Biblical Understanding of Church Membership
You've heard the story a thousand times - or maybe you've lived it. A couple begins attending a local church. They enjoy the music, and like the sermons just fine. After about a year or so the pastor, or perhaps an elder, approaches them about formalizing their affiliation with the church in membership. But they either politely decline or become squeamishly uncomfortable, or maybe even take offense. The pastor trots out a few of the attractive new programs in which they could be involved, and mentions a few of the tantalizing youth activities that might make them reconsider their place on the fence. But to no avail. A month later they leave, in search of a more comfortable anonymity.
So why does this happen? Why is it that so many people lack the desire to become members of the local churches they're already attending? Or perhaps even more disturbing, you know of churches with membership rolls that far outstrip attendance numbers. Why is it that so many of those who are already members fail to take their involvement seriously? No doubt, part of the reason for a lack of interest in church membership and its entailments is that the commitment-phobia of our culture - always waiting for a better deal to come along - coupled with the consumerism of our times that shops around to get the most for the least - has radically affected the way many people think about their church involvement. But some of the blame must surely be laid at the door of local churches whose teaching on the biblical reasons, benefits, and entailments of local church membership has been ambiguous at best. Many pastors have been taught to treat people like consumers, and so they rig up various props and programs designed to entice and attract. Indeed, in many churches there is little discussion at all regarding the biblical moorings and obligations of local church membership. Not surprisingly, when many regular attenders look at the lives of church members, they don't see anything very different. The members may have gone through an initial class and may attend pretty faithfully. But non-members can attend just as often, and are usually served in many of the same ways.
So what distinguishes a member from a regular attender - a vote at the annual business meeting? Is there clear biblical reason for emphasizing membership in the local church? Why is it better to be a member than simply a regular attender, especially if membership entails further obligation? What does it mean to be a member of your church? What is it that potential members are asked to commit themselves to? How are members asked to live out that commitment in practical ways?
What is the Church?
Before we think about what local church membership should mean, we'd be wise to ask the more basic question: What is it that I join when I join with a local church in membership?
The Church is NOT...
- ...a loose affiliation of people who hold roughly the same religious beliefs, no matter what those beliefs might be. I'm not joining a religious club when I join a church.
- ...a building. A building is simply a place to meet. I'm not going to an exclusive clubhouse when I go to church.
- ...a non-profit organization with a clear vision statement and lucid objectives. I'm not joining an altruistic or philanthropic society when I join a church.
The Church IS...
- ...a regular assembly of people who profess and give evidence that they have been saved by God's grace alone, for His glory alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
- ...a local, living, and loving collection of people who are committed to Christ and committed to each other.
- ...a display of God's wisdom and glory (Eph 3:10).
- ...a display of counter-cultural, Christ-like love (John 13:35).
Church membership is thus for believers only. It is not for those who simply give cognitive assent to the gospel. It is for those whose lives evidence an increasing application of the principles of the gospel to the situations of their everyday lives, and whose character increasingly reflects the holiness of God.
Biblical Background for Church Membership
While we do not find indisputable proof texts for local church membership, we do find passages that imply formal membership in local assemblies.
- Paul's formal exclusion of the sinner at Corinth presupposes formal inclusion. Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to remove a brother from their ranks who was sinning in a way not even approved by pagans.
You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst....Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed... I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler - not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves (1Cor 5:2, 7, 12-13).
- Paul is calling for the exclusion of this immoral brother, which would imply that it meant something to be included in that church. He would lose the privileges of membership previously conferred upon him. Formal exclusion presupposes formal inclusion.
- Paul's reference to "the majority" in 2 Cor. 2:6-7 seems to refer to a group commonly recognized as the church's members. Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.
- The early church kept a list of widows. We know from the widow list mentioned in 1Tim 5:9 that lists of people were kept and tracked. If widows were listed, it is likely that a list of current members was kept and updated as well.
- God Himself keeps a list of all believers. Indeed, true companion, I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel, together with Clement also and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life (Phil 4:3). ...and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into [the New Jerusalem], but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life (Rev 21:27).
- God has always made a clear distinction between His people and the world. Drawing this distinction was the reason for the ceremonial and civil laws of the Old Covenant - these laws distinguished Israel from the nations surrounding them, as a people set apart to the Lord. Such clarity of distinction between God's people and the world argues for clarity and specificity on our membership rolls.
What Does Church Membership Signify?
Church membership signifies a church's corporate endorsement of a person's salvation.
