The church is not only nice, but it’s necessary for a believer’s spiritual growth. And maybe you agree with that as many Christians do, but you’re not sure that the extra step of membership is necessary. It’s true that Scripture doesn’t command membership, but I believe the New Testament assumes it. Here are six evidences—from lesser to greater—that support the principle of church membership.
Local Churches Couldn’t Exist if All Christians Made the Choice Not to Join a Church
Just extrapolate, what would churches look like if all Christians decided not to join? A local church couldn’t conduct ministry; it couldn’t exist.
Before Covid I knew some people that were anti-vaccine for childhood diseases. In other words, they wouldn’t get their kids immunized. Their theory as I understood it was that their child was more likely to get the disease (or have a side effect) through the immunization than they were in normal life. And that was true. Because immunization has been so successful, a child was more likely to get some childhood diseases through the immunization than through normal life. It was a very tiny percentage, but it was possible.
Don’t let the battles over Covid 19 vaccinations inform your understanding of this illustration; hang with me here. Why could some parents choose not to immunize their children against childhood diseases? Because the risks of immunizing seemed greater than the risks of not immunizing. And why did it seem that way? Only because most parents did immunize their children. If all parents made the decision not to immunize their children, then childhood diseases would come back with a vengeance. Some parents could choose not to immunize because they were presuming upon the majority of parents that did immunize.
I believe that some Christians can choose not to be members only because most Christians choose to be members. If all Christians chose not to join churches, then churches couldn’t exist. What would the church look like if everybody made the decision not to be a member? There would be no structure. Could you call a pastor, or own a building, or support missionaries, or vote on a budget? Without some members, churches couldn’t exist.
Church Membership Provides Many More Opportunities to Use Your Gifts (1 Cor 12).
Most churches have some ministries that are open to non-members, but most must be restricted to members. A church cannot have non-members working with children or teens, for example. You can’t have non-members on most committees. You cannot have non-members leading Bible studies—what guidance or authority are they submitted to? A church vouches for the genuine salvation of its members, so if you don’t join, they cannot vouch for you. It would be inappropriate to have non-members whose salvation testimony has not been examined serve in many ministries. The scope of ministries where you can use your gifts is seriously reduced if you don’t join a church, but you are supposed to use your gifts.
1 Cor 12:7 (ESV) To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
God wants you to use your gifts. I believe God wants you to have a wide range of areas where you can use your gifts. Church membership gives you more opportunities to use your spiritual gifts.
Pastors Have to Know Whom to Shepherd (1 Peter 5:2-3)
1 Peter 5:2 (ESV) 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;
Pastors have to know who’s in and who’s out in order to shepherd the flock. How can a pastor be expected to faithfully shepherd a flock when he can’t know who’s in the flock? Attendance is not enough. People float in and out of attendance pretty freely. And if non-membership is the norm, then there’s no way to know whom to shepherd. A pastor cannot be held responsible if the flock isn’t defined. But pastors are held responsible—they are commanded to shepherd the flock, so the flock must be defined somehow. The obvious way to distinguish one flock from another or one flock from wolves is through membership.
Non-Members Cannot Submit to Pastoral Leadership (Heb 13:17)
Heb 13:17 (ESV) 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.
Is it possible for non-members to submit to pastors? I don’t think so. A pastor isn’t watching for your soul if you haven’t committed to his flock. And you aren’t submissive to him if you’re not a member. Christians at large that walk through the doors of a church are clearly not expecting to submit to pastoral leadership, and the Bible doesn’t expect them too. All Christians shouldn’t submit to just any elder’s leadership either. So what group should submit to pastoral authority? It has to be those that are part of that specific church. Church membership makes it clear to the Christian that they need to submit to pastoral authority.
The Metaphor of the Body Implies Church Membership (Rom 12:3-5; 1 Cor 12:18–27)
1 Cor 12:27 (ESV) Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
Obviously my body parts are members of my physical body. It wouldn’t make sense for my hand to be off by itself somewhere. And it wouldn’t make sense for my hand to come along with me, but not be attached to my body. If my left hand is detached from my arm but in my front shirt pocket, even though it goes everywhere with me, no one would think that my hand was a member of my body. Using this picture it used to be a part of my body, but it’s not now.
Of this passage in 1 Corinthians 12, John Piper says,
Church membership is implied in the metaphor of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:12–31. The original meaning of the word member is member of a body, like hand and foot and eye and ear. That’s the imagery behind the word member in the text. Verse 12: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
So the question this imagery raises for the local church that Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians 12 is: Who intends to be treated as a hand or foot or eye or ear of this body? There is a unity and organic relationship implied in the imagery of the body. There is something unnatural about a Christian attaching himself to a body of believers and not being a member of the body.
The metaphor of the church as a body only makes sense if church membership is the norm—if church membership exists.
You Can’t Be Dismissed from Something You’re Not in (1 Cor 5:12-13; Mt 18:15-20)
1 Cor 5:12–13 (ESV) For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
The church discipline passages in the New Testament indicate that persistently sinning Christians that refuse to repent are supposed to be dismissed from the church. According to Matthew 18 we ultimately treat the unrepentant Christian as a Gentile and tax collector (Mt 18:17). That means to treat this person as an unbeliever. Are unbelievers allowed in a local church? Of course they are. So dismissing them doesn’t mean keeping them from attending church. It must mean excluding them from the ordinances and serving in the church.
There has to be an outside if there is an inside. So some people are inside the church and some people are outside. Who are those people that are inside? It cannot be simple attendance. If a Christian shows up one Sunday with unrepentant sin, a church doesn’t have the responsibility of pursuing church discipline just because they attended. So if it’s not attendance, how do we distinguish between those inside and those outside? Membership is the obvious criteria. Without membership existing, those church discipline passages just don’t make sense.
So, are you a member of a local church? I hope so. It’s for God’s glory, your good, and even your neighbor’s good. Pursue church membership. Every believer needs it.