Is Church Membership Biblical?
Posted by Aaron Knight on December 7, 2009
I dropped in on the church membership class today to field questions from attendees. One of them, a teenager, asked a basic but critical question: “Is church membership in the Bible?”Great question! It’s true that there is no 11th commandment in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt be a church member.” Nor do we have any explicit descriptions of the early church setting up a church membership system.
And yet, church membership in some form seems implied throughout the New Testament. First, notice that the early church in Jerusalem counted the believers in the congregation. At the day of Pentecost God moved powerfully through Peter’s preaching and “those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). The church continued to grow, and later we’re told that “many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand” (Acts 4:4). The church in Jerusalem was a definable, countable body. This indicates some concept of membership or belonging.
Second, consider the images in the NT used to describe local churches. Paul told the Corinthian church that it was a body (1 Cor 12:12-37; see also Eph 3:15-16) and the Ephesian church that it was a temple (Eph 2:21-22). Paul taught Timothy to view believers in the Ephesian church as family members (1 Timothy 5:1-2). And so to function as a body, a temple or a family, a local church needs to know who belongs to that body, temple or family. In church membership, a local church establishes a transparent process for identifying who belongs to that particular gathering of Christians.
Perhaps even more helpful is the image of the local church as a flock under the care of shepherds. Paul commanded the elders in Ephesus to “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Likewise, Peter exhorted the elders: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers” (1 Peter 5:2). What is a flock, but a defined group of sheep, known individually and even counted by the shepherd? If a church doesn’t have a defined membership, then for whom exactly are the elders accountable as shepherds? Just anyone who happens to walk into a church service on any given Sunday? To obey these texts, elders must know who the members of a particular flock are.
Third, how can church practice meaningful church discipline without some concept of membership? Jesus gave us a process for confronting sin in the local church that includes, as a last resort, bringing an unrepentant Christian before the church to be put out of the congregation (Matt 18:15-17). Similarly Paul rebuked the Corinthians for keeping a man caught in public, gross immorality in their fellowship (1 Cor 5:1-2). But if there’s no concept of church membership, then what does it mean to bring someone before “the church” for discipline? Who is the church in that case? And how can someone be put “out” of a fellowship if they were never “in” in the first place?
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the New Testament portrays the Christian life as one lived out in the committed fellowship of a local church . Christ and his apostles call us to love one another, be devoted to one another, honor one another, instruct one another, carry each other’s burdens, admonish one another, offer hospitality to one another, build each other up, and more. So in church membership, we intentionally and publicly commit ourselves to a specific group of believers in order to live out these teachings in practical daily ways. And we present ourselves to these other believers to receive their ministry to us.
Is church membership biblical? It seems a formal, intentional commitment to a local church is everywhere assumed in New Testament Christianity, even if there’s no Greek phrase for “church membership.” Church membership then is a structure for putting biblical Christianity into practice.