Many believers today, for various reasons do not believe that formal or official church membership is required or advocated in the New Testament. And though this is a secondary doctrine about which sincere Christians differ, it is our belief that there are not any strongly compelling reasons to not have church membership, and that there are in fact many strongly compelling reasons to have church membership.
Like Baptism, it is not the thing itself that entails the benefits, but in both Baptism and Local Church Membership - these outward actions are reflections of inward realities. Eph. 5:30,“…We are members of his body.” (Eph. 4:25, Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-27)
The language of “membership” is derived from the Bible. Local church polity (how a local church functions and operates) is derived from and based on universal church principles. “Universal Church principles” are principles that apply to the worldwide, unified body of Christ. As we look to those principles we discern applications to local, individual churches of Jesus Christ.
Being members of the body of Christ is to say that we are members of the church of Christ, and the worldwide church of Christ is visibly represented on the earth in collective, individual, local churches. When the Bible speaks about being members of Christ’s body, it speaks about belonging, about being attached and committed to one another, about being in need of one another, encouraging one another and being accountable to one another. The idea of membership is not something theologians came up with, it’s not something pastors invented to keep the ‘sheep in line.’ It is about a spiritual family, with all the privileges and responsibilities that that implies. In many ways, local church membership of some sort seems both implied throughout the NT and required to meaningfully fulfill all that a New Covenant local church is called to do. Here are 10 practical church matters that either imply or require some kind of local church membership.
(1) In the NT churches were local, visible churches. They gathered together and met in specific places, Acts 11:26, “and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” The epistles are addressed to specific churches in specific locations (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1) That is, disciples of Christ are identifiable, distinct people who are “members of His body” and everywhere in the NT they are ordinarily joined to or members of local churches. Consider the cumulate evidence of all ten points.
(2) God commanded circumcision as the sign of identification with the covenant community in the OT. Baptism is now the NT sign of demarcation in the New Covenant. Ought we never to make lists of those baptized? Ought we never to ask of those coming to us from another church if they ever were baptized? Ought we never to follow up in some cases to obtain objective testimony that they were baptized? Why is it incongruous to make lists of those that have joined our fellowship? Church membership is a local church’s affirmation that an individual has been converted, is a member of the body of Christ, bearing fruit and evidenced by their commitment to a local body of Christ’s people with overseers and “members one of another.” An absence of membership implicitly endorses the idea that a person can be a genuine Christian while simultaneously indulging complacency and spiritual inactivity. “The body of Christ” concept implies relationality, accountability, reciprocal care and mutual need for one another (1 Cor. 12:12-27)
(3) The Bible speaks about the church “increasing in number” (Acts 2:41; 5:14; 6:7) and also of “None of the rest dared join them” (Acts 5:13). Thus the local church was made up of “believers who were added to the Lord” and excluded were some that were literally scared to death to join them. In the context of Acts chapter five, this was because God was obviously among them – not only to bless those who did well, but to judge the hypocritical who did evil, like Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). As people are saved, churches increase in number. Some are identified as ‘being added by the Lord” and others as the ones who “dared not join them.”
(4) Christ’s words to the seven churches in Rev 2&3 obviously indicate that God knows those who are His and those who are not. And this is not the debate of course, for those who don’t hold to “local church membership” emphasize the fact that all true Christians are known by God to be members of His invisible, universal Church. But how do we in practical terms fulfill Christ’s words to these specific churches without lines of demarcation between who is being addressed and who is not. For example, when He says in 2:24, “But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold to this teaching” he’s obviously not addressing everyone else who lived in the city of Thyatira, but those who were a part of the “church in Thyatira” (2:18). And if God has a “list,” if He knows who is part of the church and who is not – have we no legitimate ways of distinguishing those who “hold this teaching” from those who don’t? Isn’t this the emphasis of Christ’s words that “we shall know them by their fruits?” (Matt. 7:16-21; 1 John) Consider these verses:
Rev. 2:10, 13-15, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”
Rev. 2:20–24, “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden.”
Rev. 3:4, “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.”
