The Importance of Church Membership

The Importance of Church Membership

It seems that there is an almost endless supply of controversial topics available for discussion in Christian circles today. Not among the least of these topics is the subject of church membership, and to this topic we now turn. I know this discussion can go in many directions, but I want to focus less on the “finer arguments” of details, and more on the principles: the meaning, purpose, and benefits of being a member of a local gathering of Christians.

The theme of this blog is “Calling young Anabaptists back to the Root,” that Root being Jesus Christ. As we look at “church membership” as we know it today, it is far too easy to become inundated with all the “trappings” that accompany it. It is far too easy to lose focus on Jesus the Root and the Head of the Church and what He wants for His Body. And if we lose our focus on Him, our efforts in life, ministry, and the church lose value as we do them in our own strength or because it’s just “how we’ve always done it.”

Jesus spoke about drawing people to Himself (John 12:32), not to man-made systems. He is the key, the centerpiece of the story, and when we make the church a human project, we err and get off track. In this discussion, let’s not lose our focus.

Church Membership: What it’s Not

Let’s take a look at what “church membership” means. Just as there are many opinions on the matter, there are also many definitions of what it means.

First, a few things that “church membership,” as we’re discussing it, is not: Firstly, it is not the same as membership in the universal Body of Christ. In passages such as Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, we see the word “member” used, but in the context of the Body as a whole. All true believers in Jesus Christ are members of His Body, but not all are members of your or my local congregation.

Secondly, formal “church membership” is not another step in the “salvation process” or a “second act of grace.” When elevated, whether intentionally or subconsciously, to the same level of importance as faith in Jesus Christ, church membership becomes a dangerous thing, drawing people away from the true meaning of the gathering of believers in a local congregation.

“Church membership” also is not like a membership at a supermarket where one signs up to get special benefits, or like a membership in some club with an “I’m in and you’re out” mentality. The purpose is not to pad one’s ego or solely for one’s own benefit, and the point should not be exclusion.

Fourthly, official “church membership” is not the end goal of the local church. We’ll look at this later, but I believe it is important to recognize that church membership is not the “end,” but rather a means to the end.

We should also recognize that formal church membership is essentially an extra-biblical, human institution. We can see support for it in Scripture, and the core idea(s) are drawn from Scripture, but strictly speaking it is an extra-biblical practice. This does not necessarily mean it is wrong or right; many practices in the church today fall into a similar category. Wedding ceremonies, structure of church services, and installation or ordination of pastors and church leaders all are things which find their root in Scripture but are carried out differently than they were in the First Century Church.

A Working Definition

While we don’t see a formal church membership process modeled in Scripture, one thing that we do see modeled and taught is commitment, and I’d like to propose this as a basic biblical definition of “church membership.”

In Hebrews 10:24-25 we read, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” New Testament passages such as this one, as well as instructions to obey and submit to church leaders (e.g. Hebrews 13:17) give evidence to the biblical importance of commitment to a local congregation. We also see examples of the commitment that was practiced in the Early Church through passages such as greetings in the epistles. These  address specific local churches and believers who were members of those congregations (I & II Corinthians; Philemon 1-3; etc.).

So, boiled down to the basic level, church membership should be a strong commitment to a local church body/congregation of believers. It is a commitment that says, “This is the local congregation of believers with which I will identify and worship.” It is a commitment to the beliefs and practices that are established as the standards for this congregation, a commitment to the leaders of the congregation, and to the other members – specifically to those who have made the same commitment.

That commitment could be a simple verbal commitment, but I believe it is also appropriate for it to be preserved in the form of a list of names or signatures of those who have made that commitment. This official list can be seen as the list of people who espouse the stated beliefs and practices of the congregation, creating a defined group of people who will be the leaders and teachers in that congregation.

Importance

Now let’s take a look at some of the reasons this kind of commitment is important, starting with the individual Christian (you or me), who benefits from the commitment and the mutual accountability. Part of making the commitment of membership to a church is saying to others, “I’m here to be accountable to you and to hold you accountable as well.”

The believer experiences growth in and through such commitment and accountability – more growth than they normally would on their own, and very likely more than they would experience as just an “attendee” at the same church.

Part of the growth probably comes through yet another benefit for the individual: more opportunities for service. Certain positions may be (appropriately) restricted to members in order to keep more consistency and stability in the teaching and leadership of the church. Thus, although church membership is not all about you or me, one strong strand of evidence for its importance is the benefit and growth we can receive through that commitment.

In all of this we know God does not intend for His followers to be “lone wolves.” We as Christians need each other, whether we like to admit it or not. When we make a commitment to a group of believers, the benefits are mutual. Thus, not only the first individual – you or I – but also all the other members benefit from this relationship. So a second reason it is important is for the sake of the other members involved.

Last (but not least), I’ll mention another area of importance: the church congregation itself. When Christians commit to a local gathering of believers, that congregation as a whole benefits. While it seems unfortunate that a church of believers in Jesus Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, would need a human framework such as formal church membership, a church can maintain a greater level of integrity and consistency through the common agreement and commitment of membership.

