Last week, I wrote a post about Christian decision-making and why Christians should submit everything to the Word of God. In this post, I am going to explore what submitting everything to the Word of God looks like in the life of a church, specifically regarding church membership.
Church membership is one of those touchy subjects surrounding us in a culture seemingly composed of entirely of touchy subjects. It’s a watershed subject too: those who touch upon it seem to inevitably slip straight to the bottom of whichever side they lean to: church membership is either seen as a means of salvation or utterly irrelevant.
But can we defend either perspective from Scripture?
I don’t think so.
Instead, we find that church membership is not the sine qua non it’s made out to be by some nor is it the non-issue claimed by others. The New Testament can guide our thinking on the subject, helping us walk the knife’s edge between the two ditches.
Not Exclusivity But Accountability
It is helpful to first acknowledge that church membership is not like membership in a country club: it’s not about exclusivity but accountability. We are inclined to think of membership in primarily privileged terms. For lack of a better way of putting it, privilege is the last thing on Jesus’ mind when he instructs his disciples to “daily deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me.” Our understanding of church membership needs to be governed by that self-sacrificing mindset.
It also needs to be governed by Jesus’ words regarding the nature of Christian power relationships: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Church membership is not an opportunity for me to be served as one greater than those plebes who haven’t joined; it is my attempt to follow in the steps of Jesus and to serve others.
Local & Universal Church
Another important consideration is the New Testament’s teaching on the relationship between the local and the universal church. While some would deny one or the other, they both seem to be in the text. This can perhaps be most clearly seen in the book of Revelation.
In Revelation 5:9-10, for example, we get a glimpse of the reality of the universal church in the praise of heaven given to the one who redeemed the church:
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
The universal church is the kingdom of God composed of all true followers of Jesus from all times and all places.
But the universal church is not exclusive of the local church. Revelation 1:4 shows John, the same one who had the vision of the heavenly worship party in Revelation 5, declaring that he is writing to “the seven churches in Asia.” Church here can be defined as a group of Jesus-followers committed to one another together in one time and one place.
Understanding the reality of the universal church is essential to avoid overdoing an emphasis on local church membership. Conversely, understanding the reality of the local church is essential to avoid neglecting the beauty of the universal church.
The reason such understanding is essential is because it grounds our approach to membership. The local church is meant to be a microcosm of the universal church but the universal church is not able to adjudicate all the matters that come before the local church. Both are necessary and when there is not some kind of local commitment, obeying the commands of Jesus is nearly impossible. Membership in the local church does not mean automatic entrance to the universal church. Nor does membership in the universal church obviate the need for accountability to the local church. The truth, as is often the case, is somewhere in between. To get at it, we will take a look at church membership in the individual Christian life and church membership in the congregational life of the local church.
Local Church Membership in the Individual Christian Life:
Is Local Church Membership Required for Salvation?
For whatever reason, this is the primary question for Western Christians in almost all matters. The community reality of salvation, the kingdom message, all is boiled down for our simple, mechanical minds to: “What does this do for me?” Appropriate or not, it is a pressing issues for many, so let’s answer it:
Formal, local church membership is not required for salvation. Romans 10:9 clears that up for us:
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
No mention of church membership.
Is Local Church Membership Required for Eternal Life?
No philosophizing this time:
Revelation 21:6-7 locates the gift of eternal life in the grace of God:
And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. 7 The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.
Is Local Church Membership Required for Sanctification?
Now we come to the sticky bit. Church membership doesn’t save you from hell or get you into the new heavens and the new earth, but what does it do in the time you’re breathing? Is it required for your growth in grace and holiness?
Now, nowhere in the Bible do we see a command: “Thou must join a local church by filling out form 3B in triplicate, providing your name, address, phone number, blood type, make and model of car, and other information as required. Such membership will require 10% of your gross income annually, attendance at any and all and sundry interminably protracted business meetings, and, of course, serving in the nursery every other week.”
It’s not there.
But that doesn’t mean the discussion is closed.
While we lack a clear command from the New Testament on the subject, I would say that while local church membership is not required it is extremely beneficial.
Why is it beneficial? Because while there’s no clear command for it, there is a clear assumption of the commitment that local believers will show to one another in their local context. And there are clear commands on how individual believers are to relate to one another in the local church. These commands are difficult to obey in the spirit they are given if there is not an underlying accountability between believers to one another. So, local church membership is beneficial for discipleship.
But the reason I cannot say it is required is that discipleship is not just an inter-believer process. There are clear commands that relate to how a believer is to live in relation to the world as well. Obedience in service in the world is as much a means of discipleship as accountability in the local church context. Many churches that practice required local membership restrict the service required for discipleship to members.
Houston, we have a problem.
If service is a means of discipleship, it should not be restricted to members only but be open to all believers that all may grow in grace and holiness. But since accountability is key within the body of Christ, certain forms of church service, leadership, and decision making have to be restricted to those who have made a mutual commitment to one another. We need to think about how discipleship and membership interact biblically.
