What does it mean to be a member of a local church? Does it carry any great significance? Is it simply having your name on a roll? Are there any expectations for those who become a member of a local congregation? What does the Bible indicate that membership actually entails?
Perhaps the first issue we need to deal with is whether Scripture supports the idea of having official membership in a local congregation. While it is true that there is no explicit statement in God's Word concerning the need to be a member of a local congregation, we certainly find evidence throughout the New Testament that the congregations kept a record of who belonged to them and were no longer part of the world. They formally or officially recognized who had joined the fellowship. For instance, Luke reports that the company of believers right before Pentecost numbered around 120 (Acts 1:15). One could surmise that this group knew those in the number by name. They obviously had a record of them for it to be recorded. Later, the Lord added 3,000 souls to this number (Acts 2:41). This group remained committed to one another and the cause of Christ as they continued to grow (Acts 2:42-47). So we see a group committed first to Christ and then to one another seeking to be obedient to the Lord's "Great Commission" (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15). A picture of church "membership" even if it wasn't called such at the time.
Also, the fact that the Bible instructs elders, the leaders of local congregations, to "oversee" and "shepherd" the flock that God has called them to indicates that they must know who their "flock" consists of (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2-3). How difficult would it be, without a membership list of who constitutes their flock, for an elder or pastor to recognize who God holds them responsible for? Keep in mind that this is no small issue. Hebrews 13:17 points out that these leaders will have to "give an account" of the souls they are entrusted to watch over. A membership list serves to specify who these ones are and who they aren't. There obviously has to be a way to distinguish between those of this elder's flock and those who do not belong to that flock.
Furthermore, Scripture speaks of removing an unrepentant immoral professor from the fellowship in the practice of church discipline (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:2). For someone to be "kicked out" of the visible church, they must first have been seen as being a part of it. You can't officially "remove" what first officially wasn't "accepted." This points to some sort of membership list or acknowledgement that the early church must have kept in order for them to painfully remove names on it in such cases of unrepentant sin. To designate that they no longer belonged and should be treated as someone outside the fellowship represented in Jesus' words as a "Gentile or tax collector" (Matthew 18:17). Paul also speaks of a difference between "those inside the church" and "those outside" (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). How can one know who are "inside" and "outside" without some formal list or record?
So, as you can hopefully see, the idea of some sort of membership concept indeed has been present since the very beginnings of the church. The Bible not only supports the idea of a believer officially becoming a member of a local congregation, but also specifies what such membership entails. And to the specifics of what that is we now turn.
Membership Entails Affirmation
In Matthew 16:18, we find the first mention of the term church in the New Testament. Right after Peter gives the proper identification of Who Jesus is, that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God (v. 16), Jesus states that He will use him as an instrument to establish the Church. Peter will serve as a rock for this living organism that Jesus will build. The other apostles would also help lay this foundation, with Christ serving as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). Jesus also tells Peter that He will give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven (v. 19). This indicates an authority bestowed upon Peter and, probably by extension, the other apostles. It is the authority of heaven itself. In a very real sense here Jesus could be indicating that the church that He will establish through the apostles will be the earthly representation of His heavenly kingdom. That the church will serve as an ambassador of heaven. An ambassador communicates the will and decisions of their king while in a foreign land. Any decision the ambassador makes is only the decisions that the king had already made. Thus, whatever the ambassador binds, will be only that which has already been bound by the king. (The Greek phrase used here is unusual. It is a combination of a future verb with a perfect participle. It appears to indicate a future reality that has already been settled in the past. One could translate it as whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.)
We see this ambassadorial work with the apostles as Jesus goes about the business of building His church throughout the book of Acts. When the first group of Samaritans came to faith in Christ, the apostles, representing this new church that had begun construction, had to come to pray for them, lay hands on them, and a visible manifestation of the Holy Spirit occurred (Acts 8:14-17). The question should be raised as to why a few of the apostles had to come from Jerusalem to do this. Why Philip did not take it upon himself to do it? I think the reason actually goes back to the authority that Jesus gave Peter and the apostles as Christ’s ambassadors. We are seeing here the keys and the binding and loosing at work. Peter and John merely affirmed the faith of these new converts through the prayer and the laying on of hands. God had saved them through their reception of the message but this sought to confirm their profession of faith. Likewise, church membership serves as a way that the church affirms one’s profession of faith based on the evidence of the fruit of a changed life which should be visible if one has truly been born again. It does not save but the church acts as God’s authority on earth, under the authority of Christ and His Word, to basically say with receiving one into membership: “We recognize you as belonging as part of us. You too join us in representing Jesus on earth.”
If it helps, think of the
church as an embassy for the kingdom of heaven here on earth. America has
several embassies in foreign countries all over the world. Each American
embassy not only declares the country’s interest in the foreign land that it is
in as an ambassador role like referenced above but also serves to protect the
nation's citizens who are living in that foreign country. For instance, say an
American citizen in China loses their passport. They would have to go to the
American embassy in China for them to verify that they are indeed a US citizen
and would be supported by the embassy. The embassy doesn't make them a citizen
of the United States but acknowledges that they are while in this foreign land.
Membership in a local church is a congregation publicly acknowledging,
protecting, and supporting a citizen of heaven who lives in this foreign land
which is not their true home.
This is why we at Mt. Joy require all membership candidates to have an interview with the pastor and at least one of the deacons. We, as leaders of the congregation, to the extent that we are able, want to make sure to affirm those who exhibit evidence of being "in Christ" as part of the fellowship. In this interview, questions are asked pertaining to how one came to faith in Christ and their understanding of the gospel.
