Church Membership

Church Attendance Board

The term “church membership” is not used in the New Testament. However, it is certainly a Scriptural concept. Paul clearly taught the concept of church membership in his letter to Corinth (1 Corinthians 12:14-30). Notice the following verses in particular:

For the body is not one member, but many” (1 Corinthians 12:14).

But now there are many members, but one body” (1 Corinthians 12:20).

Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27).

In this article, let us consider the topic of church membership. As we do, we will ask three questions: (1) What is church membership? (2) How do we become members? (3) What are members to do?

What Is Church Membership?

There are two ways in which the New Testament discusses the term church – the universal church and the local church. All Christians are members of the universal church, having been “baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13) and being “added to the church” by God (Acts 2:47, KJV). After that, all Christians should be members of a local church. The Christians in Corinth were “individually members” of the “body” or church there in Corinth (1 Corinthians 12:27). When Saul came to Jerusalem, he tried to “join himself to the disciples” (Acts 9:26, KJV) and become one of their number. This is the concept of church membership – membership in a local church – and is the focus of our study.

Local church membership is about being a member of a local body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:20). It involves more than just attending. After all, assemblies are open to all – even non-Christians (1 Corinthians 14:23-24). Membership is also more than just a listing in a church directory. Every church directory (at least those of which I have seen) includes many non-members. Its purpose is simply to serve as a contact list of members, the family of members, former members, and others that Christians in a local congregation may need to contact.

Local church membership is about being part of the function and purpose of the body. We all have different ways in which we can contribute. Paul, in his illustration likening the functioning of a local church to the functioning of the human body, said, “For the body is not one member, but many” (1 Corinthians 12:14). Just as we have different parts of our body that serve different functions (hand, foot, ear, eye, etc.), the same is true in the church. “But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be?” (1 Corinthians 12:18-19).

All the members are different parts of the body. They do not all serve the same function, but they complement one another (1 Corinthians 12:27-30). All of the contributions made by the individual members are important. Paul used the human body illustration to explain: “If the foot says, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, ‘Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Corinthians 12:15-17).

Just as we should understand that our individual contributions are important, we should recognize the importance of the individual contributions of everyone else as well, regardless of how “insignificant” these contributions might seem to us. Paul wrote, “And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Corinthians 12:21-25).

To summarize, to be a member of a local church is to contribute to the function and purpose of the body. The members all have different roles to play, but each one is equally important.

How Do We Become Members of a Local Church?

To determine how one becomes a member of a local church, it is helpful to consider the example of Saul.

First, we have to be members of the universal body of Christ. When Saul came to Jerusalem and tried to join the church there, he had already obeyed the gospel by being baptized into Christ (Acts 9:17-18; 22:16). This was what the Jews on Pentecost did which led God to add them to the universal church (Acts 2:38, 41, 47). Local churches are “of Christ” (Romans 16:16). We become “of Christ” by being baptized in His name (1 Corinthians 1:12-13).

Second, we should indicate a desire to “join…the disciples” (Acts 9:26, KJV) and be recognized as a part of that local body.

Third, we need to be accepted by the church. Initially, the congregation in Jerusalem was unwilling to accept Saul because they did not believe “that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). It was not until Barnabas vouched for Saul and explained how he had been converted and was a disciple that the church accepted him (Acts 9:27). The brethren were not wrong for initially refusing to accept Saul. Local churches cannot welcome just anyone into fellowship with them. The Scriptures strongly warn against this (Ephesians 5:11; 2 John 10-11). A local church can accept those whom they know (Acts 9:26), those who can be vouched for by one of the members (Acts 9:27), and those who come with “letters of commendation” from another faithful congregation (2 Corinthians 3:2). If one who is unknown to a congregation wishes to become part of that local church but cannot be vouched for by a member or commended from elsewhere, then some time would have to pass that would be long enough for the brethren to become acquainted with the individual and confirm that he is in fact a faithful Christian and is able to be accepted.

Sometimes a question arises about whether a “formal” declaration of intent is necessary for one to be considered a member of a local congregation. It is common for this not to be done. Christians may meet with a church for an extended period of time – even a number of years – and the congregation recognizes them and uses them in the work. It is not completely without Scriptural precedent for Christians to be considered part of a local church without a formal declaration of intent, at least by implication. Peter wrote to elders, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof” (1 Peter 5:2, KJV). The elders were to take oversight of the flock that was among them. In other words, if there were Christians present, the elders needed to oversee them. Those Christians having previously made a declaration of intent to be part of that congregation seems to be unnecessary – particularly if they are not part of another local church, as these would be “allotted to [another’s] charge” (1 Peter 5:3) – for the elders to keep watch over them.

