A lovely, warm-hearted Christian couple had been attending the local church for the last year. They had been a constant encouragement to the pastor who was sitting opposite them, eating their biscuits and drinking their tea. He was there to follow up on a question he had asked them a week earlier after the morning service. “Would you like to become church members?” The couple gave the perfect answer “We’ll pray about it and get back to you”.
A couple of days later, the couple asked the pastor to visit, and he was glad to go, expecting to spend the evening preparing the couple and setting the date they would join the church. Instead, to his shock, the couple had decided that though they would be committed to the life of the church, they would not become members because ‘it wasn’t biblical.’
Were they right? Should your church, like many others in New Zealand, abandon the concept of local church membership? The issue hangs on the question, ‘is it biblical?’ If not, then we should surely scrap membership. If, however, it is biblical, then every Christian should heartily embrace it and acknowledge it as God’s best way for our good and Christ’s glory.
The Bible actually affirms two kinds of church membership. One is explicit and one is implicit.
1) The Bible explicitly affirms membership in the invisible church
When a person becomes a Christian, they immediately become a part of God’s church. In the Bible, the church is sometimes called the body of Christ or the Bride of Christ. Every true Christian, without exception, is a member of that church. We see that kind of membership explicitly in the Bible:
Romans 12:5, "So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others."
1 Corinthians 3:9, "For we are co-workers in God's service; you are God's field, God's building."
1 Corinthians 12:3, "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free."
2) The Bible implicitly affirms membership of the local church
Membership of a local church is a different thing entirely and shouldn’t be confused with membership of the invisible church just because they both have membership in the name. When you become a member of a local church, that doesn’t make you a Christian. In fact, the primary requirement of becoming a member of a local church is that you already are a Christian. Nobody should identify with a physical church unless you belong to the spiritual church.
Local church membership is about belonging to a local/physical expression of the global/invisible church for your good and for the good of God’s people there. But why bother? Why not say membership in the invisible church is all we need to worry about? When it comes to physical church, just come along and take part?
Church membership is like a three-pronged fork, and here are three great points why local membership is so valuable.
Service: It is the job of the church leaders to encourage the people attending to use their gifts to glorify God. But they cannot do that if they do not know who is committed to the church. If you are not a member, there is nothing to stop you walking away from people who depend on you.
Accountability: Each congregation has a responsibility to make sure all our activity is in line with God’s word and glorifying to Him. We want the truth to be taught and Jesus to be glorified and, though there is room for varying beliefs in any church, there needs to be some common ground. There are doctrinal distinctives that unite each local congregation that members agree to support. Membership ensures the fundamentals of faith are shared by the people who publicly identify as belonging to that congregation.
Discipline: The reality of being a Christian in a fallen world means there will be times we stumble as we follow Jesus. We all need encouragement and sometimes we need rebuke and discipline. Church membership facilitates that and serves whole church. Let me explain with an illustration:
A man in church has an affair. The elders go to see Him, but he does not believe he is in the wrong and refuses to repent. If he’s not a member, he can just keep coming to church and telling everyone he is still a Christian and part of your church. That does the man no good, the church no good and the people outside the church no good.
But if a member refuses to repent, the elders can take away their membership. Hopefully that wakes the man up to the seriousness of his sin and brings him to repentance. It does Him good. It does the church good either way because they see that belonging to a church is valuable and not to take lightly. It does those outside the church good to see that people who follow Jesus can’t continue to live for themselves. A Holy God expects His people to be holy.
We see this in the Bible implicitly. Here is one example: 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, "What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked person from among you.'"
To expel or send someone out from among you, there must be an ‘among you’. There must be a recognised, identified group to expel someone from. That is made possible through local church membership.
I hope this article is helpful in clarifying the biblical nature of church membership. At it’s heart, local church membership is all about: Service, Accountability, Discipline. S. A. D because a church without membership could be a very SAD place to be.
This article was written by Geoff Lloyd. Pastor at Wyndam Evangelical Church.