Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1Corithians 12:27)
Many churches today are having trouble encouraging church membership; some have eliminated it altogether. Some Christians regard church membership as unnecessary and theologically unsupported. Others are reluctant to commit themselves anywhere because they have experienced disappointment and hypocrisy in the church, or they just do not want to be held accountable. But what does the Bible say? The New Testament knows of no Christians who are not accountable members of local churches. One only has to pay close attention to whom the epistles were written – to people in local churches under the governance of ordained elders. Author and pastor Philip Ryken says, “There is no union with Christ apart from the communion of the saints. Nor can the saints have true communion without belonging to one another by belonging to Christ in His church.”
Church membership is actually strongly implied in the Scriptures. First, it is implied by the metaphors used in the New Testament, such as the church being the body of Christ (1Cor.12:12-31). Paul says believers are members of this body, and this organic relationship implies a close commitment to the whole. To belong to the body of Christ is to belong to a body. Secondly, church membership is implied in the way the New Testament requires elders to care for the flock of their particular charge. They are to have a special responsibility to care for their local church (Acts 20:28; 1Peter 5:2-3). This implies that leaders know for whom they are responsible. The ordination of the first deacons (Acts 6:1-7) was in response that some members on the rolls of the Jerusalem church were being overlooked. The church at Ephasus maintained a list of widows under its membership care (1Tim. 5:9). Thirdly, membership is implied by the requirement of Christians to give submission and honor to their elders (Heb. 13:17; 1Thess.5:12-13; 1Tim.5:12-13). Without some kind of willing covenantal agreement or commitment this is not possible. How is this leadership and submission going to work if there is no membership defining who has made the commitment to be led and who it is that chooses the leaders? Fourthly, discipline is to be exercised in the church (Mt. 18:15-17). How is this to happen if there is no definable group called “the church” that will take up this sensitive and weighty matter? Fifthly, church membership is implied by the simple fact that excommunication even exists. How can someone be removed from the church (1Cor. 5:12-13) if there isn’t a way of defining who is inside the church? The early church knew who was part of their community and who was not. Some kind of expressed willingness or covenant or agreement or commitment has to precede a person’s submission to a group of leaders. Sixthly, Christ shepherds and rules the church through elders. Elders exercise the keys to the kingdom (Mt.16:19) and have the sobering job of admitting people to or excluding people from church membership based the Bible’s definition what it means to be a Christian.
Therefore, the New Testament does call Christians to be committed to a particular local church. This commitment will be a formal one so that the elders and the church will know who has made it and who has not. Author and pastor John Piper says, “Church membership is a blood-bought gift of God’s grace. More than most of us realize, it is a life-sustaining, faith–strengthening, joy-preserving means of God’s mercy to us. I urge you not to cut yourself off from this blessing.”
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
One of the core values of our church is “we believe the visible expression of the invisible church is the local church. Membership and involvement in the local church is critical for spiritual growth.”
Church membership is making public vows that you are a follower of Christ and will live as a follower of Christ, you will be committed to serve and support the church family, and you will come under the direction, and if necessary, the correction or discipline of the leadership of that church body.
There are several close analogies in our society today to the formal vows of church membership. Making a formal commitment to a group or authority is part of the glue that holds society together. When someone becomes a citizen of the U.S.A. you must take an oath of allegiance to the constitution and laws of the country. When you join the military you are required to take an oath to the constitution and to the authority of the President. When a man and a woman get married they make public vows. Although these vows are not specifically commanded in scripture we believe they are critical. These vows safeguard the marriage and hold the couple accountable to their serious covenant promises to God and each other.
The justification for making a formal commitment to a local church is similar to taking marriage vows. A person joining the church makes a covenant to God and to the church body. God has ordained that the church and its elders encourage and hold the person accountable to live a life that matches his/her profession of faith. When you become a Christian you are joined with Christ and with His body the church. You will want to express that unity by making a formal commitment to the church. Paul said in Ephesians 4:11 that God gave pastors and teachers to equip the saints for ministry. A Christian’s attitude about church membership is not how the church can meet my needs, but how does God want me to serve others in the body of Christ.
What are the blessings of church membership?
1. Christians will flourish under God-ordained authority. Believers were designed to grow and flourish under Christ’s ministry through His officers. We find early in the book of Acts that the church prospered as they were governed, equipped, and served by the ordained officers (elders and deacons) in the church. Just like children flourish under the leadership, authority, and nurture of a loving orderly household, so believers flourish in the order and government of the local church. Christians can’t be shepherded and accountable to elders commanded to disciple them if they are not members in a local church. If we are disconnected from God’s provision for our nurture and protection in the local church we leave ourselves vulnerable and weak.
2. Christians will experience rich fellowship in the context of committed loving relationships.When you are part of a group of Christians who have made formal vows to be committed to love Christ and serve one another it creates a secure atmosphere for deeper fellowship and accountability. Being a member of a church means committing to a covenant relationship with people where you agree to be real with one another and you are there for each other through thick and thin. Jesus wants discipleship to take place in committed relationships with people with whom you sometimes have to confront in love, forgive, and reconcile.
3. Christians will witness through their unity of faith, truth, and vision. We are to be part of the community through which God has planned to carry out His great commission and transform society and culture through the gospel. Disciple making is to be done in the context of the local church according to Mt. 28:18-20. The church’s witness is expressed through its unity, commitment to Jesus Christ and each other, teaching and testifying of the Word of God, and through deeds of mercy. Being a member of a local church glorifies God because it is through the church, as Ephes. 3:10 says, that His manifold wisdom is made known.
Author and pastor Phillip Ryken states, “If the church is established by God, ruled by Christ, and governed by the Word of His Spirit, then how can a believer refuse to join it?” If you have been reluctant to formally join the church, I urge you to reconsider for the sake of your spiritual growth, the health of His church, and the glory of Christ.
Pastor Doug Griffith
Recommended reading: How Important Is Church Membership? by John Piper; Church Membership – The Context for Unity by Mark Dever; Is Church Membership Optional? by Stephen Pribble; The Importance of Church Membership by J.V. Fesko; The Communion of Saints (strongly recommended, especially chapter 4) by Philip Ryken.