Baptists, for some time now, have dubbed themselves “the people of the Book.” As a matter of fact, the reason that Baptist congregations were first formed is that certain Christians who were committed to the reformation of the church (flowing from the events of the Protestant Reformation) continued asking questions about the observance of practices that were not mentioned in the Scriptures and why other things which were mentioned in the Scriptures were not being practiced. Baptism and church government were two of the primary areas in question that separated the early Baptist churches from the Congregational and Presbyterian churches they were practically lockstep with regarding doctrinal matters such as God, man, sin, and salvation.
Not all traditions are automatically bad though (so long as they’re not un-biblical) and in the 300 plus years that have passed since the formation of the first “official” Baptist church, Baptists of all stripes have adopted many of their own traditions as well. One such tradition, in the minds of many, is the practice of church membership (though not exclusive to Baptist churches). What can be said about the practice of church membership? Is it simply a man-made tradition that might carry with it some benefits or advantages for the ordering of groups or organizations? Is it distinctly “Christian” in any way or does it function virtually the same as it does in civic organizations like the Lion’s Club and Kiwanis? Does the practice of church membership actually have a biblical precedent? Is it biblically warranted or an antiquated idea that has no place in churches who are seeking to follow the pattern in the New Testament?
Well, it’s true that you won’t find the phrase church membership in the Bible. Having said that, you won’t find the term “Trinity” in the Bible either. And yet, there is an abundance of support in the Scriptures for the historical Christian doctrine of the Trinity: One God in Three Persons – “equal in glory, co-equal in majesty.” So is there also evidence for the idea of church membership even if it’s not called by that name? I believe so. Let’s start with the word “church.”
The New Testament was originally written in Koine or “common” Greek. “Ecclesia” is the Greek word in the early manuscripts which has been translated as “church.” This word means “assembly” in common, non-Christian use, it means “called out ones” in a theological sense, and it also is used to refer to the special assembly (or gathering) of the called out ones (or Christians). So the church is the company of those who are called out of sin, called out of worldly living, called out of an allegiance to Satan, and called to repentance, called to faith in Christ, called to obedience, called to holiness; called to be a disciple. And in the New Testament we see that these called out ones gather for instruction, for encouragement, for prayer, for fellowship, and to exalt the Risen Lord Jesus who has rescued them from sin and made them righteous. Many see the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out by the Risen Christ, as being the birth of the church. After this outpouring, the apostle Peter rose to address the Jewish crowd who had assembled and he preached the Gospel calling them to turn from their sins, to surrender their lives to Christ, and to demonstrate this through baptism. Verse 41 tells us “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” What were these 3,000 souls added to though? The answer is found in the close of the same chapter where we read, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” There was a recognition of those who was part of the church and those who were not. 3,000 souls had met the requirements for being part of the assembly of the called out ones: repentance and faith expressed in baptism. And they were added to the number of those who had previously met such requirements. Church membership is a recognition of those who have met the pre-requisites for becoming a disciple of Jesus.
In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Who, in this context, is my brother? It is one who is also a disciple of Jesus and has therefore met the required conditions for becoming one of the Lord’s disciples: repentance (a turning away from sin resulting in a surrendered life to Christ) and faith (whole-hearted trust and confidence in Christ’s righteous life and sacrificial death as a payment for sin resulting in peace with God) as demonstrated in baptism (an appeal to God for a clean conscious, an acknowledgment of death to my old life by identifying with Christ’s burial, and the assumption of a new identity as one who belongs to and is walking in relationship with the Triune God). So Jesus’ instructions are not how I am to handle a situation when just anyone sins against me, but rather when a brother or fellow disciple sins against me. And how do I know that this individual is truly a disciple who has met the pre-requisites for following the Lord? Well, I know this in part by the fact we are both part of the church, the assembly of called out ones, mentioned in verse 17. And when the assembly of called out ones calls him to repent, why should he listen? Because he had committed himself to that assembly as they also have to him. Church membership is the joining of one disciple to a body or group of disciples in a way that they have responsibility for one another and authority over one another. And so, also in verse 17, when he refuses to listen to the church’s correction, but continues in a path or manner of living that is inconsistent with being a disciple of Jesus, what is the assembly to do? They are to no longer relate to him as a disciple. He is no longer a part of the assembly of called out ones because his current actions call into question the validity and authenticity of his former actions. Repentance (turning from sin) and faith (trusting in Christ) are not one-time activities, but rather daily habits of a disciple of Christ Jesus.
The keys to the kingdom and the remarks that Jesus makes in the the verse above to binding and loosening are the preaching the Gospel and the practice of church discipline. By proclaiming to people they can have forgiveness of sins and peace with God if they repent, trust in Christ, and are baptized, the Kingdom is opened to people. When people are disciplined or put out of the church, the kingdom is closed to them. When the local assembly of Christians declares that one from among them is not repentant (though confronted and corrected) and they are therefore doubtful that they are a disciple, their disciplinary actions are binding and the unrepentant person is, in essence, bound. When the person repents of their sin and are received back into the assembly they are loosed. And Jesus sanctions and supports such godly decisions of the local assembly so long as they are being guided by the Holy Spirit in accordance with the truth of God’s Word.
