A Case for Biblical Church Membership
Updated: Aug 11, 2022
‘For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.’
What Church Membership Is
Church Membership is all about trying to understand who the church is. Who the church is, because the church is the people – God’s people who have been set apart by God and called to become his children by their common faith in the risen Lord Jesus. Churches exist because Christians exist, and God’s plan was for his people to gather together regularly as churches for a few main purposes (although no doubt there are many others):
1. As a witness to himself in the world (Matthew 5:14, John 13:34–35 & 17:21–23)
2. As a display of his wisdom (Ephesians 3:10)
3. As the home of discipleship for his people (see Appendix A for some of the ‘one
another’ passages applied to church members in the New Testament)
4. For the edification of the believers (Ephesians 4:11–12)
5. To guard the truth of the gospel (1 Timothy 3:15)
6. For the praise of him who called us out of darkness (1 Peter 2:9)
It’s because of God’s purposes for the church that it’s important we know who the church is. When the Apostle Paul told the Corinthian church ‘… we were all baptised by one Spirit into the one body…’ (1 Corinthians 12:13), he went on to illustrate the nature of our unity by speaking of a physical body, made up of physical members. This analogy is so powerful because we know that every local church is the body of Christ, made up of members who have been brought together to function as a body by the power of his Spirit. So what is Church Membership? It’s identifying which members belong to any particular local church.
Why is it important to know who belong to any particular local church? Because each body (or church) achieves the purposes above, and if the members of each body are never clearly identified, then no one knows who the church is when they meet because there’s no distinction made between the Spirit filled members of this body and others who are present. The effect on those purposes above would be something like this:
1. Jesus’ witness to the world becomes dim because when the church gathers no one
actually knows who is part of the church and who is not
2. God’s wisdom in bringing unity is blurred because when the church gathers not even the Christians present know who they’re actually united to
3. Obeying the commands to ‘love one another’ is confused because it’s not clear
where people stand with regard to Jesus himself or this particular church
4. We’re not as edified as we would otherwise be because our love for one another as
a church family is obscured by the lack of clarity defining who’s a part of this
5. The truth of the gospel is still preached, but it’s not clear who in attendance is
committed to obeying the truth
6. If it’s our identity as a ‘chosen people’ and ‘royal priesthood’ that enables us to
‘declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness’ (1 Peter 2:9), that
declaration is surely affected by the lack of definition around who those people are.
We should take note of the words of the Apostle Paul as he warned about the yeast working its way through the whole batch of dough (1 Corinthians 5:6), and the effect that will have on the church achieving its purposes. Consider the following seven points;
1. Making the Family a Priority
I’ve never written a letter to my family (wife and four kids), but I imagine if I did I would address them as my beloved family, and members of my household. Probably not so formal, but I’d try to express that truth in some kind of way. The letter would set them apart from our neighbours, my extended family and anyone else. And that would be important to do as I spoke to them as members of my household, because I’d have specific instructions for them. For example, how they are to love one another; care for each other; provide for one another; and perhaps most importantly from my point of view, how much I myself love them, am committed to them and work to provide for them. I see this same thinking expressed as the Apostles write letters to the churches, for example:
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be
holy… (1 Corinthians 1:2a)
To the churches in Galatia: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord
Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age…
To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus… (Ephesians 1:1b)
Paul clearly had in mind members of churches when he wrote these letters, because it would have been clear to those churches who their members were.
Paul could call the Corinthians, ‘those sanctified in Christ Jesus’, because he was talking to those who were united to Jesus, and united to the church there.
Paul could call for the church to ‘expel the wicked man from among you’ (1 Corinthians 5:13b), because it was clear to them who the insiders were.
It seems, by the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, he refers back to this situation telling the church ‘the punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him’ (2 Corinthians 2:6), knowing a majority can only be determined if we know the sum of the whole.
At the same time Paul’s reference to the unbeliever (1 Corinthians 14:23) shows at least a knowledge of which attendees believe, because the believers in Corinth are those who belong both to the Lord Jesus, and belong to this particular body of believers (1 Corinthians 10:17 & 12:13).
Church membership is important because a church is a family of believers, and it’s crucial we know who the members of any particular family are for that family to function as it should. Once this is made clear, we can engage with people based on who they are, as members of Christ’s local body here, or as members of another local body, or as visitors who do not yet know Jesus, or as the case is more commonly in the Western World, visitors who think they can be connected to the head of the church (Jesus) but are yet to commit themselves to his body (the church) in a way that is in accordance with his word.