- If we believe that only genuinely converted Christians are to be members of the local church, then it makes sense to take time to hear people's testimonies and listen for evidences of godly fruit and increasing holiness in their lives.
- When the church approaches membership in this way, membership can function as the church's corporate witness to the fact that the new member does indeed increasingly display the fruits and characteristics of a genuine Christian.
Church membership signifies an individual commitment to grasp hold of one another in mutual love and discipleship.
- By identifying ourselves with a particular church, we let the pastors and other members of that local church know that we intend to be committed in attendance, giving, prayer, and service.
- We increase others' expectations of us in these areas, and we make it known that we are the responsibility of this local church. We assure the church of our commitment to Christ in serving with them, and we call for their commitment to serve us in love and to encourage us in our discipleship.
- In short, we enter a covenant relationship with that church and its leadership.
Church membership signifies a regular responsibility that involves people in each other's lives for the purposes of the gospel.
- Church membership should not be viewed as a loose affiliation useful to members only on occasion. This is a self-centered way of looking at membership. It says, "I want to join this club for the benefits that it can offer me. But as soon as it starts demanding more than I feel I'm receiving, I think I'll start looking around."
- Church membership is not a set of rights that I purchase with my tithe.It is a set of responsibilities that I commit myself to carrying out, both for and with other members in gospel fellowship, work, and joy.
Church membership signifies an inward love for God and His people.
- By joining ourselves with God's people in local church membership, we show that we want to covenant with them to help and be helped, encourage and be encouraged, rebuke and be rebuked. In other words, we show that we want to love God's people, and be loved by them.
- According to 1John, this willingness to love God's people is the fundamental indicator of our heart's disposition towards God Himself. If someone says "I love God", but hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also (1John 4:20-21).
What are the Criteria for Church Membership?
Churches should be careful to allow only genuine believers into the covenant of church membership. Why?
Because of who the church is.
- By definition, the church is the gathered people of God. Those who are not a part of that people are welcome as visitors. But membership in a local church only belongs rightly to those who already belong to God by faith in His Son Jesus Christ.
- Unregenerate members do not share the same spiritual DNA as Christians. Infusing the Church with their blood will lead to complication, infection, and potential fatality.
Because of how the church operates.
- By speaking truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Eph 4:15-16).
- The growth of the body comes from Christ. But Christ causes that growth through the instrumental working of each individual part. Unregenerate members therefore do not contribute to the growth of the body because they have no proper function in it.
Because of the covenant that membership signifies.
- To enter church membership is to enter into a covenant with the other members and the pastors. It is a commitment to being meaningfully involved in the lives of other members to do them good spiritually.
- Therefore, when we allow non-Christians into our membership, we are allowing them intimate access to the lives and struggles of other members - allowing them to informally counsel and comfort, rebuke and correct, teach and train.
- In limiting membership to Christians, we are protecting the flock from being infiltrated by wolves in sheep's clothing
In discerning who is a genuine believer, the most reliable criteria for which we can look is the fruit of godly character and actions. Why demand such fruit?
Because Jesus advises us to do so.
- Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits (Matt 7:15-20).
- Cf. also John 15:1-11; Gal 5:22-23; James 2:14-26; 2Peter 1:4-11; 1John 3:10.
Because other criteria are unreliable.
- Emotions ebb. Expressiveness in worship can be merely external. Clarity in talking about spiritual things has been achieved by the unconverted. Being entrusted with responsibilities or positions at church does not necessarily imply godliness. And the use of apparently spiritual gifts can be fatally deceptive (Matt 7:21-23).
- Increasing conformity to God's character is the only sure yardstick with which to measure the genuineness of Christian confession.
What are the Entailments of Church Membership?
R&B (Repentance and Belief)
The most important entailment of local church membership is a lifestyle of repentance and belief. One must make a genuine commitment to consistently repent of known sin as it occurs, and to continually believe in Jesus' death and resurrection as the only basis of acquittal before God.
More specifically, this lifestyle of repentance and belief should be evidenced in three concrete steps.
Baptism. This is the first way we are commanded to express our death and resurrection with Jesus Christ.
- Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you... (Matt 28:19-20).
Statement of Faith. The most important thing we unite around is the message we proclaim - the gospel.
- For this reason, it is healthy to require people to sign the church's statement of faith. This way, everyone knows what the church is united around, and doctrinal division is less likely to occur. See Sample
Church Covenant. The second most important thing we unite around is the lifestyle demanded by the message we claim to believe. For this reason, it is healthy to ask people to commit to the principles and priorities of a church covenant.
