Is Church Membership Biblical?

Zac HicksChurch & Ecclesiology7 Comments

Some denominations and churches make room for formal membership in the local body, and others do not.  I’ve wrestled myself with whether church membership is a biblical practice or whether it’s merely a human invention which may be good, but not necessary.

In the church context in which I’m a pastor, we have our fair share of members, but we also have not a small amount of folks who, for a variety of reasons, regularly attend, are quite involved in the body-life of the church, and yet have not gone through the formal process of membership.  For some, if not many, of those folks, their reasons are often pragmatic.  They haven’t been able to engage in the classes or meetings that we’ve set up as a prerequisite for membership.  (In those groups, we briefly overview theology, church history, our denomination’s history and distinctives, and our local church’s journey, authority-structure, vision, mission, and core values.)  For others, there exists an objection to membership as unbiblical and unnecessary.  “I don’t need to take a class and sign on the dotted line to be connected with this local assembly; it’s really about a heart commitment, not a piece of paper,” they might say in sundry variations.

So, again, is membership biblical?  I believe it is.  Unfortunately, people’s perceptions of what “membership” means are often more informed by culture than by the Bible.  When we hear “membership” we immediately think of Costco or a country club.  We think of signing contracts, paying dues, and getting special ID cards.  

When I’ve done talks on “membership” at our church, the following is a summary of what I’ve presented, in both defining and defending what biblical member-ship is all about.

“Member” is a Biblical Word

  • oikeios – a member of a household (Eph 2:19)
  • summetochos – member, sharer, participant (Eph 3:6)
  • melos – member, body-part (we retain this in English with words like “dismemberment”; Rom 12:4; 1 Cor 6:15; Eph 4:25; 5:30; Col 3:15)

These three words give us great insight into what “member” means from a biblical perspective.  First, it connotes familial connectivity (oikeios).  This is why Christians have called one another “brother” and “sister” since the earliest days of the Church.  These labels aren’t Christian jargon.  They make a theological statement about who we are as members of God’s covenant family.  

Second, it connotes active participation, mutual giving and taking, and doing “life together” (summetochos).  The summetochos/metacho word-group is a rich scriptural expression for intimate life-sharing and connectivity.  To be a “member” is to be a life-sharer.

Third, it connotes our union with Christ and subsequent union with one another.  “Body of Christ” is not just a symbolic metaphor for the Church.  It is a statement about who the Church is in relation to the world.  When Christ left the earth, He didn’t really leave.  He actually chose to manifest Himself differently, through the Church–His Body–by the indwelling of His Holy Spirit.  As odd as it sounds, if people want to physically see Jesus, they are to look at the Church.  A member, in this understanding, is a body-part of Christ.  Someone who is a member of a church recognizes their “body-part-ness” and strives to be the best body-part they can be, recognizing that they are just a small part of an integrated whole.  

This is a very different understanding of membership than Costco or country clubs!

On Membership and Peace

Colossians 3:15

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.  And be thankful.

F. F. Bruce:

“Let the peace of Christ be arbiter in your hearts,” he says.  When hostile forces have to be kept at bay, the peace of God garrisons the believer’s heart, as in Phil. 4:7.  But here the common life of fellow-members of the body of Christ is in view; when differences threaten to spring up among them, the peace of Christ must be accepted as arbitrator.  If the members are subject to Christ, the peace which he imparts must regulate their relations with one another.  It was not to strife but to peace that God called them in the unity of the body of Christ.  Peace in this sense figures prominently in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).  In a healthy body harmony prevails among the various parts.  Christians, having been reconciled to God, enjoying peace with him through Christ, should naturally live at peace with one another.  Strife inevitably results when men and women are out of touch with him who is the one source of true peace; but there is no reason why those who have received the peace which Christ established by his death on the cross should have any other than peaceful relations among themselves.1

The Meaning of Membership

1. It means that you realize that you’re not only called to Jesus but called into a community.

Cyprian of Carthage (3rd c.):

Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.  “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” 

This statement can be scary for Protestants.  It sounds “Catholic.”  It sounds like it violates the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  Here’s how we understand this statement.  We don’t believe it means that people are saved by God through becoming members.  We don’t believe it means that if people believe in Jesus but aren’t part of a local church, assembly, or gathered body that they aren’t saved (there are even scriptural counter-examples, like the thief on the cross).  We understand this to be powerful rhetorical shorthand for, “when God saves, he ordinarily, naturally, and necessarily draws us into community with other Christ-followers.  We are saved into community–the Triune Community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the fellowship of all others who share in that divine life.  Perhaps Cyprian meant something stronger than what we’d be comfortable with, but we think it’s a powerful way of saying, “Hey, God didn’t intend to create lone-ranger Christians.”  To commune with God is to commune with others.  Our communion is necessarily vertical and horizontal. 

