Baptism did not save me, but it made me a church member!
Perhaps I should clarify. In my hometown church, membership is automatic when you get baptized. So I have been a member of a local church for over 26 years now because I was baptized in the fall of 1997.
Salvation made me a member of Christ’s body, the universal church. But baptism joined me with the local church in Mason City, IA.
Membership in Faith Baptist Church was my way of identifying myself with that local body of believers, and it was a voluntary participation that I was glad to do. My membership there significantly shaped who I am today.
It had nothing to do with church voting privileges. At 7 years old, it would be a long time before I would able to participate in church votes. But membership wasn’t about voting rights. It was 100% about identifying with the local church and participating in the ministry of the church.
Since leaving home for college and participating in the ministry of four other churches in three different states over the last 14, I discovered that church membership means different things to different people. My reasons for being a church member are not always the same reasons that someone else chooses to become a church member (or not).
So what is church membership anyway, and what aspects of membership do most churches have in common?
To understand where we are today, we must first journey into the past. As we rethink church membership, let’s start by unraveling the historical tapestry that has woven the concept of church membership into the fabric of Christian communities.
Church Membership Series:
1. It Is Time to Rethink Church Membership
2. The Evolution of Church Membership (this article)
Early Christian Assemblies
In the early Christian centuries, the notion of church membership was not a formalized structure as we recognize it today. Early believers gathered in homes and communal spaces, forming intimate communities centered around shared faith.
The focus was on the communal aspects of worship, mutual support, and the proclamation of the Gospel. We will take a closer look at these early churches in the next blog post.
Ecclesiastical Developments in the Middle Ages
As Christianity became more institutionalized during the Middle Ages, formalized structures began to emerge.
The Councils of the Church, such as the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, played a significant role in defining orthodoxy. Many churches today place a high priority on these creeds, even going as far as teaching them in formal settings and memorizing them so that everyone is well-familiar with them.
While these councils did not directly establish church membership, they set the doctrinal parameters that would influence the criteria for belonging to the Christian community. In my experience, most churches require members to agree to their doctrinal statements, and these statements often mirror or are derived from one of the historical creeds or confessions.
Parishes also emerged as significant units of local ecclesiastical organization during the Middle Ages. Parishes were geographic areas served by a parish church and its clergy. Parishioners were expected to participate in the sacraments, attend church services, and contribute to the financial support of the parish.
While the concept of formal church membership, as understood today, did not exist, parishioners were integral to the life of the local church and considered part of the broader Christian community simply by virtue of where they lived.
Medieval Guilds and Ecclesiastical Courts
The medieval period in Europe witnessed the rise of guilds—associations of artisans and merchants organized around a particular trade.
These guilds often had religious components, with members participating in communal religious activities and supporting the church financially. While not direct precursors to modern church membership, guilds contributed to a sense of community and shared religious identity.
Ecclesiastical courts, established by the church, were responsible for matters of faith and discipline. They played a role in overseeing adherence to doctrinal orthodoxy, and their decisions could impact an individual’s standing within the religious community.
The boundaries between churches and governments blurred as clergy became the authoritarian voices in their communities and citizens were expected to adhere to the churches’ teachings and values.
Reformation and the Rise of Denominations
The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century brought about profound changes in the ecclesiastical landscape. Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin emphasized the priesthood of all believers, challenging hierarchical structures in the Roman Catholic Church.
The Reformers emphasized the priesthood of all believers and sought a return to biblical teachings. They disdained the institutionalized church of their day, but they still retained many of those aspects of the church that they liked, regardless of whether they had biblical grounding or not.
An emphasis on congregational involvement and shared beliefs laid the groundwork for the development of membership structures in later Protestant denominations.
Puritans and Covenant Theology
In the 17th century, Puritans and Congregationalists in England and later in North America embraced a form of church membership rooted in covenant theology. Church members entered into a covenant, committing to a shared understanding of doctrine and communal life.
This covenant commitment went beyond attendance and participation; it included adherence to shared doctrinal beliefs and a commitment to the communal life of the church. Church members were expected to uphold a higher standard of conduct, and church discipline played a significant role in maintaining the purity of the community.
This concept heavily influenced certain congregational and Baptist ecclesiologies.
Revival Movements and Church Membership
The Great Awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries gave rise to various revival movements, impacting the structure and understanding of church membership. The emphasis on personal conversion experiences and revivalistic fervor contributed to the growth of membership-based churches.
Formalization in the 20th Century
In the 20th century, many churches formalized membership practices. This was influenced by the rise of megachurches and the need for organizational structures to accommodate larger congregations.
Membership classes, covenants, and doctrinal statements became common tools for churches to define and regulate membership.
Today, the landscape of church membership varies widely. Traditional denominations often maintain formalized structures, while newer movements and house churches might opt for more organic expressions of belonging.
Taken to their extremes, some organizations function like businesses, systematically adding, subtracting, and tending to their members. Others have little or no information on their members and simply encourage everyone to know everyone and welcome anyone who joins them when they meet.
The history of church membership is a dynamic journey marked by theological shifts, ecclesiastical developments, and cultural influences.
The purpose of this post was not necessarily to provide concrete answers to the questions surrounding church membership but rather to provide some context and historical backgrounds. We cannot decide that church membership is right or wrong, good or bad, merely by examining its place in history. But we should at least be informed so that we know why people in the past did what they did as we try to determine the purpose of church membership today.
What are your conclusions based on this brief historical survey of church membership? Does your view of church membership change based on what you know about the past?