Membership Is Identity
by John MacArthur
Our society is suffering from an identity crisis. Collectively and individually, people today don’t have a strong sense of who they are, what they want, or how to achieve it. They drift anchorless through life, following the whims and fads of the world instead of accepting responsibility and pursuing maturity.
Christians don’t need to struggle with that kind of identity crisis. We’ve been redeemed and claimed by Christ, brought into His family, and are being transformed into His likeness. To some degree, it should be difficult to tell where He stops and where you start, so to speak. As Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”
That glorious truth describes the spiritual state of every believer. We are no longer isolated and alone—the Lord bought us with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20) and grafted us into His family (Romans 11:17). We bear His name, and our transformed lives are a testimony to His love and power. Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf establishes our new identity for eternity—we are His church, His body, and His bride.
But if individually we are identified with Christ, why then do so many Christians refuse to identify with the church—a collection of others likewise identified with the Savior? Why do they refuse church membership and eschew fellowship with a local congregation? If the Lord has made us all one family in eternity, why do so many believers spend so much time here on earth avoiding one another?
Paul sternly warned Timothy to not be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord (2 Timothy 1:8). In his case, Timothy had real reasons to be afraid of publicly proclaiming his faith and identifying with the church—he faced the constant threat of physical persecution, imprisonment, and even death.
The majority of believers today won’t ever face that kind of pressure. Instead, the resistance to identify with the church is born out of the fear of man. In our perpetually shallow and increasingly atheistic culture, there’s nothing cool about the church. So rather than being saddled with the stigma of buttoned-down religion, some believers try to discreetly live out their faith through loose affiliation with one—and sometimes more than one—congregation. Others just avoid the church altogether, ashamed that anyone might think they belong.
The idea of giving in to that kind of meager pressure would be laughable if so many Christians weren’t doing it every day. But rather than proudly and publicly uniting with other believers, they chase fickle popularity. Maybe you’ve been tempted at times to do the same.
What you do in the face of that temptation says a lot about the true state of your heart. The best indication of your priorities is how and where you spend your time and energy, whether it’s a political movement, a school board, a neighborhood committee, or a fan club.
And of all the organizations you could belong to, the church is by far the most important. Your commitment to and identification with your local congregation speaks volumes about who you are and what matters most to you. In fact, your participation in your church is so much more than a once- or twice-a-week activity—it’s a gathering of people who are no longer citizens of this world; a fellowship of men and women who have been transformed into new creatures and united in faith. The church is a foretaste of the glories that await us in eternity.
So if you claim to love the Lord but refuse to identify with His people, it raises understandable questions about the veracity of your love. At the same time, if your reputation with the unsaved world means enough to keep you away from the church, you have cause for serious concerns about whether you’ve truly repented and believed in the first place.
One other thing to consider when it comes to reputations: it’s true yours could suffer in some circles if you publicly identify with your local church—it might even be humiliating for you.
But that’s nothing compared to the humiliations Christ willingly and sacrificially suffered on our behalf. And if the Lord is willing to associate Himself with weak, sinful people like us, we can’t keep Him or His church at arm’s length. If He’s not ashamed to call us His, we cannot be ashamed to call Him ours.
#1 Posted by
Brad Kennedy | Wednesday, January 23, 2013at
#2 Posted by
Mae Ella Jones | Wednesday, January 23, 2013at
Thank you for this blog.
All I can do is continue to pray for my husband to be convicted about visiting a church that seems to be a Bible teaching church. I have always gone before him and the choices have not been good. I have been praying for him to lead us.
#3 Posted by
Janice Noland | Wednesday, January 23, 2013at
I have really enjoyed this series on the importance of church membership but my heart grieves when I read the comments of those of you who cannot find a biblical church in your area. Our church was founded by a TMS grad and is currently shepherded by another TMS grad who faithfully preaches the whole counsel of God. We have elders who are committed to a biblical philosophy of church and ministry. It truly makes church membership a joy that I wish you all could experience.
The only thing I can suggest is starting a church in your area with a TMS grad if you can get enough people to support it. Many TMS grads are going overseas to train biblical pastors in other countries but it sounds like there is a need for some of them to start churches in the states.
#4 Posted by
Mae Ella Jones | Wednesday, January 23, 2013at
Thank you Janice for the comment.
Please pray for us.
#5 Posted by
Bryan Leed | Wednesday, January 23, 2013at
I used to avoid church, but not for these same blog reasons. While these reasons in this blog are true and legitimate, it is not a complete list of why some Christians might be wary of finding a church to join. This blog seems to assume that every church is full of mature Christians who care about strangers, foreigners, desperate people, but it is not always so.
Going to a new church is like being the new kid at school, and not every kid is the most popular kid who can make friends from the very first day. Some kids are the rejects. Many new Christians are the rejects of the world, inside and outside of the church, and they don't receive a warm welcome, necessarily, everywhere they go.
Too many church members feel they have done enough to welcome the stranger, just by greeting them with a handshake every Sunday, but they have zero interest in becoming friends. Visit the new guy at their home, or invite the new guy to your home. I do not blame all churchgoers for this, but it is very common.
