First, what is Church Membership?
When people think about membership in a local church, they often confuse it with membership in a local gym. But membership in a gym or country club is usually just a ticket to use the facilities – so, you can pay and never show up – and in fact, many do. The gym owner may have sincere hopes for the health of members, but fitness clubs usually have no problem taking the monthly check of members who never drop by.
On the other hand, church membership is marked by a different word – covenant – meaning a sacred promise before God. Church members promise to live holy lives and play an integral part in their local church. In country club or gym membership, it’s up to the individual member to determine whether he or she participates in events or in the life of the organization, but the Apostle Paul says that members of a church are more like members of the human body – so a non-participating member is an oxymoron, like an eye that refuses to open or a nose that refuses to smell.
Members at Edgewood Community Church (where I’m a pastor) make a sacred covenant or promise to be a part in five ways…
…by coming faithfully to weekly worship services. (Hebrews 10:24, 25)
…by giving generously according to biblical standards (2 Corinthians 9:6 – 8)
…by refraining from gossip and thus confronting sin in a biblical manner (Matthew 18:15)
…by submitting to the elders (Hebrews 13:17)
…by praying for the church faithfully (John 16:24)
But is it in the Bible?
It’s true that the word membership is never found in the Bible, but another important word is – submission. It’s probably wiser to think not so much of joining a church, but of submitting or even committing yourself to a church.
For instance, Hebrews 13:17 calls believers to submit to their leaders.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. Hebrews 13:17 (ESV)
All Christians, therefore, are called to submit to their spiritual leaders and even more, to respect and honor them – 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13 (And yes, as a pastor, I know this certainly sounds self-serving, but it’s what Scripture teaches). On a related note, this is one of the challenges to claiming to be a committed follower of Christ and yet (let alone membership), even refusing to attend and be a part of a local church – who then, are your spiritual leaders? The “Lone Ranger” Christian has none. This truth, along with the many “one-another” passages (“Love one another”, “Forgive one another,” “Bear one another’s burdens”, etc.), make it clear that New Testament writers assumed all Christians would be a part of a local church.
Two practical considerations make the need for church membership clear:
- Spiritual leaders like pastors and elders need to know whom they will be responsible for when those leaders one day stand before God.
- A congregationally governed local church requires members for decision-making. (See for instance Acts 6:3).
A little thought experiment goes along with the two scenarios above: what is the other option besides membership? Will God hold spiritual leaders responsible for everyone who has dropped by on a Sunday morning? Or everyone who has “dropped by” for the last two months? I hope not! Similarly, who gets to vote? Someone who considers herself a committed Christian and says she loves the church…and who simply has shown up for the first time on the Sunday of the church’s annual meeting?
Finally, church membership is certainly not necessary for salvation, but it is meant to be helpful toward assurance of salvation. This is because local churches have been entrusted with the “keys of the Kingdom” (see Matthew 16:19; 18:18). In giving the keys of the Kingdom to local church leaders, the Lord gives them power to govern and to bind and loose; therefore, when church membership is conferred on an individual, the local church is declaring (to the best of their admittedly fallible spiritual understanding) that the person is a true follower of Christ.
Membership is an important part of Christian discipleship. If you’re not a member of your local church, I hope you’ll give serious thought to becoming one!