I have been asked many times if church membership is required for salvation. The answer is "no." The eternal destiny of each person is determined by his or her response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Those obeying the Holy Spirit are living by faith. Those refusing to obey His voice are living in rebellion.
No religious organization or clergy person can send a person to hell or save him from it. So, why did Jesus establish His church when He was on Earth? The answer is quite simple: Jesus established His church to nurture, sustain, and edify His followers. (Ephesians 4:11,12)
If church membership is not required for salvation, why should any person want to be a member? Joining a church is similar to joining any group that has a clearly defined mission and message. Many people working and pulling together can accomplish far greater things than individuals working alone.
For example, over time a hundred people can easily purchase and pay for a church building. A hundred contributors can offer "vacation Bible school" and other programs for the youth in their community. A thousand people can establish and maintain projects such as a mission hospital, a school or a publishing facility.
Through the centuries, Christian churches have provided all kinds of valuable services for their members, communities, and societies. Therefore, Christian churches should not be regarded as a nonessential part of life. Our world is a much better place because of organized groups within Christianity.
Different churches meet different needs. Blessed are the people who can find and attend a church that edifies and nurtures them. If "church life" is your priority, then find a church that has a thriving "church life." If "Bible study" is your priority, then find a church that fulfills this requirement. If "social issues" are your priority, find a church that focuses on "social issues."
Finding a church that meets your family’s needs may take some effort, but the effort is well spent if you find a place you can call "home." Just remember two things: There is no such thing as a perfect church, and church membership has absolutely nothing to do with salvation.
Many people believe that salvation is church specific. This is not true. Salvation is not dependent upon belonging to "the right church." Instead, you determine your own salvation by your response to the Holy Spirit. Be very cautious of church groups that think they are better than all the others. Be wary of church groups that declare themselves to be the only true Church of Jesus Christ and watch out for churches that impose rituals on its members to be saved. Stay away from churches that believe they alone are God’s people.
When Jesus Was on Earth
When Jesus was on Earth, the nation of Israel consisted of both religious Jews and secular Jews. The religious Jews could essentially be divided into three subgroups. There were the Essenes, a small number of people who lived in isolated communes, who were largely concerned with achieving purity (separation from the world) and walking with God. There were the Sadducees, who were wealthy and affluent which included the merchants and political leaders. Finally, there were the Pharisees, a zealous group of people who were known for their obnoxious dedication to God.
Many of the religious Jews regarded the Pharisees as their defacto clergy because they were very vocal about the importance of knowing the laws of God. The Pharisees were zealous, some were highly educated, and most of all, they were widely known for their piety and purity. (Matthew 5:20)
History indicates that the Pharisee movement arose about 150 years before Jesus was born when certain men became convinced that the Levites were not carrying out God’s will. As a sect within Judaism, the Pharisees had an advantage over the Levites. Anyone could become a Pharisee, but a Levite had to come through genealogy. A religious tug-of-war between the Levites and the Pharisees created "a divided house." Over time, the Pharisees gained greater influence over the religious thinking of laymen than the Levites.
Jesus spoke to the Pharisees shortly before His death and said, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are." (Matthew 23:15)
Jesus called people the Pharisees converted "twice the sons of hell" because false religion is a heavy load to carry. Religion has enormous power to do good and to do harm. Religion can be extremely toxic or it can be nurturing and healing. Religion can create a holistic balance (spiritual, mental, and physical) or imbalance (where ideology and passion overrule common sense).
Religion can be enlightening or confining. Religion can be expansive and invigorating, as well as highly deceptive. Religion can be a stepping stone to a better understanding of God’s love and character or it can crush those who are sincerely searching beneath the weight of false guilt.
The Pharisees scorned tax collectors (Jews who worked for Caesar) because they considered it an insult for the Pharisees (as "God’s servants") to recognize Caesar’s authority by paying tax to him. Knowing what the Pharisees believed about salvation and how the Pharisees felt about tax collectors, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ ‘But the tax collector stood at a distance.
He would not even look up to Heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:10-14)
This parable teaches us that human righteousness is worthless. Rigorous devotion will not merit God’s favor or produce salvation. The problem is that God requires a righteousness for our salvation which human beings cannot produce.
No one can be saved on the merits of his religious zeal, knowledge, or practice. Rather, a person is justified in God’s sight when he obeys the prompting of the Holy Spirit (lives by faith). The bottom line is simple: Unless God specifically gives each of us the gift of salvation, we cannot be saved! Salvation is not an insurance policy that we purchase at will! God determines salvation and He promises it to all who will live by faith. (Ephesians 2:8,9)
Obeying the Holy Spirit Never Ends!
From God’s point of view, every person who obeys the prompting of the Holy Spirit is a person of faith. When a person does what he believes to be righteous and true, no matter the consequences, that person is living by faith. When a person persistently refuses to follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit, God sees the rebellion and there is no provision in His plan of redemption to redeem defiant sinners.
Please consider this. God cast Lucifer and his followers out of Heaven for one reason. They committed the unpardonable sin; they defied the Holy Spirit time after time after time. There came a point in time when Lucifer and his followers would never admit their error and submit to God’s authority.
When this moment was reached, the Holy Spirit left Lucifer and his followers alone. After he was cast out of Heaven, Lucifer deceived Eve and she sinned. Out of Adam’s love for Eve, he willingly sinned. An important distinction must be made between the sin of Lucifer and his followers and the sin of Adam and Eve. Lucifer and his followers continually defied the Holy Spirit (passed the point of no return) and when the Holy Spirit left them, this eliminated any possibility of sorrow and repentance.
On the other hand, Eve and Adam did not defy the Holy Spirit. Eve sinned because of deception and Adam sinned because he loved Eve more than he loved God. Therefore, out of love for humanity, God graciously implemented a plan of redemption for Adam and Eve and their offspring, but redemption of Lucifer and his followers was not possible.
Before Lucifer and his followers were cast out of Heaven, the destiny of Heaven’s angels hinged on their response to the Holy Spirit. This statute existed before sin began in Heaven, this statute continues on Earth today, and it will remain intact throughout eternity to come! Jesus said, "And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come." (Matthew 12:31,32, italics mine)
These thoughts bring me back to the beginning of this article. Church membership has nothing to do with salvation. Even before Jesus created Earth, God established the principle that each person’s eternal destiny is determined by his response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Those who listen and obey the Holy Spirit live by faith. Those who refuse to hear and obey His voice are living in rebellion.