Church membership has fallen on hard times. Some question whether formal membership is taught in the Bible. Isn’t it a man-made tradition that ought to be abandoned? Others accept it, but wonder if it has outlived its original purpose.
Increasingly, church membership is viewed as optional and is ignored, dismissed, and even actively resisted. This is not only true of individuals, but of pastors and churches as well. Are those who practice church membership beating a dead horse? It this simply a shop-worn tradition that should be discarded, or is church membership a biblical practice that ought to be restored to its original significance?
Concept and Terminology
The word “member,” used to identify individual Christians in the church, is a biblical term. The most extensive passage is 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, where “member” is used fourteen times in the space of ten verses, sometimes as a singular noun but more often as a plural. Although the phrase, “church members” is not used, parallel concepts such as “members of the body” and similar phrases are employed.
We are told that the church is one body consisting of many members. Together, Christians constitute the body, but individually, each Christian is a member. This is true of the Church Universal as well as churches local. The passage begins by focusing on the universal aspects of the church, but continues to talk about each believer’s membership in a local body.
Some pit the truth of the universal church against teaching about local churches, but the New Testament intertwines these concepts so closely that they are often difficult to separate. These two aspects of the church are not in competition, but complement and explain one another. However, if push comes to shove, references to the church local far outweigh those about the church universal.
The one universal church is made up of many local bodies. Believers are automatically placed into the one Body of Christ by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, but every Christian must identify himself with a local body.
Is church membership about the universal church or the church local? It is both. It is similar to the parallel, though differing, concepts of spirit and water baptism. Every Christian is baptized by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ when he is regenerated, but that does not cancel the command to openly identify with Christ through water baptism. In similar fashion, the New Testament speaks of every believer belonging to the Body of Christ, and also of local churches having identifiable members.
Application and Reception
What about the practice of “joining” a church? Isn’t every believer automatically “joined” to the Body of Christ by the work of God’s Spirit? Yes, but local church membership is a separate issue and is not automatic. Just because one professes to be a Christian does not mean he becomes ipso facto part of a local church. The automatic process applies to the universal church alone.
We find an example of application for local church membership in Acts 9:26-28. Paul was converted on the Damascus Road, and subsequently baptized and received into fellowship of the church in Damascus. When persecution drove him out, he moved from Damascus to Jerusalem, where he endeavored to join the disciples. His application was initially rejected because they questioned whether he was truly a disciple. His reputation as a persecutor was well known, whereas his Christian testimony in Damascus was unknown in Jerusalem. Perhaps the church feared Paul’s application was a ruse to gain access to Christians in order to persecute them.
It was only after Barnabas vouched for Paul’s authenticity that he successfully joined the church. When the church became satisfied that Paul was, in truth, a disciple, he was warmly received into membership and became active within the congregation. Was Paul’s membership in the church at Jerusalem automatic? It was not, and neither is anyone else’s. Christians are responsible to apply for church membership, and churches are responsible to examine applicants for authenticity.
Removal and Relocation
What happens when a Christian moves from one local church to another? That is what happened with Paul in Acts chapter nine, but it may be helpful to consider some additional aspects. In Paul’s case, Barnabas was able to attest to the genuineness of Paul’s profession. However, churches do not always have a member who personally knows the individuals who relocate from another city, and thus the practice of communicating between churches by means of letters was adopted from the early days of Christianity.
Paul refers to letters of recommendation regarding traveling preachers in 2 Corinthians 3:1-3. He instructs the churches to supply letters of authenticity for authorized representatives in 1 Corinthians 16:3. The Third Epistle of John, verses 5-8, constitute a letter of recommendation for traveling missionaries. These examples encourage churches to request a letter of recommendation, sometimes called a letter of transfer, from a relocating Christian’s former church. Churches that practice biblical church membership are happy to supply such letters. This assures an orderly transfer from one church to another.
Exclusion and Reassignment
The disciplinary situation recorded in 1 Corinthians five helps to clarify the understanding and practice of membership in the first century. The Apostle Paul expresses utter amazement that the Church at Corinth would have a member living in open, unrepentant immorality with his stepmother, and do nothing about it. Paul’s instructions are emphatic. “Take him away from among you” (1 Cor. 5:2). “Deliver him unto Satan” (1 Cor. 5:5). “Put away from yourselves the evil person” (1 Cor. 5:13).
The requirement is clear. The church must act officially to remove this man from their membership (1 Cor. 5:4, 5). But what, exactly, is the church doing? They are administering appropriate punishment to the unrepentant offender (1 Cor. 5:5). They are attempting to bring him to repentance and ultimate salvation (verse 5). They are cleansing sinful defilement out of the church (1 Cor. 5:7). Yes, but in addition to all this, they are also changing external identification from believer to unbeliever.
The problem is that someone “named a brother” (1 Cor. 5:11) has forfeited his right to that title by his open immorality. Although God alone knows the heart with perfect accuracy, the church must act according to what is seen and known, not what is unseen and unknowable. If the man is living like an unbeliever and will not respond to the appeals of the church, he must be removed from church membership and treated as an unbeliever.
Paul gives clear instructions for two categories of people, namely those who are inside, and those who are outside the church (1 Cor. 5:12, 13). Those who, by their persistently sinful behavior, have forfeited the right to remain inside the church, must be placed outside by action of the membership. The church officially re-assigns the identity of a wayward member to correspond to his present lifestyle.
It is not the business of the church to judge outsiders. That is left for God (1 Cor. 5:13), but churches are responsible to judge insiders, which is why they must know precisely who is inside and who is not. Churches must deal with outward behavior, which is known, not inward condition, which only God knows. The two categories of people in regard to the church, those who are inside, and those who are outside, is another way of identifying those who are members and those who are not. It goes without saying that only those who are recognized as inside are capable of being put outside. Those who are not members of a church, and thus have not placed themselves into an accountability relationship to a church, are outside the church. One who is not accountable to a local church has a biblically questionable profession of faith. The church has unambiguous and vastly differing instructions that apply to each of the two categories (1 Cor. 5:9-11).
Members are held to a standard of Biblical behavior not required of non-members. Non-members are encouraged to attend and listen to God’s Word, no matter how commendable or reprehensible their lifestyle may be. We pray that God will move upon their hearts, and that they will become one with us. But they should not be regarded as members. A church member is accountable to the church, whereas a visitor is not, even though he may attend for years. Most churches have a few visitors of long standing, but they are still visitors until they become members.
The implications are unavoidable. Church membership is an integral part of a credible profession of faith in Christ. Church membership, far from optional, is as much a matter of Christian identity as water baptism. Is church membership optional? No, it is necessary for Christianity to function biblically. If Christians in America hope to become spiritually healthy once again, the practice of meaningful church membership must be restored.
G. N. Barkman received his BA and MA from BJU and later founded Beacon Baptist Church in Burlington, NC where has pastored for over 40 years. In addition, Pastor Barkman broadcasts over several radio stations in NC, VA, TN, and the island of Granada and conducts annual pastors’ training seminars in Zimbabwe, Africa. He and his wife, Marti have been blessed with four daughters and six grandchildren.