Is church membership optional? Can’t I just wander around from church to church as I please and enjoy the fellowship of the Body of Christ? This is a very common belief and practice, especially among many who have no church to which they are responsible for their actions.
Why Is This Something Important To Consider?
To have a better understanding of what the local church is to look like and how it is to function. The biblical form of “church government” recognizes ultimate authority as residing with the congregation, not one or a handful of individuals. Who makes up the congregation? Anyone who happens to be there at that time, or individuals who have previously committed themselves with others to a common cause?
There are churches and believers who do not consider church membership biblical. Consider, for example, the Church of God denomination that exists in several strains: the Church of God in Christ, the Church of God of Prophecy, the Church of God: Cleveland, TN, and the Church of God, Anderson, IN. The last one listed rejects all forms of church organization, including formal church membership.
Those who trust Christ must recognize the necessity of church membership. Church membership is in a sense voluntary—it is not something forced upon individuals. But it is not optional or a matter of indifference. Christians are under moral obligation to become members of a local church for their and the church’s benefit. Refusing to become a member of a church is disobedience. Every believer is under the law of Christ and is sacredly obliged to follow Him. Christ has ordained that his disciples so unite together.
There is a distinct difference between church fellowship and Christian fellowship. The former includes the latter, but not vice-versa.
Church fellowship involves those united in covenant in one church; is not given unless requested and granted (churches have the right to grant, withhold, and remove fellowship); involves special/specific duties (particularly Lord’s Supper, baptism, receiving new members, care of members, participation in meetings, collections, support of and participation in worship, prayer, and ministry); and involves the honor and welfare of the church.
Christian fellowship exists wherever Christians are found; exists whether requested or not; involves general duties; and involves only the honor and welfare of individuals.
The character of our church depends on the members which constitute it, just as the character of a building depends very much on the materials of which it is constructed.
A church’s internal life, order, and ability to accomplish its God-given task are affected and controlled by the people who compose it. Imagine a building made up of bricks without any mortar holding them together!
The Biblical Basis for Church Membership
“The necessity of membership in the local church is never questioned in the New Testament. It is taken for granted. Had we asked the believers of the Apostolic period whether it was essential to join a church, they would not have known what we were talking about. Every believer became a member of a church. It was involved in the very profession he made in Christ. . . There is no authority for abandoning the local church altogether for a purely individualistic Christian existence. The very Christian profession involves fellowship with other Christians” (Alva J. McClain).
Five lines of evidence from the churches mentioned in the New Testament establish church membership as biblical and expected of every believer:
1. The Pattern of the First Local Church.
In the very first church the pattern is clearly demonstrated: “So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). Sinners trusted Christ, testified of their faith through baptism, and were added to the disciples who already made up the church in Jerusalem.
2. The Church Knew How Many Were Identified With It.
In the same verse they knew how many were added to their number (three thousand). Acts 4:4 relates the same – “but many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.”
3. Officers Were Chosen From Among Their Members.
At this same local church the believers were to select “from among” themselves certain men for appointment to the position (Acts 6:2-5). The “whole congregation” (vv. 2, 5) knew who among their number were qualified for this office and chose men from among themselves.
4. The Practice of Church Discipline Assumes a Known “List.”
The three main passages that address the subject of church discipline are Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15.
The situation at Corinth was a difficult one: one of their own number was involved in immorality (1 Cor 5:1). Paul instructed this group of believers that when they assembled (v. 4) they were to “remove the wicked man from among” themselves (v. 13). These three verses demonstrate a definite knowledge of who belonged to the Corinthian church.
Also, the final aspect of church discipline – putting one out of the church – cannot happen unless that individual had at some point been taken in! Individual Christians were taken in, identified with a local church.
5. The Church Kept Special Rolls for Other Purposes.
The epistle of 1 Timothy deals with the subject of proper church order (“I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the…church,” 3:15). In 5:9-10 Paul states the necessary qualifying requirements for widows “to be put on the list” (v. 9). The fact that they had lists for such a purpose shows that the concept and practice of formal lists or rolls identifying individuals was not unknown among the early churches.
The Importance of Church Membership
For many American Christians today, the church as an actual body of confessing believers is simply a matter of convenience. Whether or not one joins – not to mention participate – is considered a personal matter. If someone in the church is offended, the pastor hits too close to home from the pulpit, or a pet program or agenda is rejected, the individual simply pulls up the stakes and moves to the next church. The fact and importance of the local body of believers as essential to Christianity and the Christian life has been lost, not to mention the concepts of commitment, obligation, responsibility, and dedication.
Being a member of a local church is essential to the individual Christian and the entire body. It is assumed and expected of true believers of Jesus Christ. The local church is the God-ordained vehicle for carrying out His program in this age. Membership is essential to the body of the local church, so that all may profit from their Christ-given spiritual gifts (Eph 4:11-16), fellowship (Acts 2:42, 47), and admonition (Heb 3:13).