Ever since the dawn of the church, people have thought about the idea of church membership. Is it right? Is it necessary? Is it important? Most denominations and churches today have some form of church membership. Churches of all sizes and varieties have membership classes, membership rolls, and even different gradations of membership (e.g., “member in good standing,” “charter member,” etc.). Some churches hold membership lightly, and instead focus on reaching the community of nonbelieving “seekers.” Others hold church membership in high regard, making membership a requirement for service in the church.

 

This article is not an attempt to give a yes or no answer to the issue of church membership, but rather to prompt careful thinking. The issue is complex, multifaceted, and has no one-size-fits-all answers. It’s worth asking careful questions to ensure that we are pursuing biblical integrity in all of life. How should we think about church membership?

 

Where is church membership in the Bible?

Church membership has a long and honored history. Cyprian, an early church father, wrote vociferously on the importance of church membership as early as the mid 200s AD.

“He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”

That’s a strong statement, especially taken in context. But Cyprian, in spite of writing some great stuff, also accused Christians with sickness of harboring sin and therefore inviting demons to inhabit their bodies. We must read Cyprian with care. As important as church history and tradition are, we cannot use them as our guiding light for all matters of faith and practice. Only the Bible can fulfill that function. So, what does the Bible say about church membership?

 

As it turns out, it says nothing explicit about “church membership” as we typically think of it. That alone is not a reason to dismiss the idea of membership. (For that matter, the word “trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible, but we still hold to it as a key doctrine.) The word “member” appears in most English translations of the Bible, but not with the definition of “church member” (see 1 Corinthians 12:14, 19, 26). Here are some of the commonly-cited texts which are used to support the idea of church membership.

 

Acts 2:37-47 From this passage, we learn that the early church used some form of record keeping to enumerate the number of those who were baptized and “added” (v. 41, 47).

Acts 6:1-6 The church’s need for organization and “tables” is evident in its distribution of food to needy Christians. “Tables” may indicate the presence of a type of membership roll.

Matthew 18:15–17 In this passage regarding the process of confrontation and discipline, it is assumed that there is some level of accountability. “The church” has oversight and arbitration in the issue of a sinning brother.

1 Timothy 5:9-13 Paul counsels Timothy on the importance of caring for needy widows, and provides a set of requirements for widows who can “be enrolled.” The idea of enrollment requirements suggests to some a membership model that is broader than the widow care participation.

Hebrews 13:17  The letter of Hebrews stipulates that Christians must obey their leaders and submit to them. The presence of leaders demands the existence of followers in the church, which are presumably organized in some way.

1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 Paul reminds Christians to respect and esteem those who labor among you, which suggests levels of order and specific roles in local assemblies.

1 Corinthians 12:12-31 This passage discusses the interrelated nature of the church using the metaphor of the body. The word “member” is used, not in the structured sense of church membership, but rather in the sense of a body part. Unity and organic relationships among Christians are part of the overall theme.

 

These verses and others support several overarching themes of the New Testament, often used to provide a basis for church membership:

• The existence of local assemblies. Clearly, the early church had localized iterations in various cities and regions. How big these were and exactly how structured they were is not entirely clear, but the assumption is that some level of organization was required — one that could theoretically involve membership.

• The command to edification. Christians are commanded to build each other up, and this  type of interaction may involve commitment to a local church, which may be formalized through membership.

• Church government and discipline. Church leadership is clearly described in the New Testament. It logically follows that leaders have followers, and those followers are members of an assembly.

 

While church membership may not have an explicit scriptural command, there is nonetheless an implicit understanding of organization and accountability within local churches. The practical and contemporary application is most often what we think of as “church membership.” Most discussions of church membership start with the biblical foundation, but invariably expand into more pragmatic reasons for having church membership.

For example, one popular pastor blogged, “If you view church as some sort of ecclesiological buffet, then you severely limit the likelihood of your growing into maturity.” This may or may not be true, but his comment illustrates the fact that we often insist on church membership less from a biblical basis, and more from a pragmatic basis. Another well known leader wrote, “Only when every believer is faithful to this kind of commitment is the church able to live up to her calling as Christ’s representative here on earth. To put it simply, membership matters.”

But what is described in these outtakes and other discussions of church membership is not really the formalized idea of membership — “Sign and date here, please” — as much as it is some level of Christian involvement and accountability. If by “membership” we simply mean involvement or accountability, then so be it. But often, what is understood as “membership” in most churches involves much more — perhaps more than the Bible suggests and commands.

 

Before we can really ask “is membership necessary” we need to know what we’re talking about when we use the word “membership.”

 

What are the benefits of church membership?

Here are some of the benefits of church membership

• It improves accountability. Church membership gives attendees a way to become accountable to one another in a formalized way.

