Over the past several decades, western culture, and particularly American culture has become increasingly individualized. This individualization has led to an erosion in the belief of church membership and the practices that such a belief entail. Church membership is often taken flippantly by both local churches and those seeking membership. One person may end up holding membership at several churches without any commitment to those churches. Churches receive members whose confession and behavior are never checked. Where belief in membership wanes, local churches lose their Christianity and become loose gatherings of semi-religious, semi-spiritual individuals with little commitment to one another or to any particular belief or practice. However, before serious church membership can be prescribed as an antidote, one must investigate God’s Word to see if church membership originated in the mind of God or whether it is merely an invention of men. I contend that church membership is a Biblical concept. Below are eight Biblical foundations for church membership. I am indebted to Dr. Tim Juhnke and my fellow doctoral classmates at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for our discussion on church membership during our Pastoral Ministry seminar.
Biblical Foundation for Church Membership #1: The New Testament Church Records
In Acts 2:40-47, Luke records the number of those who received the message of salvation, were baptized, and added to their fellowship. Then he shares that those who were saved and baptized were deeply committed to God’s people and purposes. In this New Testament passage and a few others which follow in Acts, we find a recorded number and a specific commitment of those who joined in following Christ at a local level. When someone surrenders to Jesus in faith, the church should baptize him into the fellowship of God’s people. We see in this passage that baptism and church membership share a very close connection in which baptism serves as the initiatory rite in joining God’s people in a formal commitment. In salvation, one comes into a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. In baptism, one comes into a right relationship with the church.
Biblical Foundation for Church Membership #2: The Biblical Usage of the Term “Join”
In Acts, Luke regularly uses the term kollaomai (“to join” or “to associate with”) to describe commitment that new believers made to the local church upon their salvation. In Acts 5:13, the Jerusalem church expected her members to live morally upright lives in such a way that many were afraid “to associate with” them. In Acts 9:26, after Paul was saved, he tried “to associate” with the disciples. In Acts 17:32-34, when some heard the good news about Jesus, they “joined” Paul and believed. We get a clearer picture of this term when we see how Jesus used it in Matthew 19:5. Jesus was teaching about the nature of the marriage covenant and quotes from Genesis saying, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and ‘be joined’ (kollaomai) to his wife.” Jesus’ use of the term “join” here shows that the word sometimes carries the idea of a formal and public covenant.
Biblical Foundation for Church Membership #3: The Call to Regular and Frequent Church Attendance
In Hebrews 10:24-25, the writer of Hebrews calls Christians to help each other prepare for the return of Christ by assembling together regularly. The Holman Christian Standard Bible translates it this way, “And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” One of the most prominent aspects of a local church covenant is the commitment to regular attendance at church gatherings.
Biblical Foundation for Church Membership #4: The New Testament Emphasis on the Local Church
Theologian and Bible Scholar John Hammett, who specializes in the doctrine of the church, has counted 109 occurrences of the term “church” (ekklesia) in the New Testament. According to Hammett, only 13 of these uses clearly refer to the universal church—that is all believers of every era and location. The vast majority of the occurrences of the term “church” in the New Testament refer to local bodies of believers. The New Testament’s emphasis is on Christians committing to local bodies of believers who are in regular fellowship (see John Hammett’s Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology, 28-29).
Biblical Foundation for Church Membership #5: The Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Several New Testament passages speak of special gifts which the Holy Spirit gives to each believer. Among these passages is First Corinthians 14. In this passage, Paul explains that spiritual gifts are given so that the Christian may “seek to abound for the edification of the church” (1 Cor 14:12). This means that God has given each Christian spiritual gifts so he can build up, encourage, and help the local church accomplish her purpose. A Christian cannot use his spiritual gifts as God intended unless he is committed to a local church.
Biblical Foundation for Church Membership #6: The Command to Practice Church Discipline
Jesus and Paul both commanded local churches to warn and eventually remove members who were acting in rebellious, habitual, or divisive unrepentant sins (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5; Titus 3:10). How can a person be removed from something that does not actually exist? The command for church discipline necessitates a membership from which to remove the member who is living in sin. Otherwise, there can be no clear acts of obedience to the commands for church discipline.
Biblical Foundation for Church Membership #7: Pastors’ Accountability to the Chief Shepherd
The writer of Hebrews states, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith…Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account” (Hebrews 13:7, 17). The description of the role here is that of pastors. They lead, preach God’s Word, set an example, and shepherd the local church. The reason the writer of Hebrews directs the local church to submit to her pastors is because those pastors “will give an account.” When Christ returns, every pastor will answer for how he shepherded those people that the Chief Shepherd entrusted to his care. Without a church membership, how can the pastor know for whom he will be held accountable?
Biblical Foundation for Church Membership #8: The Priesthood of All Believers
In Exodus 19:6, God gives a glimpse of His desire and goal. He wanted to make a people for himself that was a holy nation—a nation in which every citizen is a priest. However, the people of Israel were afraid to be priests before God—so they asked Moses to mediate between them and God (Exodus 20:18-21). Moses, his brother Aaron, and their ancestors the Levites, served as a tribe of priests. Yet, God sought to make a nation of priests. Under the new covenant, each person who is saved by Christ becomes part of the royal priesthood (1 Pet 2:4-10). In the New Testament, we see local church bodies serving as the priesthood together. They practiced church discipline (Mt 18:15-20, 1 Cor 5:2), restored repentant members who were disciplined (2 Cor 2:6-7), baptized new believers into membership (Acts 2:41), ordained deacons (Acts 6:3), sent missionaries (Acts 13:2-3), and corrected false teaching (Acts 15:22).
The Biblical evidence directs us to realize that when we are saved, we are saved to become part of God’s people, God’s family. And this new communal relationship isn’t a mere mystical union. It is a tangible and formal union with a body of believers who meet regularly and consistently for the purposes of God.
So how can we change our beliefs and practices since church membership is clearly Biblical? Maybe you’ve never been saved from your sins. What a wonderful life-giving blessing it would be if you accepted Christ today and become part of His family! Maybe you attend a church but you have never formally committed to that church in membership. Will you seek membership? Maybe you’re a member somewhere but you’ve neglected your responsibility to be a part of church business meetings where the church exercises her role as the royal priesthood. Will you make this incredible calling a priority? Maybe there’s a ministry in your church where God would have you serve and use your spiritual gifts. Will you sign up? Maybe you’re afraid to give a tithe of your income faithfully to God through the local church. Will you step out in faith and watch God provide for you as you are faithful to Him? Maybe you’re physically unable to serve in many ways. Will you take on the powerful ministry of prayer and pray through your church’s directory and calendar? Maybe you realize your church hasn’t kept a careful watch on her membership. Insist that church leaders check the salvation of potential members, encourage your church to practice discipline and restoration where necessary, exhort your church to clean up its membership role, removing those who are attending elsewhere or who are attending nowhere. Church membership is a covenantal commitment. May we honor God by treating it as one instituted by Him.