Membership Entails Commitment
God never intended for the Christian life to be lived alone. He does not save anyone individually and expect them to be “free agents,” roaming here and there. His desire is for them to be committed to each other in the context of a local congregation of His followers. How else can one live out all the one another commands in Scripture (Leviticus 19:11; John 13:14, 34, 35; Romans 1:12; 12:10, 16; 13:8; 14:13; 15:7,14; 16:16; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 11:33; 12:25; Galatians 5:13, 15, 26; 6:2; Ephesians 4:2, 16, 32; 5:19, 21; Philippians 2:3-5; Colossians 3:9, 13, 16; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; 4:9, 18; 5:11, 13, 15; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; Hebrews 3:13; 10:24, 25; 13:1; James 4:11; 5:9, 16; 1 Peter 3:8; 4:8, 9; 5:5; 1 John 1:7; 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11, 12)? Perhaps the clearest picture we have of this is found in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. In this chapter, Paul describes the church using the imagery of a human body made up of its various parts. God’s Spirit has given each believer a specific gift that should be used for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7). The purpose of any spiritual gift is to edify or build up each other in the faith and to be used to serve one another (1 Peter 4:10). This indicates something that cannot be done at home away from other believers and something that would be difficult to do hopping from one local congregation to the next. Committing to suffer with the members of a local congregation in their suffering and to rejoice with them in their rejoicing can only be done if you have taken the time to, in a sense, live among those members and get to know them (1 Corinthians 12:26). Keep in mind that Paul writes to a local congregation in Corinth when he gives this instruction.
So the commitment of membership is to live together in community with and minister to the needs of the other members of the congregation. Let's dig a little deeper into what this means. It certainly requires more contact with other members of the congregation than just once a week on a Sunday morning. There should be sharing as a family of faith throughout each week whether that would be through getting together with other individuals or families from within the congregation or even just a simple phone call or card to check on others. This also means that a member should not be as concerned about getting their own needs met or desiring to be served by others but rather how they can serve others within the local body of believers. Far too often people selfishly ask, what can the church do for me. John F. Kennedy's famous instruction years ago could be reworded for church members today as "Ask not what the church can do for you, ask what you can do for your church."
Sitting at home and not joining a church really is not an option that the Bible gives (Hebrews 10:24-25). Take a moment to reflect on these words by Benjamin L. Merkle, "A Christian's relationship to the local church should not be like a dating relationship where both sides are constantly guessing how the other views their relationship. Many Christians today want to date the church, making no formal commitment. The biblical picture of our relationship with Christ is not dating but marriage. Therefore, it is appropriate that we have a formal commitment to Christ's visible church" ("The Biblical Basis for Church Membership," Those Who Must Give An Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012) 40).
Membership Entails Accountability
In the second mention of the term church in the New Testament, Jesus explains the accountability the church has upon its individual members. As recorded in Matthew 18:15-20, He lays out the steps in the process of what to do if you notice a fellow member in sin. The first step would be to point out their fault to them individually (v. 15). The hope is that this will lead the professing believer to see the error of their way and run back to Christ in repentance. However, if he or she refuses to repent and leave the specific sin, we are told to approach them again, this time with two or more witnesses (v. 16). If this still does not result in their repentance, they are to be called before the church and the entire congregation should reach out to them in love, calling for them to leave such a sin behind. However, if they appear to be so hard-hearted that he or she still refuses the reproach, drastically they are treated as if they were outside the church and thus as not belonging to the body of Christ (v. 17). Jesus then mentions the authority that He has given the church in these matters with the statement once again of them binding and loosing on earth what will have been already bound and loosed in heaven (v. 18) and that He stands with them in such a decision (vv. 19-20). (This assumes that the church followed His procedure as He had outlined of course). I must be careful here not to fail to state that the goal of such a process is actually restoration. This can be seen in the fact that Jesus’ teaching follows His parable of the shepherd leaving his 99 sheep to retrieve the one that has gone astray (vv. 12-14) and that it precedes Peter’s question concerning forgiveness (vv. 21-35).
When one becomes a member of a local congregation, they are actually saying that they want that body of believers together to hold them accountable for the way in which they are living. If they have an area of unrepentant sin in their life, they want the church to lovingly point that out. Any true believer who desires to live the holy life that Christ saved them for (2 Corinthians 5:15) would want this. We need each other for our growth in holiness! In a very real sense, our sanctification is a community project. Being a member of a local congregation is to say that I submit to this congregation and want them to hold me accountable for my spiritual growth and discipleship. I submit to their teaching and discipline. And discipleship consists of both teaching and correction. As you can visibly see, disciple and discipline are words closely related to one another.
So membership certainly consists of more than just having one’s name on the roll at such and such church. It involves having a local congregation affirm their profession of faith and recognize them as one of its own. It includes a commitment given to others in the congregation and their work together for the spread of the gospel. It is submitting to the congregation’s authority, which it enacts under the authority of Christ and His Word, to be held accountable for one’s growth and discipline in grace. Mark Dever was right to label this as one of the "Nine Marks of a Healthy Church."
Is this true of you as a member of a local congregation? Have you found a good Bible teaching local church in which to join and labor for our Lord? If you have been attending a local church but never made steps to become a member, what might be holding you back? Let’s be obedient to Christ and become members of His body in the localities in which we live for the glory of His name.
Soli Deo Gloria!!!
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. ~2 Timothy 2:15
- I am a young man who is following God's call into pastoral ministry. I have been so blessed with the privileges which the Lord has granted me. I am blessed to serve the Mt. Joy congregation in Mt. Pleasant, PA. I am constantly humbled and amazed at what the Lord is doing in my life.