Why Church Membership?
In order to lead us into a biblical understanding of the importance of membership to a local church, the elders have provided some observations from Scripture that we pray will do at least two things. First, we pray that it will serve Redeemer Church by reminding her members of the covenant relationship they have to one another and its ongoing significance. Second, we pray that it will serve those who have attended Redeemer Church for a long time without joining by showing them the importance of membership to a local church and by leading them into it soon.
What teaching we provide below is certainly not everything that could be said about the importance of local church membership, but only significant points we desire to highlight everyone’s care. We could even summarize the teaching below like so:
The discipline practiced by an identifiable assembly of believers, the leadership given over definable congregations, the submission offered to particular elders, the interdependence expressed by each body member, and the corporate nature of the Christian life together make membership to a local church crucial.
1. The discipline practiced by an identifiable assembly of believers stresses the importance of membership to a local church.
Matt 16:17; 18:15-20; 28:18-20. The context of corrective discipline when unrepentance characterizes an erring member suggests that “the church” in Matt 18:15-20 is an assembly of believers that is visible (“on earth”), identifiable (“tell it to the church”), has known boundaries from which one may be excluded (“bind… loose”), and executes the authority of Jesus (“in my name, there I am;” cf. 28:18-20). In order for any erring member to be disciplined meaningfully, church membership is necessary for defining the assembly.
Yes, the heavenly, invisible, universal church exists (e.g., Matt 16:17; 1 Cor 12:13; Eph 2:4; 3:10). However, if we asked where the universal church gathers now, before the Second Coming of Christ, we must then answer according to the implications of Matt 18:17-20: “the universal church gathers now in earthly, visible, local churches—identifiable assemblies of disciples who collectively submit to and exercise the authority of Jesus.” While the (universal) “church” is an eschatological reality in Matt 16:17, the (local) “church” in Matt 18:17-20 is a present day reality that is seen, known, and submitted to in very concrete ways. Membership in a local church makes this visibility and submission possible.
1 Corinthians 5:1-13. The gathering of the church to discipline a brother living in sin reveals that a defined group of Christians is in mind, namely, the assembled believers in Corinth and no one else in particular. Yes, they join a host of other saints who “call on the name of the Lord in every place” (1 Cor 1:2), but the saints “in every place” do not assemble to cast out the immoral brother. Only those saints who identify themselves publically with the church in Corinth assemble to exercise corrective discipline according to the apostle’s command and cast out the brother. Only the believers in Corinth gather in Jesus’ name (1 Cor 5:4; cf. Matt 18:19-20). Thus, as in Matt 18:17-20, Jesus’ authority—an authority also entrusted to select apostles like Paul—is put into effect through local churches (cf. 2 Cor 2:10).
The formal removal of an unrepentant person from being “inside” the church to being “outside” the church—even considered Satan’s domain (1 Cor 5:5)—only makes sense if there exists an identifiable gathering of believers, who are accountable to one another in submitting themselves to the reign of Jesus Christ. Church membership makes this ongoing submissive accountability possible.
To be more explicit, church membership is crucial to enforcing corrective discipline, one of the means of grace Christ entrusted to the church to keep his saints persevering in truth, love, and holiness. The universal church cannot enforce corrective discipline, but only the local church can. Moreover, corrective discipline has no “teeth,” so to speak, without membership. This means that every Christian not submitting themselves to membership in a local church endangers their own souls by not subjecting themselves to the rule of Christ through biblical leadership and the mutual submission of members within the local church.
2. The leadership given over definable congregations and the submission offered to particular elders by the members within those congregations stresses the importance of membership to a local church.
Acts 20:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:2-3. According to these passages, believers must submit to the leaders God has placed over them in particular. The implication is that every believer knows which leader(s) he/she is directly accountable to obey under the Lord. In other words, intentional membership is the assumption behind knowing to what leadership a believer submits him/herself.
The flip side of this picture is that the leaders will also know which saints are directly under their pastoral care and which are not. So, for example, Acts 20:28 (“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…”) and 1 Pet 5:2-3 (“shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight…not domineering over those in your charge…”) both imply that the overseers know their particular “flock” or those “in their charge” as an identifiable local gathering of saints distinct from others (cf. Acts 14:23; Tit 1:5; Jas 5:14).
Having a definable membership makes believers’ submission to particular leaders and leaders’ oversight of particular believers possible. In light of other examples where definable local congregations are in view, such an understanding of membership makes even more sense (see Acts 13:1; 14:23; 15:3-4, 22, 41; 20:17, 28; Phil 4:15; Col 4:15-16; 2 Thess 1:4; Phm 2; Jas 2:2; 5:14; 2 John 10).
