Sadly, when people hear about church membership these days, they usually respond with confusion, indifference, or angst. They either think, “is that biblical?”, “who cares”, or “I hate the idea”. Many these days treat membership as “easy come, easy go.”* After all my years in ministry, I am still amazed at the lack of understanding on this overtly biblical concept and distinctive.
It is not surprising that this confusion or angst exists. The world we live in is a LOW COMMITMENT WORLD. Commitments made to spouses in marriage seem to hold a low priority, even in Christian marriages. Marriages are easy come, easy go. Job commitments are east come, easy go. Parenting commitments are even easy come, easy go. The bible does not describe our commitment to one another, the church, as easy come, easy go. There was a time when the question of church membership was not much of a question at all. Jump back a generation or two, and nearly every church in the U.S. practiced church membership. Now the question, however, is much more persistent. Many contemporary churches have membership but don’t place much emphasis on it. Others don’t have membership at all, and unwisely encourage their people to get involved and engaged without a more formal process.*
Sadly, it is not uncommon for Christians to move from church to church, never submitting themselves to the care of elders and never committing themselves to a group of fellow believers. To neglect—or to refuse—to join a church as a formal member, however, reflects a misunderstanding of the believer’s responsibility to the body of Christ. And it also cuts one off from the many blessings and opportunities that flow from this commitment. It is essential for every Christian to understand what church membership is and why it matters.*
My goal in writing/compiling this blog is to help clear up this confusion. I want to show you that regenerate church membership is an undeniable reality in the bible, it is necessary, and is an amazing blessing for your Christian life.
WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT WHEN WE SAY CHURCH MEMBERSHIP?
When an individual is saved, he becomes a member of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Because he is united to Christ and the other members of the body in this way, he is therefore qualified to become member of a local expression of that body.
To become a member of a church is to formally commit oneself to an identifiable, local body of believers who have joined together for specific, divinely ordained purposes. These purposes include receiving instruction from God’s Word (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:2), serving and edifying one another through the proper use of spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-31; 1 Pet. 4:10-11), participating in the ordinances (Luke 22:19; Acts 2:38-42), and proclaiming the gospel to those who are lost (Matt. 28:18- 20). In addition, when one becomes a member of a church, he submits himself to the care and the authority of the biblically qualified elders that God has placed in that assembly.* (Hebrews 13:7)
IS CHURCH MEMBERSHIP BIBLICAL?
The simple answer is … YES. Absolutely. The first reason we practice biblical regenerate church membership is because it is prescribed in God’s Word. Some get confused because when you look at Scripture, you don’t find the literal word “membership.” But that’s not much of an argument against membership, since there are many words that are not literally written in the bible that are still overtly biblical. The words “Trinity”, “World Missions”, or “Discipleship” aren’t in the bible either, yet the overt biblical concepts are undeniably expressed in the Word.
The core concept of membership is having a covenant community where you belong. We see that evidenced in multiple places. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul mentions a case of removing someone from the body of believers, which implies a formal category. In Acts 6, the believers have an election, again implying an “in/out” category. And in 1 Timothy 5:3–16, we see a clear teaching on how to handle widows in the church. In that latter passage, there’s even language of creating a roster so the leaders would be able to care for these women well.
The New Testament writers never say, “You need to become a member of the local church.” But every letter in the New Testament assumes that believers are an active part of a local church gathering. The New Testament clearly and repeatedly expresses the idea that a member of THE church, should be a member of A church. The idea of experiencing salvation without belonging to a local church is foreign to the New Testament. When individuals repented and believed in Christ, they were baptized and added to the church (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14; 16:5). More than simply living out a private commitment to Christ, this meant joining together formally with other believers in a local assembly and devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42).*
We see this in the how the writers give instruction on submission to church authority, how believers ought to handle sin within the church, and the elders’ responsibility to shepherd the flock under their care (1 Corinthians 5, Hebrews 13:17, Acts 20:28). If we are to take these commands seriously, we have to be joined to a local body to know who our leaders are.
Pastors cannot fulfill their duties as the Bible instructs without membership. Who are they to shepherd, equip, or discipline? Anyone who calls themselves a Christian in a 5-mile radius of the church? Who are the leaders that the congregation is to submit to? If there is no organized congregation, how are the leaders identified?
