[These thoughts follow a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church entitled "The Family Ties of the Savior." Click on the title to find the audio of that message.]
Looking at Mark 3:31-35, we see that physical family ties are not what matters in being related to Jesus. Being related to Jesus...having a vital, spiritual connection to Him...is based on how one responds to Jesus. Jesus says, in v. 35, that it is those who do the will of God who are his brother and sister and mother. It is those who respond to His call to repent and believe (Mk. 1:15) that are accepted into the family. It is Christians who have been adopted as sons (Rom. 8:15-17; Gal. 4:4-7; Eph. 1:4b-5), and Jesus "is not ashamed to call them brothers" (Heb. 2:11). These who have repented and believed...who have received Christ...have been born of God (John 1:12-13).
This new relationship to God in Christ has brought us also into relationship with one another. We are no longer strangers and aliens, we are now part of the household of God and should behave as such, taking care of one another as family (Eph. 2:19-20; 1 Tim. 3:14-15; Gal. 6:10). This picture of being brought into the worldwide family of God is best pictured in the local church, and as such, membership in the church family is important.
In writing to the Corinthian church, Paul tells them that the man who committed public, scandalous sin should be removed and turned over to Satan (1 Cor. 5). If the man is to be removed from their congregation, it implies that he is now part of it. In the other letter we have in the New Testament, Paul has said that the punishment carried out "by the majority" has been sufficient, and this man should be extended forgiveness (2 Cor. 2:5-11). Majority? Majority of what? Majority of the congregation. Again, if this church reported to Paul that a majority of the people agreed to discipline the man, then the church must have had some idea of what the total number of persons in the congregation was. This, again, points to some kind of formal church membership...knowing "who is in" and "who is out".
This idea can give a bit of a sour taste to some because the church, in their minds, is to be inclusive of anyone and everyone. Well, spoken in the right context, these words are true. Is the church open to anyone? Yes and no. Yes, the church is open to anyone, but the church is only open to anyone who has repented and trusted in Jesus Christ to save them. The members of a church must be saved or else the church loses its biblical meaning. It is not a social club or political activist group...the local church is to be a gathering of those saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Now, let's connect the ideas of family and church membership. Let's say that some friends of yours are going on a 10-day cruise (not a bad idea as winter is still lingering), and you have agreed to care for their son while they are gone...let's call him Billy. Billy is the same age as your son, so you figure they will get along well. The first few days are wonderful, and everyone gets along well. However, as the week goes on, Billy's attitude gets worse. He begins acting out, he refuses to eat the meals you have planned, he isn't doing his homework as he should, and he is getting your son to follow his lead. What do you do? Well, of course, you know how to discipline your own child, but what about Billy? Billy's not part of the family...how do you handle that? He's doing things for which your children would get 'the rod', but again, he's not part of the family. You can expect obedience or manners all you want, but without being part of the family, there is a limit to how you can help Billy stay in these boundaries.
Now, let's forget all the bad behavior and the friend's cruise. Billy and your son are great friends and never fight. Would you go and pick up Billy every evening to bring him to your house and have family devotions with him? Probably not...he's certainly welcome to stay if he came over for dinner, but you won't pursue discipling Billy like you would your own son. Why? Because he's not part of your family. His family is primarily responsible for his discipleship. You may encourage him spiritually and be very effective in doing so, but again, he's not in the family.
Do you see where I'm going with all this? Do you see the connection between the family and church membership? Or, are you still 'coming down' off the stress of thinking about watching a friend's child for ten days? If so, let me help.
In the New Testament, we see the reality of church discipline. We see the need for church leaders to care for their flock. We see the need for the congregation to submit to its leaders. We see that leaders will give an account for their congregation. We see that excommunication really exists. We see that the church is a body, whose members (i.e.- persons) are intimately connected with one another. All of this 'seeing' shows us that it is vital to actually be a member of a local church...without formally committing oneself to the local church, you're still on the outside of God's intended blessing for believers.
Not committing oneself to a local church would be equivalent to a selfish child moving from one house to another in the foster care system. He goes into a house, and he then takes advantage of the kindness and love of that family. Once he gets bored with it, he'll move on to another. That sounds a bit like the American church culture of today, doesn't it?
I want to encourage you...if you are a member of a local church, get engaged. Treat others as family. Start serving others without regard for your own needs. Be a brother or sister to that body to which you belong. If you are not a member of a local church, get out of the spiritual foster care system, and be part of the family. God wants you to be a real, vital, formal part of a church. Stop being an outsider, and join the family!