2. It means that you’re recognizing you’re weak, and you therefore need the deepest amount of commitment and accountability to support your weakness.

I can’t know their hearts, but I sometimes wonder about people who never commit to church membership.  I wonder whether they fully understand how weak they are and how much they desperately need every tool God has given them for their sanctification and growth. 

3. It means that you’re choosing not to treat the church like a consumer product. 

Sometimes people choose to not become members so that they can hold the church at arm’s length.  They want an “out” if something were to go wrong, if something offended them, or if someone displeased them.  In essence, they want to treat the church like a product that they can return if they don’t find it useful or helpful.  Membership in a church takes that “right” away.  You’re forced to deal with issues from the inside rather than easily running away.  You’ve made a commitment, and backing out becomes much harder.  Conflict, disagreement, and hardship can now be tools used by God for the growth and maturation of you and the strengthening, edifying, and purification of the church.

4. It means that you help lead and guide the church.

From the documents of my denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC):

Confirmed Members: Those who have been baptized and who have made a public profession of their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and who have been admitted to active membership by the Church Session are entitled to participate in the governing of the Church by voting in meetings of the congregation. (Book of Order, “Book of Government,” 6-1.A)

This results in:

  • Helping us move forward in the vision and mission God has for us.
  • Electing officers (who become your “representatives”) as overseers and servants (elders and deacons).

5. It means that you’re taking your discipleship under Christ seriously.

EPC Documents:

The exercise of discipline is highly important and necessary. The purpose of discipline is to maintain the honor of God, to restore the sinner, and to remove offense from the church.  Ministers must instruct the officers and congregation in discipline and jointly practice it in the context of the congregation and courts of the church. Scriptural law is the basis of all ecclesiastical discipline because it is the revelation of God’s holy will. Proper disciplinary principles are set forth in the Scriptures and must be followed. According to Matthew 18:15 and Galatians 6:1, these principles include instruction in the Word and the individuals’ responsibility to admonish one another.  (Book of Order, “Book of Discipline,” 1-5)

You are:

  • Choosing to submit to Christ and those whom Christ has put in spiritual authority over you (elders).
  • Willingly placing yourself under accountability.
  • Guarding yourself from sin and temptation in a greater way.

6. It means that you want to be a fully committed part of the vehicle God has created to change the world.

The local church is, in Christ, the hope of the world.  Becoming a member is entering into the deepest possible commitment to the most important enterprise in the world.  How amazing is that?!?

7. It means that you’re willing and committing to give sacrificially of yourself for the sake of others.

We choose to give out of both our external resources (e.g. our time, money) and our “internal” resources (how God has gifted us).

8. It means that you’re willing to make and keep promises.

The membership vows for people joining an EPC church:

1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God and without hope for your salvation except in His sovereign mercy?

2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of sinners, and do you receive and depend upon Him alone for your salvation as He is offered in the Gospel? 

3. Do you now promise and resolve, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?

4. Do you promise to serve Christ in His Church by supporting and participating with this congregation in its service of God and its ministry to others to the best of your ability?

5. Do you submit yourself to the government and discipline of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and to the spiritual oversight of this Church Session, and do you promise to promote the unity, purity and peace of the Church?

 

 

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1 F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984, NICNT), 156-157.

 

 

7 Comments on “Is Church Membership Biblical?”

  1. Z- I appreciate this post so much! Thanks for looking into this. I have a particular friend who would not join our particular church because of the idea that membership is not Biblical. One avenue to explore is whether those passages were addressing membership in the particular church or the catholic church, which may not be possible to tease apart. But I do believe that the particular local church is where the rubber meets the road and an individual should make a personal commitment with his or her own time and resources. It's interesting too that your membership as a teaching elder is not with our particular church but with the broader Presbytery, producing connectivity among particular churches via your time and and resources. Pretty cool infrastructure. Anyway, thanks- I think it's an important point to ponder. -Elaine

  2. Great question about membership in particular vs. universal church. It seems that in Paul there's room for both. There's time when he's addressing "body theology," and the way he speaks indicates the particular church (as in "one body many parts" discussions). There it seems Paul is making a case that each local church is an integral whole, such that each person in it fulfills a role in making it the body. Our Catholic friends would disagree, probably. They won't use "church" for the local assembly. They'll speak of "parish." I ultimately think Paul has both in mind at different points. That's something to ponder, though. Thanks!

