A Biblical and Practical Rationale for Church Membership
By Brian Borgman
The first evangelical church I attended had a motto, it was, “Where Christian Experience Makes You a Member.” That warmed my heart, it was so un-sectarian, so kind, unassuming, undemanding. Throughout most of the church today, church membership is considered a relic of past ages, a vestige of legalism, a mark of social status, a stepping stone to heaven, a law and so on. Well we are so much more enlightened than our forefathers in the faith (at least the theory goes), that we have stripped away the traditions of men and have a purer, higher form of New Testament Christianity that has no official membership. This may sound pious and liberating, but the real question comes down to whether or not it is biblical. I would suggest to you that the large abandonment of official church membership is more a vestige of our anti-authoritarian culture than a closer resemblance to New Testament Christianity. Over a hundred years ago, a theologian wrote these contemporary sounding word:
It is not true that it is a matter merely optional and indifferent whether a believer identifies himself with the Household of Faith. He is under moral obligation to do that. It is for his own spiritual good to do it; it is one of the appointed means of grace; the Church needs his presence and influence, and the cause of Truth is furthered by a combination of Christian influence and effort. All are under law to Christ, and are bound by sacred obligations to obey and please Him. He has ordained that His followers should associate themselves together in these brotherhoods of faith and affection. A Church, therefore, is more than a voluntary society: it is a society under law to Christ.
A Biblical Basis for Church Membership
Although there are no explicit statements concerning the process of church membership in the NT, there are numerous implicit principles. Consider the accumulative weight of the following principles:
With only a few exceptions (e.g.Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:22-23), all the references to the “church” in the NT refer to a local church. The emphasis in the NT is not on the “universal church,” but rather the visible manifestation of it in the local assemblies. The clear and logical inference is that when the NT writes speak of “members” of the body, they are visible members of a visible, local assembly. To be a member of the visible body is to be one who has formally committed himself to a local body. The New Testament throughout presupposes the identification of the individual believer with a local assembly.
The conclusion of the matter is that the visible church is glorious insofar as it resembles the invisible church. Visibility and invisibility are two aspects of the one church of Jesus Christ. For that simple and conclusive reason the visible church must manifest the invisible.
Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Cor. 5:1-13 give the procedure for church discipline. The final step in Matt. 18:15f., and the step urged by Paul in 1 Cor. 5.f, is to “remove” the man from the body. Who makes the decision to remove the man? The congregation does. Who makes up the congregation? Everyone who attends? Not at all! Donald Whitney’s insights make the point:
The best way of explaining how they would have put away this man is to understand that they removed him from the membership of the church and generally stopped associating with him outside the church.
These people in Corinth had voluntarily committed themselves to a formal relationship, and they knew who were official members of the church and those who were “outside.” Obviously, biblical church discipline must be limited to a specific group-and that must mean church members.
Wayne Mack and David Swavely also make a relevant observation at this important point: The question of who is to be treated as a believer may be most pertinent to the issue of church discipline. If a “brother” or “sister” is living a sinful lifestyle and refuses to respond to private confrontation, then the church is commanded by God to deal with the sin (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:). But how do we know whether a particular attender is a “brother” or “sister” without a system by which the person can officially join or reject the church? And how can we officially put the offending party out of the church if he or she has never officially entered into it?
In Acts 5 God killed Ananias and Saphira for lying to Him. The result of this was that the believers in the community of faith were filled with fear and unity (5:11-12), while many in the community were struck with fear and esteem (5:13). The interesting word in 5:13, translated by the NASB as “associate” is the word “to unite, to join firmly.” A few verses later, it notes that more and more believers “were constantly added to their number” (5:14). “Joining” and “added” is the language of a commitment to a formal relationship with the body.
In the NT there is the clear teaching of elders governing the local assemblies (1 Tim. 3:4-5; 5:17; 1 Thess. 5:12; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-3). Over whom do the elders have charge? Whom do they shepherd, guard, lead, feed, and even discipline? Do the Elders involve themselves with those who are sporadic in attendance and uncommitted to the local body? Is it a good use of precious time and energy to pour our lives into the lives of the nominally committed who won’t commit themselves to the local body in an official way? The clear implication is that they exercise this oversight over people who have formally committed themselves to the body.
The NT metaphors for the church (body, temple, flock and household) all imply a specific group of people, committed to the Lord and one another. As Eric Lane notes,
God has given us four pictures of the church, not one. This is just to emphasize and prove the point by repetition, but also to say four different things about what it means to be a member of a church. To be a stone in his temple means to belong to a worshiping community. To be a part of the body means to belong to a living, functioning, serving, witnessing community. To be a sheep in the flock means belonging to a community dependent on him for food, protection, and direction. To be a member of a family is to belong to a community bound by a common fatherhood. Put together you have the main functions of an individual Christian. Evidently we are meant to fulfill these not on our own but together in the church. Now can you see the answer to the question why you should join a church?
The conclusion I would draw from the above observations is that faith in Christ makes one a member of His body, however, that relationship must now become visible through a formal commitment to a local body. Just as one is baptized into Christ at conversion (Rom. 6:4), the visible manifestation of that union must take place through water baptism (Acts 2:38). Just as there was no such thing as an unbaptized Christian in the NT, the evidence also shows there was no such thing as a Christian who did not join himself to a local body through a formal commitment.
Practical Basis for Church Membership
The biblical rationale is obviously the most important element to the argument. The practical reasons, however, also carry a tremendous amount of weight. The following comprise the practical rationale for church membership.
The issue of commitment is serious consideration for formal church membership. To be committed to Christ is to be committed to His church. Commitment to a universal, invisible body is a universally invisible commitment. If there is no formal relationship, what forms the basis of commitment in attendance, giving and serving? Multitudes of Christians today love the care-free, non-committal atmosphere of the evangelical church. There has been no commitment to give, attend regularly or serve, yet these mandates of commitment are clear in the Scriptures. A formal commitment, through church membership, puts these fundamental commitments in shoe-leather.
The issue of accountability is also a serious consideration. When a man and a woman are merely “seeing each other” there is no accountability. However, once they say “I do,” things change. There are reciprocal responsibilities, which both parties have now by vow becomes accountable for. The same principle holds true in the local church. When a person is merely “seeing” the local church, there is no accountability for faith, life or doctrine. But once a formal commitment is made, accountability is in full force. This accountability is fully biblical, and is hard to experience outside the bonds of formal church membership.
The issue of responsibility is also a serious consideration. The church body makes a multitude of important decisions together, such as adopting an annual budget, hiring pastors, disciplining members, etc. In all reality, should the heavy responsibility in making such decisions be left with any and all who “attend?” Do we really want someone who has never given one dollar to the work of the ministry making monetary decisions? Do we really want people who show no signs of regeneration making such important decisions as church discipline? The answer from the elders is a resounding “No!” Those who have committed themselves to this body through covenantal membership have accepted the responsibility of giving, serving and attending, and therefore, can exercise that responsibility through congregational voting.
Another important consideration along the same lines is service in the local church. Ministry is an important task. Do we put teaching into the hands of those who may or may not agree with us doctrinally? Do we place ministerial responsibilities on those who are not thoroughly committed to the body? The elders must be careful in dispensing ministerial responsibilities, and church membership makes that responsibility concrete and visible.
In our day of easy Christianity, when commitment is low and expectations are high, I would ask you to examine yourself in light of the biblical and practical considerations listed above. Are you a part of this local assembly? Do you view yourself under the care and oversight of this eldership? What is the commitment and responsibility level as you live for the Lord Jesus? Perhaps you have never considered church membership in these terms.