We live in a culture that glamorizes non-commitment. We hate cell phone contracts, cable contracts, or any other type of contract that might “tie us down”. We want to be able to change our plans, hop around, and do whatever we want whenever we feel like doing it. While this is not necessarily wrong, it certainly causes some problems when it comes to living the Christian life. The Bible is God’s written word that details how followers of Jesus are to live. The problem is that much of what the Bible teaches about community and church is the opposite of our natural and cultural inclinations when it comes to commitment.
But is church membership really biblical? How could it be if we never see the words “church membership” or the command “you should be a church member” anywhere on the pages of the Bible? Well, you also never see the word “Trinity” in the Bible anywhere and yet it is very visible and clearly seen throughout the pages of Scripture that God is one God, three persons: Father, Son, Spirit. This is a foundational theological truth that lies at the foundation of most believers’ faith. So we must be careful not to assume something is unbiblical simply because we don’t see the word in the Bible.
In order to answer this question we must remind ourselves that our Trinitarian God cares about community, established the church community, and in himself exhibits perfect community. Too often we focus on the “me and God” and neglect the “we and God” – we emphasize our own personal relationship with Jesus and forget that we are called into a community that God established called the church. To be a Christian, according to the Bible, is to be in community and in relationship with God and others believers. This involves suppressing the individualism that runs rampant in our hearts, minds, and culture and instead embracing the community of God – the church.
But what is this community of God? If we are going to answer the question “Is church membership really biblical?” then we must define what the church is. The Greek word for church in the New Testament is “ecclesia” or “ekklesia”. The root of the word means “called out” and the whole word means “a gathering or assembly of called out ones”. Maybe you’ve heard the whole universal church (every believer everywhere) vs. local church (specific local gathering of believers) discussion before. The New Testament uses the word “church” to describe both the universal church and the local church. But implied in the definition of the word itself is a physical gathering of some kind. By definition, church requires gathering. Though we may get a taste of the universal church in our daily lives – maybe on an international mission trip or even worshipping with another congregation while on vacation, the way that we most commonly experience church in our daily Christian lives is on a local level.
With that mind, please allow me to offer up a basic definition of church. Many wiser and more educated men have provided better definitions, but here is my attempt:
Church – A local, organized gathering of believers who are in a loving and committed relationship with Jesus Christ and one another.
Your first thought might be, “Wait, organized? I’m not sure about that.” I’ve frequently heard the argument that organization kills churches or kills the Spirit’s movement in churches. Many view organization as a bad thing. At a certain point, this can be true – when things are over-structured we might miss the Spirit’s leading. But the early church was organized and the modern church should be as well. Most of Paul’s ministry revolved around establishing new churches, raising up leaders, teaching sound doctrine, and teaching local, organized gatherings of believers (in places like Ephesus, Corinth, Colossae, Galatia, etc.) how to be Christians in the church community. Here is some evidence that the early church was organized:
- Galatians 1:2 – Paul wrote to the “churches in Galatia”. Not just to the universal church in Galatia, but to local and organized gatherings of believers in the region.
- Acts 2:47, 5:14, 6:1, 11:24, 16:5 – Acts records that the early church kept track of members and numbers and updated how many Christians there were in churches regularly.
- 1 Timothy 5:2-16 – The church in Ephesus had an organized ministry plan. Specifically, they had a structure and procedure for how to provide for some (but not all) of the widows.
- Acts 6:1-6 – The church in Jerusalem organized deacons to help meet the physical needs of the church members so the apostles could remain devoted to preaching.
- Acts 13 – The first church organized missionary teams to be sent out. Paul didn’t go rogue on his own – he was sent out by a church, as should missionaries be today.
- 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 – Paul taught all the local churches he planted to participate in an organized display of generosity through the offering. In several places in his writings, Paul says that he taught all the local churches he planted to operate the same way.
- Acts 6:1-6 – The church in Acts formally selected leaders. They did not declare themselves as leaders – there was an organized process.
- 1 Corinthians 14:40 – Paul reminded the church that their gatherings were to be “decent and in order”. In the same passage he says that God is not a God of chaos but of order. Therefore churches too should be a place of order.
This list is just the beginning of the biblical evidence that churches are to be organized and conduct their work orderly. No matter how you slice it, the Bible teaches that churches should be organized. But just because the church should be organized doesn’t necessarily mean that church membership is required, does it?
But wait, there’s more! There are also a number of vital teachings and commands of both Jesus and Paul that cannot possibly be fully obeyed and lived out apart from church membership. Doubtful? Lets take a closer look at some key doctrines of the church that are extremely difficult and perhaps impossible to obey fully outside commitment and submission to a local, organized gathering of believers.
