A sound church must be committed to meaningful church membership.
This is not a popular topic in our day, for at least a couple of (related) reasons. The first is the widespread individualism of our society. Many factors of life today have turned people inward: it is not unusual for people to barely know their neighbors. So much of life today is customizable: not only your burger, but also your news sources, your entertainment, and your shopping are designed to let you have everything your own way.
And so, second, this individualism spills over into people’s view of religion, and churches have often encouraged people to think just this way about Christ. Many (a majority of?) folks today believe that their religious beliefs are simply between them and God. The common suggestion that Christianity is primarily, or even exclusively, about one’s “personal relationship with God” has fed this idea. Church, for most people, is considered to be an optional tool to aid a person’s spirituality—if that person thinks that it might be helpful. Membership in a church, on this view, is entirely irrelevant to true spirituality.
To begin, then, I need to make an argument for the biblical importance of church membership. I want to acknowledge, right up front, that there is no one clear and obvious text in Scripture that teaches church membership, but I do think that the idea is definitely found in the Bible.
Let’s begin with a couple of simple assertions. In the book of Acts, Luke observes that after Peter’s initial gospel message, “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). On this point, see also Acts 2:47 and 4:4, which express the same kind of idea. This suggests (but obviously does not demand) that the early church was tracking, in some way, those who had become followers of Jesus.
Another indication of this is 1 Timothy 5:9. There, Paul gives instructions about the care of widows in the church, and says, “Let a widow be enrolled if” she meets certain qualifications. The idea here is that the church is to keep records of specific widows in the church who meet certain qualifications, so that they can be cared for. Thus, the notion of official lists of “who’s in” is not foreign to the Bible.
As I say, these passages do not prove church membership; they only suggest it. The stronger argument for the biblical importance of church membership works backwards, from the passages that speak of church discipline. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to make my outline here very obvious, so that it can be easily followed.
The Biblical Case for Membership
1. There are some cases in which a church is biblically obligated to remove a person from the church.
Consider two key passages. The first, from Jesus’s own teaching, is in Matthew 18:15–18: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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 second passage, in 1 Corinthians 5, has to do with an issue of immorality in the Corinthian church. The situation concerned a man whose immoral relationship with his stepmother was known to the church. Paul, in no uncertain terms, tells them what they must do: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” These passages reward additional study, but their basic message is clear enough for our point here: there are occasions that call for certain people to be removed from the church.
2. It doesn’t seem that being removed from the church meant being barred from attendance.
But what does it mean to be removed from the church? Jesus’s teaching in the passage above is our clearest indication: the person removed from the church is to be considered “a Gentile and a tax collector.” In the Jewish context in which Jesus was teaching, this would mean that the person would be considered outside the people of God. In the broader New Testament, it is clear that these kinds of people are always welcome to attend to the church. For instance, 1 Corinthians 14:23 gives specific instructions about unbelievers who come to the church. Thus, the kind of “removal” outlined above does not demand that a person be barred from attending the church.
3. If we can “remove” a person without barring him from attending, we must have some other way to say who is “in” and who is “out” of a church. That is church membership.
This should be mostly clear at this point. If we can say that someone has been put “out” of the church, it follows that we must know who is “in” the church. It can’t simply be attendance, because anyone can attend, even those put “out.” Therefore, because church discipline is clearly biblical, church membership is clearly implied by the Bible.
The Purpose for Membership
Let’s conclude, then, by discussing two reasons that membership is important.
Membership is important because church discipline is designed by God as a way for you to grow spiritually. As we have already seen, discipline only makes sense if membership exists. Your theology might be deeply opposed our church’s, and your decisions might violate our church covenant at every point, and yet I won’t be coming to your house to ask you about it—if you are not a member of our church. And while you might think that it would be better not to have that kind of accountability, the Bible says otherwise.
The Bible makes it clear that our pursuit of Christlikeness is not supposed to be an individual endeavor. That’s exactly why discipline passages like Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 exist: they teach us how to help one another be faithful to Christ. That’s why we are told to “stir up one another to love and good works,” and that this is to occur as we meet together (Hebrews 10:24–25).
Membership creates accountability; to become a member of a church is to agree that allow the other believers in the church to hold you to your confession of faith. We often seek to avoid that kind of responsibility, but let’s be honest: our avoiding accountability simply shows us how much we need it.
Membership is important because it demonstrates that God’s plan in salvation is always bigger than individuals. This is the kind of truth that only becomes apparent when we spend time in the Bible, trying to see the big picture. The Bible as a whole tells a story; it is not simply a collection of random bits of inspiration or wisdom for living. The story of the Bible always involves God saving a people. I say it this way to make a distinction: God is not merely saving people, but he is saving a people.
In the Old Testament, for instance, it is obvious that the nation of Israel is God’s people. And a major point of the New Testament is the people of God has now expanded to include those of us who are not Jews. Paul spends a lot of time on exactly this point in Ephesians chapters 2–3. His point there is that one of the most important things that God is doing in this day is building a church that includes every kind of people. If we get his point here, it should become apparent that we can’t say that we’re Christians if we’re quite opposed to the very thing that God is doing in this world.
For those unconvinced, I offer this challenge: read Paul’s letters, and see how often he talks about the church. What you’ll find is that, for him, being part of a church isn’t an optional part of being a Christian; it’s essential. Furthermore, nearly every letter Paul wrote is addressed to a particular local assembly. Despite the cliché, the Bible is not a love letter to individual believers.
In this matter, as in all things, Christians must follow the teaching of their professed Lord. To intentionally do otherwise is to draw into question the robustness of that very profession.