Church membership is an important, but sometimes controversial topic among Christians today. Some believe formal church membership is essential, while others feel it is unnecessary for believers. What guidance does the Bible provide on the issue of church membership? In this comprehensive blog post, we will explore the key biblical principles and passages related to church membership and commitment to a local congregation.
In the New Testament, we see the early Christians devoted to gathering together regularly for worship, instruction, prayer, fellowship, and service. The letters of Paul and other apostles provide instructions to various churches on how they are to conduct themselves and serve one another. There are clear expectations for believers to be accountable to each other and their leaders within a local church context.
While the New Testament does not provide an explicit mandate for “church membership” as many churches practice it today, it does establish that believers should be committed to a local congregation, submit to its leaders, and regularly participate in its life and ministries. The “one anothers” of the New Testament – love one another, encourage one another, pray for one another, etc. – can only be lived out in actual relationships within a definable church community.
So what are some of the key principles we can gather from Scripture related to identifying and committing to a local church?
- Christians are commanded to gather regularly with other believers.
- Believers should submit to the authority of church leaders.
- Church discipline requires a defined church membership.
- Every member of the church body has a role to play.
- Christians should devote themselves to their church family.
- Church commitment fosters spiritual growth and service.
Let’s explore each of these biblical principles in more detail.
Christians are Commanded to Gather Regularly
The most fundamental biblical reason for church membership is the repeated command for believers to actually gather together. Christianity is never presented in Scripture as something that is merely individualistic. In the New Testament, we see the first Christians devoted to worshipping together, studying the apostles’ teaching together, taking the Lord’s Supper together, praying together, and ministering to needs together.
The author of Hebrews instructs believers to be in the habit of meeting together:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
We are exhorted to speak to one another, teach and admonish one another, sing to one another, show hospitality, care for one another, and greet one another (Colossians 3:16; Romans 12:10-13, 15:14; James 5:16). As Christians, we are connected to Christ individually, but also connected to Christ’s body, the church. Church membership keeps believers accountable to actually assemble as a body of believers rather than just claim identification with the universal church in theory.
Christians Should Submit to Church Leaders
Another important biblical principle relating to church membership is submission to church leaders. The New Testament lays out qualifications for elders/overseers and expects believers to respect and follow the teaching and leadership of these qualified men.
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. (Hebrews 13:17)
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)
This kind of submission requires a defined membership. When believers commit to a church and its leaders and submit to their authority, it enables pastors to more effectively lead, equip, and care for their flock. Church membership fosters accountability between shepherds and sheep.
Church Discipline Requires Membership
One of the most crucial biblical reasons for formal church membership is that Scripture outlines a process for church discipline which can only be applied in the context of defined church membership. Jesus gave instruction for correcting a sinning brother or sister and said if they refuse to listen even to the church, they should be removed from the fellowship (Matthew 18:15-17).
Paul scolded the Corinthian church for not removing an immoral brother from fellowship (1 Corinthians 5). This level of corrective discipline requires a definable church body that can render judgment on the matter. A public removal from church membership is the final step of discipline. Thus, biblical church discipline depends on some form of official church membership.
Every Member Has a Role
The New Testament uses the metaphor of a human body to describe the interconnectedness and interdependency of church members. Just as a human body relies on each part doing its particular job, so in the body of Christ, each member has a vital role to play.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many…But God has so composed the body…that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:14, 24-27)
As members of Christ’s church body, we each have a purpose, gifts, and calling that contribute to the health and growth of the whole. The proper functioning of this body depends on all members using their gifts and playing their role. This is only possible when believers commit to a local body of believers.
Christians Should Devote Themselves to the Church
Many verses exhort Christians to faithfully attend, serve, give, and minister in the context of their local congregation. Christians are to devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer with other believers in the church (Acts 2:42). We see collections taken up for needs in other churches (1 Corinthians 16:1-3; 2 Corinthians 8 & 9). Leaders are told to diligently preach and teach among their own congregation (1 Timothy 4:13; Titus 2:1). Such devotion to the local body of Christ necessitates identifying oneself with a particular local church.
Church Commitment Fosters Spiritual Growth
The New Testament highlights the importance of every believer being involved in a local body for their continued spiritual growth and ministry. Our spiritual gifts are intended to build up other believers (1 Corinthians 12:7). The Lord has gifted the church with pastors and teachers to equip believers for maturity and service (Ephesians 4:11-13). We stimulate each other to love and good deeds when we meet together regularly (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Commitment to a local body of believers fosters spiritual growth through biblical teaching and preaching, pastoral care and counseling, accountability relationships, service opportunities, and relational investment in others’ spiritual formation. If believers are not committed to a church, they miss out on these essential means of discipleship.
Practical Guidance on Church Membership
While the New Testament does not spell out mandated procedures for church membership, the theological principles and spiritual purposes outlined above imply that believers should commit to a defined local church body. What are some marks of healthy biblical church membership today?
- Confess essential doctrinal beliefs
- Commit to regular attendance and giving
- Submit to leadership and accountability
- Use spiritual gifts to build up church body
- Support and participate in church ministries
- Attend members’ meetings to vote on major decisions
- Follow biblical procedures for church discipline
The biblical principles of leadership authority, body life connection, commitment to gather, accountablity, and member participation all point to the responsibility of believers to commit themselves to a local church body.
While certain details of procedure and practice may vary from church to church, the New Testament provides a theological and practical foundation for formal church membership. The biblical calling for believers is devotion to a defined local church – resulting in spiritual growth, loving community, unified mission, and ultimately glorifying God.
While the New Testament does not contain explicit commands to implement modern church membership systems, the principles and practices described in Scripture imply that believers should identify with and commit to a local church body. This commitment fosters spiritual growth, mutual edification, unified mission, accountability, and pastoral care.
Formal church membership allows believers to declare their devotion to worship, serve, give, participate, submit to leaders, and contribute their gifts regularly in a local church context. Biblical church discipline necessitates a defined church membership. Local churches help believers obey the “one anothers” of the New Testament when there is a formal commitment to that body.
The Bible clearly teaches that the Christian life is not merely private but communal. Just as we are individually members of Christ’s body, we are also to be mutually members of a local expression of that body, the church. Church membership is an appropriate way to declare and demonstrate that vital connection. When understood correctly and practiced biblically, church membership enhances believers’ spiritual welfare and furthers the Great Commission.