It takes many months to form personal friendships at a new church. Too many folks are too comfortable with their own clique of friends, they have no interest in expanding, or don't have the time in their lives.
So too many folks who try to attend a new church are giving up because it is very stressful to be that new guy, for many, many months; until you finally breakthrough and find someone folks you can be friends with at the local church. It takes tough determination to last through this initial period of finding friends at a new church. It is not easy for a lot of folks.
We must be willing to become friends with the outcasts and the lowly, the rejects, people like ourselves. Those might be the only folks who are interested in being our friend at a new church, or they might be us.
There is an aspect of Christianity that becomes too wholesome, (like when folks are raised in good Christian homes), they are not able to understand how Christ saves the lowlifes and outcasts. They don't understand why smelly homeless people should walk into our nice church building and stink up the place. They don't understand being a servant to the lowest and least among us. They love little because they have been forgiven little, life never made them desperate, but they cannot understand why needy people want to attend their church.
That is why it is hard for a lot of people to find a new church, they don't get an opportunity for friendship as often as they get a shallow greeting every week. It is very much a violation of James 2:16. We should not just give an insincere handshake or easy verbal blessing, but no material help, no personal interest, no friendship. Instead we must jump in and give the new guy friendship and help, then they will be coming to church every week because they want to, not just because Hebrews commands us to come to church.
I know we are talking about people, so nothing will ever be perfect, even concerning church people.
#6 Posted by
Janice Noland | Wednesday, January 23, 2013at
I am praying, Mae Ella, and will continue to. Since I now know you by name, I will specifically pray that the Lord will care for you and sustain you through this.
#7 Posted by
Jean Selden | Thursday, January 24, 2013at
We have absolutely no problem identifying with the people of Christ. We love God and serve Him with all of our being. We don't avoid church because we don't want commitment, fellowship, conviction or discipline. We love all of those things, but it is rare to find in the Northwest.
We have absolutely no conviction that our having church at home is sinful in any way. We are growing in the Lord and our commitment to Him is paramount in our lives. We have communion, precious fellowship with other like-minded believers, and we share the love of Christ to the lost.
We were church attenders for 20 years and were involved in teaching Sunday School to adults, teens, and children. My husband has been on church boards and we were a tremendous supporter for church attendance.
After leaving a church we attended over 12 years due to a major moral failure in leadership that wasn't addressed, we attended several churches for a minimum of 18 months to two years and became active volunteers. If we told you of the situations that caused us to leave, we would think you would have supported our decisions. The reasons were never anything less than outright false teaching and unaddressed sin in the leadership that was ignored. Our problem was not because the fellowship was good or bad, or the facilities weren't nice or hip enough, or that we were lax in our dedication to our Lord Jesus Christ.
We just became so disappointed that we didn't know where to turn. Anyone who knows us completely understand yet they don't know what else to do and are fearful for standing out from the crowd so they stay.
We guess our question to you is, can you really paint all home church people as possibly not saved, or not strong in their faith? With all due respect that is wrong. You have been honored to have been raised in solid churches and you now lead an awesome church, but until you have experienced what multitudes of people we know are experiencing, we believe that your blanket assessment of us is undeserved.
We have to say this, that if it were not for the pandemic of the breakdown of the church leadership, we would never have searched nor found your site or teachings. We have finally found truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and our family has grown so much in our knowledge of Him. Unless you have been exposed to the tragic failure of good whole teaching, you cannot understand what others have gone through.
We thank you for all you have done and are doing to enrich the lives of those who are desperately looking for clean water.
God bless you all at GTY.
#8 Posted by
Tim Whitehead | Thursday, January 24, 2013at
I too have so enjoyed this series on the church. I am from Seattle but I am now living overseas in Toowoomba, QLD Australia and the need here for a solid church is critical. My wife is from here and we've lived here almost 7 years now and we have only just found a church to call home. In SEVEN YEARS! We've been to so many churches over the years but praying earnestly that God would provide a church we could call home that taught the Word and had a solid biblical, Christ-centered base. We could definitely use a TMS Grad who's be willing to come and help. In the meantime though, thank you Pastor John for your faithfulness and example to all of us. My wife and I regularly listen to your ministry and have done so for a while now. I grew up listening to you and my dad, who used to serve in your church. I thank God every day for Grace to You and hope and pray that our church remains solidly committed to serving the Lord and upholding the biblical mandate of the church!
#9 Posted by
Brad Kennedy | Thursday, January 24, 2013at
I didn't read into the blog any blanket statement painting home church planters in the way you describe (7).
#10 Posted by
Michelle Miller | Thursday, January 24, 2013at
I couldn't have said it better. Our family is in the same situation as you have explained and we too live in the Northwest. Portland, Oregon to be exact. It is a hotbed of emergent nonsense. There is a gross lack of discernment in the visible church when pastors allow and even promote prominent popular pastor/teachers who promote contemplative spirituality and ecumenism.
