Should I Join?
The Biblical Basis for Local Church Membership
Posted on June 11, 2014
Many Christians in North America, especially those under 50, have little interest in becoming a member of a local church in any formal way. The fact that they attend somewhat regularly and participate in many activities is seen as sufficient expression of their belonging to that church.
There is a single universal church to which all believers in Christ belong. “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body.” (I Corinthians 12:13a) None of us make a separate decision to join the body of Christ; it comes automatically with our decision to be united with Christ. There is no explicit command in the New Testament directing believers to be included on the official register of a local church and thus no instructions on proper procedure for doing so. On that basis many reject it as an unnecessary step.
Our commitment is to be guided in all things by the Word of God, but we soon learn that such guidance may come through direct command and explicit instruction or it may come indirectly by means of inference and through application of general principles. When we bring the question of membership in a local church to the scripture we discover a number of statements that assume or imply such registers and a number of general truths about church life that make the most sense in the context of formal membership. Because the guidance of scripture is less precise on this matter we must at the same time respect fellow Christians who demonstrate a high level of commitment to local church life but come to a different conclusion about formal church membership.
We all bring pre-existing attitudes that have been shaped by our culture and our past experiences to our reading of the scripture. It impacts what we see and do not see and the kinds of applications we make. We need to be aware of that and seek to read scripture with as much objectivity as possible. Research by sociologists indicates that in this present time, there is a general decline in active membership in civic groups, fraternal organizations, and other local associations. People generally prefer to make personal connections that are more fluid, with minimal commitments or long term expectations. We must ask ourselves if our position on church membership is influenced more by the spirit of the times in which we live or by the actual teachings of scripture.
There are also many Christians who have had previous disappointing and painful experiences as members of churches. As form of self-defence, they choose to avoid any formal ties to a local church. As attenders rather than members, there is less expectation and less scrutiny and the freedom to quickly slip away at the first sign of trouble. Such a position may be understandable in the short-term, during a season of personal healing. But ultimately we must develop a pattern of living that is built upon the teachings and promises of Christ, not the disappointment of the past.
Here are ten biblical references for you to consider as you come to a decision about formally joining a local church.
Consider: The first time Christians gathered as a local church
This momentous event occurred on the Day of Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2. After a stirring sermon, people cried out their desire to repent and believe on Jesus. Verse 41 says: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” There is a clear association between baptism and being added to the church, and a church that developed a real presence in a geographical location. The reference to being “added to their number” is suggestive of something concrete. The process in Jerusalem on that day may have been quite different from the way we go about formalizing membership in our church here in Edmonton, but there was clarity regarding those who belonged as of that day and those who did not yet belong.
Consider: Important Differences between the 1st Century and the 21st Century Church
In the 1st century it was possible to speak of a single church in every city. When Paul wrote his letters he could address them to: “the holy and faithful brothers in Christ in Colossae” or “to the church of the Thessalonians”. There was little need to write about formal membership in a local congregation because it was obvious by your practice that you either belonged to the Christian community in that place or you did not. Today the church encompasses more than 40,000 different denominations and organizations. There are very few geographical places that have a single expression of the body of Christ. We could argue at length about whether that diversity is an asset to the church of Christ or a heart-breaking failure for us to be “one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:16), but it is the present reality in our world. For us to belong to a particular group of Christians in a particular place in the way that 1st century Christians belonged there needs to be some way for each of us to identify with a particular congregation. Formal membership serves that purpose well.
Consider: Pastors and Elders are to lead an identifiable group of Christians to which they have been assigned.
In Acts 20 Paul gives a message to a group of elders who came from the city of Ephesus. He told them to “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” We read something similar in I Peter 5:2, “Be shepherds of the God’s flock that is under your care.” The elders in Ephesus were not being asked to keep watch over the flock in Jerusalem or Antioch, but a specific group of Christians meeting in a local church in Ephesus. Peter did not tell the elders to guard the entire flock of God around the world, but those under their care. Of course we all should have concern for Christians everywhere but within the larger family of God, elders are given direct responsibility for some but not all. In places where there are many churches with many elders, membership in a local church is the only way to mark out the range of those responsibilities.
