Over the past twenty or so years in pastoral ministry, I have begun to notice more and more a trend away from stressing any kind of formal church membership in local churches. And I have been increasingly hearing the objection that there just isn’t any support for such a concept in Scripture. The idea of formal church membership, I am told, is simply a man-made tradition which needs to be jettisoned if we are ever going to be truly faithful to Scripture in our church practices and relationships. I beg to differ with this assessment, however, and I want to share briefly here some of the reasons why I think that the Scriptures do indeed necessitate the practice of some kind of formal church membership in local churches.
However, before I set forth some of the Scriptural evidence in this regard, I want to remind the readers of a crucial point that must be kept in mind when weighing the evidence, which has to do with what we accept as the authoritative teaching of Scripture and why. Consider, for example, this statement from the Baptist Confession of 1689:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (1.6, italics mine)
When the Baptist Confession refers to what is “necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture,” it has in mind the same idea that was expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith (upon which it was substantially based):
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence [or inference] may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (1.6, italics mine)
These two Reformed confessions both affirm that we must accept as the authoritative teaching of Scripture not only what is expressly stated therein but also what may be derived therefrom by way of good and necessary inference. But this was not a new idea developed in the 17th century churches following the Reformation; it has been a long accepted idea in the history of the Church. Consider, for example, our statement of the doctrine of the Trinity. Although we do not have an explicit statement of Scripture asserting that we must think of God as one essence consisting of three persons, we demand this as an essential statement of the doctrine of the Trinity by way of good and necessary inference. The totality of Scripture teaching regarding the doctrine of God simply demands that we make such a doctrinal assertion.
This is the same kind of situation we are in, I think, with regard to the concept of formal church membership in the local church. I see no explicit assertion of the concept in Scripture, but I do see it as both a good and a necessary inference. In fact, there are a number of lines of Biblical evidence that combine to indicate that this is the case.
Texts Which Speak of Church Relationships
There are a couple of metaphors used of the local church which indicate inclusion in a recognizable and definable group. For example:
1. The Church is a Body
NKJ Romans 12:4-5 “For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, 5 so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.”
Here we can already see where we get the language of church “membership” in the first place. It is derived directly from the language Paul uses to describe the Church, both universally and locally.
NKJ 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by [better with] one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. 14 For in fact the body is not one member but many.”
Here Paul speaks of the church as a body with many members, and these members are those – and only those – who have been baptized by Christ with the Holy Spirit “into one body” (in fulfillment of the promise given, e.g., in Matt. 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, and Acts 1:5). That is, the members of the body are only those who are true believers in Christ and who have become partakers of the Holy Spirit. Here, then, we are given important information about who it is that we should regard as a member of the body.
John Piper seeks to draw out the implications of this passage for the issue of church membership in a message entitled How Important Is Church Membership? He correctly observes that:
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.
Now, I would be quick to agree that this text does not explicitly assert the concept of formal church membership, but I think it does at least imply that people were formally recognized as a part of the body somehow. This implication becomes even stronger when we go on to consider the totality of the New Testament evidence.
2. The Church is a Family
NKJ Galatians 6:10 “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household [oikeios] of faith.”
The Greek word translated household, oikeios, means “literally belonging to or standing in relation to a household” and in the New Testament the plural oi oikeioi is used substantivally to refer to the “members of a family, relatives, [or] household” (as in 1 Tim. 5:8). It is therefore used “figuratively, of the members of God’s spiritual family, (God’s) household” (as in Eph. 2:19) (see Friberg #19389, BibleWorks).
But the point we are interested in here is that Paul expects believers to know who are and who aren’t members of their church family, for how else could they obey his command to “do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith”? Just as we have a clear understanding of who is and who isn’t a part of our biological family, Paul assumes also that we will have at least some degree of clarity about who is and who isn’t a part of our church family. But doesn’t this imply some kind of formal church membership, by which certain people are recognized by the church as a definite part of the family and others are not?
Texts Which Speak of Church Gatherings
There are a couple of passages which speak of church gatherings in such a way as to indicate a distinguishable group of believers. For example:
NKJ Acts 15:22 “Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren.” (Italics mine.)
How would they know if the “whole church” agreed with their plan if they didn’t know who they were? They must have had some way of ascertaining who they were and keeping track of them.
