Church Membership


Why do we have church membership? Is church membership biblical?


The question of whether church membership is biblical is a good one. The short answer is that church membership is a biblical concept that has found valid expression in many churches today. However, nothing in scripture directly commands what might be termed "formal" church membership, whereby members of the body of Christ are required to swear submission to a particular local church or board of elders, deacons, or bishops. To elaborate, lets begin by looking at a passage that deals directly with membership in the body of Christ:

Romans 12:3-8
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

1Cor. 12:12-20
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body--whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free--and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

Notice in these passages that a person's membership in the church is likened to the various parts of a body's "membership" in a body. Paul is saying that, as Christians, we do not choose whether or not we are members of the church any more than your hand chooses whether it is a member of your body. Thus, if someone is a Christian, he or she is a member of the body of Christ.

What, then, are the implications of this unalterable reality as they relate to "formal" church membership? How should this area work itself out in an individual's walk with Christ? Well, one way that this reality works itself out is through regular meeting with other believers. The writer of Hebrews 10:25 says "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching." The "meeting together" to which the author of this verse is referring would probably correlate fairly closely to a regular worship service at a local church. So I think that the member of the body is therefore required to attend a particular church and to be with other members of the body of Christ. I think also that it is important that in light of Romans 12 and 1Corinthians 12, it is important for the members of the body to allow his or her gifts to be worked out within a particular church. This is not to say that believers are bound to worship with only one particular church, or that they must only serve one particular church, however, it is to say that they should have one local church as a central focus of their fellowship and of their ministry. This is because it is not possible to integrated and serving in a church on a regular basis if you are a stranger.

Where then does this requirement of regular attendance and regular service intersect with "formal" membership in the local church? Well, looking again at the passages above, notice that some of the parts of the body are called to serve as leaders, or heads, of the body. Notice also that not everyone is called to leadership, which means that some must be called as followers, and some are called to submit to being "diligently governed" (Rom. 12:8). Hebrews 13:17 says "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you." This call to leadership and call to submitting to that leadership is where the rubber meets the road in regard to formal church membership. Leaders in the church are called to govern and shepherd their specific flocks. One of the ways that they often have determined how do delineate where their flock ends and where another shepherd's flock begins is by formalizing church membership. This is usually done by requesting a specific member of the universal church of Jesus Christ to formally place himself or herself under the formal authority of a particular local body. Thus, the leaders of a church agree to "give an account" for a particular believer, and a particular believer agrees to submit to particular leaders in the church.

Because the church is designed to function with leaders and followers, and because the leaders are going to have to give an account for their service, formal church membership is a good biblical solution to the problem of accounting for the sheep. However, does this mean that formal church membership is mandated by Scripture? Well, I do believe that it is mandated sometimes at least in cases where becoming a formal member of the church you are attending is required by the leadership of the church. In most churches, however, it is not the case that the leadership requires all regular attendees to become formal members, and if this is the case at your church, then you are not required by scripture to formally join. However, it is important that you recognize that even if you do not formally join a particular church, you are still under the authority of "your churches" elders. The fact that this relationship has not been formalized does not mean that the relationship between sheep and shepherd does not exist.

Answer by Matt Gross

Matthew Gross received his masters degree from Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, in 2004 and was the weekly editor of Reformed Perspectives Magazine.