What Is The Biblical Basis Of Church Membership?
Although Scripture does not contain an explicit command to formally join a local church, the biblical foundation for church membership is seen throughout the New Testament. This biblical basis can be seen most clearly in (1) the example of the early church, (2) the existence of church government, (3) the exercise of church discipline, and (4) the instruction to do life with “one another”.
The Example of the Early Church
In the early church, coming to Christ was coming to the church. The idea of experiencing salvation without belonging to a local church is foreign to the New Testament. When individuals repented and believed in Christ, they were baptized and added to the church (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14; 16:5). More than simply living out a private commitment to Christ, this meant joining together formally with other believers in a local assembly and devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42). The epistles of the New Testament were written to churches. In the case of the few written to individuals—such as Philemon, Timothy and Titus—these individuals were leaders in churches. Thus, the New Testament epistles themselves demonstrate that the Lord assumed that believers would be committed to a local assembly of believers meeting and doing life together.
There is also evidence in the New Testament that just as there was a list of widows eligible for financial support (1 Timothy 5:9), there may also have been a list of members that grew as people were saved (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14; 16:5). In fact, when a believer moved to another city, his church often wrote a letter of commendation to his new church (Acts 18:27; Romans 16:1; Colossians 4:10; 2 Corinthians 3:1-2).
In the book of Acts, much of the terminology fits only with the concept of formal church membership. Phrases such as “the whole congregation” (6:5), “the church in Jerusalem” (8:1), “the disciples” in Jerusalem (9:26), “in every church” (14:23), “the whole church” (15:17), and “the elders of the church” in Ephesus (20:17), all suggest recognizable church membership with well-defined boundaries.
The Existence of Church Government
The consistent pattern throughout the New Testament is that church leaders are to oversee each local body of believers. The specific duties given to these leaders presuppose a clearly defined group of church members who are under their care. Among other things, church leaders, specifically pastors and staff are responsible to shepherd God’s people (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2), to labor diligently among them (1 Thessalonians 5:12), to have charge over them (1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 5:17), and to keep watch over their souls (Hebrews 13:17). Scripture teaches that leaders will give an account to God for the individuals allotted to their charge (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:3).
Those responsibilities require that there be a distinguishable, mutually understood membership in the local church. Pastors, staff and other church leaders can guide the people and be responsible to God for their spiritual growth and well-being only if they know who they are. They can provide oversight only if they know those for whom they are responsible. They can fulfill their duty to shepherd the flock only if they know who is part of the flock and who is not.
Conversely, Scripture teaches that believers are to submit to their leaders. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders, and submit to them.” The question for each believer is, “Who are your leaders?” The one who has refused to join a local church and entrust himself to the care and the authority of leaders has no leaders. For that person, obedience to Hebrews 13:17 is impossible. To put it simply, this verse implies that every believer knows to whom he must submit, which, in turn, assumes clearly defined church membership.
The Exercise of Church Discipline
In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus outlines the way the church is to seek the restoration of a believer who has fallen into sin—a four-step process commonly known as church discipline. When a brother sins, the first step is for him to be confronted privately by a single individual (v.15). If he refuses to repent, that individual is to take one or two other believers along to confront him again (v. 16). If the sinning brother refuses to listen to the two or three, they are then to tell it to the church (v. 17). If there is still no repentance, the final step is to put the person out of the assembly (v. 17; cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-13). The exercise of church discipline according to Matthew 18 and other passages (1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 1 Timothy 5:20; Titus 3:10-11) presupposes that the leaders of a church know who their members are. The Bible’s teaching on church discipline assumes church membership.
The Instruction of Life with “One Another”
The New Testament teaches that the church is the body of Christ, and that God has called every member to a life devoted to the growth of the body. In other words, Scripture calls all believers to edify the other members by practicing the “one-anothers” of the New Testament. There are more than 50 “one another” commands (e.g., Hebrews 10:24-25) and exercising their spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-7; 1 Peter 4:10). Mutual edification best takes place in the context of the corporate body of Christ. Exhortations to this kind of ministry presuppose that believers have committed themselves to other believers in a specific local assembly. Church membership is simply the formal way to make that commitment.
In many ways, New Testament church life is similar to life in a family. There are different roles and responsibilities shared by people who are joined together by love and common purpose. It is our desire to provide such a family for all who come and worship with us at Shadowbrook.