NKJ 1 Corinthians 14:23 “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (Italics mine.)
Again, how would anyone know if the “whole church” was gathered if there was no formal understanding of who was or wasn’t a part of the church? Again, they must have had some way of ascertaining who they were and keeping track of them.
So, to my mind these passages indicate that the leaders of the churches had to have had some way of knowing who was to be regarded as a part of their respective churches and who was not to be so regarded. They had to have had some way of knowing when they had gathered the whole church together and when they hadn’t. And they had to have had some way of discerning when the whole church agreed about something and when they didn’t. This implies some kind of formal process of church membership.
Texts Which Speak of Church Growth
There are at least a couple of passages which speak of church growth in such a way as to indicate that a knowable number of people were included. For example:
NKJ Acts 2:41 “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added [prostíthēmi] to them.”
NKJ Acts 2:47b “And the Lord added [prostíthēmi] to the church daily those who were being saved.”
These texts both speak of people being “added” to the church when they were saved, once again indicating that only believers were so added. But verse 41 also indicates that only those who received the Gospel and were baptized were added to the church. Here we have more help in determining who it is that we should regard as a members of the Church. They should be believers who have been baptized as such. It seems to me that far too many churches these days ignore the implications of this text when considering church membership.
Notice also that in verse 41 we are told that there were “about three thousand souls” added to the church. This means that someone was counting their number and keeping track. But this also indicates again that they had some means of knowing who was included in the church and who wasn’t, and we have seen that this was by means of a credible profession of faith followed by baptism.
NKJ Acts 5:11-14 “So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things. 12 And through the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people. And they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch. 13 Yet none of the rest dared join [kolláō] them, but the people esteemed them highly. 14 And believers were increasingly added [prostíthēmi] to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women ….”
Luke tells us that believers were being “added” to the Lord, which here means that they were added to the church (vs. 11). But we are also told of some who were not added, namely the ones who dared not “join” them. The Greek word translated join here is informative. It is a strong word that literally means to “join closely,” “glue together,” or “unite” (Friberg #16369, BibleWorks). It may also be used figuratively, however, to describe the closest of relationships between people, such as when Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 6:
NKJ 1 Corinthians 6:16-17 “Or do you not know that he who is joined [kolláō] to a harlot is one body with her? For ‘the two,’ He says, ‘shall become one flesh.’ 17 But he who is joined [kolláō] to the Lord is one spirit with Him.
The word can thus describe sexual union as well as the union of a believer with Christ. But Luke uses it in Acts to describe the union of the individual believer with Christ’s body, the church, when he speaks of those who refused to “join” the church in Jerusalem. And that some did not believe and refused to join meant that those who believed had joined the church in Jerusalem when they were added to their number.
So once again we see the close relationship between being joined to Christ and being joined to the church, in this case the local church in Jerusalem. Indeed the Greek word used by Luke also implies a level of commitment deliberately entered into by the people who joined the church, for they clearly made a conscious decision to do so.
Texts Which Speak of Church Leadership
There are several passages which speak of the nature of leadership in the churches which also clearly indicate that they had to have a formal understanding of who was or wasn’t under their charge. For example:
NKJ Acts 20:28-29 “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.”
Here Paul refers to the local church in Ephesus (vs. 17 in the preceding context) as a “flock” that the elders are to shepherd, and he specifies that they are to watch over all of the flock. But this would entail knowing who were included in the flock and who weren’t, wouldn’t it? It certainly wouldn’t seem possible to watch over every member of the flock if one didn’t know who was and who wasn’t to be regarded as such.
NKJ 1 Peter 5:1-5 “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: 2 Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; 3 nor as being lords over those entrusted [ton klēron] to you, but being examples to the flock; 4 and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.”
Here Peter uses the Greek word klēros when speaking to elders of “those entrusted” to them. The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature says that klēros primarily means “a specially marked object, such as a pebble, a piece of pottery, or a stick, used to decide something, lot,” but that it can also mean “that which is assigned by lot or simply given as a portion or share, portion, share.” It further states of Peter’s use of the plural form of klēros that the klēroi “seem to denote the ‘flock’ as a whole, i.e. the various parts of the people of God which have been assigned as ‘portions’ to individual elders or shepherds” (BAGD3 #4273, BibleWorks). Peter is clearly asserting, then, that the elders are responsible for the individual members of the particular flock over which they serve. But once again it is assumed that they will have some idea of knowing who these are.
