“Is church membership biblical?”

Scott Wakefield   -  

Note: For a brief discussion on what we mean by “biblical”, see Note (3) at the beginning of this post. While it is increasingly popular to be a free-range Christian without the shackles of buildings and church polity, the Bible’s teaching on church membership is a pretty serious wrench in the works of those looking to implement a self-adjudicated Christian growth plan. The New Testament assumes throughout that genuine followers of Christ meaningfully participate, as a member, in a local body of Christ such that they are held accountable to growth in Christlikeness and Kingdom mission.

Tracking, Naming, and Caring for Believers Demonstrates Regular and Meaningful Participation in a Local Body There are a number of passages where people are tracked, named, and cared for, in a way that implies at least meaningful participation, on a regular level, beyond mere informal and organic relationship.

  • In Acts 2:41, it says “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” Then, in Act 2:47, it says, “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Now, let’s ask a few questions of these verses.
    • Added to what? Luke, who wrote Acts, tells us that they were “added to their number” (Acts 2:47). Apparently there was a group of people to which these new people were added. Call the existing group what you will, but those being saved they were added to a distinct, measurable, and known group, and not to some amorphous concept of “the body of Christ at large” to which too many modern Christians attempt to lay claim.
    • Added because of what? They were added because they “received his word”, “were baptized”, and “were being saved”. The existing group of believers weren’t accepting just anybody. There were obvious requirements.
    • Why count? While it’s certainly not the same as a cloud-based database that includes the demographic information we try to maintain on our people, it’s certainly the same idea. Apparently the first group of believers, immediately after Pentecost, saw fit to begin to keep track of the people in their group.
  • In Acts 6:1-6, where Luke tells us the disciples were still “increasing in number” (see previous point), church growth and language barriers meant that Greek-speaking widows were being neglected “in the daily distribution” by the Hebrew-speaking Christians. So the 12 Apostles appointed, prayed, and laid hands on seven well-known and faithful men to “serve” (to “deacon”) in this way, instead of them, so they could devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word”. This scene implies a number of things that help make the case for the New Testament assumption of meaningful participation in the local body.
    • While we don’t know from the text whether they kept an actual list of the widows being served, it’s not an warranted suggestion. Think about it… If the need was so great that it required seven men to serve, that’s a lot of widows! And how do you know which ones were to be served and which ones weren’t?! Memory? Maybe. An actual list? Good idea! (An even if they didn’t keep an actual list here, they did in 1 Timothy 5, below.)
    • When it says “the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples” in v 2, it is basically a way to say they had a congregational meeting!
    • The men chosen came from (v 3, “from among you”), were well known to (v 3, “of good repute, full of the spirit and of wisdom”), and confirmed by the local believers (v 5, “what they said pleased the whole gathering”). How did they know them well enough to agree with the choices if they weren’t part of that particular local group of believers?
    • Most see this as the beginning of the formalization of church offices (seen more clearly in 1 Timothy 3:1-13; 5:17-18; Titus 1:5-9, et al). This is part of the development of the kind of structure and polity required for keeping people accountable in the local body.
  • Romans 16:1-16 – Paul demonstrates an awareness of people who are part of more than one group of believers. He names Phoebe, “a servant of the church at Cenchreae”, lots of people from the Roman church, and even says at the end, “All the churches of Christ greet you”, meaning other churches in other places greet them.
  • In 2 Corinthians 2:6, Paul tells the Corinthian church that “the majority” who had punished the leader of a rebellion against Paul to ease up on him and “rather turn to forgive and comfort him”. How did he or they determine a “majority” if not by counting?
  • In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, where it speaks of caring for those who are “truly widows”, Paul instructs to “let a widow be enrolled”, in other words, put on a list. This plan for how to handle widows implies intentional organization and structure within a group of believers (that did not include unbelievers, “truly widows” who are not “self-indulgent” and ‘dead even while living’), at a local level.
  • Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27 – The Lamb’s Book of Life (which is the same as the “book of life” in above listed passages) has actual names in it. It’s not like we modern churches made up the idea of writing down the names of believers on a list!
  • While the word “church” in the New Testament is used to describe a few different types of groups of believers, some of whom are beyond “the local body”, many of them refer to a specific local body of believers, who meet in a specific place. (The words of Jesus in Matthew 18:17, e.g., only make sense if the church is known and gathered.)

Learning and Using Your Gifts Happens Best for Members of a Local Body The word “member” shows up numerous times in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 and Romans 12:4-6 to describe meaningful participation in the body of Christ. How can we be obedient to the commands here and not be a “member” of a local body? How can we learn what our gifts are and how to effectively use them for the Kingdom if not from the wisdom of others and in concert with other gifts? Spiritual gifts presuppose the purpose of meaningful participation in a local body of believers. Accountability and Church Discipline Only Happen While Under the Authority of a Local Body

  • Matthew 18:15-17 assumes participation in a local body of believers. It even says, “tell it to the church”. How do you do that unless the church is known and gathered?
  • 1 Corinthians 5:12 is a situation requiring church discipline? How can you “judge” those “inside the church” (as distinct from “judging outsiders”) without something like membership where participants recognize they are under the authority of those carrying out church discipline?
  • Hebrews 13:17 says, 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. If there is no biblical requirement/expectation to belong to a local church, then, 2 questions: To which leaders should a Christian “obey” and “submit”? For whom do these “leaders” give an account?

Now… Does someone have to be a formal “member”, in modern terms, by agreeing to a church’s statement of faith and going through that church’s classes on how to meaningfully participate, in order to be faithful to the basic outline of Scripture to repent from sin, confess Jesus as Lord, and ? No. Any true believer will submit to a local church’s leaders, in order to be shepherded. But not only do these things help, they are in keeping with the church’s responsibility, granted by Jesus, to ensure those joining and participating are rightly confessing Jesus as Lord. Formalizing membership is simply a way to ensure that happens as effectively as possible. (For more on the How and Why of our membership process, see here.) The New Testament teaches nothing akin to the free-range Christianity many espouse today. It only knows of Christians who are part of a local body of believers who are named, tracked, cared for, and held accountable to Christlikeness and Kingdom mission. While formal membership may not be required as a prerequisite for salvation, it may be required as a prerequisite for proper Christian growth!