  3. Apart from looking at the use of the word "member" in Scripture– there is really no compelling biblically justifiable proof here for the form, structure and covenantal nature that the overwhelming majority of church membership implementations subsist in. Lots of man-constructed reasons. Where is the clear, unequivocal mandate from Scripture that my conscience ought to be brought into submission to? Many churches use membership as a means of making a distinction between those who are "serious" or "devout" about their Christian walk over against those who aren't (those who don't see membership in its frequently found form to be a command from Christ or the Apostle's teaching). This is manifest by the granting of "privileges" to members not available to non-members, i.e. the right to vote on matters of church decision-making, governance, finances, etc. Where is such a "fencing" of church life (e.g. contributing to decision-making) warranted in Scripture? Only those "invested" by a vow of membership "deserve" such privilege(s) or so the reasoning goes practically. I am not diminishing the need to be an active member of the body of Christ, nor to be so within a local church, BUT I was made a member upon my salvation and by God; not by myself in conjunction with a church by making a vow. The sad fact is that membership is used as a tool to require certain things from the flock by virtue of appealing to the vow/commitment they make to the local church via membership that ought rather be rendered freely as a consequence of loving Christ and the saints.

  4. Zac, Thanks for this post, helpful for me as I consider the biblical perspective on membership as we set up governmental documents for our church. To Michael's post, I agree that the teaching of Paul presented by Zac concerning being members of God's household has little to do with the membership structure that churches have in local bodies. However, Michael goes too far in rejecting that. A formal membership in a local body has to do with practical outworking of biblical teaching. How are elders appointed? By the Spirit, with the agreement of the congregation, and testing by existing elders. But how does the congregation confirm? Our church has many dedicated brothers and sisters, plus many seekers, and many who are half-committed. Who confirms? And who can serve as a teacher in the church, for children, youth, adults? Should it not be someone who has been approved and is in agreement with our statement of faith, and certainly a baptized believer? And perhaps members of Christ's body should also have priority in the pastor's schedule. A formal church membership provides a framework to teach biblical doctrine (the statement of faith), and to identify believers who may participate in the work of the church family (teaching, giving, confirming, leading, etc.). So, while I agree with Michael on salvation bringing us into God's family, at the same time, if he comes to our local church he will not be permitted to teach or lead or have a voice in the governing of the church until we know him and hear his testimony, and until he affirms our statement of faith and agrees with our ministry guidelines.
    Thanks.

  5. Hi David! It's so nice to see my comment has been read by at least one person– and I thank you for commenting. I would like to respond by saying that in re-reading my comment and knowing my own opinion on this matter that your comment "To Michael's post, I agree that the teaching of Paul presented by Zac concerning being members of God's household has little to do with the membership structure that churches have in local bodies. However, Michael goes too far in rejecting that." is curious. What exactly is the "that" that you are identifying as my having gone too far in rejecting? It certainly is not the concept or reality of "membership" whether it be within a family or a church nor do I reject most analogies between the two BUT let us ask "How is it that I became a member of my family?" Was it through or by virtue of the mechanism of a vow? Certainly not— I was merely "born" (the first time) into it. I did not have to take "family classes" or assent to a "family by-laws" or agree to what my family's "confession". There was no need to make a vow to validate/create/seal/ratify/etc. the reality that I was a member of this family that I had been born into. In the same way I believe Scripture is absent of any language that would command the institution and practice of "the form, structure and covenantal nature that the overwhelming majority of church membership implementations subsist in" (to quote myself from the previous post). It is this conspicuous absence that compels me to answer the question–"Is a Christian obligated to 'become' a member in the local church by taking a vow or otherwise entering into a covenantal agreement with all the other 'members' (those who have already done so) OR can I maintain a clean conscience if I choose not to?" My answer would obviously be "Yes- I may refrain or pass upon or even refuse to agree to a covenanting with other men (i.e. those who have created and/or agreed themselves to this covenant in its unique form {because there are 31 flavors of church membership covenants/vows depending upon the church/denomination} at my local church assembly— and NOT be in sin!" Can we agree upon that? That I would not be in sin? Because there are some that would say that to not participate in membership is sinful. Whether or not they say it outright (and many do) that is the conclusion one must draw if you listen to the reasons they give in persuading a one to "become" a member. It is literally a de facto proving of one's commitment to all kinds of things…(most are fine and good, .e.g. sound doctrine, even assent to confessional standards, etc.) BUT what they say is that if anyone (like myself) would choose NOT to vow the vows as they have written them and to those things we are vowing to THEN that one is demonstrating that he is sub-par as far as they are concerned, at best, or sinful, at worst. Those who are NOT convicted (by virtue of not seeing a clear teaching and mandate of Scripture) that the taking of such vow(s) are necessary to be a “fully” functioning/loving/participating member of the body of Christ in the local church assembly and to not take such vow(s) is sinful are labeled in many derogatory ways. They are immediately considered “suspicious” characters, they must not be “open books”, they are clearly not the type to fully commit themselves (this is seen as a character defect), they are unsubmissive types, having an antinomian bent, they cannot be trusted nor should they be in participating in significant decisions which affect the body-life, especially THE FINANCES, god-forbid! I would say that this typical myopic view is un-Christian, uncharitable, untrue, unloving, and unvirtuous (sinful). It is all ad-hominen in the nature of its criticism; and Yes, it is sinful to ascribe a litany of negative motives and/or character traits to someone who does not agree that taking vows of membership is necessary to live an obedient life in Christ. But I fear this will go on until He returns because when you cannot make an argument from Scripture that such-and-such is binding upon the conscience of the believer BECAUSE the Spirit teaches and convicts and impacts the conscience that the need for this such-and-such is TRUE and commanded of God then all you are left to be able to do is argue in ad-hominem fashion, deride those you cannot convince from Scripture, and further create division. I maintain that the typical membership vow is a means to bring division among God’s people BUT those who argue its necessity will argue a myriad so-called virtues in doing so. Think about that simple concept… they are arguing for division… formal division… but they give reasons that are based in the wisdom of man not from the imperatives of Scripture. The only division that I see within Scripture and pertaining to the church is the sheep vs. the goats, the wheat vs. the chaff, and this division, which we know to be saved vs. unsaved is something we are advised to leave well-enough alone because God has reserved the manifestation of this division to His revealing at the last day. Nowhere in Scripture does anything hint at a division of “member” (by virtue of having taken a vow) vs. “non-member”. My membership and that of any other believer is by virtue of my second birth. Again, as I did not take a vow to become apart of my blood-family but simply by virtue of my first birth was I made a member, so it is with membership in the body of Christ only it is predicated upon the second birth. To call a believing Christian a “non-member” of the church is fundamentally wrong, and begins to smack of certain elitism. That “only those who have struck hands with us” are conferred with the title of “member” along with all its “privileges”, e.g. those specific privileges “they” will allow only after one has vowed to the collective whole. Without getting to far a field, it strikes me as almost, if not actually, too close to the argument as to whether our rights (Constitutionally enumerated) are God-given and inalienable or is it the government that “allows” these rights and can change/abbreviate/add/subtract/etc. them as “they” see fit. To sum this post up… it is God that makes me a member of the church not anyone else. Not me myself by taking a vow to/with my local church nor by those who examine me (judge me) as a pre-requisite (providing I pass the test) to requiring of me a vow which they have constructed or have inherited and which ONLY by the taking of said vow will convince them of my worthiness to be a fully communicant/participating/contributing “MEMBER” of the church.

