Marriage today is not biblical.
Well, our modern construct of marriage in Western society is not biblical. I don’t want to speak for other countries and cultures.
To clarify, I’m not talking about homosexual unions and the like. Most Christians don’t need me to discuss the biblicality of those marriages.
No, I’m talking about the traditional marriage between a man and a woman, like the one I am happily engaged in.
When I think about marriage in the Bible, I cannot help but compare it to the church. After all, Scripture describes compares the marriage of a man and a woman to Christ’s relationship with the church.
So, why would I say that modern marriage is not biblical?
Let me explain by talking about church membership.
Over the past few weeks, we have delved deep into the topic of church membership, exploring various perspectives, biblical principles, and practical considerations.
In this final blog post of the series, I want to summarize our journey and share my personal perspective on church membership.
I introduced the series by highlighting the importance of rethinking church membership and how it functions.
Subsequent posts delved deeper into specific aspects of the topic. I examined the history of church membership, considering its origins and evolution over time. I explored biblical passages and principles related to church membership, recognizing the importance of unity, fellowship, accountability, and mutual care within the body of Christ.
In a couple of posts, I presented arguments for and against church membership (not necessarily my own opinions), acknowledging the diversity of perspectives within the Christian community.
While some emphasize the biblical basis and practical benefits of church membership, others raise concerns about the potential pitfalls and limitations of formalized membership structures.
Having considered various viewpoints and arguments, I will now share my perspective on church membership, hoping to integrate biblical principles, historical insights, and practical considerations.
Church Membership Series:
1. It Is Time to Rethink Church Membership
2. The Evolution of Church Membership
3. Did the First-Century Church Have Members?
4. Does the Bible Actually Support Church Membership?
5. Biblical Arguments Against Church Membership
6. Why We Misunderstand Church Membership
7. Is Church Membership for Today? (this article)
While the term “church membership” may not be explicitly prescribed in Scripture, the concept of belonging to a local Christian community and participating actively in the life of the church is deeply rooted in biblical principles.
Passages such as Acts 2:41-47, Romans 12:3-16, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, and Hebrews 10:24-25 underscore the importance of unity, fellowship, and mutual edification within the body of Christ. But these things can all happen in the church independently of local church membership.
The Bible neither describes nor prescribes church membership the way we see it in most of our churches today. I readily agree with anyone who says that our church membership structure is not in the Bible.
Therefore, yes, it is possible for local churches to emulate the church values and practices found in the New Testament without adhering to formal church membership.
Believers can gather, encourage one another, worship together, and disciple one another without having their names recorded on a membership list.
In fact, as my family travels, we look forward to visiting other church gatherings, and it is always a privilege to contribute to the ministry of other local churches, even though we may not be members of their congregations. We are still part of the family of God, and we want to be givers, not merely receivers, when we gather with other believers.
People can still provide accountability to one another, motivate one another toward spiritual growth, and reprove one another without covenanting together as members. As long as people are truly committed to one another, they can accomplish everything that God wants them to do as a church without the membership list.
In my opinion, our failure to comprehend the larger context of the early church has resulted in a significant misunderstanding of the church altogether.
Without repeating everything that I wrote in my article about the first-century church, I want to reiterate that the early Christians were much more committed to one another than we are in our independent society.
We live in a world where whatever is best for me takes priority. This mindset drives the First Amendment, capitalism, and just about everything else we do.
But in the early church, what was best for the group took priority. Early Christians would have been appalled to see individuals choosing not to wear masks in church services when Covid-19 was at its height.
We see the results of their one-another, community-minded attitude in Acts 2:44-45 when they had all things in common and shared everything they had with anyone else who had needs. They were more concerned about the group than about themselves.
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to conjecture that they were committed to one another not by choice but by default.
Practically, this means that when a person chose to follow Christ, they also knew that they were automatically entering into a relationship with other Christians. Upon salvation, they were baptized immediately, and in doing so they identified themselves with Christ and his body, the church (Acts 2:41).
After all, during that time in history, identification with Christ and the church was disassociation with one’s family and their religious beliefs. In some cases, identification with Christ and the church was also direct rebellion against the government.
Trusting in Christ was not a light decision, a prayer that saved them from hell. It was abandoning one’s life and comforts and perhaps even one’s livelihood and committing to someone and something else.
Believers did not trust in Christ and then think about joining a church. It was all wrapped up in one significant decision.
Those who decided to follow Jesus were also 100% committed to his body, the children of God. If a person was not committed to the church, there would have been legitimate reasons to question his salvation.
Why don’t we find church membership lists and structures in the Bible? I think it’s because they were a big family, and they knew who was in the family.
