The topic of church membership can be one filled with emotion. It isn’t unusual to find that people view membership with a mix of perspectives, even in the same small church. Sometimes their perspectives have been shaped by careful Bible study – sometimes not.
Nor is it uncommon to find that the topic of church membership is regarded more as a “feeling” than a teaching from the Scriptures. I spoke with a woman after a worship service who was interested in membership in the church but who hadn’t “felt” like she’s a member – and was thus hesitant to join. In her case, and many like her, membership in the church is connected with a sense of belonging. This is important because God’s idea is that the church be the place in this sinful world where His children do belong. But the “feeling” aspect of church membership can be a hindrance if it obscures or misses the biblical understanding of membership. For example, a friend told me about a pastor he spoke with who refused to confront a woman in his church’s membership who was having an adulterous affair because, “we’re more interested in making friends.” That’s making friends with the world, which is condemned in the Bible (James 4:4).
Some will also question why church membership even needs to be studied. Why rock the boat? Why press people into a mold? Can’t we let people grow and mature at their own pace? To that I would answer that membership is not an irrelevant topic to Christian maturity. Without a godly understanding of membership Christians are left to their own thinking about the topic. This insures that you will have all kinds of private ideas about membership which will probably not reflect what God thinks of it. Hopefully you will agree, at the outset of our discussion here, that Jesus Christ is honored as we think about church membership in the same way He does, and dishonored when we think about church membership in any different way than He does.
Now, not everyone has to become a theologian on the topic. But in the life of the church, it is important that the spiritual leadership at least understand membership. This is because so many questions concerning how to minister to Christ’s own dear sheep are involved in membership. Who exactly are the sheep for whom the shepherds are accountable to Christ since He will be our judge in this very concern (Heb. 13:17; 1 Peter 5:4)? What kind of ministry does God want His shepherds to have in the lives of those who are members in the same local church? Is it the same content of ministry that they should have to those who merely attend? What should the shepherds expect from those who are members? What should the members expect from the shepherds? How should the shepherds minister to those occasionally attending the church but not a part of the membership? Many other questions related to privileges and judgments are likewise involved in this topic.
Concerning this, I’ve observed several perspectives on church membership that I deem are based more on tradition than careful biblical study. One tradition views church membership as virtually equivalent to having one’s name enrolled in God’s list of those who go to heaven! Therefore, to have one’s name removed from membership can seem equivalent to losing salvation, or condemning someone to hell. Others in the church are deeply offended when someone’s name is removed from membership since it can be viewed as a severe judgment on the person, or that the church has become legalistic and insensitive.
Another view popular in American church culture is that membership is unbiblical and something developed by men, perhaps as a means to control people or to satisfy themselves in numbers. This has often been the view of non-denominational churches or other “start-up churches” that are leery (perhaps rightly) of church traditions. Since it is presumed there is no “chapter and verse” to go to that teaches church membership, membership is an unnecessary burden that hinders the freedom Christ has given to His children.
A third tradition views membership as a sort of multi-tiered club with various privileges depending upon the tier people fit into. Multiple categories are made to cover the nuances of life – regular member, non-regular member, non-resident member, active member, inactive member, regular attender, children of members, etc. In defense of this view it should be recognized that it is genuinely helpful to both spiritual leadership and the church at large to make distinctions about where certain people fit in the life of the church. And yet, as helpful as this is, it can hinder both the shepherds and the sheep to fulfill their God-given responsibilities to each other if a category prevents people from receiving the kind of ministry that Christ wants them to receive.
The Church of the Lord Jesus doesn’t have to remain in doubt about the right path to take since she always has the wellspring of His glorious communication in the Scriptures. The more careful the study of His Word, and the more careful and judicious the application, the more He is honored as Head of the Church. Furthermore, the Scriptures contain everything for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3), so we in the church are not teased to look outside the Bible for additional wisdom. The Lord of the Church bids us to draw close to Him and His sufficient wisdom in His God-breathed Word to learn of Him (Col. 2:3-4; James 4:6-8; Mat. 11:28-30).
It seems appropriate then to answer some questions using only the Scriptures as our guide: Is church membership biblical? If so, are there distinctions to be made among membership, and if so, what are they? Third, what biblical reasons are there for having membership?
