Church Membership: Who Needs It?

feature-article.gifTalk about church membership and people start to bristle.

Perhaps some have been “burned” by a ministry in the past and fear repeating that scenario. Others cite a lack of perfect agreement with church policy or personnel. Still others are “just looking,” and plan to continue doing so indefinitely. Most simply resist the idea of committing to a long-term relationship with an assembly of believers, preferring the cafeteria-style approach of “take it or leave it.” Choosing a place to worship for many falls into the same category as selecting a wireless phone carrier: avoid long-term contracts and get the best service for the cheapest price.

It doesn’t take long before somebody challenges, “Where in the Bible does it say ‘Thou shalt join a church’?” While no Bible verse explicitly commands church membership, there are several reasons every Christian should want to become a member of a sound, Bible-believing assembly of fellow believers. The question the New Testament leaves us with is “Why wouldn’t you want to join a local church?”

Ample evidence abounds in the New Testament about membership in local churches even in those days. Furthermore, membership is essential for a local church to carry out its God-given mandate. Finally, church membership is an important part of the sanctification process for every Christian.

Church Membership in the New Testament
Some may argue that church rolls with official membership are a recent invention. However, in the days of the early church during the writing of the New Testament, the only believers in the world were part of local churches (like Jerusalem, Antioch, etc.). Believers “at-large” simply did not exist. When believers were saved, they were immediately “added to the number” of local churches, strongly suggesting an official record (Acts 2:47). The fact that many of the New Testament epistles were written to local churches implies that those assemblies were recognizable bodies (e.g., 1 Cor 1:2). For example, Paul’s first epistle to the church in Corinth dealt with specific individuals who were a part of that assembly (e.g., 1 Cor 5:1). His promise to return in discipline (1 Cor 4:21) loses its teeth if the offender could simply say, “Don’t look at me—I just attend here!”

The strongest argument for official church membership in the early church is the administration of church discipline. When Paul confronted the church at Corinth regarding their toleration of man who was immorally involved with his step mother, his apostolic command was that the man should “be removed from among you” (1 Cor 5:2) and that the Corinthians should “purge the evil person from among [them]” (1 Cor 5:13). This man who apparently professed faith in Christ (cf. 1 Cor 5:11) was to be “put out of the church.” What did that entail? Clearly, it did not mean only barring him from the premises during meetings. Paul was calling for the man to be removed from the official membership of the Corinthian church! This presupposes that there was an official roll and that it was maintained with official church action.

As we understand, the New Testament “church” is not a building, nor is it the regular services, but it is the people. Even more specifically, a New Testament local church is the members of that church, those who are officially recognized as a part of that body.

Far from being a modern contrivance, official church membership enjoys a long history—all the way back to New Testament times.

The Importance of Membership to a Local Church
What benefit is there to church membership? Some might suggest that a local congregation of believers would be better served without the trouble of creating and maintaining an official church roll. To the contrary, church membership provides several important benefits to the local church itself, enabling the church to fulfill its God-ordained commission of making disciples of Jesus Christ (Matt 28:18–20).

Membership causes the visible church to better reflect the invisible church.
The church is the Body and Bride of Jesus Christ, which includes every believer in Christ from the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41; cf. 11:15) until the Rapture (1 Thess 4:15–17). Many of these believers have already died and gone to be with Lord, while those of us “who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord” are spread across the face of world. The first time this universal, invisible church will meet will be in heaven!

The goal of any local church’s membership should be to admit only those who are a part of the universal church (i.e., believers). In other words, only true believers should be members of a local church. The process of membership, which should at the very least include personal testimony of faith in Jesus Christ, enables a local church to say with greater certainty, “This assembly is comprised of members of the Body of Christ.” Of course, human beings cannot know hearts, and unbelievers can sometimes appear outwardly as believers, and when this happens, Scripture calls for church discipline.

Membership clarifies the difference between believers and unbelievers.
When an individual officially identifies himself with a church, he is professing to the world that he is a believer. Not only is that communicated by his official participation and fellowship with that assembly, he should give testimony of his saving faith in Christ upon entrance into membership. When a church must discipline a member out of the congregation (Matt 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5), that official action declares the offender has proven by his failure to repent that he is not a true believer.

Membership is essential to an orderly administration.
God has commanded that things in the church “be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40). The elders of an assembly in particular have been entrusted with the task of “shepherding the flock of God” (1 Pet 5:2; Acts 20:28). The leadership of a church simply cannot carry out their responsibility to feed and protect the “flock” without knowing who the “flock” is! Official membership designates members as a recognized part of the flock.

Membership provides an opportunity for education about the nature, purpose, and responsibilities of the church.
An essential part of the church’s mission involves biblical instruction (“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”). When a person becomes a church member, he may be required to attend a class with the leadership of the church. This is an excellent opportunity for the church to teach its members more about the Body of Christ and their own local church, what it believes, where it stands, and in what ministries members can participate.

Membership provides accountability for those involved in the church’s ministries.
A church may limit opportunities to serve in many positions to members as a way for the leadership to exercise biblical discernment and spiritual care over the flock which God has entrusted to them. Apart from membership, there is no guarantee that an adherent will abide by the ministry guidelines and standard—certainly he has in no way obligated himself to the church! By allowing only members to be part of the teaching ministry, for example, the leadership establishes accountability for what is being taught. As a member, there is a clear responsibility to the leadership of the church for that area of ministry. This is a safeguard for the church.

The Importance of Membership to an Individual Christian
While it seems clear that official membership is advantageous to the local church, what advantages does it offer to the individual believer? Several clear New Testament commands simply cannot be obeyed outside of a local assembly of believers.

Membership makes mutual ministry possible.
Believers are to be committed to “one another.” The New Testament is full of “one another” commands—instructions given to believers about the obligation they have toward other believers. These commands are not primarily intended to refer to our activity toward the “universal church” or whenever we meet another Christian. The command to “love one another” (Rom 13:8) means much more than simply letting a car with a fish bumper sticker into traffic! Rather, these biblical commands are especially directed to believers in a community, local fellowship, or assembly to exercise toward each other.

Membership provides a forum for a believer to display his love for God and His children.
Every Christian should be a member of a local church. Becoming a member of a local church certainly does not make you a Christian, and in fact, temporary circumstances might hinder someone from being a member of a church. However, the God-given desire for fellowship with believers, the need for edification and accountability, and the desire to love the Body of Christ as God himself does argues strongly for official identification with a local church. One of the evidences of regeneration is a love for other believers (1 John 3:23–24). Committing to an assembly of believers is a fitting first step to demonstrating that we understand God’s love for us and a love that is willing to “lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16).

Membership makes it possible to submit to biblical authority.
As Christians, we are commanded by the Bible to obey those who have authority over us “in the Lord” (1 Thess 5:12-13; Heb 13:17). These commands assume that we have leaders over us. If someone never formally joins any church, he could just leave if he didn’t like the leadership (and many people do just that!). In such a case, one would never be able to obey this biblical command.

Membership often carries other privileges and access to church services.
Membership in a local church carries with it both privileges and responsibilities. Not only does membership open the door to minister in the assembly, it also provides opportunities to be ministered to by other members. Some services the church offers such as counseling or financial aid may be restricted to members. The greatest personal benefit of membership is loving accountability. By joining a church, one may receive the benefits of the “one another” commands discussed above. As a recognized member of the body, others can effectively minister to you.

The big question then is not “Why should I join a church” but “Why would a believer not want to be a member of a God-honoring, Christ-exalting local church?”

July 2009


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