Is Church Membership Biblical?
Teaching | by Pastor Adam Sinnett
- In an effort to adequately prepare you for our next series, Church Membership: What it means to believe, be and belong, I will be writing a handful of posts to address frequently asked questions regarding church membership and related issues. Whether you’re a follower of Jesus or still considering his claims, this should be a helpful series.
Q: Is Church Membership Biblical?
In our individualistic and consumeristic culture church membership is often misunderstood and, at times, avoided altogether. This is unfortunate as becoming a member of a local Jesus-loving, Bible-believing, gospel-centered church is a vital part of the Christian life. While it is true that the term church membership is nowhere to be found in the New Testament, it is inferred and assumed throughout. (see also: “trinity”) Membership is not only biblical, but vital to the overall health of every local church. Therefore it is important for every follower of Christ to have a biblical, rather than cultural, understanding of what it means to be covenantally committed to a specific grouping of God’s people in a specific local context. You might ask, “Is it necessary for Christians to make a formal commitment to their local church?” The answer, in short, is “yes”. Let me show you why.
Ten biblical evidences for church membership:
#1 The church is formed through a common allegiance to Jesus Christ.
2 Cor 4:5 “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord…”
Acts 17:3 “Explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise…”
John 20:31 “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God…”
Rom 10:9 “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…”
1 Cor 15:3 “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures… (Eph 1:7; 1 Pet 1:3-12; 1 Cor 12:3)
The church is the people of God redeemed by the person and work of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. We start here because this is where the church starts. The church isn’t merely an optional club, non-profit or voluntary society that we select as a matter of personal preference. Jesus died to forgive the sins of everyone, everywhere, who trust and follow him. He then brings those who have responded to his call together, within a given local context, and calls them his people, his church, to live underneath his gracious and sovereign reign. God’s goal in history is not merely to form a club, but to create a new humanity. That alone does not prove church membership is biblical, but it does demonstrate God’s aim to create a new people. Let’s look at the issue more closely.
#2 The first Christians corporately identify themselves as churches.
Acts 8:1 “There arose on that day a great persecution against the church…”
Acts 11:22 “The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem…”
Acts 11:26 “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people…”
Acts 12:1 “Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church…”
Acts 12:5 “Earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church…”
Acts 14:27 “And when they arrived and gathered the church together…”
Acts 15:3 “So, being sent on their way by the church…”
Acts 15:4 “They were welcomed by the church…
The Bible uses the word church to describe the way in which the early Christians lived and were organized. There are no examples of Christians in the Bible that lived separate from the local church. From the beginning, we see that the local church is primary to God’s purposes.
#3 The first Christians were “added” to the church.
Acts 2:41 “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”
Acts 2:47 “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Here we see that when someone expressed faith in Christ, they are added to the newly forming church. These new Christians didn’t merely become isolated Jesus-followers, they were added to a people. To become a follower of God was to be added to the people of God. Church membership represents being “added” to a particular local church.
#4 An intentional record was kept.
- Acts 1:15 “a group numbering about a hundred and twenty.”
Acts 2:41 “there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
Acts 4:4 “the number of the men came to about five thousand.”
In other words, the early church is counting heads and keeping records of those who demonstrated faith in Jesus Christ – likely for purposes of planning and care (cf Acts 6). There is biblical evidence that the early church kept a list of widows (1 Tim 5:9). If there were lists of widows it is very reasonable to conclude there were also lists of those who belonged to the church. Viewed in this light, church membership is counting yourself among those that belong to God’s people, in Christ, in a local context.
#5 Common commitment and mutual dependance.
- Acts 2:42-47 “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers…and all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.”
From the beginning, those in the church were committed to and mutually dependent on one another. It is evident that the church was not just a random collection of isolated individuals who happened to gather once or twice a week. Church membership is demonstrating your common commitment to and mutual dependence on other followers of Christ in the context of a local church.
#6 Pastors/leaders are responsible for specific sheep.
- 1 Peter 5:2 “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you…not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”
Acts 20:28 “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”
This tells us that the pastors/leaders knew who they were responsible for (i.e. “the flock”). It is for this “flock” that pastors will have to give an account before Jesus Christ (Heb 13:17). In order to give an account, the pastors must know who they are accountable for. Clearly, this cannot mean that pastors/leaders are responsible for everyone, but only those who are part of their “flock”. Church membership allows the pastors to know who they are ultimately responsible for.
#7 Christians are responsible to follow specific pastors/leaders.
- Heb 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
1 Tim 5:17 “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor…”
Just as the pastors and leaders must know who they are responsible for, the church must know who they are to follow, emulate and show honor to. By becoming a member of a local church you are placing yourself under the watch and care of specific leaders who have been given the task of shepherding your soul. Without becoming a member of a local church it is impossible to actually obey these verses. Church membership is the act of committing to a specific flock that is graciously governed by qualified leaders.
#8 Church discipline infers church membership.
- 1 Cor 5:13 “God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you..’”
Titus 3:10 “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him…”
1 John 2:19 “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued to be with us. But the went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
Mat 18:15-20 “If your brother sins against you…if he refuses to listen, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
In each case above, an individual is living in stubborn, unrepentant sin and thus removed from among God’s people. The question this raises is, “How can someone be removed from the church who has not first belonged to it?” Answer: They can’t. You can’t put someone out of the church if they have never officially been in the church. These passages, therefore, infer church membership.
#9 The Apostle Paul planted churches not isolated Christians.
- Acts 14:23 “Appointed elders in every church…”
Acts 15:41 “He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches…”
Acts 16:5 “So the churches were strengthened in the faith…”
Throughout the book of Acts the Apostle Paul’s aim was to plant churches, not merely convert isolated, independent individuals. We see this not only during his three missionary journeys, but also in his epistles which comprise the bulk of our New Testament – written to churches (Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Corinthians, Thessalonians, etc).
#10 Biblical metaphors for the church.
The Bible uses a host of metaphors to explain the relationship of Jesus to his people, and Jesus’ people to Jesus. There are four primary metaphors:
- Citizens (see also: people of God)
Eph 2:19 “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens…”
Phil 3:20 “But our citizenship is in heaven…”
1 Cor 12:12 “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…For the body does not consist of one member but of many…As it is, there are many parts, yet one body…now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
(see also Col 1:24; Eph 1:23; 4:12; 5:30)
2 Cor 6:16 “We are the temple of the living God…”
Eph 2:22 “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
1 Peter 2:5 “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house…”
Eph 2:19 “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but…members of the household of God.”
Gal 6:10 “Let us do good to everyone…especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
Heb 3:6 “Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son…we are his house…”
Each of these metaphors is intended to highlight that our relationship to Jesus is not merely individual, but corporately interconnected and mutually dependent. Look at them again. These couldn’t merely be used to describe the universal church, as its impossible to be “family” or part of the same “body” with people you’re not in direct proximity to. Nor could these metaphors be used to describe a loose collection of isolated individuals that happen to gather once a week. God chose these particular metaphors to describe a brand new people that are vitally and organically committed to one another by nature of their faith in Jesus Christ. Church membership represents the commitment to live out our corporate identity in Christ (citizens, body, temple, family).