• It forms a structure for church discipline. As a corollary to accountability, it’s important that the church exercise its right and responsibility to discipline. Membership provides a fitting context for doing so.

• It prevents church-hopping. A single church that someone calls “home,” might reduce visiting around to other churches.

• It invites commitment. When attendees are formally part of an organization, it is more likely that they will give of their time and money to that organization.

 

What characterizes each of these advantages is that they create an organizational structure for a church. We love organization — the ordering of lists, the analyzing of numbers, and the projection of attendance. But for all its orderliness, maybe we’ve missed the whole idea of the true membership, as it’s described in 1 Corinthians 12 — an organic and interrelated body, functioning synchronously and in allegiance to the Head.

Could it be that our insistence upon membership — and everything that goes along with it — is getting in the way of how a true body should function?

 

What are the disadvantages of church membership?

The same things that constitute the upside of church membership can also be its downside. Whenever we deal with a topic in church life, there are pitfalls to avoid and dangers to keep in mind. Here are some of the customary concerns with church membership:

• It’s “not biblical.” Some may opine that church membership is not a biblical entity, and therefore we should not have it. This, an article from silence, is inherently a weak one. It is, perhaps, true that we cannot make a strong biblical case for membership, but saying “it’s not biblical” is not by itself a reason to jettison it.

• It creates barriers to entry and involvement. Sometimes, churches hold members to a certain mode of baptism, a certain threshold of giving, or a certain narrow set of doctrinal distinctives. While every church can and should have distinctives, my point is simply to observe that requiring members to hold to these distinctives or creating other arbitrary membership qualifications can create a barrier. That barrier can be good, or that barrier can be bad. It depends on the barrier. One church that I attended used to require anyone who wanted to be a member to give a public testimony in front of the whole church — a crowd of as many as 1,000 people. Some people, possessing a paralyzing fear of public speaking, did not join the church because they were not willing to fulfill this requirement.

• It can cultivate an insider/outsider culture. Those who are “members” may possess a smug superiority or, at best, a cavalier disregard for those who aren’t in “the club.” Such an attitude is not the fault of membership, but is a grievous effect of humankind’s sin.

• It produces segmented local churches with little to no involvement with the Church as a whole. In our myriad of denominations, megachurch empire building, and the fierce “independence” of some churches, we may have neglected a core truth of the church:  It is universal. We all submit to the same Head, Jesus Christ. Membership, for all its value, can further entrench us in our independence mindset and sectarian positions.

• It insists upon narrow qualifications that go far beyond issues of biblical legitimacy. Some churches insist upon a certain set of standards or beliefs. While such high standards may be commendable in their own right, do they truly belong on a pledge or covenant signed by a church member? Each church must answer this question honestly, with a care not to violate one of Christ’s concerns about the pharisees: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4).

 

Have we made too much of church membership?

Is our idea of “membership” too shaped by our culture? Today, “membership” connotes things like joining a gym, being a Costco member, entering the Masonic lodge, or having a level of hotel perks. But none of these are remotely connected to a biblical idea of membership. In fact, the biblical idea of membership, as we’ve seen, provides a huge variation simply on account of what it doesn’t say.

 

Are we creating unnecessary hindrances? Are we constructing false identities of what it means to be an “obedient” believer?  Are there ways to reimagine church membership, so that it is more closely connected to what the Bible says, and less connected to our own culturally-conscribed conceptions? These are not easy questions, but each generation of church leaders and….members?…should honestly seek biblical truth above comfortable conventions.

 

Is church membership really necessary? What do you think?

 

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Daniel Threlfall has been writing church ministry articles for more than 10 years. With his background and training (M.A., M.Div.), Daniel is passionate about inspiring pastors and volunteers in their service to the King. Daniel is devoted to his family, nerdy about SEO, and drinks coffee with no cream or sugar. Learn more about Daniel at his blog and twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

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7 Responses

  1. Dr Shirley

    Yes we do need to become members of a church. We all need to establish who we are and where we want to worship. Being a member gives you a responsibility to Christ and to his church.
    Even bring up these stupid question I guess you just do not have anything better to do

    • Doug

      My church is a non-denom and doesn’t have any type of formal “membership”, but we have actually been considering it lately. So I don’t think this article is stupid at all!

  2. Not A Doctor

    First of all, thanks Daniel for bringing up these questions for us all to consider. They are not STUPID -as “Dr. Shirley” would suggest, with bad grammar to boot.

    Dr. Shirley -you are severely mistaken if you believe that being a member of a local church “gives you responsibility to Christ…” In fact it is actually the opposite: being IN CHRIST, that is having repented and accepting His forgiveness, and receiving His Holy Spirit as a deposit my salvation, I now have an “obligation” to love my brothers and sisters -that is the Church. And not just my local church at that.