Rev. 3:9, “Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.”
(5) Local Churches have identifiable Elders and Deacons (Tit. 1:5; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Acts 6:3-6). Should we identify certain individuals as “Elders” and others as “Deacons”? We can’t see the heart, how do we really know who’s called and who isn’t? And if God has called some, why don’t we just leave it at that and forego making a man-made list of who is an elder and who is a deacon? Aren’t similar reasons given against local church membership? It is reasonable, and in no other way practicable to realize that God calls some people to certain offices (Pastors and Deacons), and that we then recognize such people as gifts to Christ’s church. Those who don’t hold to local church membership, do they have a “list” of who the elders and deacons are? So, for example, in Phil 1:1 when Paul writes “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons“ we’re going to say that in Philippi they have a list of the overseers, and a list of the deacons, but they don’t have a list of the saints? Why is that?
God Calls men to the ministry, and we recognize those whom He has called; we objectively validate those that are gifted and qualified for the ministry. So also in reference to those that God has called to Himself to save them, we recognize them by their faith and their fruit, we baptize those that we deem true followers (consider Lydia’s words in Acts 16:15; and Acts 9:26) and we welcome them into Christ’s local church.
(6) Furthermore, Heb.13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (also, Acts 20:28; 1 Thess. 5:12-13) Elders have “those for whom they shall give an account.” Is that just everybody who happens to walk through the door? Shepherding the sheep requires at least knowing who the sheep are. Pastoral ministry requires, it seems to us, local church membership. The apostle Peter exhorts the elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is in your care” (1 Pet. 5:2) A pastor isn’t responsible for all the people of an area, but for the “flock of God.” This doesn’t include any Christian he happens to come into contact with, but that identifiable group or flock that is under his care. The sheep, then, must be known and committed to being “under” the care of the pastors. The command to obey your leaders implies local church membership (Heb. 13:7, 17).
(7) In the NT lists of widows were kept: 1 Tim 5:9, “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband.” But no list of identifiable “members” of a congregation were ever written?
God, Himself keeps a list of all members who will inherit eternal life, Rev. 21:27, “But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” Has He not called on us to recognize those “who say they are Christians and are not” even as He distinguished a “synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not” when writing to the church in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:9). It’s not “unbiblical” to have a formal church membership list, it’s simply a practical application of self-evident duties and responsibilities of local church life.
(8) Church discipline implies some form of church membership.
1 Cor. 5:9–13, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’”
Expelling only makes sense in the context of visibly belonging. Christ taught that if we see a brother or sister sinning, that we are to go to that person and show him his fault personally, and that if he doesn’t repent, then to take two or three others and if he doesn’t listen to them eventually to “tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:15-18). How is this to be implemented without some sort of church membership? Even a church without official “church membership” will necessarily draw lines so as to determine who ought to be excommunicated and who should not. If someone visited your church one time and you later hear of them accused of sexual immorality, are they persons that you should follow the steps of Matt. 18 with? Why not be clear and open about who is subject to corrective discipline? (Even in churches with identifiable church membership, statements are also typically added to the effect that loving correction will also apply to those who ‘regularly attend.’)
Furthermore, we’re admonished in Scripture, 2 Cor. 8:21, to “aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man.” And the faithful administration of reproofs and in some cases excommunication requires, (unless we want to leave ourselves open to the unscrupulous legal suits of those who want to escape the loving correction of church discipline), as we seek to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16), that we have clear policies of church membership and constitutions with stated procedures for formative and corrective discipline.
(9) It is not without significance that when Paul came to Jerusalem, following an escape from a dangerous circumstance in Damascus, he immediately attempted to “join himself to the disciples” of that city (Acts 9:26). If a believer, for whatever reason is relocated to a new area, why would they not want to join themselves to the disciples of that city by the tangible means of joining one of the local churches?
(10) Is there not a parallel with the popular concept of our day regarding marriage, “who needs a piece of paper?” No church membership is the spiritual equivalent of “shacking up” with someone not your spouse. The arguments seem quite similar.