I have a friend who has been attending church regularly but is unconvinced about the need for church membership? He challenges, “Show me where it says in the Bible, ‘ Thou shalt become a church member.’” And truthfully, I cannot point to verse that says that one must become a church member. Nevertheless, I am convinced that church membership is spiritually advantageous and even compulsory for the believer. To say it another way, without church membership individual believers will not mature in their Christian faith, and local churches will be deficient of Spiritually-gifted members.
Still, what biblical data is there to support the need for church membership? Let me suggest five reasons for the vital necessity of church membership based on New Testament principles:
- Membership is a NT Pattern. When converts repented, believed, and were baptized in the book of Acts, they were added to the number of the church (Acts 2:41, 47). This means that the church in Jerusalem knew the number of believers in their church. So did the church at Corinth–how else could they assess when the “whole church” met together (1 Cor 14:23)? New Testament churches were comprised of members assembling locally, as evidenced by the church discipline in 1 Cor 5 and the recognition of members leaving the congregation (1 John 2:19). In order, for church discipline to work, churches had to be aware of their membership.
- Membership secures participation in the Kingdom of God. Jesus spoke of the church on two occassions (Matthew 16:13-20; 18:15-20), and in both instances, he stated that the keys to the kingdom have been given to the church. I take this to mean that spiritual access into the kingdom of heaven has been entrusted to the church. That is to say, the gospel message has been given to the church, and only the church foretastes and foresees kingdom realities. In this way, the church serves as the instrument of the kingdom. It is not identical with the kingdom, but each true, local church functions as a kingdom outpost–proclaiming the gospel of kingdom, partaking of the kingdom ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), enacting kingdom discipline, and demonstating what Spirit-led, kingdom life is like. Church membership matters because kingdom life is foreseen and ‘fore-tasted’ in the local church.
- Membership provides spiritual protection. God has appointed pastor-teachers to instruct believers and equip saints for the work of service. Moreover, pastor-teacher-elders are those who watch over the souls of the local church. It would be foolish to forego this ministry of mercy. As Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” Likewise, church deacons are installed to help meet physical needs and to minister to saints in need (cf. Acts 6:1-7). And finally, church discipline falls into this category. None of us are strong enough to contend against the wiles of Satan. We need to formative discipline provided through the regular administration of the Word of God in the local church, but there are also times when we need the accountability of a fellow member to call us back to Christ. Even more powerful, we may need the unified testimony of the entire church to call us back to Christ. Church discipline is not merely a punitive action against a backslidden Christians; it is a means of protecting those sheep who wander from the fold. Satan has come to kill, steal, and destroy. He often does this through division and isolation! By submitting ourselves to the accountability of the local church in church membership, we are inviting the loving and protective correction of our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is a means of grace, intended by our loving God as a preserving force against our wicked and unruly hearts.
- Membership is for our spiritual maturity. Ephesians 4 makes it abundantly clear, we do not grow by oursleves. Just like the human body, we do not develop as individual cells soaking up nutriment in a petri dish. No, we grow, develop, and mature as we are united to the body of Christ (Eph 4:15-16). Church membership entails that we are in the proper context for growth. We are stretched to use our gifts for the corporate good (1 Cor 12:7); we are challenged to consider others more important than ourselves (Phil 2:3-4). All the while, we are benefitted by the gifts of others. Without membership in a local body, we are not guaranteed these things. Growth can happen in a weekly Bible study, a parachurch group, or through a school-sponsored mission trip, but without the dynamics of the local church, most of the growth fostered in these other arenas will provide only lop-sided or imbalanced growth. Moreover, the local church is the best context whereby we can exercise and obey the one another commands. (For a full list see my handout: ‘The One Another’s). Doing life together in the local church stretches us to grow in ways that no other man-made institution or intensive study program can.
- Membership is for our spiritual fulfillment. Membership in the local church is God’s intended platform for you to use your gifts, skills, and passions for the upbuilding of God’s church (1 Cor. 12:7). If you are born again and filled with the Holy Spirit, God has equipped you with one or more spiritual gifts (1 Pet 4:10-11), and truth be told, your greatest joys will come when you use your giftedness for the good of others! So, in order to increase your joy as a Christian, you should pursue church membership and serve faithful. As Jesus said, it is more blessed to give than receive.
Surely, these five reasons can be added to and improved upon. I would love to hear your thoughts on why church membership is essential in the life of a Christian believer, or how God has convinced you of this truth from the Bible. It took me a long time to learn some of these things, and I am still learning…but I am learning with and in the body of Christ as a member of a local church.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss