For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
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Friday, September 14, 2018

Is Church Membership Biblical?

I’ve always been more concerned with people feeling welcome, building relationships, and growing in Christ than I have been in pushing church membership. 

Perhaps that is because in my teenage years I attended a church that boasted of having 2,000 members, but only had an average attendance of about 300. Reporting large “membership statistics” to the denomination seemed to be a means of stroking the pastor’s ego rather than an indication of true ministry. 

Or perhaps it is because I have lived in a time that has been marked by a decrease in “brand loyalty.” Previous generations identified strongly with companies, associations, and churches. Today about the only strong brand with a loyal following seems to be Apple. In the church in America, this has resulted in church-hopping among Christians and in churches dropping the denominational “brand” from their name.

Or perhaps it is because as a pastor the question of membership came up in meetings where we were looking for people to serve in capacities that required membership in the church. For example, there might be a person who seemed like that would be a real asset on the Council of Administration, but they are not a member. The main benefit of church membership seemed to be you could get asked to do something! No wonder people weren’t interested. They could enjoy the “benefits” of attending a church without the risk of being responsible for what happened there. 

Or perhaps it is because the idea of church membership sounds institutional and administrative. I'd rather be organic and flexible. 

Every church I have been a part of has had formal church membership. It has been accepted as a normal practice. Of course, the real question that we should really ask is: is membership in the local church a biblical concept? If it is, what does it entail? Is it different than membership in other clubs? 

To be clear, joining a church doesn’t assure that you are going to heaven. That is determined by your relationship with Jesus Christ. On the other hand, if church membership is taught in the Bible as an expectation and a means of growing in our relationship with Jesus, then we need to take it seriously. 

By church membership I mean a more or less formal process where a church affirms a person’s profession of faith, gives oversight to the person’s discipleship, and in which a person submits his discipleship to the authority and ministry of a particular local church and takes on the responsibilities that come from being a part of a local church. It is a process by which a person takes responsibility for their part in the church and the church takes responsibility for the person’s spiritual well-being. In most cases, those who have become members of a church are added to an official list. Rarely, particularly in places where persecution is a threat, such lists are kept mentally by leaders because of the dangers associated with formal lists being used for harming believers. 

So is such a formalisation of the relationships between a believer and a local church biblical? I had my doubts. Then I started to dig into the New Testament.
Glimpses in Acts

There are indications in the book of Acts that there was a method of counting people who were part of the church. Of course, as Acts unfolds, it is a church in Jerusalem. For example, in Acts 2:41 it says that about three thousand people were added through baptism. Someone was counting.

As the church grew, it encountered structural problems and need to change to meet the needs of the larger group of believers. As a result, the apostles gathered “the full number of disciples” and had them select people to oversee the food ministry (Acts 6:1-17). Obviously, they knew who to gather together. They had a list of who the disciples were so they were assured of bringing together the full number of disciples. This “full number” of disciples had a voice in the organisation of the church: they selected and approved of the men in charge of food distribution. It wasn’t just anyone who got to be a part of the process, it was the full number of people known to be disciples. They were people known to be followers of Christ. 

As the church expanded, we see the that the believers in various cities gathered together in their cities to meet together. Eventually, letters were written to encourage them. These letters are often addressed to the local church in that city (See for example, 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1). If the letter is addressed to a region like Galatia, it is addressed to the churches in Galatia (Galatians 1:2). In a similar fashion, the seven letters of Revelation are addressed to the local church (Revelation 2-3). Thus we see that believers in each city organised themselves into churches with their own structure, but still related to churches in other cities. Christians were part of the local church in their city.

The believers in these local churches were not simply people who attended the same event like one attends a sports contest. They were committed to one another. They loved each other. They exhorted one another. They prayed for one another. They carried each other’s burdens. They submitted to one another. They spurred one another on to love and good deeds. They shared the Lord’s Supper together. These types of relationships involve commitment and time. Commitment to Christ involved commitment to other believers. The “one-another” commands point to serious and sustained relationships within the church. It is the crucible where discipleship takes place. The idea of a believer who practicing their faith without involvement in the local church is unknown in the Bible. Of course, none of this demands a “formal church membership” like happens in many churches today, but it does demonstrate committed togetherness. 

Another Consideration 

There is another piece of the puzzle to consider: the responsibilities given to church elders. Consider for a moment what Paul said to the elders of the church in Ephesus:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. [29] I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; [30] and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.  - (Acts 20:28-30)

The elders were to watch over and care for the flock. God had made them caregivers for the church in Ephesus. Remember, the church isn’t a building or a Sunday worship service. It is people. The elders were given responsibility to watch over the life, faith, and doctrine of the group of people known as the Ephesian Church. 

