I’ve met many faithful, loving and biblically-literate Christians who solidly refuse to come into local church membership because they believe the New Testament supports no such formality. They therefore regard it as an unspiritual, worldly and legalistic intrusion into the life of the church.
The traditional pastoral response is usually both unsatisfactory and ineffective. It suggests that while there is no direct evidence, we can deduce formal church membership from various New Testament practices. I used to argue for church membership from the implications of biblical church government and church discipline. But I never managed to convince serious doubters, and eventually I realised I wasn’t even convincing myself!
So, can a better case be made for formal church membership? Let’s get back to basics and look a little more closely at the New Testament understanding of both ‘church’ and its ‘membership’.
A biblical concept of church
Historically, Christians have divided the church into two, speaking of the church visible and invisible, militant and triumphant, universal and local. This can be useful, but it is also misleading, because it is not explicitly taught in Scripture, which emphasises the unity and indivisibility of the church (Eph. 4:4-5). As the Nicene Creed says, we believe in ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’, all of which can be easily demonstrated from Scripture.
This biblical stress on the unity of the church often overwhelms distinctions of time and space. It’s sometimes difficult to know whether Paul is speaking of the church local or universal, not because he is unhelpfully vague but because he doesn’t acknowledge any essential difference. The word we translate ‘church’ is used for God’s people meeting in a house (Rom. 16:5), across a city or region (1 Cor. 1:2, Acts 9:31), or even the whole world (1 Cor. 12:28). It’s also used whether speaking of God’s people in the past, present, future or of all time.
There is one church, seen both on earth and in heaven. This unity can be seen in our prayer, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10) and in Jesus’ words, ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’ (Matt. 18:18). Because the heavenly and earthly church is one, the earthly church should look as much as possible the same as the heavenly church. The heavenly church is made up of all believers (and only believers), and the New Testament assumes the same of the earthly church in both universal and local forms.
So, how does God identify his people? Just as Moses was instructed to ‘count all the firstborn Israelite males… and make a list of their names’ (Num. 3:40), so Jesus told his disciples to rejoice that their ‘names are written in heaven’ (Luke 10:20). All true believers have come ‘to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven’ (Heb. 12:23). Paul’s fellow workers’ names ‘are in the book of life’ (Phil. 4:3). In Revelation, John tells us of the wickedness of those ‘whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life’ (13:8). Only those whose names are enrolled in this book will enter the New Jerusalem (21:27).
This ‘book of life’ is highly instructive, whether we take it to be a physical reality or a metaphor for spiritual reality. Our God knows the names and number of his people. It is a vital indicator of their spiritual separation from the world. And as there is ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’, one obvious way in which its local representation can reflect its heavenly counterpart is by formally recording the names of its committed believers on a membership roll. It cannot be wrong or unspiritual in principle for us imitate God whenever we can.
A biblical concept of church membership
Many Christians believe the idea of membership has been borrowed by the church from the world, but the truth is the exact opposite. Every club or society derives the concept of membership from the Bible.
‘Member’ used to indicate a limb or body part. Nowadays, when we speak of ‘members’ of a ‘body’, we’re likely to be using both terms metaphorically. That’s exactly what the New Testament does: ‘…so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others’ (Rom. 12:4-5). The Lord Jesus Christ ‘is the head of the body, the church’ (Col. 1:18).
This shows the vertical and horizontal implications of the church as the body of Christ. Church members are directed by and answerable to its head, but also belong to and bear responsibility for each other. ‘Baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body’, our responsibilities as members of this one body are worked out in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. The importance of being members of the body is emphasised by Paul’s reminder that everyone feeds and cares for their body, ‘just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body’ (Eph. 4:29-30).
In the light of such teaching, no one can deny the reality and significance of church membership. Some might respond, ‘I am a member of the invisible, universal church, but I can’t see the necessity of joining a visible, local church’. But as I’ve said, this unhelpful dichotomy is not biblically rooted. Just as it’s often difficult to discern whether the New Testament is speaking about the church local or universal, the same is true when it speaks of membership of the body.
In 1 Corinthians, most references seem to refer to the local body (e.g. 10:17, 12:27), whereas virtually every reference in Ephesians is to the universal body. Again, this is not because of any lack of precision, Paul simply instinctively thinks only of ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’. So, if you are a member of Christ’s church, you should seek to have your membership visibly acknowledged by the local church. We need to be able to say of you what Paul said of the saints in Corinth, ‘Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.’ (1 Cor. 12:27, ESV). The church, as distinct from the congregation, is not a mixed multitude. Are there any non-Christians in the body of Christ? Are there any Christians outside the body of Christ? The Lord knows those who are his and, as far as possible, he needs and wants us to know as well.
You may consider yourself a member of your local church, but if your fellow believers do not agree, then you are not. Even Paul had to submit himself to a membership process. ‘When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple’ (Acts 9:26). However, after Barnabas vouched for him, his profession of faith was accepted by the whole church.
Moreover, not entering into some form of covenanted membership will inevitably prevent you from fully exercising your spiritual gifts. It’s a serious matter to deprive a church in this way. Nor can you represent the church in any significant manner. Worse, your failure to commit yourself to formal membership of the body threatens its very unity.
Do you really believe the process by which you may be regarded as a member of your church to be so fundamentally wrong that you must stand out against it? Do you genuinely think that whether you are a church member is entirely up to you – or that a church can pursue purity and holiness when anybody may regard themselves as a member? And is your position worth the confusion and heartache you may well be sowing in the hearts of others?
My longing is that, by stepping back and considering the big picture, believers for whom this question has become a stumbling block may be able to reconsider some long-cherished convictions. Many of their beloved brothers and sisters in Christ would be overjoyed if they did.