In John 13:34 Jesus talks about how his disciples are to relate to one another: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus says that his disciples are to have a unique and special love for each other. So as a disciple, how am I to locate those who I am to demonstrate this unique and special love towards? Well, I shouldn’t have to look long or far. And in the New Testament era, it would have been even simpler. They were (and still should be today) part of the local assembly of called out ones. Everyone in my city who professed to be a disciple of Jesus (which was and still can be a very unpopular and costly affiliation) would have joined themselves to the other disciples in our city. They would have met together often much in the same way a group of immigrants from the same country might join themselves in any major city in the United States today. Their very existence and livelihood would have been dependent on connecting with others like themselves. And likely they would have encouraged each other to continue meeting together and gathering for instruction, fellowship, encouragement and prayer, as I mentioned earlier. As a matter of fact, that’s what Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us: “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. But what of those who neglect to meet together, which has become their habit? Are they still disciples? Well, on the one hand, if “Ecclesia” means assembly, you can’t be part of an assembly you’re not present at. But what does the Bible actually say about it? 1 John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” What did they go out from? The fellowship and assembly of the disciples. What does that reveal about them? They really weren’t disciples after all. Church membership marks out who we have a unique love for and who has that love for us. Those who are in the fellowship demonstrate that love for the world to see. Those who are not in that fellowship are to witness that love as part of the watching world and be aware of what they are missing.
But what about someone who is homebound? Surely there were persons who were disciples in the first century who became sick or aged and were no longer able to assemble and fellowship with the ease and regularity they had once known. And most certainly, there were. There were widows mentioned, of whom a list was kept (1 Timothy 5:9). These women were cared for and supported by the church. It was not just any widow who lived in the city or every widow who lived in the city. Rather, it was those widows who were disciples that were part of the assembly of called out ones and lived and served and ministered around the other disciples in close enough proximity that others were able to see the fruit of their relationship with the Lord and honor them with extra care and assistance now that they were older and could not quite care for themselves (1 Timothy 5:9-10). Likewise, there would have been sick individuals who were not able to gather. And yet, even though they weren’t able to gather they still demonstrated desire to be there and be contacted. In James 5:14 we read: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” “Elder” is simply another word for “pastor.” James says, “If you’re sick and not able to gather, call your pastors have them come pray for you.” But who are your pastors? And what gathering are you missing? And do they even know they’re your pastor? This is another aspect of church membership. Church membership defines who is responsible for whom.
Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Which leaders should people obey? If you’re a disciple who is part of the assembly of called out ones, that’s an easy question: follow the leaders of your assembly. But what if it’s a particularly large assembly. How do the leaders know who they responsible for. Say a person is there one week and not the next—are the pastors responsible for them? Is there a trial period? Is it three times, three months, or three years? It would have been fairly easy to answer that in the first century because there was only one church per city and all the disciples there would have naturally been part of it. There was no leaving to go to the church down the street, across town, or the church in the next community over. Religious consumerism may have existed among the pagans, but it did not among the Christians. And fights and splits, which all too many of our churches are familiar with today, didn’t exist in quite the same way either. People were either disciples of Jesus in community with other disciples (even when those relationships were tense and imperfect due to sinful flesh) or they were outside of the community of disciples and not followers of Jesus. The formality of church membership didn’t exist because the cultural situation was so much different, much like it would be in a missionary context today among an unreached people group. However, the function of church membership and the things it is supposed to represent are thoroughly biblical and are actually essential to obeying the overwhelming majority of the New Testament’s commands. Following Christ apart from a commitment to an identifiable community of believers didn’t exist in the New Testament era. And the letters to the churches don’t make much sense when divorced through that commitment today.
Church membership is lots of things in different churches today that may not be un-biblical, but certainly don’t have much if any biblical precedent. They’re essentially man’s idea. But is that the case will all forms of church membership. Is there such a thing as “biblical church membership” based on ideas found in Scriptures instead of the business meetings of men? I would argue that there is.
Biblical church membership is a recognition of who is a disciple and who is not – this is a biblical idea.
Biblical church membership is commitment to a local assembly of believers – this is a biblical idea.
Biblical church membership is the pursuit of loving a specific band of Christians well – this a biblical idea.
Biblical church membership is a mutual submission to accountability and correction – this is a biblical idea.
Biblical church membership is responsibility to care for certain sick and elderly people – this is a biblical idea.
Biblical church membership is a willful invitation of care from specific church leaders – this is a biblical idea.
Biblical church membership is the assignment of specific souls to a group of qualified male leaders who will answer to God for those entrusted to them – this is a biblical idea.
No, the phrase “church membership” is not found in the Bible. There is no mention of taking a class, transferring a letter, or presenting one’s self for membership in a particular fellowship. But healthy, meaningful church membership is a vital necessity for biblical pastoral ministry and healthy local churches.