This idea is more strongly stated  in the book of Hebrews:

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.  - (Hebrews 13:17)

Notice that the Bible says that the leaders of the church will have to give an account for the souls of particular people. They bear an incredible responsibility before the Lord for the health and spiritual welfare of the people entrusted to them. The Lord will ask them, “what about this person, or that person?” For the elder, this leads to a simple question: who are the sheep for whom I must give an account? They are not responsible for “all people everywhere” but for individual people that were entrusted to their care. How do they know who these people are? The elder needs a way of identifying who these people are. He needs a list of the members of the flock.

Perhaps even more illuminating is the instruction in this verse to obey and submit to leaders of the church. These words express two important concepts that cut deeply into our motives. The first word, “obey” is the passive form of a verb that means “to persuade”. In the passive voice, it means “to trust”. I like to think of it as having allowed oneself to be persuaded. It describes someone who places confidence in another person. The ESV translates it as “obey” because often it is used to describe the action of one who trusts (Romans 2:8; Galatians 5:7; James 3:3). The second word, “submit” means to yield to authority and admonition. It is a word often used in military contexts of submitting to another person.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that for the good of each of our spiritual lives, we are to have shepherds that watch over us and to whom we submit. Most of us do not like the idea of submitting to another person, but frankly, sheep without a shepherd are usually not healthy for very long. Sheep thrive when they are in a flock with a shepherd that watches over them. A believer should be able to identify the flock they belong to and the shepherd(s) that watch over them. This relationship should not be a surprise to the shepherd! Nor can a person be shepherded by a television personality or YouTube videos. It takes interaction with a real live person. It is a relationship.

So a membership commitment in the local church is a normal biblical practice. It entails loving and serving others in the church. It involves commitment and sacrifice. It involves the blessings of being a part of a family that cares about you. It also involves submitting to leaders who watch over your life to help you grow in your relationship with the Lord. 

How this commitment is made will be different in various set. Logically, it will involve giving a testimony of your faith in Christ, an orientation to the life and doctrine of the church, and an interview with the elders of the church. This interview is the beginning of their oversight of your soul. At some point, a commitment to the church and an affirmation of membership will be made making it official. 

Typically, there will be a list of members kept by the church. Certainly in places of persecution having a written list of members on paper will be dangerous and it will be a mental rather than physical list. But in normal circumstances, a list of members should be kept. These are people who have given evidence of being born again, been baptised, and have made a commitment to be a part of and submit to the authority of the local church. They have voice in some of the decisions of the local church (Matthew 18:15-20; Acts 6:1-6). They actively do the one-anothers. They are watched over and cared for by the shepherds. 

The care of the sheep is usually a joy. The shepherds love and protect them. They offer guidance and work to make sure that the sheep enjoy good pasture. Most of all, the sheep and the shepherds simply go through life together with all of its changing seasons. Sometimes the elders must spring into action because of a threat to the sheep. Once in a while the shepherds examine each sheep to ensure all is well. But mostly, the scene is a tranquil one. Once in a while, though, there is a sheep who goes astray. The shepherds then have a responsibility to go after the sheep. 

Another Factor

This picture is how the church is designed to work and brings us to another indication of formal church membership: church discipline.

In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus gives instructions about dealing with sin among believers. On rare occasions, a person refuses to repent of their sin. At this point, their behaviour is to be brought before “the church”. If the the church agrees that the behaviour is sinful and the person refuses to repent, they are to be “treated like a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, they are to be treated like an unbeliever. This process is designed for the health of everyone involved. For the sinner, it is meant to bring them to repentance and salvation. For the believer, it keeps sin from destroying the church. 

In order for this process to work, there must be a specific group of people called “the church.” If the person does not repent, they are to considered like an unbeliever. They were part of the “the church” but now they are not part of the church. The same implication can be seen in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. In this case, there is gross sexual sin in the church and the person is to be “removed from your midst” until they repent. There must be some formal way of indicating where a person stands in relationship to the local church. This is another indication of local church membership being a biblical practice.

Final Thoughts

Does becoming a church member mean you are going to heaven? No. That is determined by being born again by the Spirit of God and having one’s name written in the Book of Life. So this is the most important issue. But those who have been born again want to obey the Scriptures and the Scriptures point to a commitment to a particular local church and submission to its leadership as the normal way for the believer to live out their faith.

Of course, no church or leader is perfect. Grace is needed as imperfect people follow God together. Even Peter got it wrong sometimes (Galatians 2:11-14)! Our allegiance is to Jesus. When churches act in unbiblical fashion and leaders are taking us to places that don’t line up with the Bible we need to find a healthier church. I understand. I have been hurt by churches, too. When I was, it was difficult to make a commitment to a local church. It was something I needed to work through.

The commitment of church membership is important for the health of the church and the spiritual well-being of the believer. While not specifically taught in Scripture, it naturally flows out of the Bible and the life of the New Testament churches. 

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