Church Membership: Commitment to the Body and Commitment to Christ
Is church membership biblical? While the Bible never explicitly addresses local church membership the same way we would today, it is nonetheless implied in several instances, such as taking note of the numbers added to the church. (Acts 2:37-47), identification of people "from among you" (Acts 6:3), exclusion of certain unrepentant individuals (1 Corinthians 5:3-5,13), and differentiation between insiders and outsiders (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). The epistles of Paul for example, that to the Philippians, presupposes that somewhere in Philippi there is a specific group of Christians who reside there and are part of its constituency. They have overseers (elders) and deacons (Philippians 1:1), and some of them are even called by name, such as the estranged friends Eudoia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2), All these show that the idea of having definite church membership, composed of specific individuals, was practiced in the New Testament.
What is church membership? Jonathan Leeman, in his book on Church Membership, offers this definition:
"Church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church. (Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, 9 Marks, Crossway, 2012, p.64)
Church membership formalizes the bond of fellowship in a local church, marking their primary level of accountability, and identifying those who have made a credible profession of faith in Christ. Membership is ultimately not simply having your name on an official list, but by being formally committed to a local church family. You make yourself accountable to these brothers and sisters as a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ. Again, Leeman’s insight is helpful:
“The Bible doesn’t talk about church membership quite as you might want it to. It talks instead about how God’s people gather together under his supreme rule. It’s interested in the citizens of a kingdom, not club members.” (p.26)
Membership defines who the family members are, and who are the guests of the family. It does not contribute to your salvation, but the church, by affirming your membership, testifies that to the best of their knowledge, you are a Christian. Mark Dever observes:
“Churches which practice no formal membership and discipline at least make it more difficult for the believers who are part of it to follow Christ and more difficult to know for whom they are to give an account.” (Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible, B&H, 2012, xxiii.)
Being a church member is also an act of commitment – the church and its leaders commit to disciple you, guide you and feed you with the word of God and hold you accountable to what it commands. In turn, you also commit yourself to the local church family, uphold its unity, and obey the command to love God and love your brethren. In fact, all the commands about unity and loving one another are best seen and understood in the context of a local church family!
Church membership is essential for gospel obedience and for spiritual growth. Membership is an act of obedience to God, since Scripture consistently shows that new believers became part of a local church family. As such, deliberately choosing not to be part of a local church, where there is one that is accessible to you, is an act of disobedience to God. There is no such thing as a “lone ranger Christian” in the Bible.
Some people object to the idea of church membership, claiming that such exclusivity undermines the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, this objection is self-contradicting, for the gospel itself is exclusive. Jesus Himself said that “no one comes to the Father except through me.” There are no alternative options to choose from.
Is membership exclusive? Yes, in the sense that it defines boundaries, just as you know who the members of your family are, and who are simply visitors in your home. Family members enjoy certain privileges, and a level of relationship simply unavailable to visitors and guests. In the same way, those who are simply guests cannot expect the same level of attention and pastoral care that members receive.
Pastoral care is also primarily for the members of the church. As Paul tells the Ephesian elders: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). Peter echoes this when he said that elders are to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2). It is for a designated flock with designated shepherds, not for anyone and everyone who claims to be part of the flock, and not for those who have been assigned to the care of another shepherd in another flock.
So yes, church membership is indeed exclusive, it is not exclusionary: all who repent of their sins and believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior may join the local church. There are no perfect churches, since there are no perfect Christians. But that is also one compelling reason to be part of one: we need each other’s prayers, encouragements, and rebukes to mature in Christ!
The “one another” commands could not be realistically applied if divorced from the context of a local community of believers, for they are first applied to those who are in closest proximity to you. And this is best expressed in a covenant community that has intentionally expressed their commitment to walk together and love one another. As Mark Dever also reminds us:
“Christianity is personal but not private. Truly following Christ is committed and regular, not casual and occasional.” – Mark Dever, Regaining Meaningful Church Membership, in Thomas White, Jason Duesing and Malcolm Yarnell III (eds.), Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, Kregel, 2008, p.48
If you are not yet a member of a local church, we encourage you to be part of one.
We should look for the defining marks of a true church: faithfulness to biblical doctrine in both preaching and practice. Look for a church that:
· preaches the gospel faithfully;
· observes the ordinances properly;
· upholds biblical standards in membership and discipline; and
· visibly demonstrates love for God and for one another.