  6. Thank you for the post. I realize that my comments are far past the original post but you left the door open for comments :).

    I am a huge fan of Reformed Baptist Theology and I have huge amounts of respect for pastors like John MacArthur, John Piper, and Mark Dever. That said, I disagree with their stances on the application of church membership and their biblical reasoning thereof. I'm open to having my mind changed but I have been studying this practice at length and do not see a valid connection to scripture that warrants me changing my mind.

    The reason that man formulates this idea of formalized membership is because it is an answer to questions like, "How do I compartmentalize the idea that there's a church, elders, and a body of people to rule over (Hebrews 13:17)?", "Who do the elders reside over?" and "Who do the people answer to?". Man by nature likes to draw lines.

    These are fair questions though. However, the problem with how membership is practiced, or the answer to those questions, is that it lacks faith and trust in the Lord and even trust in the individual's relationship with Christ. It is a form of control. Not necessarily an evil domineering sort of control but one that cannot accept the idea that, if an individual makes a covenant with God through the blood of the Lamb and their act of repentance, that it is a sufficient means of membership. No, instead, membership says, "Oh, wait, there's one additional step that you need to do to prove to me….". Seems kind of Pharisaical to me.

    In scripture, we see people meeting together and praying together just because they believed and were baptized not because they signed a dotted line. They do this with the commonality of Christ in mind (Matthew 18:20). Scripture teaches us to watch out for wolves and test spirits not by looking at our membership rolls but through relationships (1 Jon 4:1). If feel this is why accountable relationships are non-existent in our churches today, because membership assumes accountability and creates laziness in the act of pursuing believers for righteousness.

    Just imagine if churches removed administrative practices and programs to spend time on getting to know one another. The churches in the day met regularly and most times informally. They were a family and they KNEW one another. They SOUGHT one another. They LOVED one another without these membership lines. They knew enough about the individuals they engaged with to know if they are part of the fellowship or not.

    Membership by virtue of being man made causes problems. One church I had thought about attending won't even allow you to partake in communion if you're not a member of another church. What a joke. You're going to deny someone the right to take part in something their savior commanded because of a technicality.

    Thank You.

  7. Good material. But you did mix some wordly sayings along with denominational mantras with a bilbe study on certain words.

    I understand the principle but you need a better more cohesive message.
    To me its about fellowship not membership.

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