Do a quick search of the word “membership” in the Bible and you’re likely to get a message along the lines of “No results found.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons many Christians think church membership has little to do with following Christ. Churches contribute to this attitude when they become lackadaisical in explaining and applying the biblical parameters for membership.
Though the New Testament does not explicitly use the term membership, the concept is very much implied. We’ll see evidence for that below, but first we need to consider why this topic is so important. Sadly, membership is often a formality today, or in some cases it is altogether missing from the life of a local church.
The de-emphasizing of membership is detrimental to the church and to individual Christians, as it gives the impression that joining oneself to a church is unimportant. Committing to a local body of believers can be reduced to something as simple as a call to “come and join,” while the church knows very little about those who join and expects nothing from them. When such uncommitted members are accepted, it fuels what has plagued churches for decades, namely, membership being reduced to someone’s name being buried on a list. Twelve years down the road, the person gets a call from the church to see if they still want to “be a part of the church.”
Caring for members must go beyond a call to casual attenders to see how they are and what they have been up to for the last twelve years. Rather than being content with members occasionally wandering through the doors of the church, pastors must exhort them clearly from Scripture, explaining that membership is part of God’s grand design for the edification of His people and for the glory of Christ.
There is a great need in our churches and among individual Christians to see that church membership is for our good and that it is based on Scripture’s teaching. For those who are not yet convinced that church membership is a biblical concept, David Platt helps us understand four ways that church membership is implied in the New Testament:
1. Church Gatherings
Throughout the New Testament, we see letters to specific local churches. In fact, 90 of the 114 references to the word “church” (ekklesia) in the New Testament are references to gatherings of local churches. The congregations on the receiving end of letters were made up of individual believers. There is precedent, then, for us to gather with a specific group of believers in the context of the local church. It is par for the course for Christians to be part of a local body of believers.
2. Church Discipline
In Matthew 18 Jesus taught on how believers are to confront one another’s sin. We are instructed to go first to the individual, and then to take two or three other believers with us. If the person still refuses to repent, Jesus tells us to bring it to “the church” (Matthew 18:15–20). This process implies a local body of believers. Similarly, Paul speaks of excommunicating a believer from the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 5:1–5). One cannot be removed from the church unless they are a part of the church.
3. Church Leadership
Hebrews 13:17 commands Christians to obey and submit to their church leaders, given that leaders are the ones who oversee their souls and will one day give an account to God for them. This command assumes that one is a part of a local church. Pastors will not give an account for Christians that live a thousand miles away. They are responsible for the individuals who submit to their leadership in a local body.
4. Church Accountability
In Acts 6, the church is responsible for choosing leaders (Acts 6:1–6). In Galatians 1, the church is charged with ensuring that the gospel is preached (Galatians 1:6–10). If anyone begins proclaiming a message other than the gospel, the church is expected to stop them. Acts 13:1–3 shows us the church at Antioch sending out Paul and Barnabas for the spread of the gospel.
If a professing Christian cannot identify with a particular body of believers, is not in a place where church discipline can be practiced, is not submitted to biblical church leadership, and is not accountable to a local body of believers, then, as David Platt says, “The reality is you are living contrary to the pattern of the New Testament.”
May God give us grace to help one another see the value of membership as individuals and as churches in order that we may faithfully bear witness to Christ, the Lord of the church.