    The question of “membership” that Daniel brings up, really should cause us to reconsider how pragmatic, perhaps even dogmatic approach to church membership. Does current practice of church membership really ensure Biblical discipleship and fellowship? Or has current practices unknowingly created a false sense of Church?

    Dr. Shirley -I hope you please reconsider these questions or at least not be so quick to attack a brother that desires to encourage and challenge fellow Christians to grow.

  3. Genci Cesula

    Membership it is implicitly in the Bible. Some look for a verse in Bible to find membership but they will not find it. But because there is no verse in the Bible that does not mean that it is not in the Bible. The word trinity it is not in the Bible and the Bible seems to affirm that there is one God only and not three persons but when we study the Scripture we find it very clearly taught. It is the same with membership.

    I do not think the author has done his home work to Study the Scripture or even to present the case well of those practice membership.

    Also the advantages that he presents are more like disadvantages.

    The disadvantages do not stand. The arguments are more pragmatic. He does not look at the Bible teaches about local and universal Church.

    New Testament speaks primary about local church. The Bible speaks about the universal church but not in the sense that the author talks.

    Usually the strong emphasis on universal church is done by para-church ministries that like to use the local church for their purposes. They usually take people out of local churches and they usually use the big name universal church.

    Although their abuses with the way membership is handled but is that the fault the membership or how these churches handle membership. I have seen so many churches that do not have formal church membership but that abuse so much. It is not an argument.

    Most of the churches problems it is not membership but it is their wrong focus. Their focus is on being right or doctrinaly right. Their focus it is not on the gospel. The Gospel keeps God’s people humble and united. Because it keeps the emphasis on the need for grace and Jesus Christ. Pharisees focus on self-righteousness and being correct. Again if your preach to people God’s word and His gospel, you will not run into those issues.

    And then practical issues like someone can’t share their testimony in front of people it is not an argument. Such case is it is the silliness of taking things too far. But that is the case with most of anything. We take things too far in some many areas.

    The Scriptures present a real case for biblical membership. The case it is not the lack of biblical data but as with many things we like to do things that are more easy and do not require thoroughness. Romans 1:18 tells that real problem of man, it is not lack of the truth but we know the truth and suppress it in unrighteousness for our own ends. There is more and more rebellion over anything that seem to exercise authority because there is so much abuse with authority. There is a tendency to keep things as nice as possibly for people because the focus it is not to please God but to please people. The focus it is on numbers. The fear is that if you have membership then people might not like it and etc.

  4. Eli kinder

    Oh my boy, I think The spirit is working with you. Membership does drive wedges! The church age is soon coming to an end. I bet the list God has and the church books don’t match. I loved what you have said in your article . Keep up the good work. By the way I have been an evangelist for 30 years.

  5. Jennifer

    I would like to start by saying that I appreciate your article. I too have asked that question many times and it’s amazing how many people do not understand what God meant. I don’t believe He meant membership in the way that it is used and abused today. Now it’s used to get tabs on people’s tithes mostly. I have been to places that told me I couldn’t serve the Lord in ministry because I was not a member. I prayed for them because I believe that God just needs us to be a member of His Kingdom and baptized in the Holy Spirit to do as He have asked. It’s so perverse now. I have had so many faithful people have to church hop because they wanted to serve and the requests for membership first was getting in the way and it will continue to get worse. I have prayed to the Lord to send me to a place that is working overtime to do things His way and guide His people the right way and He has done that. I am able to serve My Lord and Savior without the gimmicks of membership. Membership does not hold people accountable nor does it make people more responsible. It does the opposite from what I have seen. I have seen more faithful workers and volunteers from churches that did not require membership to serve than I have those that required it. I believe that God had something totally different in mind and if asked by His Holy Spirit He will clearly show up and explain the truth of what God wants. We are the church so we only need to born-again and baptized and the Lord will take care of the rest because He then adopts us into His Kingdom and that to me are our membership requirements.

  6. Andrew Marshall

    I appreciated the article but I am still in favour of church membership in my own context. My society is one which usually runs from commitment, a place where many people join the gym, but most don’t actually go that much and try to sell there unused membership online. A place where joining things is usually motivated by personal gain. I like that church membership can offer a formal opportunity to express commitment to a particular body of believers in a particular local context which has the mutual benefit of encouraging a greater commitment to one another. I like that it encourages people to consider if they are called to a particular local church and don’t need to leave if things get tough or they don’t like something or someone any more. I like it when membership is based on a shared set of Biblical beliefs (doctrine) which looks a lot like the ancient creeds of the Apostles or of Nicene, rather than on traditions or levels of “coolness” . I personally enjoy being able to formally express my commitment to serving a body of believers and have them be just as committed to me, and I’m pretty sure that’s a biblical idea. Bless ya.

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