This subject of local church membership is complex. Even a cursory glance at it will find someone almost instantly wading into the nuances of Ecclesiological doctrine and practice, things like the role of water baptism to membership (if any), who can observe Communion, is Spirit-Baptism real, and so on. It’s not exactly a “business lunch” conversation.
I was recently thinking some about compelling reasons that church membership is Biblical. What I concluded is that some of the arguments people use for it are weak, and as could be expected, some are not. I’m a big fan of not letting quantity of arguments always be the deciding vote, but rather quality of arguments. We can usually just throw out the weaker ones if compelling ones exist. Using the weaker ones just makes us look like we’re trying to rescue the compelling ones. If they’re compelling, they don’t need rescuing.
So, I wanted to throw these out there and see if you find them compelling too. I’m admittedly biased toward believing that local church membership is Biblical. I have no intentions of covering it exhaustively, but here are what I think are the more compelling arguments for local church membership.
1) The existence of Church Discipline.
You can’t discipline out who was never in. The point is not that I want to go around disciplining people out. The point is that the existence of discipline proves that membership is an actual thing. The Lord “added to the church daily such as should be saved”, Acts 2:47. See also Acts 2:41. Someone was keeping track of who was in and who wasn’t.
If being out and being in have no difference of relationship to the assembly, then being “added” is meaningless. One could just simply have all the privileges of membership without any of the responsibilities. They could cast their vote in church business despite having been absent for months while hopping around to all the other local churches they attend, and their vote would have to be accepted just by virtue of them being present, at any of them. That’s not even practical!
I once heard someone suggest that since local church membership isn’t Biblical in their view, that the discipline or exclusion discussed in scripture means discipline from the Universal Body of Christ. I asked how one is admitted to this Universal Body and he stated that it was by way of salvation. The issue I pointed out though is that if church discipline is out of the Universal Body then it means church leadership is effectively rendering someone unsaved, which isn’t actually possible. Thus, membership in a local body must be the only thing implied by discipline.
2) Pastoral Accountability
Pastors sometimes abuse Hebrews 13:17 like it’s some kind of pastoral power trip intended to give ministers of the Gospel blanket authority over every minute aspect of people’s lives in the church. That of course tramples over the other Divinely ordained institution, the home. The ones with the authority there are Husbands/Fathers. So the local church is a unique mixing of two institutions, the home and the church, and they are each sovereign under their respective God-ordained leaders. They must balance powers.
However, in Hebrews 13 we learn that leaders of churches watch for the souls of the people and will one day give an account for how individuals do under their leadership. As a pastor, this would seem incredibly unjust of God if every time we met for church it was a different group of people, always in flux, hopping around to different places. How can I answer for a group of people who haven’t in some way committed themselves to staying under my leadership in particular. A non-member hasn’t invested any voluntary commitment or accountability and really then can’t be accounted for by any church leader. We might call this, “going rogue”.
This dynamic seems to play out in Revelation 2-3. The churches there are written letters directed specifically to them through the “angel” of each church. I believe that angel or messenger is referring to the spiritual leader of the church, the pastor/elder/bishop. How can the Spirit say specific things to these churches if they are not regular groups of the same people who were added into them.
If the people could be added into them, then there must be a set of privileges and responsibilities unique to being in and not out. How could the angel of the church be the responsible agent if it’s not an invested, formally joined membership that he’s responsible for.
These two points exist among other arguments for local church membership and I find them the most compelling of them.
Some final thoughts:
In my limited experience, people that scoff at the concept of local church membership are either rebellious and non-committal or they are wounded. The former are proud and just think themselves above being voluntarily accountable to anyone. I’ve seen quite a few like this. The latter have had bad experiences with pastors and churches who tried to micro-manage their lives using unbiblical authoritarianism, brow-beating, and spiritual abuse all in the name of Hebrews 13:17. They simply are fearful of being entrapped and wounded again. While I understand their trepidation, it is no reason to reject the concept of local church membership. It’s just a reason to find a better pastor and church. Don’t expect to find perfect ones either. You’ll end up a perpetual “church-hopper”. Just join the most Biblical one you can find. To attend churches without joining in membership somewhere is just trying to have all privileges without any of the responsibilities. It’s not a good testimony.
And while church membership is a big deal, I don’t think it should take someone a year to determine if they want to join a specific church. I’ve have had several people tell me they treat it like a marriage and take years to evaluate a church to see if they’re comfortable there when it took them only months to decide on the spouse they’d spend the rest of their life with. Interestingly, the same people never committed to membership anywhere and ultimately stopped attending church entirely. People often use the seriousness of church membership as a holy sounding excuse to never commit. That’s going too far, and frankly it’s a little dishonest.
Remember too that each local church will go about the process of vetting new members generally the same, but often different in specifics. I think it is something that should be handled carefully. We accept without question the necessity of vetting processes used by employers, Immigration and other agencies, and even some gym memberships. Why do people balk at carefulness with admitting members to a Divinely ordained institution? Often the same people who argue against open boarders with Mexico argue for open boarders in the Lord’s institution. Truly, we won’t need such vetting processes when the day comes that we’re all physically assembled together with the Lord and free of this sinful flesh, but for now, we’re frail and need such care taken.
Every church has liberty to go about this vetting their own way so long as the general qualifications of salvation and water baptism are met, some even adding additional qualification of personal testimony. If you have found a Biblical local church you want to join, I suggest submitting to their specific process.
Let me know if you have some thoughts about local church membership.