2. A Self-Conscious Commitment
This brings us to another important part of Church Membership, and that is with regard to the self-conscious commitment needed to commit to Jesus and his people. In the Bible we see Jesus tell the crowds to count the cost of discipleship (e.g. Luke 14:25–34). Jesus is well aware that people are likely to make commitments to him that are superficial, and he doesn’t want that to happen. He’d rather people count the cost before they say ‘yes’, so that their ‘yes’ is really a ‘yes’ and not a ‘oh… I didn’t think this is what following Jesus meant’.
As we think about the cost of discipleship, what usually comes to our minds is persecution. This naturally comes out of the image of ‘carrying the cross’ that Jesus says is a prerequisite of our discipleship (Luke 9:23; 14:27), and we think of this in terms of physical pain, rejection, shame and death for Jesus’ sake. It’s because thoughtful missionaries in ‘closed countries’ are conscious of this cost, that they tell prospective converts to go away and think about their decision to follow Jesus before making the commitment. We honour this method because it pushes against the all too common trend of counting converts at the first sign of a decision, to give the person a better opportunity to make the decision stick.
As we think about the cost of discipleship in the Western World, it seems the most
immediate application for carrying the cross of Christ is not with regard to this kind of persecution, but in a person’s willingness to obey the one command that Jesus left his church with. The one command that Jesus said would show the world that they were his disciples… to ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (John 13:34). When Jesus’ most important command was to love God and neighbour (Matthew 22:34–40), it makes sense that when we become members of the body of Christ, the first place to express that love is within the household of faith (Galatians 6:10), and that truth should be reflected in our evangelism as we help people consider this ‘cost’ as a prerequisite for discipleship, or at least, the God-ordained outcome of true discipleship in Jesus’ name.
Church Membership is helping people count the cost of discipleship by helping them to make a self-conscious commitment to love Jesus by loving the members of his church. This isn’t something that would be nice for Christians to do, it’s a essential implication. As John will go on to say many times and in many ways,
We know we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers and sisters
(1 John 3:14)
Dear friends, since God loved us, we should love one another (1 John 4:11)
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister (1 John 4 20–21).
When a person hears the gospel and wants what Jesus has to offer, we are obligated to teach them what discipleship will look like. This is why Jesus said that making disciples was about teaching them to obey (Matthew 28:16–20). When people seem ready to make a decision to follow Jesus, they need to be taught what obedience looks like. And as far as obedience goes, the command to love one another is right at the centre.
This is why going through something like a Church Covenant / Agreement has been a stepping-stone for discipleship to clearly show people what love will look like in a local church, and what these particular Christians expect from one another as members of the body of Christ. (For an example of a Church Covenant, see Appendix B).
According to the scriptures, teaching people what genuine love looks like in a local church is an integral part of counting the cost of discipleship, so that they can genuinely decide whether they want to follow Jesus according to his word or not. If it’s a ‘yes’, then we can welcome them into our churches with confidence and an expectation that they will be ready to serve, give, and love as occasion may require. And rather than welcome people into the life of the church too quickly, we’d follow Jesus’ example of teaching people what the cost will be before they act too quickly. As C. H. Spurgeon warned, ‘To introduce unconverted persons to the church is to weaken and degrade it, and therefore an apparent gain may be a real loss’.
We need to teach people a biblical understanding of what love is, so together we can better understand what it means to obey the core commandment to love one another as Christ
has loved us.
3. For God-Ordained Offices
We have got to make every effort to ensure every member of the church is clear on what God is telling us to do, and to whom God is telling us should be the object of our obedience as we seek to obey his ‘one another’ commandments. As noted in Appendix A, there are scores of commands for the church to obey, and all of those commands have a subject and an object. Most of these commands are for the church, which is made up of three God- ordained offices; the pastors (or elders), the church body itself, and individual Christians who make up the church. See the picture below for a helpful diagram of the flow of these commands:
As we relate to one another in the local church, identifying who hold these offices is crucial for us to obey the relevant commandments. Church Membership makes these offices clear to all involved so that all involved have an opportunity to obey them. And so;
1. Pastors need to be clearly identified. Although this may seem obvious to most, as David F. Wells puts it in his book, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, in many places pastors have become managers of small enterprises we call churches. In some cases, it isn’t even clear who the pastors are. When this is the case, how are the members to ‘have confidence in their leaders’ and ‘submit to their authority’ when they don’t even know who they are (Hebrews 13:17)?
2. The congregation needs to be clearly defined. Again, in many churches it’s not clear who the church is because the church has never clearly identified who its members are. By failing to do this, no one in attendance knows who actually belongs to the church and who is visiting; no one knows who is within and who is without, so the New Testament commands that relate to the wider church are difficult to put into practice as widely as God intended for them to be (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:7; Galatians 6:10).
