In some segments of American Christianity, there is a clearly expressed concern about the concept of church membership. It is perceived to be more of a cultural influence than a biblical expression of local congregations. “Church membership is an idea we copied from secular organizations like country clubs and civic organizations,” a pastor recently insisted. “It has no place in the life of local churches.”
Admittedly, one will not find the phrase “church membership” in the Bible. But is there a case to be made that the concept of church membership has biblical foundations? I think there is.
Some Points to Consider
Local churches in the first century obviously included specific persons identified with their congregations. For example, Paul wrote “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi” (Philippians 1:1, HCSB). He undoubtedly knew many who were a part of that local church, because he identifies some of them by name: Euodia, Syntyche, and Clement. When Paul said in 4:15, “And you Philippians . . . ,” we could understand that phrase to mean, “And you members of the Philippian church.” While the word “members” is not explicitly used to describe those associated with a church, it does seem that the concept is implicit in the New Testament.
I understand fully why some struggle with or reject the concept of church membership. In most American churches, membership has little meaning or value. Many churches have less than one-half of their membership attend any weekly worship services. Many local congregations could not locate all the members on their rolls if they had an FBI team searching to find them. Membership means nothing because we expect nothing.
Advantages of Membership
But church membership does not have to be a meaningless concept. If our churches began to state clearly the expectations of membership, especially as new people come into the church, we could see a whole new attitude about membership.
Many of these high expectation churches stress that membership means every member is accountable to the others. All of the members have agreed on a clearly stated doctrinal position so there is no division about major and even secondary doctrinal issues. The members likewise agree to expectations of common mission and service in the community and the world. In essence, everyone who agrees to the membership standards has common beliefs, expectations, and behavior. Commitment and unity are real in high expectation member churches.
That Word “Member”
I have had more than one conversation with a church leader who would agree with the essence of this article, except for the use of the word “member.” They would argue that the word has been co-opted by secular culture and, therefore, has no place in the church.
I certainly understand that perspective. And I readily agree that there is no biblical mandate to use the phrase “church membership.” But it is not without biblical foundation.
The Bible, through the writings of the Apostle Paul, refers to the church as the body of Christ. And how does he denote those who are part of the body of Christ? He calls them “members”: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it. And God has placed these in the church” (1 Corinthians 12:27-28, HCSB). Further, note the sense of unity that comes with each person being a part, or a member, of the body of Christ: “God has put the body together, giving great honor to the less honorable, so there would be no division in the body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other. So if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice in it” (1 Corinthians 12:24-26, HCSB).
Perhaps the problem is not church membership per se. Perhaps the problem is that we have lowered the standards for church membership so much that it has little or no meaning in many churches. Instead of doing away with church membership, perhaps we should be raising the bar.
Then we might truly see the body of Christ function as God intended.