I Belong (8): The Necessity & Blessing of Local Church Membership (Part 3)

How about we quickly pick up where we left off last time. Last week, we unpacked the first part of Article 28 of the Belgic Confession with points 1-10. Today we’ll continue with points 11-20. And as a reminder, these points help clarify for us what true faith and unbelief look like practically in everyday life. These points help us know what to repent from and how to obey Christ by faith. We are inclined to withdraw from the church, so we need God’s grace to help us repent, believe, and obey.

Here’s Article 28 again, and then points 11-20.

We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition. But all people are obliged to join and unite with it, keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and by serving to build up one another, according to the gifts God has given them as members of each other in the same body. And to preserve this unity more effectively, it is the duty of all believers, according to God’s Word, to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the church, in order to join this assembly wherever God has established it, even if civil authorities and royal decrees forbid and death and physical punishment result. And so, all who withdraw from the church or do not join it act contrary to God’s ordinance. [1]

  • True believers bend their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ.

God requires all Christians to belong to a church. They must submit themselves to Christ’s faithful instruction and discipline administered in and through a local church. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29–30). Bend your neck in faith.

  • Unbelievers toss the yoke of Jesus Christ aside.

To withdraw from the church is to say, “No, Jesus. I will not bend my neck beneath your yoke. I don’t believe it’s good for me.” In doing so, they not only carry their own burden of sin and misery, they refuse the rich blessings of yoke-bearing.   

  • True believers use the gifts God has given them to build up and strengthen their church.

By using their God-given gifts, believers build up and strengthen their church. They lovingly do all that they possibly can to encourage, strengthen, and serve the saints of their church, and this promotes and preserves unity.

God’s Word is strikingly clear. True believers must “love one another” (Jn. 13:34; 15:12; Rom. 12:10; 1 Thess. 4:9; 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 Jn. 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11-12; 2 Jn. 5). Galatians 5:13 says, “but through love serve one another” (c.f. 1 Pet. 4:10). 1 Corinthians 12:7 teaches that every Christian is given “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” True believers are compelled by God’s grace and Spirit to do this well.

Heidelberg Catechism 55 teaches that because believers have union and communion with Christ, they are indeed “duty-bound to use [their] gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of the other members.” Doing this displays true faith in and love of Christ.     

  • Unbelievers use the gifts God has given to pursue and serve themselves.

Unbelievers remain outside the church for selfish reasons. Not only do they not want to submit to and serve Christ, they also don’t want to do the hard but good and joyful work of serving Christ’s people. Unbelievers are content to direct all their resources to themselves and their families instead of the family of God. Self-interest keeps people out of church.

  • True believers separate from those who do not belong to any church in order to join their church.

Belonging to a church promotes unity. God’s Word commands believers to separate themselves from the world in order to join and belong to the church (2 Cor. 6:17). Belonging to a local church is confessing, “I belong to Christ and his people.” Think about what baptism says. Baptism says you belong to Christ and his covenant people. Baptism initiates you into the visible church to benefit from its many blessings. Baptism and belonging communicates, “I’m no longer living in the kingdom of Satan; I’m living in the kingdom of Christ.” Separating from the world in order to unify with a local church is a duty and delight of true believers.   

  • Unbelievers are content to live as unbelievers apart from any church.

While belonging to a church promotes unity, not belonging promotes discord, dissent, and division. Not belonging communicates, “I’m the world. I stand with Satan.” Just as drawing close to a local church is an act of faith, withdrawing from a local church is an act of unbelief. Calvin said, “Separation from the church is the denial of God and Christ.” [2]

  • True believers belong to their church even when persecution or death result.

Belonging isn’t just for times when it’s easy to belong. It’s for times when belonging may result in persecution or death. True believers value Christ and his church so much they are willing to be baptized, belong, and assemble, even if it costs them their life. They assemble with the saints of their church for covenant community life even if it means eventually being imprisoned, tortured, or killed. Certainly in some circumstances, believers must assemble carefully and stealthily.   

  • Unbelievers will give up Christ and his people to save their life.

Unbelievers do not think it’s worth it to suffer or lose their life for Christ and his church. Jesus made it very clear:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matt. 16:24–26)

Unbelievers are content to gain the world and lose their soul.

  • True believers obey their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ when they joyfully belong to their church.

Belonging to a local church is simply an act of obedience to God. We do it by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to Scripture alone by the empowerment of the Spirit alone for the glory of God alone. We do it joyfully because we trust and love Christ.

  • Unbelievers disobey God when they stubbornly refuse to belong to a church.

There are so many Scriptures to consider when thinking through belonging to a local church. But the matter is quite simple, really. Those who refuse to belong to a local church are actively disobeying God, either out of ignorance or willful disobedience. Both are bad and imply a desperate need of belonging to a local church.

And one might accuse a pastor of teaching this out of self-interest. “You say this because you want everyone to come to your church and hear you!” Yes, pastors must repent of self-interest. However, pastors who deeply believe these truths plead with people to belong to a faithful local church even when it’s not their church. That’s why pastors and elders want to know what church people are uniting to after they leave their church.    

You might hear all of this and think, “You’re too radical. Where’s the grace.” Well, God’s grace doesn’t allow us to ignore His Word and do as we please. Grace actually motivates gratitude.

As I close this episode, perhaps it would encourage you to consider two things Jesus said. Each is a test of a true disciple. Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (Jn. 8:31). And he said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). As you abide in Christ’s Word and love other saints in your church, be confident that you belong to Christ and that he’s alive and active in you.

[1] https://threeforms.org/the-belgic-confession/#28

[2] 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), 1024.

Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021).

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.

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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.

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