I think John Piper correctly applies this passage when he says:
“Those in your charge” (your portion, your lot) implies that the elders knew whom they were responsible for. This is just another way of talking about membership. If a person does not want to be held accountable by a group of elders or be the special focus of the care of a group of elders, they will resist the idea of membership. And they will resist God’s appointed way for them to live and be sustained in their faith. (How Important Is Church Membership?)
But Peter also implies that the elders will be held accountable by the Lord Jesus for their work when he says in verse 4 that “when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.” Is it too much to ask, then, that churches utilize a formal process of membership in order to better enable the elders to do their job?
The author of Hebrews also stresses the accountability of church leaders for those under their charge when he issues these commands to members of the church:
NKJ Hebrews 13:17 “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”
Again it is presupposed that elders will have some understanding of who they are or are not responsible for and for whom they must or must not give account. This seems to imply at the very least some means of keeping track. But isn’t the practice of formal church membership just such a means of keeping track? And could they keep track without such a means? Could they keep track of the flock without assessing in some way who does and who doesn’t give a credible profession of faith, for example? I think not. And can they help the other members of the body to know how to fulfill their obligation to the “household of faith” (as in Gal. 6:10 above) if they themselves cannot keep track of who constitutes this household? Again, I think not.
Texts Which Speak of Church Discipline
The key passages dealing with church discipline also imply a clear understanding of who is and is not a part of the church body. For example:
NKJ Matthew 18:15-17 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”
It is assumed that the church will gather together for the purpose of church discipline and that the church will speak with one voice to the wayward brother, whom they will no longer regard as one of their number (having not “gained” their brother, vs. 15). Again we see that there must be some way of knowing who is in and who is out.
NKJ 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles — that a man has his father’s wife! 2 And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. 3 For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. 6 Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. 9 I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner — not even to eat with such a person. 12 For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? 13 But those who are outside God judges. Therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person.’” (Italics mine.)
Without getting into some of the more difficult details of this passage, it is at least clear that Paul expected the believers in Corinth to know who was “inside” and who was “outside” the church (vs. 12). They had to know somehow who was “named a brother” (vs. 11) and who was not.
I think Mark Dever is correct when he argues that:
Paul is calling for the exclusion of this immoral brother, which would imply that it meant something to be included in that church. He would lose the privileges of membership previously conferred upon him. Formal exclusion presupposes formal inclusion. (Biblical Background for Church Membership)
If there is a flaw in his reasoning, I cannot find it.
While it must be kept in mind that there is no passage of Scripture that expressly says the we must practice a particular type of formal church membership, I think we may draw as a good and necessary inference the idea of some kind of formal membership process. However, I think we should avoid being legalistic in the way we practice such membership, given that the Bible offers no details as to how the early churches went about it and gives no clear commands about how it should be practiced. At the very least, though, I think we can say based on the evidence brought forth here that we should require people to be baptized believers in Christ in order to be members of a church. This means that we will also want them to possess a clear understanding of the true Gospel and an orthodox faith in Christ. And it is the elders who will be responsible for seeking to ensure this. The elders are, after all, called to protect the flock by maintaining pure doctrine, and this would not be accomplished by allowing false professors or heretics into the membership (see, e.g., Acts 20:28-32; Tit. 1:7-11). We should just be careful not to make secondary matters the test for membership rather than essential doctrines.
I might also point out some practical reasons for church membership based on the above Scriptural evidence:
1) It helps to maintain the purity of the church’s doctrine by helping to make certain that those who are admitted into membership are orthodox believers.
2) It helps to practice church discipline as the Scriptures teach that we should. It seems to me this would be especially true in a large church.
3) In a church that practices congregational involvement in decision making, it helps to vet those who will be voting.
4) It serves to provide a more thoroughly vetted pool from which to select church leaders.
5) It helps to emphasize a Scriptural view of commitment to Christ and His Church. Far too many people today want to say they are committed to Christ but shun commitment to any particular local church. This is not a Scriptural understanding and is detrimental to the believer’s growth in Christ as well as to the health of the church.
© Keith Throop – All rights reserved.