- This way, everyone knows what it means to be a member, what is expected of them when they join, and when they are falling short of fulfilling their covenant obligations as members.
Five Basic Responsibilities of Membership
- Attend regularly. If we don't attend, we can't be edified, and the pastors can't get to know us in a way that meaningfully informs their shepherding care of us.
- Give regularly. If we don't give, the pastors can't fully devote themselves to preaching and teaching, the missionaries have to come home, and the lights will have to be turned off in the building.
- Pray regularly. One of the most basic ways we can edify and encourage one another towards greater obedience, holiness, and joy is through prayer. Pray through your church's directory a page a day, using the Scripture you're reading in your devotions.
- Attend communion services particularly. It is an ordinance commanded by the Lord for our joy in and remembrance of Him. It binds us together as a believing community, and reminds us of the significance of Christ's death.
- Attend business meetings particularly. We should care enough about the life of our local church to attend business meetings and to contribute to them in helpful ways by being quick to listen and gentle in speech.
Why is Meaningless Membership Dangerous?
Meaningless membership refers to the common practice of neglecting to tie church membership to specific responsibilities, priorities, expectations, privileges, and sanctions. It is dangerous for the following four reasons.
Meaningless membership sends a confusing witness to the surrounding community.
- When we fail to tie membership to specific obligations, we allow people to become members without them feeling any particular obligation or accountability to live and teach as the church lives and teaches.
- The poor behavior of many members in such a low accountability environment often taints the church's corporate witness in the community and confuses unbelievers around us about what it means to be a Christian. It makes the church look grossly hypocritical when an immature or unconverted member sins repeatedly in a publicly known way.
Meaningless membership causes division due to the sin of unconverted members.
- When we uncritically allow mere verbal professors of Christ to enjoy membership in the local church, such members can become sources of division within the church. The church is a web of mutually sanctifying relationships. One quarrelsome unbeliever can sow many seeds of division by slavery to sins like gossip, anger, lying, and covetousness.
- Division is especially likely if the verbal professor of Christianity has natural teaching ability and is able to propound his own views over against those of the church by teaching Sunday Schools or leading Bible studies with false motives. When this happens, meaningless membership has led to the infiltration of false teachers.
Meaningless membership causes ambiguity regarding the duties of membership.
- When we fail to tie church membership to specific duties, new members don't have any concrete understanding of that to which they are committing.
- When members do not understand exactly what their responsibilities are, they are left without a practical yardstick by which to faithfully examine their own behavior or to which they can hold their Christian brother or sister accountable.
Meaningless membership leads to the self-deception of irresponsible members.
- Church membership is a local church's affirmation that an individual is bearing fruit that evidences repentance. Failing to tie church membership to duty and obligation communicates to the lazy and unconverted that the diligent killing of indwelling sin is unnecessary, and that observable growth in practical holiness is for the few, not for all.
- Such failure communicates the church's tacit approval of the idea that a person can be a genuine Christian and anticipate entrance into the Kingdom of God while simultaneously indulging complacence with spiritual inactivity and disobedience.
Three Reasons to Join a Local Church
Join a church for the sake of non-Christians.
- Church membership helps make the gospel clear to non-Christians by providing a unified witness of what it means to be a Christian.
- Membership provides this unified witness by implementing a statement of faith, encouraging unity in doctrine, and a church covenant, encouraging unity in lifestyle.
Join a church for the sake of weaker Christians.
- God is not merely concerned about our own private piety, but also about our care for the other sheep. This is a whole aspect of godliness that privatized Christians ignore. If we don't love God's people, then John says we have reason to question our love for God Himself (1John 4:8).
- God wants us to encourage weaker Christians and run the race with them. Don't leave it to other people to care for those outside your circle of friends. This is your responsibility.
- Members should see themselves as providers - coming to serve others, not to be served.
Join a church for the sake of the church leaders.
- If regular attenders don't eventually make themselves known to the pastor as members of the church, then the pastor cannot take responsibility for them as part of his particular flock. Pastors need to know for which sheep God will hold them accountable so that they can tend to them most responsibly and effectively (Heb 13:17).
- If regular attenders don't join churches, then pastors cannot be freed to do what they do. Pastors can only devote themselves to the ministry because they are set free to do so by members who fund their work. Regular attenders benefit from the commitment of other people who have become members and who give and serve and pray regularly.
More Reasons to Join a Church
Join For the Corporate Health of the Church
Join a church to expose false gospels.