3. The interdependence expressed by each body member stresses the importance of membership to a local church.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31. The body metaphor that Paul uses in 1 Cor 12:12-31 implies an interdependent obligation of every believer in the local church of Corinth. While Paul can address their being part of the universal body of Christ in 12:13 (“baptized into one body”), his chief concern is with how the Corinthians are functioning as the local expression of that one body. Hence he says, “You [i.e., you believers in Corinth] are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” Their own Christian identity is bound up with being a functioning member of a local church body (see also Rom 12:3-8; Eph 4:11-16). Their gifts, being empowered by God, are to contribute to the upbuilding of the whole visible, local church with whom they interact and before whom they submit their lives regularly. Membership disallows someone from attaching themselves to a church without also functioning as an integral part of that local body and all that formally entails under Christ and with one another.
4. The corporate nature of the Christian life together stresses the importance of membership to a local church.
1 Timothy 5:9-16. The enrollment of true widows in 1 Tim 5:9, 11 implies that local churches (perhaps house churches implied by “house to house”) kept track of particular members on a role to aid in caring for their members—in particular members who were widows—as well as the health of every assembly. So when Paul writes in 5:16, “Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows,” he has in mind local churches, the same local churches who are exhorted to support their particular elders in 1 Tim 5:17-18. Thus, keeping track of specific members for the overall health of an identifiable local church is in line with how Paul instructs Timothy.
Romans 16:1-16. Paul seems to be aware of those believers who belong, presumably as members, to particular churches. For example, Phoebe is going to visit the saints in Rome, but she herself is a “servant of the church at Cenchrea” (Rom 16:1-2). There is an identifiable group of believers meeting in the house church of Prisca and Aquila (Rom 16:3-5a; cf. 1 Cor 16:19). Paul’s greetings to everyone else named indicate that everyone knows which people and families belong to the local church in Rome (Rom 16:5b-16).
Hebrews 10:25. The regular gathering of believers is one of the means of God’s grace for his people’s perseverance in the faith. Membership makes accountability to this regular gathering with the saints a greater possibility.
2 John 1-2. Truth is a community project, not something to be affirmed in isolation. We affirm the truth together (2 John 1:1-2). Theological danger occurs when we begin to cut ourselves off from the corporate affirmation of the apostles’ teaching. By giving us each other in the body of Christ, the Lord shows us his own love by using our brothers and sisters to guard us from any error that would compromise Christ and our enjoyment of him. If someone refuses to join a local gospel-preaching church, they have much greater risk of holding to error than if they affirmed with others the apostolic teaching and subjected themselves to the church’s authority under Christ in upholding that teaching. Membership makes such accountability to the truth of the gospel more likely.
Christian Life. The very nature of the Christian life assumes an identifiable congregational context in nearly all the letters. For example, the life described and the commands issued in Rom 12:4-16 assume a local body that regularly interacts with each other in these specific ways (see also 1 Cor 12:25; Eph 5:19-21; 1 Thess 3:12; Heb 10:24-25). Even those letters that do not use the word “church” assume an identifiable group or groups of saints living in regular submission to one another (e.g., “one another” in 1 Pet 4:8-10; “they…us” in 1 John 2:19; “anyone…you” in 2 John 10).
Also, a church-less Christian is an anomaly to the NT paradigm. To be Christian in the New Testament is also to gather regularly with a local body. There are exceptions in the New Testament in that we see some converted, but in each case we are left without the rest of the story (e.g., the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40). However, if they are true believers, then their pattern of life would be in accord with the New Testament pattern for membership. So, for example, we find that Lydia and her household believed the gospel and they were all baptized in Acts 16:14-15; but not long afterwards, Paul finds her with the brothers in 16:40. Can someone be a Christian and not a member of a local church? Yes. Will he/she remain isolated from a local church where a local church exists? No. Obedience to all that Jesus commanded will compel them to gather with other believers whenever possible.
Some Implications for Us to Consider
First, as members we need to teach and remind each other about the importance of church membership from the Bible and help each other see more clearly how it serves our perseverance in joy and submission to Christ. Moreover, we all need to let our understanding of meaningful membership grow us in our own devotion and commitment to one another as the local body of Christ. We all play a very significant role in each others’ growth in Christ-likeness.
Second, attenders—especially long-standing attenders—need to seriously consider the importance of church membership and also seriously consider joining Redeemer Church. If they find that they would not in good conscience be able to join Redeemer Church due to significant differences in doctrine, ecclesiology, or ministry commitments, then we must ask them to consider seriously joining the membership of another gospel-preaching church where they do find agreement and unity in mission. Our attenders must understand that we value their ongoing growth and protection as a disciple of Christ through the local church that much. Some questions our attenders might consider are: “Who are your elders?” “Who will give an account for your soul on the last day?” “What church body could ever discipline you if necessary to bring you back to Christ?” “What may not joining the church be saying about your willingness to submit yourself to others in the church, and therefore to Christ?” “Do you see the church serving your joy in Christ?”
Third, if anyone is unsure about what they think about church membership, or if anyone has had poor experiences with membership in the past, or if anyone is just simply wanting more teaching, or if anyone wants to learn more about Redeemer Church itself, then we should be willing to sit down and speak with them about that. The membership, care group leaders, the staff, and the elders would love the opportunity to speak with these people regarding any concern they may have.