Furthermore, membership is about being part of a body (1 Corinthians 12:27). This implies that the members work together (Ephesians 4:16). Those who are working together are part of the same body, regardless of any “formal” declaration. However, if there is no “formal” declaration of intent for one to become part of a local church and no “official” acceptance by the congregation, this does potentially lead to confusion as to who makes up the flock (1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28). Therefore, while it is possible for one’s membership to be an unspoken understanding – such as when one has been with a congregation for many years or when a child of a family in the church obeys the gospel – some uncertainty and confusion can be avoided when those who wish to be considered members of a congregation formally say so and the congregation officially accepts them into their number.

What Are Members to Do?

After considering what the Bible says about what church membership is and how we become members of a local church, we need to consider what our responsibilities are as members of a congregation.

First, we are to attend the assemblies of the church. “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Some are in the habit of missing services for any flimsy excuse they can imagine. Yet we are to have the habit of assembling. While there may be times when we are absent (such as sickness or travel), we should plan by default to be present whenever the church assembles. We should be looking for opportunities to assemble, not looking for excuses to stay home from the assembly.

Second, we are to contribute financially to the work of the church. “On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come” (1 Corinthians 16:2). “Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6-7). The collection on the first day of the week is the only way authorized in the New Testament for a local church to collect funds. Therefore, if we are members of a local church, we are expected to contribute on the first day of the week to help the church carry out its work.

Third, we are to participate in the work of the church. “From whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body from the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16). As Paul told the brethren in Ephesus, “each individual part” is able to participate in the function of the body. Depending on who we are and what role we are authorized to fill, there are many things we can do to participate – lead in worship, teach classes, work on the building, etc. There are ways for all Christians – men and women, young and old – to participate in the work of the church.

Fourth, we are to submit to the leadership in the church. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17). Ideally, these leaders will be elders (1 Peter 5:2). However, if a congregation does not have a plurality of qualified men to serve as elders (Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), there will not be elders to which the members submit. However, a lack of an eldership does not mean that a congregation will be without some type of leadership. Until elders are in place, the congregation is still to function as a body (Ephesians 4:16). This means that a church without elders will be led by the men of the congregation since women are not permitted to “exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12). So a church without elders is certainly lacking (Titus 1:5), but it is still functional. Members submit to those who are leading the church in the truth.

Fifth, we are to give input about decisions that are to be made. “Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. […] The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen… and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas” (Acts 6:3-5). When the church in Jerusalem needed to take care of the widows that were being neglected, the apostles determined that seven men would be appointed to handle this task. While the apostles certainly could have chosen these men themselves, they requested input from the congregation. Even though the congregation was consulted, the apostles were still in the leadership position as they were the ones who appointed the selected men for the task (Acts 6:6). It is appropriate for leaders in the church to request input from the congregation about various decisions that are to be made. Those who are members of that congregation are able to provide input that will help the leaders make the best decision for the congregation.

Sixth, we are to help evangelize. “Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). It is the responsibility of each one of us to do what we can in spreading the gospel to the world around us.

Seventh, we are to edify one another. “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12-13). We can edify one another when we assemble (Hebrews 10:24-25), but edification is not limited to that. The local church is a self-edifying body (Ephesians 4:16), which means that each of us have the responsibility as part of the body to strengthen the rest of the body.

Eighth, we are to care for one another. “So that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Corinthians 12:25). Paul said, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor” (Romans 12:10). This is part of the obligation we have as members of a local body of Christians.

Ninth, we are to be held accountable by one another. “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in a trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). Everyone will stumble into sin from time to time. Being a part of a local church means there are others who can help keep us accountable. If we do fall into sin, there are others who can help turn us back from that sin.

Church membership involves so much more than just having one’s name on a list or in a directory. We have responsibilities as members of the body and are expected to contribute according to our abilities.

Conclusion

Local church membership is important. We should not be content simply being part of the universal body of Christ without any affiliation with a local church. We are expected to work together with a local congregation as one body in the Lord’s cause.


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Comments

  1. Bobby McPherson says

    Great article.
    It would be very good if every member of the church could read this and become much more responsive to the work we are to do as a member of a local body. Our efforts we may influence others to become stronger as working member of the body. This would make an excellent handout to be available in the building or to be discussed by any new convert or one desiring to be a part of a local body.

  2. Good idea, thanks!

  3. I wish everyone can read this. Thanks.