Last week we considered the idea of the Church and the reasons why every believer should join with a local church. I do not know if the reasons given were compelling or not. Either way, I want to press the issue a little further. Not only is it a necessary expression of our faith to be a part of a local church, but every believer should join a local church in a formal membership agreement.
In full transparency, this is not an issue I have considered much in the past. Even in seminary, church membership was more assumed than taught – at least, we were not taught the biblical grounds for the idea. Therefore, when I came across the objection that church membership was a human convention superimposed on the church, I did not have an answer. At a much later time, I came across a clear, logical, and sound argument from the Scriptures concerning church membership.
So, let’s consider the question: Is church membership biblical, meaning, do we see it in the Bible? Is there a biblical precedent for becoming a member of a local body of believers, or is this just a convention of man in order to count “nickels and noses”?
I believe we see the evidence of local church membership in at least two places:
1. We see the evidence of local church membership in the establishment of the New Testament church.
- Acts 2 – Upon the preaching of the Word, thousands are saved. In their salvation, we see two things expressed: (a) a specific number is given. In other words, they know who made a profession of faith and who did not; and (b) everyone who responded was baptized. There was a sign of inclusion, an act of identification. These two observations are significant. The individuals in this group identify themselves as believers and have everything in common (this would be impossible without a notable distinction).
- Acts 5 – This principle of distinction and separation is also recognized by those outside their number. We also see pictures of church leadership.
- Acts 6 – A dispute arises in the church, and the apostles’ response is also instructive. They ask the believers (an identifiable group) to pick, from among them (again, they knew who to chose from), deacons to serve. So, here we have some indication of organization, identification, and decision-making.
As we continue to flip through the picture album of the New Testament church, we see several little signposts that indicate a developing structure among local believers: Acts 8, opponents knew who to persecute; Acts 11 – communication between churches; Acts 12 – Herod arrested some who “belonged to the church”; Acts 14 & 15 – Paul & Barnabus “gather the church together.”
2. We see the evidence of local church membership in the instruction of the New Testament church. A few of these observations include:
- 1 Cor 5:4, 11:18, and Heb 10:24-5 – Speaks of the assembly, the regular practice of meeting.
- Rom 12:3-16 & 1 Pet 4:8-11 – Here we have instruction concerning behavior toward and service to those inside the church. This instruction only makes sense if those being instructed had a context in which they could practice this kind of serving and living.
- 1 Tim 5:9-10 – This is one example of pastoral care shown by the church to its widows. We see that there is a way to identify who is eligible for help.
- 1 Pet 5:2 & Acts 20:28 – Peter and Paul both instruct elders to care for those they have been entrusted with. These elders would have some way of knowing for whom they were responsible.
- 1 John 2:9 & 1 Cor 5:2 – Finally, when Scripture speaks of those who leave (or are expelled from) the church, these terms/actions only make sense if there is a knowledge of who is included.
As we search the New Testament, we may not have a book of 1 Membership, and yet it becomes clear that the idea of church membership is not the tradition or convention of man. We see it modeled for us by the early church. Indeed, even the existence of letters to the churches indicates that believers organized themselves into local bodies. Now, the exact form of that organization may not be explicitly spelled out for us… but that’s another discussion.
If you would like to read more on this topic, this article summarizes Jonathan Leeman’s argument in the book Church Membership. That book is also part of a more extensive series that you may find encouraging.