3. Each individual Christian needs to be identified. How many times have we met people who say, ‘I belong to this or that church’ because they may have been baptised there years earlier or because they meet with that particular church for Easter and Christmas, when in reality, what they mean by belong is not what we mean, and is a long way off what our Lord meant when he established the church as his body. Unless it’s made clear who the individual church members are, it won’t be clear what their responsibility is as they relate to one another.
When the church is a more clearly defined body (i.e. it’s clear who the members are), and you meet someone who is a member of this church, you know a number of things about them. You know that their faith has been affirmed by biblically qualified elders in the same way that yours was when you became part of the church; their commitment to the church is defined by the same Church Covenant / Agreement that you committed to, enabling you to have a healthy expectation about what ‘membership’ means to them; and they have affirmed the same Statement of Belief that you have too.
This means you don’t even need to know the person to know so much about them! And this means you’ll be able to trust the person so much more easily, share your life with them, and obey Jesus’ one another commands feeling so much safer and protected. As the command to love is more easily obeyed, we can trust that our witness in the community will also more effective (John 13:35). Even in a larger church.
4. Church Membership in Larger Churches
Although most churches in the first few centuries would have been smaller in number because they had no public spaces to meet in, notice in the early chapters of Acts before the split between Christianity and Judaism was official, when the church was 3000 strong still we’re told ‘all the believers were together and had everything in common’ (Acts 2:44). And the mark they had become members of the church? In Acts 2:41 we’re told ‘Those who accepted the message were baptised…’ It seems the answer to the question ‘are you a member of the body of Christ’ was answered on the basis of their baptism. Although churches may want to respect one another with regard to different views on baptism for conscience sake, still, every church needs to make it clear, to at least their own members, who the members of their church are. This is what Church Membership is all about, and I’d argue from what we’ve already discussed in this paper that Church Membership becomes even more important as our churches grow in number.
And notice, this isn’t only helpful for the members in larger churches to know and love one another, but it’s also critical for the pastors who are overseeing larger flocks. In Hebrews 13:17 the church is told to ‘Obey your leaders and submit to their authority, for they keep watch over you as men who must give an account.’ This tells us at least two things; for one, church members need to know who their pastors are, and two, the pastors need to know who they’re responsible for. And we know that pastors of any particular church are not responsible for Christians who belong to other churches, just as the members from the one church are not called to gather regularly with members from the other in obedience to commands to do so like Hebrews 10:25. But in saying that, pastors must know who they’re responsible for and who is accountable to others; who they are confident are God’s children in the gathering on Sunday mornings are who are not yet known, and so on. In short, we
need to know who the members of our church are so that we can take responsibility for them as men who will give an account to God.
I don’t know about you (if you’re a pastor reading this), but I have spent far too much time shepherding goats at the expense of the sheep; trying to shepherd goats as if they’re sheep; and trying to lead disobedient sheep who are the way they are because they haven’t been taught how to be part of a flock. And even if we have taught them how to be part of a flock, we haven’t organised our flocks in a way that helps them to obey. God’s shepherds need to know who they’re responsible for, and God’s people need to make a self-conscious commitment to God’s church before they’re given an opportunity to be part of the flock, especially in larger churches where we won’t have the luxury of knowing each other by name.
5. Against the Backdrop of a Secular Culture
As we think about helping people make a self-conscious commitment to God’s people, I think this is becoming even more important in our secular culture. Already people are wired as consumers. They engage with organisations on the basis of an expectation to be served by them (or what they can get out of them), and sadly, we see this consumer mentality even in the church of God.
When we go to an RSL club we are asked to read terms and conditions that we know include dress codes, behaviour etc. When we join a gym we read and agree to similar terms and conditions. We should expect this, so that we all understand what it is to be a member here, and pull into line those who threaten the unity of the membership. In the Bible God also has terms and conditions for his people. What to believe, a way to live, a way to think and a way to love. But when people come into the church, we don’t typically make this clear to them because often we want them to feel like they belong before they commit. This can be problematic because we end up welcoming people into the life of our church before they agree to God’s terms and conditions, and in so doing we threaten the unity of the church, her holiness, and her witness, and we promote this consumer mentality in the church, all dressed up in the far too common pragmatic mission strategy that comes at the expense of God’s own mission strategy – a pure and holy church.
If membership into the church were on God’s terms, then we would welcome visitors and invite them to consider what being a member at this particular church will look like. We don’t welcome them into the church, we help them think through what it means to be a member of the body of Christ first. And because Jesus is The Gate (John 10:9), we first make sure they’ve received him, according to the scriptures. And then we help them to see what that means for those who claim to be loved by him.
