Ten Reasons Why Church Membership Is Biblical
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Have you ever heard a professing Christian say, “I don’t need to join a church to follow Jesus. Church membership isn’t even biblical!” Such a person would require a verse that says, “Thou shalt join a local church as a member”—and there’s not such a verse.
Is church membership biblical? Yes. The reason is that the biblical nature of church membership is established from a variety of passages and considerations. Here’s a cumulative case of ten reasons why church membership is biblical.
First, the New Testament letters were written to organized churches. People were to gather and hear the words of the apostles who exhorted and taught them. What evidence is there of organized saints? Think about the opening of Paul’s letters.
Paul wrote Philippians to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi” (Phil. 1:1). This is a group in the Philippian church. He also mentioned “the overseers and deacons” at Philippi (1:1). These were church officers. This pair of terms means there was church government! The presence of church government suggests both leadership and an organized body of believers.
Paul wrote letters to the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1), the churches of Galatia (Gal. 1:2), and the church in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1). If you were not part of the churches in these places, you wouldn’t be reading those letters. Paul wrote his letters to recognized bodies of believers who assembled together and belonged to one another.
Second, there are reports in the New Testament of people being counted and added. We can see such reports, for example, in the book of Acts and in 1 Timothy.
In Acts 2:41, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” In Acts 16:5, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.”
People were added to the church. This involves a formal recognition. People were not just being baptized and then disappearing in their own individual pursuit of Jesus. People were being incorporated, added to those who professed to know and follow Christ.
In 1 Timothy 5:9, “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband…” Apparently this church kept a record of particular church widows. This record reported the names of those who met certain criteria.
Third, elders are called to shepherd a particular flock. Elders were not tasked with shepherding random flocks. They had oversight over particular people.
In 1 Peter 5:2 we read, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you…” In Hebrews 13:17, the leaders are those who “are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”
Who makes up this flock? Anybody who would show up to an assembly? Surely not. How do you know who to shepherd? Who are the leaders responsible for? Whose souls are they entrusted with?
There is an understanding in these passages that a flock is under the oversight of its leaders, and a “church member” is our phrase for someone who belongs to that flock.
Fourth, the practice of excommunication involves removal from something you belong to. Several passages confirm this. We will consider words from Matthew’s Gospel and from 1 Corinthians.
In Matthew 18:17, the church must treat an unrepentant sinner as “a Gentile and a tax collector,” which means as an unbeliever. In 1 Corinthians 5:2, Paul is speaking about the unrepentant person when he says, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” Later in that same chapter, he writes, “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13).
If you don’t belong to a group, you can’t be removed from it. The final stage of church discipline involves expulsion of someone from the fellowship of the saints to which that person belonged.
Fifth, taking matters of discipline to the church assumes an identifiable church body. This point is related to the fourth.
In Matthew 18:17, Jesus said, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church…” Who is “the church” here? How do we know who we should take the matters to? Does “the church” include those who have shown up to an assembly and claim to be Christians? Or is something more precise, more formal, in view?
In 1 Corinthians 5:4, Paul says “When you are assembled…” Who has assembled? How do we know when the assembly has happened? Apparently there was an understanding of who belongs to the church, because matters of discipline could be handled when the church “assembles.” A recognized body of people is implied.
Sixth, Christian obedience involves actions toward one another. The phrase “one another” is associated with multiple actions.
Paul called Christians to bear with one another (Eph. 4:2), sing truth to one another (Eph. 5:19), forgive one another (Col. 3:13), teach and admonish one another (Col. 3:16), care for one another (1 Cor. 12:25), serve one another (Gal. 5:13), show hospitality toward one another (1 Pet. 4:9), and love one another (1 Pet. 4:8).
Are these primarily ambiguous Christians? No, they’re not. They belong to the house church at Ephesus and the house church at Colosse and the house church at Corinth.
Who are you responsible to teach and admonish? To show hospitality toward? To care for? To bear the burdens of? To sing to? To serve and edify? The context of these letters is instructive: we are called to practice the “one another” commands with those who belong to our church.
Seventh, Christian maturity involves accountability. Believers need to be corrected and admonished. We need spiritual oversight. Unfortunately, one reason people avoid church membership is to avoid accountability.
In Galatians 6:1, Paul says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
James 5:19-20 says, “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
Believers in local churches need one another. According to 1 Corinthians 12:21, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”
Eighth, discipleship involves submission to teaching and authority. According to multiple biblical passages, Christians are called to submit to and honor their church leaders.
In Hebrews 13:18, “Obey your leaders and submit to them…” In 1 Thessalonians 5:12, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you…”
Who are the leaders over? Anybody and everybody? No, they’re over a particular people. And these people are to receive the leadership and teaching of those appointed to these tasks.
If someone has an anti-authority instinct, the notion of belonging to a church may repel them. Yet the biblical authors teach that we need to follow the leadership of those who are overseeing our souls. The refusal to join a church is a refusal to submit to church leadership.
Ninth, decisions are made by a recognized congregation. This point is related to the fifth one above.
In Acts 6:1-3, “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.’”
How do they know when the “full number” of the disciples had gathered? Because the local church is a recognizable body of people who belong.
In 2 Corinthians 2:6-8, Paul is talking about restoring someone who had experienced church discipline: “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.”
Did you see that word “majority”? The majority of what? The majority of those who belong to the Corinthian church.
Tenth, congregations are called to guard the gospel. How do we keep a clear understanding of the gospel in our church? By practicing church membership.
How would you respond to someone who believes a false gospel and claims to be part of your church? You could respond by saying, “You’re not a member of this church.” If someone who belonged to your church started teaching heresy and refused to stop, how would you handle this unrepentant false teacher? According to Scripture, you would ultimately expel them from the membership of your church. And you would do this in order to preserve and guard the sound teaching of the gospel among the flock.
The notion of church membership is an affirmation of another person’s confession of faith. This is why church leaders should spend time talking with a membership candidate about the candidate’s understanding of the gospel, testimony of conversion, and report of baptism.
Membership is countercultural. So be it. Joining a church is a way of saying, “You are the family of God that I want to grow with, in Christ.”