1. What is church membership?
Church membership is the recognition by a local church that a person who is regularly attending their church is a genuine, born-again Christian.
2. Is church membership even biblical?
Many people, including pastors, believe that church membership is an unbiblical idea. This is usually based on two mistakes: (a) They have a faulty understanding of what church membership is and (b) they have a faulty understanding of what makes something biblical. However, when church membership is rightly understood, it is clear that the idea of church membership is taken for granted in the New Testament. Here are two lines of evidence:
(a) We know from church history, as well as from the New Testament, that church services in the early church were generally not open to the public. The church would have to recognize that you were a Christian before you would be allowed to join one of their meetings. How did they do this? Through baptism or a letter of recognition from another church. Why was this so important? It was important for a number of reasons but one of the most important reasons is that they didn’t want unbelievers to join them in celebrating the Lord’s Supper. In some parts of the church after the New Testament was written, those preparing for baptism could be part of the service for the scripture readings and the sermon but they had to leave before the Lord’s Supper and the prayers of intercession. So the fact that church services weren’t generally public assumes that there was some sort of official mechanism for recognizing whether or not a person was a genuine, born-again Christian. That’s church membership!
(b) The practice of church discipline in the New Testament also assumes some sort of official church membership in the early church (Matt. 18:15-19; 1 Cor. 5:1-13). A clear distinction is made between those who are inside the church and those who are outside the church. Church discipline (ex-communication) takes place when a church believes that a church member might not be a genuine born-again Christian.
1 Corinthians 5:12-13 – What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”
To know who is outside the church you have to have some sort of official way of recognizing who is in. To practice church discipline you have to have some sort of official way of recognizing who is in. The practice of church discipline assumes some sort of official church membership.
3. Why is church membership so important?
(a) It lets the leaders of the church know where everyone stands. Very often, people could attend a church for several years without having a conversation with the church leaders about how they became a Christian. Sometimes they are allowed to serve without the church even checking to see whether or not they understand the gospel. Since church services are public today, this means that we need to take extra special care to get to know the people coming to the church to know where they stand spiritually, for their sake and for ours.
(b) It helps you know where you stand. The human heart can be very deceitful. It can convince genuine Christians that they’re not really saved and it can convince unbelievers that they really are saved. The practice of church membership, though not infallible, can help to assure a doubting Christian that they really are saved based on what God’s word says and it can help to convince an unbeliever that they really need to come to know Christ and be saved. If the entire church is convinced you are not a Christian and can show you on the basis of God’s word, that should give you pause. If the entire church is convinced that you are a Christian on the basis of God’s word, you can throw your doubts aside and be confident that you are saved.
(c) Without membership, church discipline has no power. Because church membership means so little to so many people, it makes little difference if church membership is taken away. However, if church membership is taken seriously and everyone recognizes what church membership represents, taking away a person’s membership speaks volumes. When a church takes a person’s membership away – when it is done biblically – the church is saying to that individual that they don’t believe that that person is a Christian. If the person really is a Christian, that should lead them to repentance. If they are not, it will keep them from having false assurance. Church discipline only has power when we recognize what church membership means and when church membership is taken seriously.
4. Objections to Becoming a Member
(a) Church membership isn’t necessary for my salvation. So why should I become a member?
If you base your obedience to Christ on the minimum that you have to do to be saved, that’s a real problem. The issue isn’t whether or not church membership is necessary for your salvation, the issue is whether or not church membership is something that’s biblical. There should be absolutely no doubt that it is.
(b) What if I don’t match up with all of the beliefs of the church that I’m going to?
You don’t have to match up with all of the beliefs of a church to be a member – at least not here. There’s a minimum that you have to believe – but that minimum is necessary for anyone to be a Christian. Even if you don’t match up with every belief, you need to be a member of a church.
(c) What if I’ve been burned by a church before and don’t want to be a member of a local church again?
Being hurt by a church can be a very painful experience. However, obedience to Christ demands that we still attend a local church. And if you’re attending a local church regularly as a believer, you need to become a member. Why? For all of the reasons given above. Churches today usually divide people into three categories: member, adherent, and visitor. From the perspective of the New Testament and the early church there should only be two categories: member and visitor. Church membership loses its power and its whole reason for existing if we see it as something that’s optional.
*So is church membership biblical? Absolutely.
*Is church membership important? Absolutely.
*Is church membership optional? No.