Some question the biblical warrant for encouraging church attenders to become church members. While it is true that the term "church membership" does not appear in the Bible, neither does the word "Trinity." Both terms are the product of systematic theology, that is the taking of multiple verses on a particular topic and formulating a concise statement about what the whole Bible teaches on that topic. It is my contention that when we examine the New Testament for what it has to say about a Christian's relationship to the local church a clear teaching emerges with respect to church membership.
By the term church membership I simply mean the following:
One’s formal association with a local church under a commitment to share in the benefits and responsibilities of community life and to submit to the leadership and authority of God’s appointed church leaders.
I believe that this concept of church membership is clearly and necessarily taught or implied by numerous texts in Scripture. Let us now examine the New Testament evidence to establish each part of this definition.
1. Formal association with a local church
The concept of “joining” a local church (Acts 5:13; 2:37-43) implies something more than casual acquaintance.
Use of phrases such as “the whole church” (1 Cor. 14:23) and “the majority” (2 Cor. 2:6) presuppose an identifiable class of people, not just whoever happens to gather together on any given occasion.
The distinction Paul makes between “insiders” and “outsiders” with respect to the congregational composition implies the former enjoyed a standing within the church that the latter had not (1 Cor. 5:9-13; 14:23).
The keeping of lists with respect to widows, who in order to be enrolled had to meet a certain set of spiritual criteria, suggests the existence of other lists of committed believers within the local church (1 Tim. 5:9).
The formal process of removing someone from the fellowship of the local church (i.e., excommunication) presupposes a prior formal process of inclusion (Matt. 18:15-20).
2. Sharing in the Benefits and Responsibilities of Community Life
Believers are to exercise their spiritual gifts for the benefit of others in the context of the local church (1 Cor. 12:12-26; Romans 12:3-8; 1 Peter 4:10-11).
Believers are to engage in acts of service for the needs of those in the local church (Gal. 5:13).
Believers are to mutually encourage, exhort and rebuke one another in the local church (Heb. 10:24-25; Col. 3:16).
Believers are to practice biblical peacemaking with one another in the local church (Matt. 18:15-17).
Believers are to give financially in support of the local church (1 Cor. 16:1-3; 2 Cor. 9:7).
3. Submission to Biblical Church Leadership and Authority
Believers are exhorted to submit to Christ’s ordained leaders of a local church, as the following verses suggest.
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13.
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. Hebrews 13:17.
Applying Biblical Principles to a Local Church Setting Today
Having established the biblical precedent for church membership, the question then becomes, ‘How do we apply these principles to a local church some 2000 years later?’. While the Bible nowhere gives us the exact mechanics of how it is to be achieved, we have been given guidance on the matter. Paul instructs the Corinthian church that “all things should be done decently and in order. (1 Cor. 14:40). This admonition has many applications in the life of the local church. For example, matters such as location and time of public worship, the licensing of a minister to perform certain religious ceremonies, and criminal background checks for youth workers are all administrative necessities required for the implementation of the “good order” principle of local church life applied to the era in which we live. A formal church membership process is simply another necessity arising out of an application of this principle. Churches may not "administer" church membership in exactly the same way, but the underlying concept is grounded on biblical bedrock.
If you are not a member of your local church, why have you not taken this step? Is it because you do not want to formally identify with your brothers and sisters where you worship? Are you just keeping your options open for something better? Is it because you do not want the responsibility and accountability that Christ has designed for you as a means of spiritual growth and maturity? Is it because you do not want to place yourself under the godly authority structure of local church leadership?
If you are a member of a church, are you fully engaged as God has called you to be? Are you actively involved in the body --encouraging, exhorting and admonishing one another? Do you submit to the leadership of the church and interact with them in such a way as to be a joy to them?
Wherever you may currently be with respect to the issue of church membership, I hope that this brief entry might encourage you to more faithfully follow the Lord in what he has called you to do.