1. Is church membership biblical?
I would answer most certainly. The apostle Paul uses several metaphors to describe a local church, and one of them is membership (1 Cor. 12:12-27). The metaphor is simple to understand: just as a human body has visible members (hands, feet, etc.), so the church at Corinth has visible members. Paul tells this local church, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (v. 27). His argument stressed various realities of membership in that church – including unity (v.12), plurality (v. 14), diversity (v.15ff), and sensitivity (v. 22ff). Without visible membership in the church, these realities become unrecognizable. For example, try to picture a human body without unity, plurality, diversity, and sensitivity. You can’t, because that’s what defines a body.
1 Cor. 12:18 states that it is God who “has placed the members” of the body as He desires. The word “placed” carries the sense of “appointed” or “assigned.” Paul chose this word to speak of God’s sovereign placement of individual Christians into the Corinthian church for the functioning of each one’s gifts. Such placement implies that each member has self-recognition of itself as part of the body. It’s weird enough for a foot to say, “because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body” (v. 15). It’s even weirder for a foot to say, “I’m not a foot, but I am a part of a body!” If there is a body, there must be visible parts. And those visible parts must know that they are parts of a larger whole – the body. So too in a church. It is a visible body, and it has visible parts.
The foundation for understanding local church membership comes from the book of Acts. Several times Luke tells us that persons were “added” to the existing church; for example there were about 3,000 “added” on the day of Pentecost (2:41). Acts 2:47 continues this addition: “and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Acts 5:41 tells us, “Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” This last phrase shows that a list of some kind was both being kept, and added to. It is unlikely that the list only involved a count and not names. It’s simply impractical. What purpose would a tally alone serve?
Luke further defines the list of member’s names in those verses where the word “number” is used, Acts 4:4, 6:7, 11:21, and 16:5 (avriqmo.j, arithmos, “number”). The “number” was a tally of those baptized and still in the fellowship of the church. This number is the count of names written on a church list. This is implied in other places in the New Testament. Names and other data would have been kept by the churches, such as who met at which house church (Rom. 16:5-16), who was on the widow’s list (1 Tim. 5:9), and who was under discipline (2 Thess. 3:14). In Acts 6:7, the imperfect tense of “increase” shows that there was a list of the disciples already being kept, and that additions to the list were being continually made as persons joined the church. Thus, the practice of keeping some list or other administrative record is minimally required to know who is and who is not a part of the church, and is a practice which finds its origin in the Scriptures.
From the church’s perspective, this “adding” involved a specific task of keeping some list, or roll, of who was being added to the church. At the beginning of the Jerusalem church these early disciples were a subset of the larger synagogue picture in Jerusalem and yet were regarded as part of “the way” (Acts 9:2). It was important to know who was and who was not a part of this new movement. Thus some form of roll, or list, was kept in which the names of those baptized was written down. The apostles had been charged by the Lord Himself to teach those who were baptized to observe all of the Lord’s commands (Mat. 28:19-20). So when a person was baptized that person’s name was written down so the apostles knew who was a part of the church. They knew by that list who they were responsible to teach, who they were to share communion with, who to rebuke if sinning against Christ, etc. In this way the apostles regarded those in the church as distinct from those outside the church, and called them to live by Christ’s standards. For example, Peter accuses Ananias and Sapphira of sins based on their profession of faith in Christ (Acts 5:1-11). Only by taking into account that the early church kept a list of those inside the church can good sense be made of other passages in the New Testament, as the answer to our next question shows.
2. What distinctions are to be made among membership?
Biblically speaking, there are only two groups in a local church. I think I can show this to you from the latter verses of 1 Corinthians 5. But let me first set the context. In this chapter Paul is removing from the Corinthian church a man who is flagrantly committing sexual sins. The Corinthian church had not followed his apostolic instructions to remove the man, but were proud and self-willed. As a result the entire chapter carries a tone of rebuke. Paul has one goal in the chapter: to protect the church. Thus he commands them, “Clean out the old leaven” (v. 7), referring to this immoral man. Paul then clarifies a misunderstanding that had arisen from a previous letter he wrote to them (v. 9-11). They thought Paul had said not to associate with any immoral person, but what Paul had meant was not to associate with any immoral person who professes faith in Christ – a “so-called brother” (v. 11). They were not to cut off relationships with immoral people of the world (v. 10), but were to cut off relations with immoral people in the church. Paul then drew a distinction that helps us think biblically about church membership. He calls those in the world, “outside” and those in the church “inside.” Based on that distinction, He admonishes the Corinthians to “expel the wicked man from among you” (v. 13). In other words, change him (or re-categorize him) from being an “insider”, and make him an “outsider.” Paul only regarded people in their connection to the church as either “insiders” or “outsiders.” And this same distinction carries through to all churches.