In so many ways in the Bible we see God modeling membership. Just two months after God redeems his people, he counts them (Num. 1:1–3). God continues to practice membership in the form of “the book of life” (Phil. 4:3; Rev. 3:5; 17:8; 20:12, 15, 27; 22:19). Practicing local church membership is one way we “be imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1). Maybe this is one reason the early church practiced it, too (Acts 2:41).*
THE CHURCH IS A RELATIONSHIP AND COMMITMENT IS NECESSARY
Pastor J.D. Greear explains, “Many people resist joining the church because they approach the church with a consumer mindset. They don’t want to belong. They don’t want expectations placed upon them. They want to receive something. It may be a good something—biblical teaching, for instance—but the overall approach is consumeristic. I’m not always opposed to consumer relationships. They’re fine if you’re talking about fast food. But apply that kind of thinking to relationships like your marriage or your children, and you will create major problems. The church is not a consumer relationship. The church is a family. And families are committed to each other.”
The biblical metaphor that shows this most clearly is that of being “one body” (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12). We are referred to as “members of one another” in Ephesians 4:25. Can you imagine your physical body with “non-committed” body members? What good is a hand if it’s not actually connected to the rest of you?
It’s just as silly for Christians to think they can follow Christ without engaging in the life of the local church body. How do you use your gifts and experience the gifts of others if not in the local community? How do you fulfill the “one another” commands of Scripture unless you are, well, with one another?*
WHY DO CHURCHES ASK MEMBERS TO AFFIRM THEIR COMMITMENT?
Some may ask why a church might ask their members to affirm their commitment they make to the church? Some may think “Am I signing a contract?” I would say, no, you are entering into a covenant with a community of believers and commitment with the family of God. All of which is overtly biblical.
A church covenant can be described in five different ways.
- A church covenant is a promise – a promise made to God, to a local church, and to one’s self.
- A church covenant is a summary of how we agree to live. While our statement of faith is a good summary of what we believe, our church covenant is a summary of how we agree to live – more importantly, it is a summary of how God would have us live. It does not include every explicit command regarding obedience, but it does give a general summary of what it means to live as a disciple of Christ.
- A church covenant is a sign of commitment – a commitment to God, to His church, and to personal holiness.
- A church covenant is an ethical statement. Inherent in the purpose of a church covenant is the understanding that church membership involves being held accountable to live in a manner consistent with a common understanding of Scripture.
- A church covenant is a biblical standard. A church covenant is helpful in a church that is practicing Biblical church discipline. As members of a church, we exhort one another to live holy lives, and we challenge brothers and sisters persisting in sin.*
Now that we know what church covenants are, where do they come from?
Well, not from the Bible–not, at least, in the sense of being able to turn to the Book of Covenants chapter 3. But we do see examples of covenants both in the Old and the New Testament–covenants between God and man, and between man and man. Moses gives a covenant from God to the people of Israel. Ezra and Nehemiah do so as well. And in the NT we find that “Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, which is the new covenant in Christ’s blood”. Primarily, church covenants come from the understanding that churches are to be composed of people who are truly born again. This is what we call regenerate church membership.*
BIBLICAL CHURCH MEMBERSHIP IS A SPIRITUAL BACKGROUND CHECK
Just as we know it is common sense to make sure that we do a physical background check on those who serve in leadership in the church, or any organization, it is equally as vital that we have a way to perform a spiritual background check.
As a pastor/elder, I am responsible as an under-shepherd to protect the flock. As Paul exhorted in Acts 20:28-30, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
There are lots of people that come to a church service and building. Not all of them know the Lord, nor do they hold the same view of the authority, inerrancy, and inspiration of Scripture. Throughout all of redemptive history the church has had to “pay CAREFUL attention” to the flock because false teachers, and wolves do infiltrate the church with heresy often in sheep’s clothing.
Paul, referring to church discipline, stated in 1 Corinthians 5:6-7, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.”
2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1 “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” That does, eventually, apply to marriage; but Paul applies it first to membership. “We are the temple of the living God.” He doesn’t say, “We are temples,” individually. It’s not a reference to our individual bodies (as it is in 1 Cor. 6:19). He says we are the temple, corporate singular. It’s a corporate reference to the church as God’s dwelling place. And there’s a dual application: “Go out from their midst.” Don’t identify with the world, its leaders and its loves, “and be separate from them.” Identify together—corporately—with God’s temple, the church in Corinth. And don’t take known unbelievers into membership of that church—don’t yoke up with them in the harness of discipleship to Jesus and local church ministry—because that will blur the line.*
A church MUST have a way to have confidence in what is being taught and influencing the church. Pastors/elders will be held accountable for this before God. Church membership allows for an affirmation of agreement in this covenant community.
CHURCH MEMBERSHIP IS A GLORIOUS BLESSING
Membership is biblical – YES. Membership is necessary – YES. It is also a glorious blessing. It facilitates healthy ministry, healthy discipline, biblical accountability, expresses love, and obedience to Jesus. What a blessed fellowship in our work, worship, cooperation, agreement, brotherly love, watchful care, discipline, exhortation, encouragement, and protection.
The question shouldn’t be why church membership, but rather … why not?