Why Membership?

Pastor Matt Postiff, Ph.D., Th.M.

Questions frequently arise about church membership. Why should I become a member? What is membership? Is membership in the Bible? What is in membership for me?

We first have to answer the question, "a member of what?" We are speaking of membership in the local church, which is a small scale-model, if you will, of the universal church of all believers in Jesus Christ. The local church's membership is composed of regenerated, baptized believers who are organized together with a pastor, deacons, and who observe the ordinances, meet regularly to worship God, receive instruction from the Bible, fellowship together, and carry out the great commission.

If you are a member of the body of Christ, the universal church, that does not mean that you are automatically the member of a local church. Conversely, if you are a member of a local church, you may not be a true member of the body of Christ. In other words, you can be saved and not attached to a local church (that is wrong, but does happen), or you can be attached to a local church and not really saved (that is even worse).

Henceforth, we will be discussing the local church side of the membership idea.

Membership is Assumed in the New Testament

Every believer was commanded to be part of a local church (Heb. 10:24-25). They gathered in local churches. Paul wrote to local churches and planted local churches and ministered in local churches. An individual Christian existence was never encouraged or even considered as a viable possibility in the NT. Consider the many "one another" commands in the NT as an evidence of the truth of this proposition (Romans 12:10, 12:16, 13:8, 14:13, 15:5, 15:7, 15:14, 16:16, and that is just in Romans!).

It seems that to the apostles and other early believers, to even ask the question "Should I join a church?" would be way out of line. They assumed you would join the church if you were a real Christian. That was the natural thing to do for a born-again person.

Biblical Texts Indicating That a List of Believers Was Kept

In the NT, we see that there was a list of members that were well known to the church. Various verses give evidence of this:

  1. Acts 2:41, 4:4 – the disciples knew the number of people that were part of the church.
  2. 1 Timothy 5:9 – the widow list (taken into the number).
  3. Acts 6:2-5 – the election of deacons from a known set of people ("seek out from among you").
  4. 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 – church discipline requires us to know who is inside and who is outside.
  5. Romans 16:2-15 – Paul greets a whole list of people in the Roman churches.

If we know who is in and who is out, then we have membership roll.

Biblical Texts Using the Member Idea

The problem with the heavy emphasis on membership in some circles is that it relies on stretched interpretations of sections of scripture that talk about saints as being members with one another. An unproven assertion is often used—namely, that whenever member is used in the Bible, it is using it in the same formalized fashion that we use it when we think of local church membership today.

At least for Romans 12:4, 5, membership seems to be of a wider body than just the local church. Paul is dealing with the body as a whole while he speaks to the Roman church individually. His concern is to teach that we ought to be humble (v. 3) because God has given to each one a different gift, and no one has all the gifts (v. 6). Rather, we are all individual components making up a larger body, and not all have the same function. Each has his part to play, but none rises above the rest, and we are all connected with each other. This applies to both the local and universal levels of the church.

1 Corinthians 12:12-27 use the term about 13 times and this is the most important passage to the discussion of local church membership. Actually most of the uses of the term are in the section of the text where Paul speaks about a human body (12:14-26) as illustrative of the body of Christ (12:12-13, 27). The illustration of the human body showed (1) the diversity of parts, (2) the different functions of those parts, (3) the need for all the parts—even the seemingly weak ones, (4) the lack of division between the parts, (5) the care of the parts for one another. The body spoken of here is not a local church per se but is larger than that—it is the whole "Christ" and "one body" in 12:12-13. In verse 28, the church is bigger than just a single local assembly.

For a complete study of the Biblical membership idea, we should also consider 1 Cor. 6:15 (membership = close connection with Christ), Eph. 2:19 (member = part of God's family), 4:25 (we do not lie to one another because we are part of one another), and 5:30.

Even without visiting these texts, the point is established that we cannot simply equate "member" in the NT with the concept of church membership as we practice it in local churches today.