In order for Paul’s command to “expel” the immoral man to have made any sense to the Corinthians, they must have already understood what Paul meant by these terms “insider” and “outsider.” They knew what it meant to be regarded as an “insider,” and they knew what it meant to be regarded an “outsider.” Do we?
This is an important stopping point. Ask yourself what these terms mean to you. Or ask yourself, who do I consider an “insider” in my church, and who is an “outsider?” Our answers to these questions will help us evaluate how well we understand membership.
Let me expand on these terms a bit. Based on these verses the one inside the church – the “insider” – was a recognized member of the fellowship. If he wasn’t recognized by the church as an insider, they couldn’t have obeyed Paul’s command to make him an “outsider.” That’s why I say that for the Apostle Paul there were only two categories of people in the Corinthian Church, “outsiders” and “insiders.” No mention is made by Paul, or Jesus, or any New Testament writing that creates further categories in the church, e.g. “attendee,” “non-resident member,” “inactive member,” etc. We may use these categories for reference purposes, but for purposes of understanding how the apostles looked at the church, we need go no further. Paul wanted the Corinthian Christians to recognize who was and wasn’t a part of their fellowship. Their ongoing witness as a group of God’s chosen and holy people literally depended on it.
This simple truth is reiterated in just about every epistle of the New Testament. John says, “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us” (1 John 2:19). Those who left at some point had belonged to something, otherwise they couldn’t have gone out “from us.” Paul writes to the “churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1:2), whom he regards as distinct groups. There were a number of distinct churches in Galatia. It was heretics from the outside that were threatening the life of these churches. Similar distinctions between those inside the church and outside the church could be shown from all the letters in the New Testament.
So the distinctions to be made in the church are delightfully simple – member and non-member, insider and outsider. A person is either in the church, or not in the church. Christ is not asking us to make a personal decision about someone’s salvation based on church membership, but He does want us to think through the implications. Fleshing out what membership looks like is my next topic. For when Christians grasp what God expects of both shepherds and sheep in a local assembly, the resultant life of the church grows to mirror the intended holy design of the Lord.
3. What biblical reasons are there for membership?
Biblical membership helps the shepherds to fulfill their obligations. A Christian starts to fulfill the 3 commands in Heb. 13:17, to “obey,” “submit,” and to “make joyful oversight” by bonding to the assembly in some recognizable way that helps leaders formally know his/her desire for shepherding. The word “leaders” in this verse is the same word used for those in positions of important administrative oversight (Mat. 2:6, Act 7:10). We’ve all seen some persons called to shepherd the flock shun the difficult work of shepherding, but 1 Tim. 3:1 and 5:17 commend the “good” work. Shepherds should perform the same warm-hearted kind of leadership in the church as in a father does in a household (1 Tim. 3:4, 5; Titus 1:6). The leaders in Thessalonica could not have discharged their shepherding responsibilities over the church as a father might over his household without a clear understanding over whom God had placed them, anymore than a father can lead his house without the same knowledge. Paul tells the church that these men “are over you in the Lord.” This verb in 1 Thess. 5:12 clearly implies not only that the flock is under the charge of the leaders, but that the leaders must know over whom they have charge (see also 1 Peter 5:3). Some recognizable form is required to do this. This verb (“be over,” “be in charge of”) in the noun form is used to describe the spiritual gift of leading (or “governings”) in Rom. 12:8. God gives to some the spiritual ability to lead and have charge over the flock in governing capacities.
