by Matt Slick
No, you do not have to belong to a church to be a Christian. Being a Christian is not determined by church membership or attendance. We are Christians because we have trusted in Christ, not because of what we do in or out of a church. We attend because we are Christians. We don't attend to be Christians. Our Christian faith and our position before God, are not established by belonging to any particular church organization. Being a Christian is based on our faith in Christ (Romans 3:28; 4:5; 5:1), not membership in a local church.
There is a difference between belonging to a local church and attending a local church. Some churches have official membership rules where others do not. But a church is not defined by whether or not it has membership rules. A true Christian church preaches the essentials of the Christian faith to the redeemed for the purpose of equipping them for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). So when we ask if we have to belong to a church to be a Christian, we have to clarify that the term "belong" in this context could be interpreted to mean membership. So, to be clear, church membership is not required to be a Christian. However, a Christian is free to attend church and free to become a member of a local body if he or she so desires.
Now, CARM's position on Roman Catholicism is that it is apostate. That is a bold proclamation and it is based on our analysis of Scripture compared to Roman Catholic theology. Nevertheless, some mistakenly consider Roman Catholicism to be a true Christian church. Therefore, I would like to address briefly what the Roman Catholic Church says about church membership in relation to itself in an attempt to show the error of requiring church membership as a necessity for being a true Christian.
- "The Church's Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ..." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 88).
- "The Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism explains: "For it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God" (CCC 816).
- “Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation” (CCC 846).
Generally, non-Christian groups require church membership and/-or association with their particular church organization in order to have the right to be called a "Christian." What this amounts to is putting something between Jesus and the individual who needs salvation in him. I tell people that whenever a group, organization, prophet, teaching, etc., puts something in between Jesus and the individual regarding salvation, then it is false. We are to go directly to Christ, not through a church.
Therefore, we must maintain that though church membership and attendance is not necessary in order to be a Christian, our fellowship with fellow Christians inside of church structures is definitely supported in Scripture.
".....not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:25).
So, we really should attend church because we need that fellowship one with another and we need the instruction that pastors and elders can provide from the word of God.
Finally, belonging to a church, a local church, does not make us a Christian, but Christians attend church.