Consider: The requirement for Christians to submit to a particular set of leaders
Hebrews 13:17 teaches us to “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Such is the spirit of our times that many Christians will chafe under the very idea of submitting to and obeying any church leaders. Admittedly there are church leaders who abuse this teaching and claim the right to authoritarian rule that is contrary to the servant leadership modelled by Christ. The fact is, this design of God, when functioning properly is for the good of us all. Each of us needs to know under whose leadership we will function as a Christian. In addition, there is no way that the elders of any local church in Edmonton can realistically be accountable for every Christian in our city. These things can only happen when there is some concrete expression of belonging to this church and this set of elders.
Consider: There are examples in the New Testament of the whole church being involved in decisions.
The church in Jerusalem had not existed for very long before problems arose over the fairness of the assistance being given to the widows. A practical solution was proposed by the apostles and in Acts 6:5 we read that “the proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit; also ...” Who constituted “the whole group” referred to in that verse? Was it possible that anyone who happened to be passing by that day could have sat in on the meeting and voted? That would be hard to imagine. There was obviously a way of identifying those who were authorized to voice a response and those who were not. That is another way of saying there was recognized membership in that local church. Without that there can be no responsible decision making by the church.
Consider: The difficult requirement for a church to exercise discipline.
Paul advised the church in Corinth about a man in the church who was living in habitual sin. Here were his specific instructions in I Corinthians 5:11-12: "But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”
If there is no concrete way of identifying those who belong and those who are outsiders, then on what basis are disciplinary actions to be taken? We learn from this story that church discipline can have a powerful effect of redeeming and restoring those who fall into sin. How is it possible for it to have that effect when there is no formal belonging to a local church and thus no authority to be recognized?
Consider: The requirements to respect and submit to the governing authorities of our nations.
The church operates under all sorts of political regimes, each with their own requirements. In a country like Canada, there are procedures for being recognized as a charitable religious organization. While it is not necessary to do that, it is a sign of respect and submission to the governing authorities which we are called to offer in Romans 13:1. The documentation requested by the government for such recognition requires that we identify procedures for membership and the appointment of leaders.
Consider: The nature of a command like that in Romans 12:10 to “be devoted to one another”.
There are many commands given in the New Testament that tell of our responsibility to one another. Does it take formal membership in order for us to take such responsibilities seriously? That would not be true in all cases. Examples can be given of Christians who do not hold formal membership in a local church but who demonstrate a higher level of commitment to the church where they attend than many who are members. However, it is not good practice to make sweeping conclusions based on the exceptions. In general, Christians who make formal commitments to membership in a local church demonstrate a deeper and more enduring involvement. Verbal commitments without any other formalities are sometimes held up as the ideal, but more formal covenants that spell out with more precision what we are agreeing to, prove more effective in most situations.
Consider: God’s arranging of the members of the body is a matter of some detail.
In comparing the church to the body of Christ, Paul stated in I Corinthians 12:18, “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be”. While the primary point is that of God arranging for the kind of contribution we make to the body of Christ, location is also strongly implied by the analogy. God wants us to serve in a particular church not based on our preferences for architecture or music style, but based on where we can give and receive the most according to the wisdom of his plans and purposes. Membership is a concrete way for us to signal that we have discerned God’s leading in our lives in this regard and our readiness to serve where he has placed us.
Consider: Joining a particular local church does not need to be a form of isolation from other Christians.
You are a Christian who appreciates the value of the whole family of God around the world in all of its diversity. You prefer to think of yourself as belonging to the whole of it rather than an individual part. However, joining a local church does not preclude one’s involvement in the whole church of Christ. In fact it is through of well-organized local churches that practical ties and assistance is more likely to flow between different segments of the church. The individual churches in Macedonia helping the church in Jerusalem, is one biblical example. (II Corinthians 8)
Let it be said however that joining a local church should never become a matter of pride. Reject the tendency to think that because I belong to this church, it is obviously the best church, or the only true church. It makes sense to join a local church that fits best with the way you have come to understand the faith and the purpose of the church. Humbly acknowledge that other genuine followers of Christ have joined a local church quite different from yours for the same reasons you used in making your decision.
“To God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:21)