This should excite us because so many people we meet alongside us on Sunday mornings have no idea what it means to be a member of the church, so we’ll be leading people into prayers of confession and repentance as they’re actually being called to faith and obedience for the first time. What better witness to our faithfulness as under-shepherds than to teach people what it means to obey Jesus’ commands by loving his people, while at the same time protecting those members who have already counted the cost and said ‘yes’.
Admittance into the church of God should be on the basis of God’s own terms, and rather than suggest that our assurance in Christ can be tied to a decision once made, a prayer once prayed, or a life of self-defined ‘obedience’ that doesn’t include the local church. Instead, we’d teach people up front how faith and repentance is most clearly seen in the ongoing lives that Christians share together as members in the local church.
As our world becomes more secular, the need to clarify who the church is will become even more critical. As more people move from ‘Christian’ to ‘nominal’ to ‘no religion’ (simply clarifying what they always truly were), the church will need to be more clearly defined. But as we do this we can be sure that God’s purposes for his church will be made more clear as the church becomes more distinct, purer, more holy, and we’ll be better prepared for the great apostacy that Jesus taught us will occur in the last days as persecution increases against his people (Matthew 24:9–13; cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3 [αποστασια], and see also the Victorian Change or Suppression [Conversion] Practices Prohibition Bill 2020, as an indication of where our culture is headed).
We who can see this coming have an opportunity to prepare our people for this by helping them to see what it is to be Christian, to count the cost and make a self-conscious commitment against the backdrop of an ever-increasing secular culture.
6. Members Meetings
When I was growing up we’d sometimes we’d have people over our house for dinner. When we did, some things would remain the same, and some things would change. We would still eat rabbit, still eat at around 6pm, and still sit in our regular spots… but some things would change. We wouldn’t fight as much, we wouldn’t discuss sensitive issues, and we wouldn’t share as openly as we did when it was just us. In the same way, Sunday mornings are like dinners at home with the neighbours present. We still sit under God’s Word, we still pray, sing, and spend time together, but we know we’re not alone. And praise God that we have outsiders there. They get to hear the gospel, and see it in action as we love one another over a meal… but sadly, far too many churches never have the opportunity to gather together, just as a family.
It’s for this reason we need to think about Members Meetings. At the very least, church members need to get together as family to talk about family matters. These might include the budget, plans for the future, specific opportunities to disciple specific people, cases where church discipline may be required (see Jesus’ intention for the church to be active in this in Matthew 18:17); it’s in our Members Meetings that our current Eldership can nominate future elders the church to consider, and many other ‘in house’ matters that would benefit the members to be a part of.
What’s more, new members can be welcomed in and celebrated at Members Meetings, and those who are leaving to join other churches are sent off with prayer. We can also notify church members about those who have sadly fallen away from Christ, and pray more specifically and intentionally for others who may be struggling under the weight of sin and decay. We see these issues motivate necessary conversations for the church to have to ensure every member of the body of Christ is discipled into the role of ‘Royal Priest’ that they’ve been appointed to by God.
Whatever the case is, member’s meetings are the family dinners when just the family is together. Raw, honest, but thoroughly necessary as we seek to live together as members of Christ himself, and better apply the ‘priesthood of all believers’ that many Evangelical church affirm, but rarely practice as we see it modelled in the pages of the New Testament.
7. Some Final Reflections
Let’s not forget that since the earliest days, Christians have had to use creeds and
confessions to make sure we agree what we mean when we say ‘I’m Christian’, for savage wolves have always threatened the church of God (Acts 20:28–31). Nor should we be ignorant of the fact that the first century church used ‘Letters of Recommendation’ so that churches could be more confident to receive people who claimed to be Christians (e.g. 2 Corinthians 3:1–3).
Our Statement of Belief and Church Covenant / Agreement will clarify for people what we believe, and also teach them to obey what God has said. If they want to express their love for Jesus in this way at this particular local church – praise God. If they don’t want to commit to Jesus in this way, as it is articulated according to the scriptures, at least we’ve shown them from the scriptures what they need to do at some local church somewhere as an expression of their faith in Jesus.
What’s more, we need to make sure we don’t make Church Membership any more or less than what it means to be a citizen of heaven. We have already said that we are trying to clarify nothing more than what Jesus has already said a Christian will do, but we also need to make sure each person who becomes a member of the church is actually a Christian themselves. They have got to know the gospel of grace, received it by faith, and been set apart by the Holy Spirit who has made them children of God. Of course we can’t see the heart and so we can only judge by what we see and hear, but we trust that Jesus will do a final clean-up of the membership rolls when he returns to take us home! And although this may be a discussion for another day, this is why Jesus taught us how to discipline each other
to keep the church pure (Matthew 18:15–19).