The church also holds more potential for impact in ministries and in missions – more potential for doing God’s Kingdom work – when God’s people are committed and working together with set goals and common vision. The local congregation benefits with increased stability, effectiveness, and endurance.

Could all of these be attained and maintained without an official “church membership” as we often think of it – a signature on a page and joining the “in” group? In theory, at least, the answer is yes. But could they all be attained and maintained without individual Christians committing to each other and to a gathering of believers – to following Christ together? My answer would be a clear no.

The Body needs its members to be joined and working together, and the important thing here is to be intentionally committed to a local congregation of believers.

Conclusion

I’m not suggesting that we abandon formal church membership, and I don’t have all the answers, but I am suggesting that we should be careful with it. It’s not inherently good or bad, but the way we view and use it does affect the outcome. We should recognize that at its core, it should be about commitment. We should make sure we see it as a means, not an end, and as a framework to help the local church and individuals grow in their relationship with the Lord, and in ministry, integrity, and faithfulness. It can be helpful in keeping our eyes on Jesus as we live out the Christian life together. Committing oneself to a local congregation is an important, biblical step for the follower of Christ.

I personally have benefited greatly along the journey of this study. My understanding of the importance of “church membership” has been enriched as I’ve looked at it in the light of biblical commitment. I encourage you to look into it more yourself and to carry on the discussion. How can we live out our purpose as the Body of Christ in more faithful and biblical ways?

Timothy Timothy Reitz lives in Virginia, though he feels he also has a second home in northern Mexico, where he has recently spent about 2 1/2 years. He enjoys reading and writing, interacting with his family and others, speaking Spanish, and eating Mexican food, among other things. He has a passion to pursue a deeper walk with Jesus Christ, and to encourage others to the same.

Sources Quoted:

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 2001. Print and online (Biblegateway.com).

 

11 thoughts on “The Importance of Church Membership

  1. Commitment and accountability are certainly core to church membership. There are 3 reasons that commitment and accountability are important: 1. Holiness of believers and the church, 2. Discipleship of believers, 3. Evangelism of unbelievers. I believe these 3 items summarize our motivation to have commitment and accountability.

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    1. Exactly right. The sad thing is that we can put so much emphasis on becoming a member that we lose out on being a member. We need to keep being committed, accountable, and evangelistic.

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  2. (Comment copied from discussion on Radi-Call Facebook page)

    There was a time when I preached the virtues of church membership as described in this blog. But no more. Commitment with a local group of believers for the purpose of building each other up in Christ, and to coordinate our efforts at being representatives of the Kingdom of God on this earth— yes. But written membership roles to define who’s “an attendee” and who’s “a member” so that “like-minded” folks can perpetuate their agenda… I think not.

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  3. (Comment copied from discussion on Radi-Call Facebook page)

    It seems that the author’s intentions for writing this article are right. He desires a Christ centered church where individuals are committed and accountable to each other. I don’t for one moment doubt his intentions or motivation for writing this. The views expressed here in this article have become the norm among Western churches, and it has been this way for many generations. I believe however, that there is a very serious error in the practice of formal church membership. The first part of the error is the failure to see that commitment and accountability without true love is a farce. The Scriptures say that there is no greater love than when a man lays down his life for a friend (John 15:13), and yet at the same time we are told in 1Corinthians 13:3 that if a person gives up their life and doesn’t have love, it profits nothing! Many of us have experienced church problems and splits in churches that strongly believed in and practiced formal church membership, and yet there was little loyalty or accountability shown when the going got hard. This Christ like love that is desperately needed (before we will have true commitment and accountability) only comes one way, and that is by the Holy Spirit. It is a very serious error to replace the work of the Holy Spirit with a man made, extra biblical thing. By definition, any man made thing that replaces Christ and/or His Spirit, is an idol or a “golden calf”. So, is every Christian who is a “member” of a church guilty of idolatry? No, not necessarily, but that “membership” should mean nothing to us. It most definitely better not be the thing that we are trusting in to make us loving, loyal and accountable to our fellow brothers and sisters! “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” John 13:35

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    1. (Comment copied from discussion on Radi-Call Facebook page)

      Good morning brothers! Your comments caught my attention. This is something that I have been thinking about a lot over the last couple years. My conviction continues to grow that commitment to a local body of believers is not just a good idea–the church cannot live without it. I think David Platt puts it well in this short video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ema48oLciRw Blessings as you seek to follow Him!

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      1. (Comment copied from discussion on Radi-Call Facebook page)

        Ian Mil, I agree with you that commitment to a local gathering of believers is important. What I disagree with, is how we achieve that. Do we try to make it happen by our own doings, or do we trust Christ to do it? I also agree with David Platt’s list of implied truths…but I believe that all of those functions are definitely able to happen without the “church membership” that we are talking about. For example, the question should not be wether someone is qualified to be a church member or not…but rather, is the individual in Christ and Christ in them? We don’t need a list of names on a paper to know wether someone is in Christ or not. Again I ask, how does Christ want us to achieve His plan for the Church…by the power of His Spirit, or by our own means?

