FAQ 11: “Church Membership”

FAQ 11: “Church Membership”

Who Says I Need To Join a Local Church?

Brochure #11 Revised 2-28-2004. (Frequent terms Christians use.)

Today, personal commitment in any area of life is a rare commodity.  Whether it is a commitment to marriage, employment, or dedication to personal self-discipline such as exercise, people are avoiding personal commitments.  Given the climate of society, it should not be a surprise that church membership is a decreasing reality.  It is not uncommon for Christians to move from church to church, never submitting to the care of Church leadership and never committing to a group of fellow believers. 

To neglect church membership and refuse to commit to a local assembly reflects a misunderstanding of the believer’s responsibility to which Christ has called him.  To ignore this responsibility is to miss many opportunities for blessing.  Both the individual believer and the corporate body lose out.  Therefore, it is necessary for every Christian to understand what church membership is and why it matters. 

Is church membership Biblical? 

First, we must recognize that the idea of formal membership (where one is added to a list of believers specifically for church membership) is non-biblical.  The Scriptures are silent as to any command such as “Thou shalt join a church.”  However, it is not unbiblical.  There is a difference between unbiblical and non-biblical.  Unbiblical is when an action taken contradicts a clear biblical principle.  For example, to say that believers do not have to attend church services would clearly contradict Hebrews 10:24-25 NASB (New American Standard Bible): “And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 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.” On the other hand, a non-biblical idea simply means that it is not found in Scripture nor does it contradict a clear biblical command or principle.  Church membership would be in the category considered non-biblical.  This is important because the Bible offers freedom of expression in areas that are non-biblical.  Even though Scripture does not contain an explicit command to formally join a local church, the biblical foundation for committing to a local body of believers permeates the New Testament.  Church membership is simply a vehicle in which one expresses his or her intentions to fulfill the obligations Christ has commanded. 

When one is saved, he automatically becomes a member of the universal body of Christ “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13 NASB). Because the individual is united to Christ, he is also united to other believers.  In this way an individual is a member of the true catholic (meaning universal) church.  The Bible also stresses the need to commit oneself in a more visible and practical way.  To become a member of a church is one way 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 NASB), serving and edifying one another through the use of spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-31; 1 Pet. 4:10-11 NASB), participating in the ordinances together (Luke 22:19; Acts 2:38-42; 1 Cor. 11:23-26 NASB), and joining hands in proclaiming the gospel to those who are lost (Matt. 28:18-20 NASB).  In addition, when one commits to a church through membership, he submits himself to the care and the authority of Elders whom God has placed in that assembly for spiritual oversight. 

The biblical basis can be seen most clearly in four ways:  (1) the example of the early church, (2) the existence of church government, (3) the exercise of church discipline, and (4) the exhortation of mutual edification. 

What did the early church do? 

The prototype for personalized commitment to a church may be found in the early church.  In the first century, coming to Christ was coming to the church.  The idea of experiencing salvation without belonging to a local church is completely foreign to the New Testament.  “Lone Ranger” Christianity is simply unbiblical.  When individuals repented and believed in Christ, they were baptized and added to the church (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14; 16:5 NASB).  It was not a pattern for them to live in isolation in a private commitment to Christ, rather, they joined formally in commitment to other believers in a local assembly and devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42 NASB). 

What about para-church organizations? 

The Bible is silent on organizations that function outside the authority of the local church.  Because they are not found in Scripture we need to understand their goals and missions.  Depending on the mission, they can be a help or a hindrance to God’s will by functioning in non-biblical or unbiblical ways.  They can be wonderful aids to local churches when they act as allies, not competitors.  If they are biblically minded, they should function as a means of support and encouragement to the local church.  They can be useful as a resource to help guide believers into a good, Bible believing local church.  To work against or in competition to the local church would be to function in an unbiblical way by contradicting God’s purposes for the individual and corporate body. 

Who is the Bible written to? 

The New Testament epistles were written to local churches.  In the three cases where letters were written to individuals, they were leaders in local churches.  This demonstrates that the Lord’s plan was for believers to be committed to a local assembly. 

Were there formal lists in the first church? 

There is evidence that just as there was a list of widows eligible for financial support (1 Tim. 5:9 NASB), there may also have been a list of members that grew as people were saved.  In Acts 2:41 NASB we are told, “There were added that day about three thousand souls.”  Somehow they were counted and most likely their names were recorded for certain purposes. When a believer moved to another city, his church often wrote a letter of commendation to the believer’s new church (Acts 18:27 NASB).  Paul wrote to the Romans to recognize Phoebe, who was described as a servant of the church at Cenchrea.  Other examples of letters recommending a member outside a congregation can be found in Col. 4:10 and 2 Cor. 3:1-2 NASB. 

