I Belong (7): The Necessity & Blessing of Local Church Membership (Part 2)

Your church is God’s gracious gift to you. It’s flawed, but hopefully, it bears the marks of a true church, and you’re grateful for it (BC Article 29). Why don’t you thank the Lord for your church right now?  

Last time I read Article 28 of the Belgic Confession. You can find the Belgic Confession at threeforms.org. Article 28 explains the necessity and blessing of belonging to a local church. I’d like to unpack the article in an affirmations and denials type of format. I’ll state a point in the positive, and then state the reverse point in the negative. The first point is what the Holy Spirit helps His people do. The second point describes our sinful inclinations or where unbelief leads us. As true believers, we must continue to repent of our unbelieving tendencies. I trust these points will encourage you and increase your appreciation of your church.

Today, we’ll look at 1-10. Next time, 11-20.

  • True believers seek comfort, joy, and strength inside their church as a “holy assembly and congregation” and “gathering of those who are saved.”
  • Unbelievers seek comfort, joy, and strength in the world.

The Belgic refers to the church as a “holy assembly,” “congregation,” and “the gathering of those who are saved.” One who belongs to Christ certainly delights in belong to his holy assembly and congregation. While unbelievers seek comfort in the empty pursuits of this world, you and I want Christ’s comfort, joy, and strength, and so we gather together with our church to receive God’s grace and blessings.

  • True believers receive salvation from God through God’s means of grace in their church.
  • Unbelievers look for salvation in self-justification and good works.

You may find the statement “there is no salvation apart from [the church]” disagreeable, but consider what it means. Romans 10 explains that faith comes from hearing, hearing comes through preaching, and preaching comes through God’s chosen, ordained, and sent preachers. Westminster Larger Catechism 153 rightly states that our God requires of us “the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation.” God makes the preaching of His Word, the sacraments, and even prayer “effectual to the elect for their salvation.” Who should expect to have bodily strength and endurance who doesn’t eat food? Who should expect to have salvation, spiritual strength, and sanctification without regularly feeding on God’s means of grace?

Calvin said:

For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother [the church] conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels [Matt. 22:30]. [1]

Exactly right. Put another way: Should someone expect to get from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh if they run from the train toward Long Beach Island?

In his good book, With Heart and Mouth, Daniel Hyde writes:

salvation is available where Christ’s voice is heard. Christ is present in his fold, so that “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’ (John 10:27).” [2]

One should hardly consider themselves Christ’s sheep if they constantly run from their Shepherd’s voice in the church. Hyde said:

This phrase, then, is not saying that outside the church no one will ever be saved or that no saved person is outside the church, but it is pointing us to what Scripture clearly promises. [3]

Unbelievers aren’t interested in the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd or his gracious sacraments. They run from him to look for their salvation and their heaven somewhere else, somewhere in the world. They won’t find it.  

  • True believers draw close to their church and its deep fellowship.
  • Unbelievers withdraw from the church to pursue individualism.

We were created as relational beings. To live with an individualistic mentality is to misunderstand how you’re wired. To withdraw from the church is a serious sin. Article 28 says, “no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition.” Through true faith, the Holy Spirit compels you and me to draw close to our church. Why? He draws us to church because that is where He is uniquely present, and He really wants to bless us with deep fellowship with Him and with His people. The church is a taste of heaven in this life, and because God loves you and me, He’s calling us to belong.

Unbelievers don’t want to belong because they don’t want fellowship with Christ or his people. They choose individualism, to do as they please, to ignore the commands of God to pursue and prioritize relationships that don’t encourage them to fellowship with God. Are football stadiums on Sundays filled with people encouraging one another to worship God?

  • True believers joyfully unite with their church in order to promote and preserve its unity.
  • Unbelievers feel no obligation to belong and by disinterest and distance, if not persecution, oppose God’s work in the churches near them.

Unity is oneness. Together, we are the one body of Christ. A local church is a local gathering of the body of Christ. To live apart from it is to live apart from Christ and his body. Article 28 says “all people are obliged to join and unite with” a local church. Followers of Jesus do this to promote and preserve the oneness and health of his body. In Ephesians 4, Paul urges the Ephesian church to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” To the churches of the dispersion, Peter encouraged, “have unity of mind . . . [and] brotherly love” (1 Pet. 3:8). Distance never promotes unity. Do you want a marriage over the phone or in person? Disinterest and distance stimulate disunity and discouragement.

Unbelievers are fine with that. Sometimes they persecute the church, but often, at least in the US, they simply show little to no interest in the church. They ignore it. They marginalize it. They underestimate it. As Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22 reveals, opposition to Christ and his church doesn’t always come with blood. Sometimes it’s simple disinterest and distance.

  • True believers willingly and joyfully submit to their church’s instruction and discipline for the well-being of their body and soul.
  • Unbelievers recoil from the ministry of a local church and suffer for it to their own weakness and peril.

Consider Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They devoted themselves. And they were greatly blessed! They were earnest about their church and benefitted greatly from it.

As Article 28 suggests, we promote and protect the unity of our church when we submit ourselves to its instruction and discipline.

I think one big reason people never belong to a local church is that they have a distaste for authority. Their aversion to authority keeps them from the blessing of Christ’s authority given to them through loving, tender, and caring shepherds. Do any of us really understand the goodness of Hebrews 13:7 and 17?

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. . . . Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Unbelievers will hear that and recoil at the thought of authority over them. Those who truly love Christ will hear that and rejoice in how Christ loves them through godly shepherds in their church. True believers will obey and submit because they firmly believe it’s in their best interest.

Unbelievers proudly recoil from spiritual authority. They make excuses as to why they don’t need spiritual authority as if spiritual authority is evil or inherently abusive, and they do it to their own weakness and peril. Yes, spiritual abuse happens in local churches, and that must be dealt with, but let’s never throw the beautiful baby out with the really dirty bathwater.

I think if we truly understand what our church is and that divine grace is found in it, we will belong because we’d never miss the power and grace of God in it. Next time we’ll pick up with number eleven, but until then, thank the Lord for your local church. Draw close to it. Invest more of yourself in it. God is at work, and He promises to bless you as you obey Him.       

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1016.

[2] Daniel Hyde, With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession (Grandville: Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 2008), 379.

[3] Ibid., 380.  

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

About the author

Jonathan Shirk

Welcome to the online home of Jonathan Shirk, family man, Reformed pastor, author, podcaster, and small town theologian. Whether you're from a small town or big city, may this website help you find deeper comfort and joy in the gospel.

View all posts