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  4. (Comment copied from discussion on Radi-Call Facebook page)

    Thanks for your comments Nathan! Basically what I understand you to say is that we agree on the principles of commitment, accountability, and active participation in the body. However, you disagree with the “manmade system” of membership.
    From a pastoral viewpoint (I am not a pastor):
    How does church leadership implement church discipline? Who is the pastor responsible for in the church? Everyone who has attended one Sunday? Two? A month?

    As the congregation selects leaders, who do they draw from? Anyone who happens to be sitting in the pew that Sunday?

    What about church guidelines (this might be opening another can of worms :-))? Who has a voice in deciding how the church interprets the Scriptures (whether we like it or not, the church makes interpretations and applications in some form or another)? Just because someone walks through the church doors, do they have that privilege?

    I am convinced church will look different in different settings and cultures. However, I feel that for the local body to carry out its functions and responsibilities, everyone must know who is committed to the body. The functions become non-functions when nobody or everybody is the body.

    I guess my comment turned into a mini-article :-). Blessings as you continue to think deeply and pursue Him!

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    1. (Comment copied from discussion on Radi-Call Facebook page)

      Ian Mil, I appreciate your desire to see the church thrive. I don’t say what I do to prove you wrong in anything, but rather I’m passionate about this subject because I believe it to be integral to Christ’s full authority being accepted and submitted to. Facebook doesn’t offer a good platform to do this subject justice, so I won’t go into much detail here…yes, when you start pulling at one thread (in this case church membership) it begins to unravel all the other things attached to it that are also not under the full authority of Christ. Yes, I really am suggesting that our views of “church leadership”, “discipline”, and “church guidelines” could also be outside the will and plan of God, and therefore when we pull on the thread of church membership it starts to threaten all these other things. Here is the big question… Who is REALLY in charge? Man? Or the Holy Spirit? For example: Did the authority in the church come through the Holy Spirit filling men with Christ’s authority? Or did we simply take votes, ordain a man, gave him a title and a position and then declared he had authority? There is a big difference between the two. The one way will require a vetting process to determine who gets to vote…the other way…well even unbelievers can recognize the authority that is upon a man who has received it from God and not from man. Blessings to you as you seek to do His will!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ian, excellent questions you pointed out these seem to make clear the need for some form of commitment to a local church.

    One thing that I would like to point out here is that, if I am reading right, both Marty and Nathan point out a problem; not with the the concepts of love, commitment and accountability. Instead their issue is with the way that church membership has failed to bring love, commitment and accountability.

    I suggest that it is not membership or lack of membership that is the problem. Rather it is lack of love, commitment and accountability that is common both in those who are church members and those who are not. Strengthening or doing away membership will not fix this problem.

    If we look at church history we can see this problem resurfacing periodically. Examples include Anainias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), the church in Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7) and the state church through much of church history. This is not a new problem.

    God addressed these issues with judgement for Anainias and Sapphira, rebuke for the church in Ephesus and opposition for those who chose love, commitment and accountability over the state church. This last group included the first Mennonites.

    How can we develop love, commitment and accountability as God intended it? I would love to hear any your thoughts on this.

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  6. Church membership… We who are members of Christs body, should desire to function in a way which brings unity and edification to those members with whom we meet. As brother Nathan mentioned, there is no replacement for Holy Spirit directed love. While I am all in favor for being ‘committed’ to a local brotherhood, that commitment will always be superseded by my commitment to Christ our Head. Anytime the local brothers resist the Holy Spirit or otherwise dishonor our Commander in Chief, my commitment is kept with Him. While ideally I trust my local brothers to hear from God and be open to the Spirits direction, I am not going to allow membership with a local group of believers to hinder my unmovable loyalty to Christ.

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  7. Interesting comments and discussion.

    I would tend to agree with the article for the most part but do understand there are some challenges in the practical working out of the issue.

    There seems to be no direct command that you needed to be a part of a local body. However, there are enough comments that would allude to some way of identifying who was and who was not a part of the local church. The apostle Paul established many local church bodies scattered throughout the then known world and he appointed leaders in those local bodies.

    There are many today who claim only allegiance to Christ and will not submit themselves to any other. They use the reason (excuse?) that they do not need to submit to anyone else: but have chosen to be a member of the local church of their choice. Paul himself wrote that we are to submit ourselves to those who have been placed over us. How else can that happen unless there is local body with chosen leaders to submit ourselves to.

    There are quite a number of other places that some sort of organized local brotherhood us mentioned. Paul notes in one place “and the church that is in thy house”. I am simple enough to read that as a local
    body of believers established as a church with known members.

    Acts records that the Lord added daily to the church those who were saved. How else would they know there were thousands unless there was some way of numbering them?

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