Here is a portion of an article by Mike Gendron:
by Mike Gendron
July 20, 2011
The Death of Discernment In The Church
By Mike Gendron
Have you considered the spiritual health of your church in these days of tolerance and compromise? Is the leadership earnestly contending for the faith against the current wave of ecumenism? A. W. Tozer used the illustration of circulating blood to describe the health of a church. "The red corpuscles are like faith - they carry the life giving oxygen to every part of the body. The white cells are like discernment - they pounce upon dead and toxic matter and carry it out to the drain. In a healthy heart there must be provision for keeping dead and poisonous matter out of the life stream."
Using Tozer's analogy, churches that are dead or dying are the churches that no longer have the ability or the desire to discern truth from error. If they cannot identify toxic doctrinal error, the poison can never be removed from the body. And if it is not removed it will continue to circulate, bringing confusion to believers and false hope to "seekers."
Our family loves The Lord Jesus Christ. We enjoy nothing better than fellowship with believers. John MacArthur teaches the truth of God's Word and until we find a local church we are being fed by this ministry. Thank you! We are looking for a healthy church with fearless, Godly elders that will obey the scriptures to "contend earnestly for the faith" and spread the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ as commanded in scripture.
P.s. We would dearly love to meet like-minded believers in our area.
#12 Posted by
Jean Selden | Thursday, January 24, 2013at
In answer to Michael 9.
In both this blog (third to the last paragraph) and the previous blog there are statements made to question the validity of our faith. Whether the intent was that, only the author knows, but when repeated, it gives the impression of such. I am not upset with John for his viewpoint at all. I understand that what he is doing is for the edification of the body. My point is that many people who are not attending church at this time because of lack of having a sound church with sound leadership in their area could be better understood. We are not resistant to looking for a church body. We love the church, but at this time, we have been set at home for church. Blessings to you.
#13 Posted by
Jeremiah Johnson | Thursday, January 24, 2013at
The paragraph you indicated deals with people who rebelliously refuse to be involved in a local congregation; specifically people who are more concerned about their reputations with the world than they are with following the Lord's design for the church.
Only you know if that applies to you. But it's certainly not a blanket condemnation of anyone involved in a house church. Plenty of vibrant, dynamic congregations were born out of someone's living room. Even Grace Community Church began with a few faithful families meeting in their homes.
Many believers are unable to find a solid church in their area--we included some resources in a recent blog post to aid their search. However, it's a different story if they're rebelliously unwilling to look at all. It's those people and their sinful attitudes that John is writing about.
#14 Posted by
Jean Selden | Thursday, January 24, 2013at
I appreciate and thank you for your response. Your explanation of John's intent absolutely makes sense to me.
My sensitivity could be affected by all the wonderful followers of Christ that are suffering because of the huge problem of finding a sound church. I see how broken and upset people are having to separate from a church body. It is painful for true believers.
#15 Posted by
Janice Noland | Thursday, January 24, 2013at
Our church also started as a home church with only 8 people. There were no qualified elders so the church was under the oversight of a group of elders at a biblical church in another state nearby. Very humble beginnings indeed. But 16 years later it has grown into a vibrant church with elders and deacons. We get regular visitors who come sometimes from across town because they are looking for good, solid expository preaching and are tired of being spiritually hungry.
Sometimes all you have is a small group of people who have a strong desire to be a sound church, founded by the Word of God. God will bless that desire! Praying for you and your church!
#16 Posted by
Traian Boyer | Friday, January 25, 2013at
My family and I have been fortunate to be in some solid churches and I thank God for that. We left our church, the chapel in Akron, to help a friend who took the pastorate at a traditional baptist church that was about to close the doors. My wife and I became members thinking that was the best way to get involved with service and prompted by this blog.
Now we regret our decision to be members. I was told that I was being considered to be a deacon/elder in this church that has a very unhealthy and immature elder board. I wanted to be an elder to bring a biblical influence to the group and help move the church toward health. Well, because I addressed the one deacon's wife of her sin causing factions in the church and then having him SCREAM at me for "judging" her I have been disqualified and set back from serving. The offending deacon stepped down and left the church because the ultimatum was given my family leave or they leave. I found this out after they left.
The church won't embrace biblical progress and I think we want to leave. My friend,pastor and former seminary professor said I could start preaching and teaching in 6 months but I don't care for carrots and will probably speak out about sin if I see it between now and then.
If this church was health and biblical I would get in where I for in but this church is on life support. They are doing the same things expecting change..... That's insanity!
#17 Posted by
Stephen Smith | Monday, January 28, 2013at
Regarding #10 by Michelle
My family too is profoundly affected by the absence of solid Bible preaching and practicing churches in the Northwest. We went to several of the same churches she speaks of, know her family for many years, and can personally testify that if her family had found a good church with a godly pastor, they would be wholeheartedly participating and blessing that body of believers. Where are the true churches in the NW? Oh the disaster and wreckage that resulted from one of those churches that took me nearly two years to finally become convinced the pastor was indeed a wolf in sheep clothing, and he was not being held accountable by the elders. After so many tries you get burned out, and desperately cry to the Lord for His sovereign guidance! As Steven Lawson astutely says in his book: "There is a famine in the land!"