Evidence also exists that much of the terminology fits only with the concept of a formal commitment to a local church.  Phrases in the book of Acts such as “The whole congregation” (6:5 NASB), “The church in Jerusalem” (8”1), “The disciples” in Jerusalem (9:26 NASB), “In every church” (14:23 NASB), “The whole church” (15:17 NASB), and “The elders of the church” in Ephesus (20:17 NASB), all suggest recognizable church membership with well-defined boundaries (1 Cor. 5:4; 14:23; and Heb. 10:25 NASB). 

Who are Elders responsible for? 

A consistent pattern throughout the New Testament is that Elders (Pastors) are to oversee each local body of believers. The specific duties given to these elders presuppose a clearly defined group of church members who are under their care.  These men are responsible to shepherd God’s people (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2 NASB), to labor diligently among them (1 Thess. 5:12 NASB), to have charge over them (1 Thess: 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17 NASB), and to keep watch over their souls (Heb. 13:17 NASB).  Scripture teaches that the Elders will give an account to God for the individuals allotted to their charge (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:3 NASB).

Those responsibilities necessitate that there be a distinguishable, mutually understood association and commitment in the local church.  Elders can shepherd the people and give an account to God for the spiritual well-being of these people only if they know who the people are; they can provide oversight only if they know those for whom they are responsible; and they can fulfill their duties to shepherd the flock only if they know who has surrendered and committed to be a part of the flock and who has not. 

The Elders of a church are not responsible for the spiritual well-being of every individual who visits the church nor those who attends sporadically.  Rather, they are primarily responsible to shepherd those who have voluntarily submitted themselves to the care and the authority of the elders.  One way this can be accomplished is through church membership. 

Scripture also teaches that believers are to submit to their Elders.  Hebrews 13:17 NASBreads, “Obey your leaders, and submit to them.”  The question for each believer is, “Who are your leaders?”  The one who submits to the Elders of a local church demonstrates that he has made those men his leaders.  The one who refuses to join a local church and entrust himself to the care and authority of the elders really has no personal relationship to any spiritual leaders and demonstrates his lack of commitment.  For that person, obedience to Hebrews 13:17 NASB is impossible.  To put it simply, this verse implies that every believer knows to whom he must submit, which, in turn, assumes clearly defined church commitment through membership. 

To whom does the idea of church discipline apply? 

Another important reason for church membership is church discipline.  In Matthew 18:15-17 NASB, Jesus explained the way a church is to restore wayward believers who have fallen into sin; and that is through a four step process to cleanse and maintain holiness.  When a brother sins, he is to be confronted privately by a single individual first (v. 15 NASB).  If he refuses to repent, that individual is to take one or two other believers along to confront him again (v. 16 NASB).  If the sinning brother refuses to listen to the two or three, they then are to tell it to the church (v. 17 NASB).  If there is still no repentance, the final step is to treat that person as an outsider (v. 17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13 NASB). 

This exercise of church discipline according to Matthew 18 NASB and other passages (1 Cor. 5:1-13; 1 Tim. 5:20; Titus 3:10-11 NASB) presupposes that the Elders of a church know who has and who has not formally committed themselves to church membership.  The elders of one local church have neither the responsibility nor the authority to discipline a member of another church.  Experts in law suggest that due to the increase of litigation, churches should use caution to discipline those who have not agreed to a formal commitment through membership.  

Is there any responsibility to one another? 

The last reason for church membership this writing will address includes the command for mutual edification. Scripture teaches that the body of Christ depends on the responsibility of every individual to be devoted to the growth of the entire body.  In other words, Scripture exhorts all believers to edify the other members by practicing the “one-anothers” of the New Testament (Heb. 10:24-25 NASB) and exercising their spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-7; 1 Pet. 4:10-11 NASB).  Mutual edification can only take place in the context of believers committed and surrendered to one another. Church membership is a tangible vehicle to express that commitment to each other, to the elders, and ultimately to God. 

Contrary to popular opinion, much is expected of believers by a local assembly.  Living out a commitment to a local church involves many responsibilities.  It involves living a godly life, exercising one’s spiritual gifts in diligent service, contributing financially to the work of the ministry, and faithfully participating in corporate worship.  Church membership is a practical way to stake one’s dedication to the Lordship of Christ.  By doing so, the believer marks his intentions for all to see.