The case for church membership is not specifically argued within the New Testament but is assumed everywhere.1 It is seen in the nature of salvation, in the various commands given to Christians and within the relationship between Christians and in their leaders. Church membership is the skeleton of the healthy, biblical church.
THE CALL TO SALVATION
Contrary to popular American evangelicalism, the call to salvation is not a call to isolated or independent faith. We are saved as individuals but placed into a new spiritual community. Within 1 Peter 2:5 we are told that coming to Jesus is means we are “being built into a spiritual house” which is one of many images of the church. In the same way, baptism speaks of our being united to Christ (Romans 6:3-5) which simultaneously places us within the church: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13, ESV). This means that salvation is a community-creating event and salvation includes membership in God’s group.2 Simply put, a Christianity that seeks to exist outside the local church is not biblical Christianity.
THE COMMANDS GIVEN TO CHRISTIANS
Church membership is also implied within the various commands given to Christians. Consider the numerous “one another” Scriptures (love one another, pray for, teach, admonish, forgive, bear with, etc.) and their impossibility of being obeyed outside of intentional and committed relationship with other Christians. Additionally, we warned against “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25, ESV), to use our spiritual gifts “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7) with the goal of the body of Christ being built up (Ephesians 4:15). To be obedient to these commands would require a relational body that is committed to one another and in a relationship with one another.
THE CULTIVATION OF A HEALTHY CHURCH LIFE
As believers seek to live out the call to actively love and care for one another, inevitably, some sort of friction will arise. It is at this point that the dynamics of accountability and discipline come into play. Because Scripture commands us to hold one another accountable and, when necessary, correct someone who is “inside” the church (1 Corinthians 5:11-12), it quickly becomes apparent that the only people who can obey this command are confessing Christians who recognize other people as fellow Christians. 3 This becomes of utmost importance when we recognize those situations in which Christians expected non-Christians to act like Christians, or when Christians are allowed to live contrary to the commands of Scripture. At this point, it is necessary for a body of local believers to essentially raise their hands and say, “I am a Christian. I seek to live for God’s glory and submit myself to the authority of the Scriptures.” Outside of that identification, exhorting, admonishing and correcting is impossible.
THE COLLABORATION AMONGST ELDERS AND MEMBERS
Additionally, the dynamics of church membership are seen in the reciprocal relationships between the congregation and its leadership. Paul instructed the Christians in Thessalonica, “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, ESV). In Hebrews, believers are told, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” (Hebrews 13:17, ESV). In order for these commands to be obeyed, some parameters must be defined. Should a Christian obey and honor every elder within their city? Their state? Their country? Who are the Christians that the elder will one day give an account for? All the Christians in a particular city? Only the Christians he likes? Only the Christians that show up?
Clearly, the only context for such a dynamic to be able to properly function is through a demarcation of (1) who is a Christian and (2) who belongs to this church.
Church membership aims at identifying both.
- Baptist Foundations, The Why and Who of Church Membership; John Hammett. ↩︎
- Joseph Hellerman, When the Church was a Family ↩︎
- Baptist Foundations, The Why and Who of Church Membership; John Hammett ↩︎