While there is never going to be a definitive answer to the particular interplay of the two, I land on saying that the local church should encourage local believers to commit to a formal covenant of membership and should require that certain forms of service (pastor, deacon, teacher, etc.) be restricted to members. Meanwhile, other forms of service (physical needs, community events, etc.) should be open to all professing believers under the oversight of the pastors of the church. This approach benefits both the individual disciple and the local church.
Just because I don’t think committed, accountable, local church membership should be required for all service doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s important. In fact, I’d recommend it to all believers and all churches.
Local Church Membership Helps You Test Your Salvation:
According to Jesus, you can know someone is a disciple by whether or not they obey Jesus’ commands. Two of those commands, in particular, need looking at:
“Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Mark 9:50
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” John 13:34
It is easy to be at peace with a brother in China who I have never met. It’s easy to love a sister in Brazil who I have never met.
It’s hard to be at peace with the brother whose personality rubs me the wrong way Sunday after Sunday. It’s hard to love the old lady who grumbles at me in the hall.
But obeying Christ’s commands isn’t meant to be something I can do on my own: it’s meant to cause me to rely on the Holy Spirit who will empower me to grow in sanctification by being at peace with people who I have promised to support and encourage. By demonstrating love for people who will hold me accountable and show me the way of Christ when I fall, I am testifying to the truth of my discipleship. By joining a church, committing myself to them and they committing themselves to me, I am helping to test my salvation, assuring myself of it every time I trust God to create peace between me and a brother, to preserve unity between me and a sister. It doesn’t mean that someone who doesn’t join the church isn’t saved, or can’t have assurance of it. But it does mean that those who intentionally commit themselves to a local body are able to have the fuller assurance that comes from testing their obedience.
Local Church Membership Proves Committed Love for One Another
Correspondingly, if obeying Christ’s commands is a test of discipleship, so too it is a proclamation of the gospel. John 13:35 carries on the thought expressed in verse 34 above, (novel, right!?):
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
If you are talking to a girl who has decided to move in with her boyfriend and you ask, “Why?” chances are you’ll hear some variation on the theme, “He loves me. We’re going to get married soon.” How does this story usually end up? Ten years later, if they’re still together, they’re still going to get married someday.
There’s a difference between professed love and committed love.
In boy/girl relationships, commitment is formalized (and proven) by a ring and covenant vows. In church relationships, it is formalized (and proven) by membership and covenant vows. Not required to love one another, but much more believable in proving that you do.
Local Church Membership Enables Decision Making Together
The church is not a static thing in the New Testament. There are constant shifts, controversies, and opportunities that need to be addressed. Church membership aids in these required decisions.
In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus says that one decision, a particularly difficult one, that requires the church’s input is that of church discipline.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Obviously, this situation is a difficult one when it occurs. But hidden in the difficulty is an obvious question: if there’s no local, committed membership, who is the “church” we are to go to? All the believers in a community, whether they know each other or not? The worldwide church? Should Christians take advantage of modern technology and create “JudgmentBook?” It’d be like Facebook, but for putting the sins of local believers before the universal church for their judgment?
Obviously, I’m speaking with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. No! No one (at least no one that I know) would be in favor of such a reading of this text. The most logical and most beneficial reading would indicate that the “church” Jesus is referencing is a local body of believers who know one another and are committed to mutual accountability together.
But church decisions are not always disciplinarian: sometimes, they are simply for the health and ministry of the body. In Acts 6, we see one such event:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.”
A problem arises and in order to correct it and further the ministry of the body, the Jerusalem church is told to “pick out from among you” men who will meet the need. Note that the apostles called together “the full number of disciples.” If that is meant to indicate that when a church has a need, they must contact the “full number” of the universal church? I don’t think so. Instead, I think the principle here is that the church addresses needs within the body, from within the body. If that’s true, then there must be a way of differentiating those within the body from those without the body. Again, membership answers the call, not as a means of exclusivity but as an assurance of accountability.
Local Church Membership Defines the Task of Local Church Leaders
The final benefit of church membership I want to look at may seem a bit self-serving, but it’s not meant to be. I’m a pastor and Scripture is clear that I will give an account before God of how I lead the church I am called. But what is the “church” to which I am called? Is it the universal church? If so, I want out: the task is impossible. But I don’t think that’s the case. Instead, I believe that I am called to a local church and that the extent of my responsibility is to those of local believers who are committed to the fellowship of that church. Peter’s words in 1 Peter 5:1-5 guide my thinking here:
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
Peter uses the term “elders” (a term that I believe is synonymous with “pastors”) and he tells them to “shepherd the flock of God that is among them.” Not to shepherd believers everywhere, but those “among them.” Not to shepherd the believers gathered among other pastor/elders, but among them. There needs to be a circle of responsibility for the pastor to do their job well, and that circle is best defined as those believers committed to one another in their local congregations.
Submitted to the Word on Church Membership
So we’ve walked through a lot of text and a lot of my halting explanation on what it looks like to be submitted to the Word on the subject of church membership. My hope is that you will take the time to search the Scriptures to see whether these things are so. I’d love to talk more about your findings if you want to: email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.