Families don’t need to keep a list of their family members. Neither did the first-century church.
Christians knew that when they pledged their allegiance to God, they belonged to the church, and they were “all in.”
Because we cannot relate to the gravity of their decision when we choose to believe in Jesus Christ today, we also do not experience the same sense of obligation to the body of Christ.
You might ask, “How did they practice church discipline as prescribed in 1 Corinthians 5 if they didn’t have a membership list?”
Put yourself in that culture and context. If every single believer recognizes their commitment to the body, and all of the other believers know everyone else in the church, they can still discipline people out of their assembly.
It would be a much bigger deal in that context because you cannot just travel to another nearby church, and you have now lost your family (after already switching your allegiance from the pagan community to the Christian community).
A lot of our problems in our churches would be solved if we simply had the same level of commitment and emphasis on family as the early church!
While the early church operated in a tight-knit, communal manner, contemporary church membership structures have emerged as practical means of fostering accountability, spiritual growth, and meaningful community in a diverse and fragmented society.
Formalized church membership can serve as a valuable tool for facilitating meaningful relationships, providing pastoral care, and promoting spiritual maturity among believers.
But does church membership actually accomplish these goals, or is it more harmful than it is helpful?
Honestly, it depends on the specific church and the commitment of its people to one another within the body of Christ. If the believers in a certain locality function the way God intended without having an official membership, that is biblical, and that is ideal.
In this situation, membership may be more of a hindrance than anything else.
But in America, most of our churches don’t function the way God intended.
Commitment to anything is low, even among Christians. Accountability is low, especially among Christians. Discipleship and leadership development among Christians is low. Corporate ministry to one another is low.
Formal membership, while not required by Scripture, assists churches in fostering a culture of commitment, accountability, discipleship, and corporate ministry.
Furthermore, tradition and freedom of religion have introduced several commonplace elements that need some type of formal structure.
For example, the Bible does not prescribe or describe the building and use of dedicated church buildings. These did not exist in the first couple of centuries of church life. Attempting to build a church building in Rome back then would have been like trying to build a church building in China today.
But if a church insists on owning and maintaining a church building, formal membership helps identify that building with its owners. It doesn’t just belong to anyone who walks in on a Sunday and says, “I’m a Christian; therefore, I am part owner of this building.”
Along with the ownership of property comes insurance and legal considerations. Who gets to drive the church-owned vans? Anyone who has a license and attends worship services on Easter and Christmas Eve?
Who gets to help with children’s ministries? Anyone from the community who claims to be a Christian and likes to be around kids?
In a free society like America, wolves in sheep’s clothing can hijack the property and the ministries of a church as long as they have overwhelming numbers. But contemporary membership sets up boundaries that help to guard against such a disgrace.
If a church meets in a gym or a house or a park and chooses not to own property, these protections are not as necessary.
Membership programs may also provide a framework for organizational structure, decision-making processes, and accountability mechanisms within the church. Who gets to decide how money is spent? Who gets to decide how the church will associate with other organizations?
Obviously, these decisions can be made by the believers within a church without a formal membership. But in America, we function with a membership function in almost every other area of life, so we carry that mindset into our churches as well.
Do we like the idea of giving voting privileges to immigrants who have not become U.S. citizens? Of course not. Many people (especially Christians) contend that if foreigners aren’t willing to commit to our country as formal citizens with a piece of paper to prove it, they shouldn’t get to decide how we run our country.
Should the patrons at a grocery store get to decide who gets hired, what the prices are, and when the store is open? Of course not. Only those who own the business should have that right.
Membership implies ownership, and in a free country, ownership gets to make the decisions in an organization. Can an organization make decisions without membership and ownership? Yes, but such a concept is so foreign to us that we usually do not function well that way.
I began this post by stating that modern marriage is not biblical.
Perhaps this was shocking to most since I am married, and my marriage looks modern and traditional to everyone watching.
But marriage in the Bible was much different than what we have made it today.
First of all, most matrimonial unions in the Bible were arranged marriages. Adam and Eve, Jacob and Leah, Joseph and Mary, etc.
Second, I don’t read about married couples in the Bible signing a paper with an ordained minister and two witnesses. Seems a bit excessive to me.
Third, marriages in Scripture were usually more about the groom than they were about the bride. The opposite is true here in America.
Fourth, wedding ceremonies and their accompanying celebrations in the Bible lasted several days, not merely a few hours. What a pity.
Fifth, in Hebrew culture, if a woman’s husband died, the next closest unmarried kin of her husband was supposed to marry her. Appealing, eh?