Types of Local Church Members

There are inactive, associate and junior memberships specified in our church's constitution. These are practical matters dealing with disciplinary matters, temporary relocations, or the issue of minor members. But for now, I want to focus on two categories that are not called out in the constitution. First, there are "official" members who have made a formal commitment, and have been formally welcomed into the church's membership. These have gone through the process mentioned below.

Then there are "default" members who regularly come to FBC but have shied away from membership for one reason or another—be it a conviction against membership, a fear of it, a lackadaisical attitude, a previous bad experience, a lack of commitment to the local church, or whatever. While these things are unfortunate and need to be overcome, I still have a responsibility to minister to these folks.

For the most part, I minister to each the same way. When it comes to voting or the matter of discipline or other difficult circumstances, we treat non-members somewhat differently than members because non-members have not agreed to be bound by our agreement as to how we will conduct ourselves. That agreement happens to be called the constitution and doctrinal statement.

Legal Issues

Getting back to our question as to why membership? there are some other picky issues as well. One has to do with our status as a Michigan non-profit ecclesiastical corporation. Someone has to be officially associated with the organization for it to be a valid institution.

We also have to protect ourselves in the area of church discipline and lawsuits. For instance, when someone joins the church, they agree to be bound by the conditions of the constitution regarding membership. That means if they commit adultery, and a witness confronts them, and they do not respond, and then they also refuse the counsel of one or two other brethren, then it has to be brought before the church. However, the person may say "I don't want my personal business brought before the church." This is out of bounds once the person has joined the membership of the church. They may sue on the allegation of slander or libel, but if they have joined the membership and agreed to this kind of treatment, that kind of lawsuit will not be successful for them (not to mention they are told in the Bible not to go to court!).

Accountability

Another reason for membership is to establish a clear and agreed-upon relationship of accountability between the church member and the church and pastor.

The new member agrees to be brought into accountability with the whole church—not just for discipline but also for encouragement and edification in their spiritual walk. The new member is making a commitment to the support of the church in terms of its ministry, finances, etc.

By joining membership, there is also a relationship established between the new member and the pastor in the sense of the pastor having a responsibility to carry out his pastoral duties toward that person. Heb. 13:17 and 1 Peter 5:4 give the pastor a responsibility to watch out for souls—a responsibility that he will be called to account for before the Lord. Are you part of the group of people for which I will be held responsible? Or are you skirting the edge of this?

Membership and the Lord's Table

One area that is of concern is the proper treatment of the Lord's Table. Must one be a member of the universal church, the body of Christ, to participate at the Table? Most certainly—how could you have fellowship with the Lord if you are not saved (1 Corinthians 10:16, 21)? Else your participation would be at best empty, and at worst mockery that is subject to God's judgment vis-à-vis 1 Corinthians 11:29.

Must one be a member of the local church conducting the Table of the Lord, in order to participate in the service? No—the apostle Paul, for instance, would undoubtedly have participated with various local churches of which he was not then a member. Christians who are on travel can participate in the Table at another local church.

Must one be a member of some local church in order to participate in the Lord's Table service of another? The Scriptures indicate that the answer is yes. Whether you are "formally" a member or "de facto" a member matters less than whether you are on some list, formal or informal. If you are disobedient to the Lord's command to be an active participant in some local church, then you would have to repent of that sin (which would include changing your conduct) before taking of the Table.

This is similar to the question about baptism. Must one be baptized in order to participate in the Lord's Table service? Absolutely. Actually, I've made one potential exception for this—that one is willing to be baptized and has made that known, but has not undergone baptism because of a delay between making that known and the next scheduled baptism service. If the Lord's Table service intervenes, that candidate for baptism may participate in good conscience. But again, if you are disobedient and refuse to be baptized, then you should NOT participate at the Lord's Table. That is a sin for which you would need to repent before taking the Table. And the same argument is made for baptism as a requirement for membership in the local church. If you refuse to be baptized, how do we know you are a genuine, obedient Christian? The point is that we do not, so we could not allow you official entrance into the church.

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