Members Only?


I have read a couple of posts on church membership over the last few days some in favor and some against the idea. Having retweeted a post on church membership and getting into a discussion on it,  I decided to post this as a spot to further the discussion beyond 140 character responses.

It is important to define terms in a discussion. When talking about church membership we are talking about people who attend a local church who come forward to formally (how formal that is will differ) join that instance of the universal church.

I like John Folmar’s definition of the local church:

A church is an identifiable group of believers who are self-consciously committed to each other. Their lives are not perfect, but by God’s grace they are substantially, observably different from the world around them.  […]  To join a local church is to agree to live together with other believers in a way that’s worthy of God’s call to live as a chosen people, royal priesthood, and holy nation. It’s to agree to display God’s glory through gospel-centered living and gospel-centered relationships.   (emphasis added)

The universal church is the body of Christ that includes all those who are reborn in all times and all places. Becoming a member in a local church does not save anyone nor does it place them into the universal church.  Placing one’s trust (faith) in Jesus and His promises made in the gospel (1 Cor 15:1-3), which results in being reborn through the Spirit, is what makes one a member of the universal church.

Jesus is the head of both the universal church and over every instance of it. The church (in both cases) is called the body of Christ:

And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph 1:22-23 ESV)

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:12-13)

Once one has become a member of the universal church, Scripture encourages becoming an active part of a community of believers (Heb 10:23-25).  Many local churches have a process of becoming a member of the church. That process  generally involves assenting to the following:

  • a belief in Jesus Christ (and often water baptism)
  • an expressed desire to grow spiritually
  • an acceptance of the local church’s doctrinal statement
  • a willingness to submit to the authority of the local church leaders

It is at this point that there is some debate. Should a local church have membership?

Is local church membership Biblical?

When we ask is it Biblical, what we are trying to determine is whether the principle of local church membership is commanded, supported, and/or  promoted in the Scriptures. In the case of church membership I most would agree that there are no commands for the local church to have membership. However there are some passages of Scripture that can be used to demonstrate that the early church kept records over who was part of the local church (specifically lists of widows and orphans).

One of the supporting arguments for the idea of membership is the requirement for leaders of a local church to shepherd (guide, protect, teach) and oversee the people they are serving. The corollary is that the members of the church (flock) are to submit to their leaders.

  • shepherd the flock of God that is among you (1 Peter 5:2)
    • a verse from a letter sent to several local churches in Asia Minor
  • 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 (Acts 20:28)
    • a verse from Paul’s speech given to the elders of Ephesus (a local church)
  • 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)
    • an exhortation to a local church

Each local church has a form of governance (that model may vary from church to church) that includes a set of people (one or more) who are to lead as elders.  For purposes of this post I use the term “elder” generally as the person or persons confirmed as the leaders of a local church. These men are to:

  • shepherd the flock
  • teach sound doctrine
  • refute false teaching
  • oversee the church (make sure church runs in orderly way)
  • administer discipline
  • be role models to the body
  • serve the church as leaders, teachers, and however else God has gifted them

Most of these duties can be found in 1 Pet 5:1-5. Others can be found in 1 Tim 3.

 1So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Membership is seen as a means of identifying the flock whom the leader is to serve and for a person to intentionally commit to being a member of the flock.

Is membership in the local church prohibited in Scriptures?

Even if we disagree that the Scriptures promote church membership, we can look at the question from a different angle. Does the Bible prohibit it either specifically or in principle? I can’t think of any command or principle that would prohibit a local church from instituting a form of membership.

Why should someone attending a local church become a member?

That is a good question. For most local churches that have membership it is required for people to serve in several areas including leadership positions, teaching, starting a home group, or serving with the children’s ministry. It is also a sign of committing one self to a local church community and may encourage people to work through difficult times rather than just leave for “greener pastures” at another church.

Why should a local church have membership?

I am certain a whole post could be dedicated to this (same could be said for the rest of the questions posed) , let it suffice to say that there are administrative, disciplinary, and legal issues that can be met with church membership. For a congregation-led church it would seem to be important in identifying “voters” – equivalent to registering to vote for elections for political leaders and ballot questions.  In our culture of “sue first” ask questions later practicing church discipline, and protecting the flock may be done best within the context of membership as this article states:

Church membership is generally viewed by the courts as being a matter of contract, whereby members freely choose to associate with a particular church community and in doing so accept the benefits and duties of that association. As explained previously, since non-members have not accepted such duties, a church can encounter significant legal liabilities if it tries to exercise jurisdiction over or impose membership responsibilities on them. For example, since non-members have not explicitly consented to the confidentiality, counseling, disciplinary or conflict-resolution policies of a church, the church may face a lawsuit if it divulges any confidential information regarding the non-member, even if only between a pastor and an elder. Lawsuits also may arise when pastoral counseling fails to meet the needs and expectations of a non-member. And many churches encounter legal threats when they confront a non-member about sinful conduct or notify another church to which a non-member flees about such conduct.

I don’t believe that church membership should be used to create a “social club” or clique – though I am sure many could share stories about how that may have happened. I personally believe that church membership is a principle supported in Scripture (though certainly not required) and that it is an important way for a local church to identify its members and to protect itself legally as it tries to carry out the mission of the church to make disciples through evangelism and teaching and encouraging all to grow more like Christ. I also believe that membership encourages those attending a local church to examine their faith and their commitment to the community that they claim to be a part of.

Why What do you think?

What do you think?

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