Is Church Membership Biblical?
One of the wider misunderstandings in our churches today is church membership. What is it exactly? Is it like a gym membership? I pay my dues and therefore I am entitled to all the benefits of the organization… and as long as I keep paying my dues they still have to grant me a membership. Is it similar to being a member of a country club or the Chamber of Commerce? Is church membership primarily about voting power in important decisions? Or perhaps it is simply a loose association based on family lineage and tradition.
And the big question… is church membership even in the Bible?
If you do a search for the word “membership” in the Bible you won’t get any hits. But the same is true for the word “Trinity.” But of course the concept of the Trinity is found all over Scripture. The same is true for church membership. If you read through the New Testament and pay attention to the way the authors speak of the interactions within local churches in their day the idea of church membership is impossible to miss.
According to the Bible church membership is a believer committing to a local group of Christians, while at the same time that local body of Christ makes a similar commitment to the believer. In Hebrews 13:17 we read, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” A few questions that need to be asked from that passage. First, who are “our leaders” that we are to submit to? They are the ones who are keeping watch over our souls. The New Testament clearly tells us these are Elders and Pastors. But second, who are those for whom leaders will have to give an account? Will God hold the Elders and Pastors in our churches accountable for all believers everywhere? Of course not. They will be responsible for those under their care at their specific local churches. The only way this makes sense is if there is a defining line between those under their care, and those to whom they are not responsible. That line is local church membership. We see this same principle laid out in both 1 Peter 5:2 and Acts 20:28. Church leaders are to know who they are responsible for.
Finally, a key text for church membership is 1 Corinthians chapter 5. There we see a brother who is living in unrepentant sin that is of such a gross and public nature that it is affecting the church body as a whole. Paul tells the Corinthians to put him out of the church - to remove him “from among you.” The only way this makes sense is if there was some kind of demarcation between those who were part of the Corinthian church and those who were not. This line of demarcation is church membership.
Church membership means we voluntarily submit ourselves to a local body of believers and to their leaders. We commit to attending, giving, serving, and fellowship. We place ourselves under the submission of the Elders. And we allow those believers to care for us spiritually and to hold us accountable to biblical standards of living. At the same time, the local church makes a commitment to the one placing membership. They commit to care for their souls, to disciple and shepherd them, and to provide a culture of fellowship, prayer, teaching, and encouragement.