“It is as impossible, unnecessary, and undesirable to be a Christian all by yourself as it is to be a newborn baby all by yourself. The church is first and foremost a community, a collection of people who belong to one another because they belong to God, the God we know in and through Jesus. Though we often use the word ‘church’ to denote a building, the point is that it’s the building where this community meets. True, buildings can and do carry memories, and when people have been praying and worshipping and mourning and celebrating in a particular building for many years, the building itself may come to speak powerfully of God’s welcoming presence. But it is the people who matter,” writes N.T. Wright. When the question of Church membership arises it is important to note that Church is indeed not a building, but the people of God established by the New Covenant in the Blood of Jesus. I adhere to a high ecclesiology that states the Church is our Mother and a New Testament metaphor of the Ark of Noah. In the Church we find salvation, and that is not to say that it is the Church that saves us, but it is to the Church that Jesus entrusted the Gospel and the Sacraments. Being a member of the Church universal, which I will refer to as the catholic Church from here on, is absolutely required. Requiring membership in the local church, or church visible, is redundant and likened to a social club or closed-off community. When it comes to the local church active participation in the life of the community is absolutely essential. Covenant membership into the Church, the Christian community, is marked exclusively by baptism and is nurtured and sustained by active participation and contribution in the life of the local ecclesiastical community that centers itself around the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
Jesus Christ said in John 15:1-2, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing…” How do we abide in Christ? How do we remain in Him? We do this by coming to faith in Christ and being baptized, in whatever tradition it is one is in, and we join Christ and His Body, the Church. Saint Paul wrote in Romans 6:3-4, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” It is through our baptism that God establishes us within covenant community with one another and grants us new life in Christ Jesus. That is our common heritage.
This is our initiation into the catholic Church or the invisible Church. This act in the early Church not only is tied to Jesus’ baptism, the creation, the exodus, but also to the death and resurrection as St. Paul wrote to the Romans. It is this act that brings us into the Family of God. As children in this family we have a responsibility to live out the reality we experienced in our baptisms and to accept that on a personal and communal level.
One problem that we face today is the notion that salvation is individualized and privatized. This, however, is contradictory to the way in which God has worked throughout history. A look at Scriptures testifies that God has always worked His salvation in the context of community. The Church and salvation cannot be separated. If they are the Church becomes institutional or optional. This sort of horribly awful theology leads to this notion that our faith is privatized and individualized, which in turn leads to the thinking that God saves individually thus the Church is obsolete. This could not be further from the truth! It leads people to think that they do not need to be plugged into the local ecclesiastical community. Something people need to realize is that there is but one Bride of Christ, the Church! This ideology that one does not need the Church, but just Jesus is completely unbiblical. What it is essentially doing is making Christ out to be a whore. It is a mentality that says, “I love Jesus, but not His Church.” We cannot have Jesus without the Church. It does not work that way. We are baptized into a family and just like any family it will have problems, dysfunctions, issues, and hassles. That is not an excuse for anyone baptized into Christ to reject the community of the Church. There must be active participation in the ecclesiastical community.
Active Participation and Contribution in the Life of the Local Church
Upon discussion with some friends of mine, my good friend Connor Searle writes about community and Church membership, “Church membership emphasizes a commitment to a body of believers, a commitment to be held accountable for our sins and submission to spiritual authority (pastors and elders) [or deacons, priests, bishops] in the local church. It also includes committing to serve and care for this particular body of believers even when it gets ugly, in addition to being plugged into community groups and being kept accountable for your spiritual growth. For many people this is a milestone, it marks the end of “dating the church” and the beginning of a thriving relationship in community with her. What it comes down to is this; Church membership allows the believer to make a public commitment before God and their soon-to-be-church family that they wish to plug in to this body of believers, be held accountable to them, and submit to and support the pastors and elders [deacons, priests, bishops] in the church.” If dying to Christ initiates us into the Body of Christ then it is the Body of Christ via the work of the Holy Spirit and the witness of the community that conform us to the image of Christ. This is how deification is brought about. It is within the confines of community that we realize the depths of our depravity, but it is also there that grace may abound!
St. Paul writes in I Corinthians 12, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” There is a relationship present within the confines of the community that is organic and unifying with this sort of imagery. Dr. James White said, “There is something unnatural about a Christian attaching himself to a body of believers and not being a member of the body.”
Being part of the Body of Christ is not about making converts to this organic family system that God has given us. You cannot convert to Christ without being a disciple of Christ. And within the confines of covenant community lays the means of discipleship. The writer of Hebrews preaches, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
The community exist for the purpose of worship and discipleship, which includes a broad scope of activities and disciplines. The community comes together to worship God (Acts 2:42) and to be disciples of Christ that love one another, build one another up, correct one another, rebuke one another, encourage one another, bear each other’s burdens, spur each other on towards good deeds, share their resources, admonish one another with their gifts, fellowship, pray, learn, grow, develop, to carry out God’s mission in the world, to preach the Gospel and to put the interests of others above individual interests. St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.” N.T. Wright said, “The church also exists for a third purpose, which serves the other two [to worship God and to work for his kingdom in the world]: to encourage one another, to build one another up in faith, to pray with and for one another, to learn from one another and teach one another, and to set one another examples to follow, challenges to take up, and urgent tasks to perform. This is all part of what is known loosely as fellowship. This doesn’t just mean serving one another cups of tea and coffee. It’s all about living within that sense of a joint enterprise, a family business, in which everyone has a proper share and a proper place.”
The Church is a force for good in the world, a community designed to be different from the world, set apart. It is an alternative community that is missional. It is a community that reflects Kingdom values and beliefs. It should be upon these values and beliefs that we conduct ourselves within the confines of our ecclesiastical communities. We are in covenant with God and with one another. This covenant is brought about by our baptism, but is sustained and nurtured in active participation in the life of the local Church. N.T. Wright wrote, “It is within the church, even when the church isn’t getting everything quite right, that the Christian faith of which we have spoken is nourished and grows to maturity. As with any family, the members discover who they are in relationship with one another.”