- The best defense is often a good offense. God wants us to band together in love so that we can model Christianity for the world. This is often how we best debunk messages that masquerade as biblical Christianity but are really different messages altogether.
- Christians are called to differentiate the true gospel from false ones, to defend it against distortion, and to prevent it from being perverted. We do these things best together because we are sharpened by each other's insight, encouragement, and correction.
Join a church to edify the church.
- Some people refuse to join a local church because they feel they would be slowed down in their spiritual growth if they joined. Perhaps. But maybe God wants such people to join a church to help speed other people up. Membership doesn't stop with M-E.
- Joining a local church counters wrong individualism, helping us live out the corporate nature of Christianity. The NT is full of injunctions to care for each other. This is part of what it means to be a Christian. So if we think we are mature, yet lack a care for Christ's body that evidences itself in carrying out the responsibilities of local church membership, we hurt the church, and we are not yet as mature as we presume to be.
Join For Your Individual Health as a Christian
Join a church for your own spiritual protection.
- We can't always read our own souls perfectly. We can deceive ourselves, and we therefore need other people to help us walk as individual Christians (Jer 17:9; Ps 19:12).
- The Bible speaks of people as sheep. Sheep aren't meant to be wandering around on their own recognizance between folds. Sheep are dumb. We fall into ravines when we are by ourselves. We need to be shepherded into folds.
- So we need to exercise the humility to view ourselves as sheep and submit ourselves to a local body of believers for mutual encouragement, protection, and examination. It is our wisdom and safety to humbly stay with the flock and near a good shepherd who grazes, guides and guards us.
Join a church for your own spiritual assurance.
- In joining a church, we are asking our church family to hold us accountable to live according to what we confess. Membership in a local church is that congregation's public testimony that your life gives continual evidence of regeneration.
- In joining a church, we are taking hold of one another to know and to be known in mutual responsibility and care, so that we can make sure we are bearing the fruit of holiness, "without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb 12:14; cf. John 14:21; 15:10, 14).
The Best Reason to Join a Church
Join for God
Join a Church for the sake of God's name.
- The building up of the church is ultimately GOD'S work. The LORD added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42, 47).
- Saul, Saul, why do you persecute ME (Acts 9:4). Jesus so closely identified himself with His church that He said Saul was persecuting Him when he was persecuting the church.
- If Jesus identified himself closely with the church, we should too. By our being together in a church, we are giving testimony and praise to God through our lives as we live and love each other together.
- It would be easy to put on programs and attract people, and allow people to enjoy being in the choir and having homogenous friendships in small groups, but never deal with the most important issues.
- We could service people socially, but will they be committed to pray, give, serve, love, and attend? These are the marks of a faithful Christian, and these are the characteristics and actions that give God glory in the church.
Join a Church for the sake of God's cause.
- God wants His glory displayed and His gospel spread to all the nations.
- "It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make you a light to the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Isa 49:6).
- We can take God's glory and gospel to the nations better if we band together than if we remain alone.
- Being part of God's plan to spread His glory and gospel to all nations is a privilege that we will not have in heaven. We seize the privilege of evangelism best if we work together as one diverse unity.
The Reflecting Pool
- Does the Bible make explicit mention of membership rolls in a local church? Where is it implicit? Read 1Cor 12:14-26. How can church membership help us as Christians to live out these obligations we have to one another as Christ's body?
- Do most of the members of your church view membership as a loose affiliation useful only on occasion, or more as a regular responsibility involving them in each other's lives for the purposes of the gospel? What are the responsibilities of a church member? How can the fulfillment of those responsibilities contribute to the work of the gospel?
- Why might it be true that church membership is dangerous unless it is the reflection of a living commitment to Christ? What does a living commitment to Christ and His church look like?
- Church membership is a church's corporate testimony to an individual member's salvation. Read Hebrews 13:17. The Bible teaches that church leaders will be required to give an account for those under their care. Do you think this "account" will simply be a statement that a person once made a decision for Christ, or is it a knowledgeable testimony that a person is faithfully bearing fruit in the gospel? How does this affect our understanding of who should be on our membership rolls?
How would a biblical understanding of church membership make our witness to non-Christians clearer? How would it make it more difficult for weaker Christians to stray while still considering themselves Christians? How would it help to give shape and focus to the discipleship of mature Christians?
(See chapter 6 of Mark Dever's - Nine Marks of a Healthy Church - Visit the website at www.9marks.org)