closely) to someth. …. b. join oneself to, join, cling to, associate with” (442). In other verses, the New King James Version translates this word as “clings” (Luke 10:11), “joined himself to” (Luke 15:15), “join” (Acts 5:13), “overtake” (Acts 8:29, “join thyself to” – King James Version), “keep company with”  (Acts 10:28), “joined” (Acts 17:34), “Cling” (Romans 12:9), and “joined to” (1 Corinthians 6:16-17). Other standard English translations of Acts 9:26 render the word as “join himself to” (King James Version and American Standard Version), or “join” (New King James VersionInternational Standard Version, and English Standard Version). Only the New American Standard Bible, of the six translations I consulted, used the less definite “associate with.” I believe it is obvious that it primarily carries a stronger meaning than just “assembling with.”

Acts 9:26-28 has a background. From their very beginning as God’s people, the disciples in Jerusalem had worshiped together (Acts 2:42, 46), had a common treasury from which they did collective work (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32, 34-37), and even chose officers to supervise a work for all the disciples (Acts 6:1-6). Those are characteristics of a local congregation.

Of course, the disciples as a group comprised the church in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 8:3; 9:1). It is apparent Saul wanted to join the local congregation in Jerusalem.

But, this raises a problem. Saul only remained in Jerusalem fifteen days (Galatians 1:18). Are we to believe he joined a local congregation in a city where he would only visit for fifteen days? If you were just spending fifteen days in a city, would you join a local church there? Well, it all depends.

You see, to quote Paul Harvey, “And now, the rest of the story….” It had not been Saul’s intention to just remain in Jerusalem such a short time. He left hurriedly because the Hellenistic Jews went about to kill him, and the brethren got him away from Jerusalem (Acts 9:30-31). In fact, Saul left Jerusalem only because the Lord insistently, repeatedly commanded him to leave (Acts 22:17-21). Saul had intended to remain in Jerusalem as a member of that local church.

Other considerations also show the importance of joining a local church.

The Lord Jesus Christ holds “the angels” of the churches “in His right hand” (Revelation 1:20) and “walks among” the churches (Revelation 1:20; 2:1). I believe these are figures of His protection and fellowship. If I am to have the protection and fellowship of the Lord, I need to be part of one of His churches (local congregations).

Since it was the local church that was to assemble to worship (1 Corinthians 11:18, 22; 14:23), our responsibility to assemble to worship is with the local church (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Each local church is to eventually have elders and deacons (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). The elders oversee the local congregation of which they are a part (1 Peter 5:1-2). Members must honor them and submit to them (1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:17). How can we do this if we are not members of the local church?

The local church is to withdraw from members who will not repent of sin (1 Corinthians 5; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15). We do this out of love in order to save their souls (1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Thessalonians 3:15). How can we do this if we are not members of the local church?

Thus, since the approved examples of the apostles and first century church constitute a pattern we must follow (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 4:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:7,9), we have here a binding pattern for our imitation of three aspects of membership in a local church.

We learn first the importance of membership. If we move to a new location, we should immediately become members of a local congregation there.

We also learn how we become members. We join the local church. The Lord adds the saved to the universal church (Acts 2:47), but Christians join a local group of disciples, a congregation. A disciple requests membership, and the congregation accepts or rejects his application.

Finally, we learn the standard a congregation must use in determining who to accept into its membership. When they thought Saul was feigning discipleship, they rejected him. When Barnabas convinced them Saul was really a disciple, they accepted him. The only determination a congregation has the right to make if someone requests to be a member is whether or not the applicant is a faithful disciple of Christ. But it must make this determination to the best of its ability. If the applicant is a faithful disciple, the church must accept him. If not, they must reject him.

But, some might object, this is the only passage that reveals how a disciple became a member of a congregation, and it’s an example, not a command. Well, there’s just one passage that teaches us to eat the Lord’s Supper each first day of the week, Acts 20:7, it’s an example, not a command, and, if anything, it is fraught with more difficulty of interpretation than Acts 9:26-28. Is observance of the Lord’s Supper each first day of the week bound?

Acts 9:26-28 comprises the binding, divine pattern for becoming a member of a local church. We must follow the example it records.

List of Works Cited

Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT.
Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT.
Vine, An Expository Dictionary of NT Words.

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