Some Christians struggle with the idea of formal local church membership. They feel uncomfortable with the idea that some folks are “in” and other folks are “out.” They ask, “Where in the Bible does the idea of formally recognized church membership appear?”
Settling the issue of church membership requires understanding the biblical concept of a local church, embracing the types of covenants that existed between early believers, accepting that New Testament church members knew who was and was not part of their group and recognizing a believer’s Kingdom-citizen responsibilities. Only biblical notions of membership that emerge from scriptural accounts and teachings about local churches should remain.
Universal and local
Notice the difference between the concepts of the “universal church” and a “local church.” The “universal church” consists of every born-again believer, from every place, throughout all of time (as in Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 3:10 and Colossians 1:18). It has never held a meeting and will only do so at the marriage supper of the Lamb, described in Revelation 21.
However, scripture primarily refers to the church (Greek: ekklesia) as local believer fellowships or groups of believer fellowships in a particular area. Such references especially appear in scripture passages containing instruction or teaching (e.g., Romans 16:1, 1 Corinthians 11:18 and Jesus’ letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3).
Church is a both-and idea: Christians are both part of the universal church and should be part of a local church. All believers are brothers and sisters, and will gather together at the end of the ages. But, for now, each born-again believer should enter into a covenant relationship with a particular local church. Individual believers in a local church seriously agree (covenant) to engage in certain practices, such as participation and using their gifts to serve the congregation. In response, the other believers, together as a group, seriously agree (covenant) to engage in complementary practices, such as guiding, teaching and gently disciplining the individual.
The two-way practice of covenant agreements forms the foundation of church membership. Living out those covenants requires local church membership. Because covenants form the core of church membership, no one should casually join a church, nor should churches casually receive individuals into their membership.
But is this idea biblical? Granted, the New Testament nowhere explicitly instructs local churches to maintain formal, organized membership records. But the lack of an explicit command does not render modern notions of church membership unbiblical.
Part of the body, or not
Paul said, “… You are the body of Christ, and individual members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27; see also Romans 12). He compared a local church to a human body, attributing an organic quality to its structure. Just as a body cannot exist without its individual parts, a local church cannot exist without its parts (i.e., members) – its covenanted believers. Likewise, just as every body part belongs to a particular body, so each believer should belong to a particular believer fellowship, a church. Nonbelievers do not belong to a believer fellowship. They are not part of the body Paul describes.
It is clear that believers in New Testament churches knew who was “in” and “not in” their particular church. At the end of Romans, for instance, Paul greeted by name numerous believers known to be part of the church in Rome (Romans 16:3-16). And Paul told the Corinthians to “remove” a specific man from their ranks (1 Corinthians 5:13), a command that assumed the Corinthian believers knew who was part of the church and who was not.
Same word, different meaning
So why do some people challenge the concept of church membership? Church terminology and modern cultural terminology overlap, fueling the struggle. Modern uses of the word “member” differ significantly from the Bible’s use of the concept. Specifically, cultural ideas of membership lack the element of covenant.
Today, people are members of all sorts of things. They hold membership in clubs that are bound together only by common interests or activities in which participation is optional. By paying dues, they can become members of service-providing organizations and receive certain perks and privileges (e.g., warehouse stores). They also claim membership in political parties so they can vote for or against this or that. But these examples of membership all differ from the covenants that bound New Testament believers together in local churches.
Rather than seeing a local church as a club, a store or a political party, Christians should view a local church as an earthly embassy of God’s Kingdom. Believers have changed their citizenship. They are residents of God’s Kingdom who cooperate together to represent that Kingdom’s interests where they live. In fact, scripture plainly describes Christians as ambassadors of God’s Kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:20). Accordingly, they have responsibilities to their King and to one another.
Church membership is not about perks, deals or votes, but about identity, covenants and fulfilling one’s responsibilities. From that perspective, problems with church membership shrink. That perspective may also help believers understand their roles inside and outside their church facilities’ walls.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Bill Connors is pastor of Eastern Hills Baptist Church in Albuquerque, N.M. This column first appeared in the Baptist New Mexican, bcnm.com/bnm-current-edition, news journal of the Baptist Convention of New Mexico. Used with permission.)