Is Church Membership Biblical?
The entire New Testament speaks not only of the church but to the Church.
One of the reasons it may be hard to understand today why church membership matters is because, at least for many of us in America, there is very little risk associated with church. But it was not always so, and it’s not so today in other parts of the world. The early Christians risked their lives to join the church. Luke tells us in Acts 5:12-13: “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon's Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.”
Why did the rest not dare join them? Because it was a social risk! It could cost their lives. But the Christians watching had no qualms about joining. In the early church, Christians were only found in the local church.
Nathan Rose, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in Kansas City, organizes it under three headings, which I’m borrowing (and reordering a bit) here.
First, the early church kept track of its members.
In Acts 2:41, Luke tells us, “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
Added to who? Added to the church, of course.
In 1 Timothy 5:9-12, Paul says: “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works.”
So, there were rolls in the early church—ways of keeping track of who was included in the body.
Second, certain commands assume meaningful church membership.
The author to the Hebrews tells us in 13:17, “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.”
How can we obey our leaders and submit to them, and how can they watch over our souls if we have not committed to one another.
Furthermore, how are leaders held accountable for people who haven’t covenanted with them? If we don’t have meaningful membership and Dustin and I go off the rails with heresy and sin, who will cast us from among you?
Third, church discipline can only work if church membership is in place.
What happens when sin enters the church? How is it handled? Jesus and Paul told us what to do. Church discipline is a biblical call, but it can’t happen apart from church membership.
In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus says, “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.”
Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 Paul says, “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.”
It is those inside, not outside, the church that are to be judged. How can one determine insiders and outsiders without formal membership? If I leave Jesus to pursue sin, how can you hold me accountable if we haven’t committed to one another in membership?
This is the second of a three part series on church membership based on a sermon I preached at Refuge Church Franklin.