Hebrews, 13:7, Hebrews 13:17, Titus 2:5, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13
In Hebrews 13 the author tells us that we should remember, imitate, submit to, and obey church leaders. He also tells us that church leaders will give an account for those in their care. How could these commands possibly be followed apart from local church membership? Are we as Christians supposed to imitate all leaders? Are we supposed to submit to the teaching of anyone who claims to be a Christian leader anywhere in the world with any doctrine even if we’ve never met them before? And from the leader’s perspective – are leaders going to give account for the whole universal church? Will I, as a pastor, be responsible for the souls of every believer in the world, even if I don’t even know them? Without committed and covenantal church membership, knowing one another and sharing in relationship together, leaders cannot give an account and Christians will not know whom to remember, imitate, submit to, and obey.
2. Church discipline
Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Corinthians 2:5-8, Hebrews 12
No one likes to talk about, think about, or carry out church discipline – but it is nonetheless a biblical command of both Jesus and Paul. Church discipline is the process of correcting sin within a local church. Because the church is the holy body and bride of Christ, sin cannot be allowed to persist. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul teaches that church discipline is to be done to the unrepentant inside the church, not to those outside. He concludes by commanding the church in Corinth to “expel the wicked person from among you”, also adding that they should not even dine with the man. Paul is commanding the church to remove this sinful member from “insiderness”. Clearly to Paul there was a formal “inside” and “outside” of the church in Corinth. If someone was never actually in, they cannot be removed. Without some degree of church membership, church discipline becomes impossible. If there is no formalized “in” group, then a person cannot be removed from it. Church discipline is necessary to keep the church pure and holy, and church membership is necessary to properly perform church discipline.
3. Baptism & the Lord’s Supper
There are many Scripture passages about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are known as the “ordinances” of the church. In other words, they are formal and ordained practices of the church designed to be carried out for the church of God. The New Testament shows us that every believer should be baptized and every believer should participate regularly in the Lord’s Supper. Both of these extremely meaningful spiritual practices were designed to be observed within a local church context. These are not only opportunities for individual Christians to identify with Christ, they are also opportunities for local churches to affirm the authenticity of the faith of those individual believers. At my church, we don’t just baptize anyone. We baptize people who have displayed evidence of a transformed life and a genuine encounter with God. Apart from the context of church membership, even such spiritually meaningful practices struggle to find their complete biblical fulfillment.
4. Spiritual Gifts
Romans 12, 1 Peter 4, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4
Spiritual gifts are supernatural gifts given by God, to believers, for the building of the church or “for the common good”. Spiritual gifts are not intended to be used for the recipient but for the good of those around them – particularly those of the household of God. Though spiritual gifts tests can be helpful, the best way to learn what your spiritual gifts are is to have people who know you well speak into your life. I don’t have a spiritual gift simply because I say I do or a test says I do. Spiritual gifts are the gifts that God has given to us that when we use them – the church is built up. I may think I have the gift of faith but if the believers in my life closest to me are not having their faith strengthened by me, then I either do not possess that gift or I am neglecting the proper use of that gift. The best way to understand our own spiritual gifts is by committing to, submitting to, serving alongside, and participating in the life and ministry of a local gathering of believers. Likewise, the best way to use our spiritual gifts is to build up the local group of Christians to whom we have committed our lives.
5. Protection from false teaching
Romans 16:17, 1 John 4:1, 2 Timothy 4:3, Galatians 1:8, Jude 1:4
Almost every New Testament book warns Christians about false teachers and gives advice for how the church should respond to them. Churches should have agreed upon doctrine, agreed upon leaders, and agreed upon practices for many reasons – one of which is protection from false teachers. Jude warns that false teachers “creep in unnoticed” and Peter warns that they “operate in secret”. A “whoever wants to come” mentality is mandatory when it comes to outreach and ministry to unbelievers, but foolish when it comes to church membership. With no examination or vetting process it becomes virtually impossible to protect against false teaching and poisonous influences in local churches. Church membership is perhaps the single best way to prevent against false teaching in local churches.
6. The “One Another” commands
And finally, every “one another” command (I found 18 in a brief search) that the New Testament gives us is most fully obeyed in the context of church membership. It becomes very difficult to “bear one another’s burdens, “be devoted to one another”, “meet with one another regularly”, “confess your sins to one another”, or “stir one another up to good works” apart from being in a loving and committed relationship with God and a local group of believers who meet regularly together.
So in conclusion, is church membership really biblical? Not only is it biblical, but being a Christian without submitting and committing to a local church is unbiblical and unhealthy.
What are your thoughts? What do you think about church membership?