We are seeing a surprising number of people from church backgrounds railing against the thought of church membership.
They see it as out of date and out of touch with the world. Any thought of authority is viewed suspiciously. They see the systems and structures as more of a hindrance than a help to what they feel God wants them to do with their lives. They don’t see membership of a local church as having any real benefit whatsoever.
There are various attitudes to church membership: indifference (not bothered), ignorance (don’t know), indecisive (can’t make their minds up), and independent. There are more and more of these latter types—‘Lone Ranger Christians’, we might call them. They don’t care what the Bible teaches and they do not want people in their business, telling them how they should be living their lives. They want to come to a church, get what they want from it, and leave when they have had enough.
This leaves the modern-day pastor with many problems. Not least of which is the problem that many people who find themselves in serious sin or feel isolated do so because they have not understood God’s intention for the local church to be central to the life of all believers.
Where is church membership in the Bible?
This is a question I am frequently asked. The short answer is nowhere and everywhere. The fact is that there are no specific ‘church membership’ texts in the Scriptures. Yet, there is huge amount of implicit evidence in the Bible to support the concept of church membership. So much that, once you see it, you’ll never be able to un-see it.
1 Tim. 3:1–13 and Titus 1:5–9 set out the qualifications for church leaders. Not only that, but Hebrews 13:17 is very explicit when it commands believers to submit to their leaders. This only works when there is a structure in place. If there is no membership, then there is nobody for leaders to lead. Our responsibility to submit to our leaders is nonsense if there is no group attached to them in some way.
1 Cor. 5:9 quite clearly states that the congregation were to ‘put out’ of their fellowship a man involved in sexual sin. Likewise Christ, in Matthew 18:15–17, encourages a process for those in sin to be challenged and, ultimately, taken to the congregation. Scripture does this so that we can maintain a clear distinction between God’s people—the church—and the surrounding world.
If there is no visible and practical way to work out who belongs to the church and who belongs to the world, then putting somebody out of fellowship has no real meaning.
Early Church Practice
We see in Acts 2:37–47 that there was a numerical record of those who had professed Christ and been filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 41) and an acknowledgement that the church was tracking the growth (v. 47).
In Acts 6:1–6, we see elections take place in order to address a specific problem and accusation. In Romans 16:1–16, we see what appears to be an awareness of who is a church member.
In 1 Timothy 5:3–16, we see a clear teaching on how to handle widows in the church. In verses 9–13, we read this:
“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: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work. But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.”
In this text we see criteria for who would or would not qualify for Ephesus’s widow-care program. The local church in Ephesus is organised, and they are working out a plan. So there seems to be evidence of a recognised membership of some sort.
But what exactly does church membership mean?
1. Loving one another.
John 13:34–35—This has to be the primary mark of a committed church member. The local church is the place where Christians of all backgrounds can show committed love to one another. It is in the local church that our love for one another becomes apparent to the world.
2. Encouraging one another.
Hebrews 10:24–25—Faithful church membership is tied in to stirring one another on. This must surely mean that we are in regular attendance.
3. Edifying one another.
Eph. 4:11–16—This is why members come together. To build one another up and to edify one another. The best context for this is close community.
4. Bearing with one another.
All believers are characterized by patient long-suffering, often in the face of disappointments, frustrations, loss, attack, slander, and offense (Matt. 18:21–22; Rom. 15:1). By carrying each other’s burdens, we fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).
5. Supporting the work of the ministry.
Romans 12:6–8—All of our efforts and talents should be employed as we seek to serve within our local church.
The problem for many of us is that we take the local church for granted. We take fellowship for granted. We like the benefits of community without the commitment.
“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living in common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”(Bonhoeffer)