Biblical membership is required for good “one-another” relationships. The concept of a “one-another” implies there are some who aren’t “one-another.” After all, the early Christians didn’t go around giving a holy kiss to everyone, but only the Christians (Rom. 16:16)! We’re all told to “be subject to one another” (Eph. 5:21), “confess sin to one another” (James 5:16), to “love one another” (John 13:34), and Ephesians 4:25 says, “we are members of one another.” Those who are part of the visible church can best fulfill all the “one-anothers”. Joining a local church in fact brings a person to a high degree of accountability in fulfilling the NT “one-anothers.” Those who are not joined in some recognizable way hold themselves to a lower standard with regard to the church. For example, the benefit of church discipline in Mat. 18:15-20 ought not take place unless the recipient of the reproof is recognized as being in the church (see notes at end, point 5). Shepherds should lead people who profess Christ to commit to an agreed upon form of visible recognition in the church so the other members of the church can see who publicly identifies themselves as a Christian.
Biblical membership is required for good “sheep to shepherd” relationships. The believers who are told in Hebrews 10:24, 25 to “not forsake assembling together” are likewise told to “obey your leaders” (Heb. 13:17). The word “your” implies a recognized relationship by both parties, that is, by both leaders and followers. It isn’t enough for the professing Christian to think to himself that a certain person or persons are their shepherds when those very shepherd(s) don’t know of that relationship! Church membership implies a willingness to submit to the shepherds of a particular church, and demonstrate unmistakably for both sheep and shepherds mutual responsibilities. Some form of recognized membership or affiliation accomplishes this. Another way to see this is to look at the use of the word “household” as it is sometimes used to describe the local church (1 Tim. 3:15, Gal. 6:10, 1 Pet. 4:17). The metaphor implies those whose relations to each other are by birth (e.g. regeneration) and are joined together in a way that is recognizable to both the outside world and other churches. In this context the affectionate terms “brother” and “sister” take on appropriate fittedness. Church leaders often submit to the requests of the flock, but should church leaders submit to the requests of non-members of the church, e.g. in music, or some ministry, or in terms of help? Probably not, except in cases of mercy (e.g. love gifts), in which case it is no longer “submitting to one-another” but mercy.
Membership is part of one’s testimony before other believers. In the 1st Century, letters of commendation (2 Cor. 3:1) were common ways to exchange positive information about brothers (Acts 18:27, Col. 4:10) and sisters (Rom. 16:1) between local churches. Obviously if someone resisted committing to the roll of a local church in some recognizable way, such a letter could not be granted.
Thanks so much for taking the time
to read this. I hope to join together with you in the greatest work ever – the
building of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ!
 In other words, God placed the Corinthian Christians into the local church at Corinth, not merely the universal Church spread throughout the world.
 “That a precise number was recorded suggests that they kept track of those who were saved and baptized.” (MacArthur, Acts 1-12, 77).
 The Greek words e;xw (exo, “without”) and e;sw (eso, “within”) in 1 Cor. 5:12 have the sense of “outsider” and “insider” in English. The man being put out of the church is still an “insider” at the time of the writing. Paul wants him removed and recognized as an “outsider.”
 Mack and Swavely, Life in the Father’s House, 53-54. Believers are told not merely to submit, but to even be creative in making life for the overseers joyful and not a burden. Quite a switch from the mindset all too prevalent which views church leadership’s role to make the people happy.
 The verb is proi<sthmi, prohistemi, “have charge over” (NASB). The NASB translation is closer to the sense of the verb, which is not “over” in the sense of an organizational chart, but is used of the leader of a house (1 Tim. 3:4-5).
 Such as a roll, or list of persons who comprise the church. God has left it up to shepherds as to how exactly to fulfill this requirement. Certainly in the days before a 40-mile trip was practical, the geographic community of a church was much tighter. But today with the fluidity of travel and choices among churches, it is more important than ever that shepherds keep proper lists.
 There are over 60 references to “one another” in the NT epistles, most of which apply to relationships among Christians in their local fellowship.
 I’m certainly pleased when someone who is not a member of the church I pastor tells me that they view me as their pastor. But I take mental note to encourage that person into membership for their spiritual welfare.
 An exception to this is when a non-member brings either a valid accusation against any member, or brings to light a biblical truth that properly affects ministry. In these cases, the under-shepherds must submit to the principles of God’s word, no matter who teaches them.