What seems clear is that a member of the visible church should be a member of the invisible church. A member of the body of Christ on earth should be a member of the heavenly body itself, and we are given the task of reflecting that heavenly assembly here on earth, in all its glory, with all the sin and brokenness that the saints continue to carry in this life. Sound messy? This is ministry. But we have God’s Word and his Spirit to cut through the mess and bring clarity to all involved so that we can be what God wants us to be – a united body of Spirit-filled believers, saved by Jesus, expressing our love for him by loving one another, according to the scriptures.
As we implement this, and to ensure (as much as possible) that we are welcoming into membership those who are born again, an interview will need to take place somewhere in the process into membership. The interview will be with an elder, and the purpose will be to affirm the Spirit’s work in the life of the prospective member. We’re looking for the marks of salvation here, wanting to bind ourselves with those who belong to Jesus, protect the flock from those who don’t come with the right motives, and to help everyone take a step in the right direction with regard to our Lord and Saviour Jesus, regardless of where they’re currently at.
‘For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs
to all the others.’
Love one another
John 13:34–35; 15:12–17; Rom 12:9–10; 13:8–10; Gal 5:14; 6:10; Eph 1:15 ;1 Peter 1:22; 2:17; 3:8; 4:8; 1 John 3:16; 4:7–12 (cf. Ps. 133) Members of one family 1 Cor 12:13–27
Seek Peace and Unity
Rom 12:16; 14:19; 1 Cor 13:7; 2 Cor 12:20; Eph 4:3–6; Phil 2:3; 1 Thess 5:13; 2 Thess 3:11; James 3:18; 4:11
Strife Actively Avoided
Matthew 5:9; 1 Cor 10:32; 11:16; 2 Cor 13:11; Phil 2:1–3
Sympathize with One Another
Rom 12:15; 1 Cor 12:26; Gal 6:2; 1 Thess 5:14; Heb 4:15; 12:3
Care for One Another Physically and Spiritually
Matt 25:40; John 12:8; Acts 15:36; Rom 12:13; 15:26; 1 Cor 16:1–2; Gal 2:20; 6:10; Heb
13:16; James 1:27; 1 John 3:17; Deut 15:7–8, 11
Watch Over and Hold Each Other Accountable
Rom 15:14; Gal 6:1–2; Phil 2:3–4; 2 Thess 3:15; Heb 12:15; Lev 19:17
Work to Edify One Another
1 Cor 14:12–26; Eph 2:21–22; 4:12–29; 1 Thess 5:11; 1 Pet 4:10; 2 Pet 3:18
Bear with One Another
Matt 18:21–22; Mark 11:25; Rom 15:1; Gal 6:2; Col 3:12
Pray for One Another
Eph 6:18; James 5:16
Keep Away from those Who Destroy the Church
Rom 16:17; 1 Tim 6:3–5; Tit 3:10; 2 John 10–11
Reject Evaluating People by Human Standards
Matt 20:26–27; Rom 12:10–16; James 2:1–13
To Contend Together for the Gospel
Phil 1:27; Jude 3
To Be Examples to One Another
Following Jesus as the Example
John 13:34 As I have loved you, so…
Phil 2:5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ…
1 Peter 2:21 Christ suffered for you leaving you an example…
1 Cor 11:1 Follow my example as I follow…
Responsibilities of Membership
1. Attend services regularly
2. Participate in The Lord’s Supper
3. Attend Member’s Meetings Consistently
4. Pray Regularly
5. Give generously
Possible Church Covenant
1. We will work and pray for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
2. We will watch over one another in love, as God desires for those who are members
of his Church, by faithfully warning and correcting one another as occasion may
3. We will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, nor neglect to pray for
ourselves and others.
4. We will make every effort to lead all who are in our care, in the nurture and
instruction of the Lord, and by a pure and loving example to seek the salvation of our
family and friends.
5. We will rejoice at each other’s happiness and endeavor with tenderness and
sympathy to bear each other’s burdens and sorrows.
6. We will seek, by Divine aid, to live carefully in the world, denying ungodliness and
worldly lusts, and remembering our own conversion from death to life, lead a life of
holiness to the glory of God.
7. We will work together for the continuance of a faithful evangelical ministry in this
church, as we sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline, and doctrines.
8. We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the ministry of this church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the Gospel through all nations.
9. We will, when we move from this place, as soon as possible, unite with some other
church where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy.