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10. Church Membership

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Do we need to join a local church? Is formal church membership something the Bible teaches? Some don’t think so, including some churches and denominations. It is commonly argued, “God knows who are his. All believers are part of the universal church. The Bible never explicitly commands formal church membership. Why then should joining a specific church be encouraged or required?” Certainly, salvation is most important, and the New Testament never explicitly commands formal church membership. However, formal membership in a local church is clearly implied throughout the New Testament and is, therefore, expected of every believer.

How does the Bible demonstrate the need for formal church membership?

1. Evidence for church membership is seen in the fact that many of the New Testament epistles were written to local churches or their leaders (Colossians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Timothy, etc.).

Obviously, when those letters were received, people had to be able to distinguish whether they were part of those churches or not. Likewise, in Revelation 2-3, Christ actually gave commendations and/or rebukes to seven local churches. To Christ, there were specific people identified with those local congregations whom those words applied to and people outside of them whom the words did not apply. Without a formal membership, how could those believers and their leaders know who were part of those churches?

2. Evidence for church membership is seen in the language in Acts about the early church.

For instance, Acts 2:41 says this about the church in Jerusalem: “So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added.” When people had repented and were baptized, they were added to the existing believers—the church. It is clear that the church was keeping a numerical count of those added to them. Acts 4:4 says that number grew to 5,000. Therefore, they were keeping track of who were part of the church.

Also, many other statements in Acts point to a well-defined church membership. Acts 8:1 refers to the “church in Jerusalem.” Acts 15:22 talks about a gathering and decision by “the whole church,” again describing the Jerusalem church. In order for the “whole church” to be gathered and agree on something, there must be a distinguishable and well-defined group. Likewise, Acts 14:23 recounts Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in “various churches.” The language in Acts of the early church argues for a defined membership.

3. Evidence for church membership is the fact that elders are called to shepherd local churches and will be held accountable for doing so.

In Hebrews 13:17, the author said this to Jewish Christians, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work.” If elders are going to give an account to God for the members of their flock, they must know who belongs to it. They are not accountable for every church visitor or person who attends church. They are accountable for those who have publicly committed to the church and its leadership.

4. Evidence for church membership is Christ’s command to practice church discipline.

In Matthew 18:15-18, Christ gave a four-step process for restoring a sinning member. This includes going to them one on one, with another person (or two), then bringing it before the church, and finally the person being removed from fellowship (Matt 5:18; cf. 1 Cor 5:11). Logically, only somebody who is clearly part of a local church and submitted to her leadership can be removed from church fellowship.

5. Evidence for church membership is the need for believers to fulfill the “one another” texts in the New Testament.

For example, Hebrews 10:24-25 says:

And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near.

Instead of forsaking the assembly, we are called to faithfully meet together, to “spur one another on to love and good works” and “encourage each other,” as we wait for Christ’s coming. Also, 1 Peter 4:10 says: “Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God.” We are each called to find our gifts and use them to “serve one another.” It is hard to faithfully do these without committing to and regularly meeting with a local body of believers.

Though Scripture never explicitly commands joining a local church, it is clearly implied throughout the New Testament and, therefore, expected. In joining a local congregation, we commit to pray for those believers, to serve them, to hold them accountable, to help them grow, and to partner in reaching the lost locally and globally, among other things.

Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown

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Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)

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