In many regards church membership for all practical purposes seems meaningless to many people. Why should I become a member, when I can have all of the “benefits” without membership? Is that really true? What does the Bible actually say about membership?
Church membership is not like membership to a local country club where, “when you pay, you get to stay” and enjoy the benefits. Church membership for believers is about being devoted to one another (Romans 12:10, Acts 2:42). Church membership is a submission to spiritual authority. Church membership is a form of spiritual accountability to a group of believers and to a watching world. Church membership is God’s plan for believers in this time. So what does the Bible actually teach about church membership? The following is a helpful resource from the website: 9 Marks Building a Healthy Church.
Where do we see church membership in the New Testament?
- Matthew 18:15-17: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault…if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you…If he refuses to listen to them, 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.” The ability to exclude someone from “the church” presupposes that it’s known who belongs to “the church” as a member in the first place.
- Acts 5:12-13: “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.” So, people faced the decision of whether or not they would join the church in Jerusalem. This joining is more public and definite than an informal association.
- In 1 Timothy 5:9-12, Paul gives Timothy instructions for enrolling widows on the list of those receiving support from the church. He writes, “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works…” While this isn’t conclusive evidence for formal church membership, it’s tough to imagine that the church in Ephesus would have kept a list of widows but not have any formal means of identifying everyone who belonged to the church.
- 1 Corinthians 5:12-13: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.” Paul called upon the Corinthian church to judge those who were inside the church, not those who were outside. They were responsible for the testimony of those who belonged to the church, not those who didn’t. This passage makes no sense if the Corinthian church didn’t have some public, formal means by which people identified themselves with the church.
- 2 Corinthians 2:6: Paul writes concerning a man the Corinthian church had excommunicated, “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” This man’s exclusion from the church was a punishment by the majority. You can’t have a majority unless you have a definite set of people from which a majority is constituted.
According to Scripture, why should every Christian join a church?
Every Christian should join a church because Scripture requires it. Granted, there is no direct command in Scripture that says, “Every Christian must join a local church,” but two factors in Scripture indicate that every Christian should be a member of a local church.
- Jesus established the church to be a public, earthly institution that would mark out, affirm, and oversee those who profess to believe in him (Matt. 16:18-19, 18:15-20). Jesus established the church to publicly declare those who belong to him in order to give the world a display of the good news about himself (John 17:21, 23; see also Eph. 3:10). Jesus wants the world to know who belongs to him and who doesn’t. And how is the world to know who belongs to him and who doesn’t? They are to see which people publicly identify themselves with his people in the visible, public institution he established for this very purpose. They’re to look at the members of his church. And if some people claim to be part of the universal church even though they belong to no local church, they reject Jesus’ plan for them and his church. Jesus intends for his people to be marked out as a visible, public group, which means joining together in local churches.
- Scripture repeatedly commands Christians to submit to their leaders (Heb. 13:17; 1 Thess. 5:12-13). The only way to do that is by publicly committing to be members of their flock, and saying in effect, “I commit to listening to your teaching, following your direction, and to submitting to your leadership.” There’s no way to obey the scriptural commands to submit to your leaders if you never actually submit to them by joining a local church.
What are some other reasons to join a church?
- Assure yourself. Membership is the church’s way of affirming the validity of someone’s profession of faith (Matt. 16:19, 18:18). The church looks at a person’s life, hears their explanation of the gospel and how they came to believe it, and says, “You look like a Christian to us. So join us. Watch over our lives and we’ll watch over yours.” So, while membership in a church doesn’t guarantee that someone is a Christian, it should assure believers of the genuineness of their faith.
- Evangelize the world. We can preach the gospel to our community and the world much better together than we can apart. Not only that, but as we covenant with other Christians to love, encourage and admonish one another, we display a living, breathing image of the gospel to the world.
- Expose false gospels. As the members of a church support and submit to its teaching, they collectively say, “This is the truth! World, pay attention!” and their unity in doing so works to expose corruptions and imitations of the true gospel.
- Edify the church. When we join a local church we let the pastors and other members of that church know that we intend to attend regularly, give faithfully, pray for the church, and serve the church as we have opportunity. We allow fellow believers to have greater expectations of us in these areas, and we hold them responsible in these ways as well. So join a church in order to build it up (Eph. 4:11-16). You can do far more to build up the church as a committed member than as a detached, autonomous attender. And it will do good to your own soul as well.
- Glorify God. Jesus told his disciples, “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, NIV). We testify to the world about what God is like by how we love one another—and a committed, persevering, accountable love is a far greater picture of God’s love than a picky-and-choosy, I’ll-only-be-involved-with-the-people-I-want kind of “love.” By committing to one another as members of the same church we display the glory of God’s love—a committed, persevering, transforming love—as we image it in our lives together, and so bring him glory.
HT 9 Marks.org