The list goes on, but hopefully you get the point. We don’t practice marriage the way they did in the Bible. Does that mean we do it wrong?
No. As long as our marriages do not contradict biblical principles, we are not doing it wrong. We just do it differently.
Just because something is not biblical does not mean it is unbiblical.
We must remember this principle in every area of life.
Our way of doing marriage between a man and a woman is not biblical, but it is not unbiblical as long as it does not oppose biblical teachings.
Similarly, church constitutions, Sunday School, youth group, Bible colleges, church buildings, Wednesday night prayer services, sportsman’s dinners, door-to-door evangelism, Gospel tracts, bus routes, church cafés, and “special music” (ugh, I despise that term) are not biblical because we don’t find them prescribed or described in the Bible in connection with the church.
But these things are not unbiblical either as long as they help us accomplish God’s purposes.
(As a side note, I do think that we should examine the validity, purpose, and effectiveness of each of these things too.)
So how do we wed the church “membership” that we see in the Bible with the church today?
Church membership as we know it today may not be found in the Bible, but it is not unbiblical if it aligns with biblical principles.
This is the question that each church needs to answer: “Does our position on church membership contribute to the purposes of God for the church as found in Scripture?”
If church membership creates an atmosphere in which every member functions as part of the body of Christ by living out Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, and Colossians 3, we might even argue that church membership is biblical!
I submit that biblical church membership provides the following:
- Sense of Belonging and Identity: Church membership provides individuals with a sense of belonging and identity within a specific faith community. It allows members to formalize their commitment to the church and to recognize themselves as part of a larger spiritual family. This sense of belonging fosters deeper relationships, accountability, and mutual support among members.
- Spiritual Care and Oversight: Formalized church membership enables church leaders to provide more effective pastoral care and spiritual oversight to members. By having a clear understanding of who belongs to the community, pastors, elders, and deacons can better shepherd and disciple individuals, addressing their spiritual needs and concerns more effectively.
- Stewardship and Service Opportunities: Church membership motivates members to engage in stewardship and service within the local church. Members may have access to volunteer opportunities, ministry involvement, and leadership roles that allow them to contribute their time, talents, and resources to the work of the church in a meaningful way.
- Accountability and Discipleship: Membership in a local church promotes accountability and discipleship within the body of Christ. Members commit to upholding the teachings and values of the church, submitting to spiritual authority, and participating in the life of the community. This accountability fosters personal growth, discipleship, and maturation in faith.
- Community Support and Care: Formal church membership facilitates a culture of care and support within the community. Members can lean on one another in times of need, receive practical assistance, and experience emotional and spiritual encouragement from fellow believers. The church becomes a place of refuge, healing, and restoration for its members.
- Decision-Making and Governance: Institutional church membership often involves participation in decision-making processes and governance structures within the local church. Members may have the opportunity to vote on important matters, participate in congregational meetings, and provide input on the direction and priorities of the church.
While institutional church membership may not be the only model for every Christian community, it can offer valuable benefits and support for modern local churches seeking to nurture vibrant, healthy, and flourishing communities of faith.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of church membership depends on how it is implemented and practiced within the context of each congregation’s unique culture, values, and mission.
This marriage of biblical principles with the contemporary context in which we live is the recipe for healthy church membership.
I do not have a problem with those who have a biblical conviction against formal church membership as long as they recognize their place within the body of Christ and still seek to be involved by serving one another and actively making disciples.
To these people, I would also encourage you to articulate why you think church membership hurts the church rather than helps it. If it’s just an issue of church members being historically inactive or hypocritical, the church probably has failed to teach biblical church participation and practice church discipline.
I do take issue with anyone who claims to be a Christian but is not committed to their fellow believers, whether they are on a church’s membership list or not.
A “Christian” who is uncommitted to serving, teaching, and caring for his brothers and sisters in Christ is unbiblical.
Rethinking church membership requires a balanced approach that integrates biblical principles, historical insights, and practical considerations.
While church membership may not be explicitly prescribed in Scripture, it can serve as a valuable means of fostering unity, accountability, and spiritual growth within the body of Christ.
As we navigate the complexities of contemporary church life, let us commit ourselves to the church as a means of glorifying God, reaching the lost, and building up other believers.
Thank you for joining me on this journey of exploration and reflection.
Let us continue to grow in our understanding and practice of church membership with an open mind, and, when necessary, may we disagree with grace and honor toward one another. None of us knows everything and interprets everything correctly, and one of the marks of a true Christian is knowing how to love one another when we see things differently.
Did you find this series to be helpful or thought-provoking? Let me know!