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?
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.