The previous articles in this series have addressed several practical applications of what meaningful church membership looks like. The matter of church membership has been assumed. Yet I am well aware that many Christians do not believe that church membership matters. It is for this very reason that many Christians pay little regard to matters of church life. In this brief article, I will seek to make the case that memberships matters—and that it matters a lot.
The idea that one can be a Christian and yet not be a committed member of a local church is a novelty; it is an idea that has grown in prominence over the past seventy-some years. Before World War II, such an idea was an aberration. However, with a post-war shift to individualism (perhaps arising from the fears of the recent horrors of destructive authoritarianism), there is now a well-entrenched scepticism concerning the principle and practice of church membership. Without delving into the many factors behind this development (see below for some helpful resources), in this article I simply want to present the biblical case that for the Christian, church membership matters.
Biblical counsellor Jay Adams was once asked in a conference whether the local church should exercise discipline on those who attended and who were not members of the local church. He caused a stir—but an important one—when he answered, “Of course not: Church discipline is only for Christians!” His point was that it is a given that that Christians are identifiable and accountable members of a local congregation. He was affirming the biblical principle that church membership matters.
Of course, many would respond to Jay Adams that the Bible nowhere commands church “membership” and that this is merely a manmade requirement. It is true that there is no text that commands, “You shall join a church.” But the absence of such a statement no more mitigates against church membership than the absence of a commandment that a husband is to live in his home with his wife mitigates against the wise counsel that a husband and wife should share the same home! There is plenty of revelation that, when honestly evaluated, leads to such a practice. The same can be said of church membership. Consider the following.
The principle of the Body of Christ demands church membership. If the Christian is a member of the Body of Christ organically (see 1 Corinthians 12) then it is fair to conclude that the Christian should be a member of the church organisationally. In fact, to claim to be a member of a local church organically and yet to reject an organisational identity is hypocrisy. Such a scenario is more akin to a lifeless and useless amputated arm than it is to a connected and thus fruitfully functioning one.
The principle of the Bride of Christ gives another motivation for church membership. The believer is married to Christ. This a marriage requires loving identity with Him. Many in our day claim that they do not need a marriage license to live together in a committed relationship. But of course they do. In fact, this is actually the ultimate reason why they refuse to have a formal, legally recognised ceremony. Without such a formal agreement one can leave the relationship with impunity—or so they think. Sadly, too many Christians treat the local church little better than a harlot. She is used for what they can get from her but there is little or no commitment to care for her. Sound harsh? Hardly: It is the truth.
The expectation of church discipline(addressed in the previous article) also argues for formal church membership. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul wrote to the church about a sinning member who needed to be disciplined out of the fellowship. He gave instructions: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together … deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (vv. 4–5). An obvious question arises: How would they know when they were “gathered together”? Would there not need to be a recognisable, definable people? Certainly. If you argue against church membership, then logically we should be allowing Christians to go from church to church to participate in their affairs. Of course, that would be ridiculous. Exactly. Membership matters.
Consider further the task of the elders to “shepherd the church of God” (Acts 20:28). This is a responsibility for which the elders will give an account to God (1 Peter 5:1–4). Does this not imply that there is a “definable” group of sheep for which the under-shepherds are responsible? And therefore is it not legitimate to conclude that they can only be responsible for an identifiable group of people who have willingly and formally submitted themselves to be shepherded? Does this not clearly imply that these Christians have made themselves formally accountable as members of that local church? After all, if membership does not matter then elders have the impossible task of shepherding every Christian—everywhere!
We could develop this further and argue that the covenantal character of the Christian life demands formal church membership. Christians are in covenantal relationship with God through the new covenant instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ. We are thereby His people because He is our God (Hebrews 8:10). When believers are united by Christ into a local body then they are united in this covenantal relationship to one another. A summary look at the covenants in Scripture leads us to the obvious conclusion that they were publicly and formally recognised. The same principle holds for the Christian under the new covenant. Christians are expected to carry out biblically defined covenantal responsibilities in relation to one another. This requires formal accountability. In other words, membership matters. In fact, we can conclude that those who argue against such formal membership simply underscore the reality that if “everyone is a member” then in fact no one is a member. And if no one is a member, then what’s the point?
I understand that many Christians have been hurt by the local church. That is to be lamented. Nevertheless, the solution is not to avoid mutual accountability and reject formal membership. Rather, Christians need to obey the Lord and identify with that which He loves—the church—and help her to be lovelier. A lack of accountability can make life easier. But the Christian is called to a cross, not to comfort. And so if you want to mature as a Christian, then seek meaningful membership in a local church that is seeking to please her Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. As you do, you will come to appreciate the biblical principle that membership matters.
For those wanting some deeper consideration into the principle of church membership, the following resources are recommended:
- Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012)—208 pages (also available in Kindle format)
- Jay E. Adams, The Place of Authority in Christ’s Church (Stanley: Timeless Texts, 2003)—81 pages
- Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010)—384 pages (also available in Kindle format)
- Joshua Harris, Stop Dating the Church: Fall in Love with the Family of God (Sisters: Multnomah, 2004)—144 pages
- Thabiti M. Anyabwile, What is a Healthy Church Member? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008)—128 pages (also available in Kindle format)