Did the First-Century Church Have Members?4 min read

In our ongoing exploration of church membership, we now turn our attention to the roots of this concept in the first-century Christian communities.

The early church, birthed in the cultural milieu of the Roman Empire, operated in a vastly different context than the institutionalized structures we know today. Let’s unearth the foundations of belonging in the early Christian assemblies.

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? (this article)

The Nature of Early Christian Gatherings

Scripture paints a vivid picture of the early Christian gatherings, emphasizing their communal and familial nature. Acts 2:42-47 describes believers spending time together, sharing their possessions, eating meals together, and devoting themselves to following the apostles’ teaching.

1st-Century ChurchThe sense of belonging was organic, emerging from a shared devotion to the teachings of Christ. Acts 2:41 describes how they joined the church: “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.”

Luke writes about salvation, baptism, and church incorporation all as one big event happening within a day. He seems to indicate that one activity naturally led to the next with no lag or hesitation on the part of the believers.

People believed, so they got baptized, and thus they became part of the church. From there, communal life in God commenced.

Ekklesia and Koinonia

The Greek terms ekklesia (church) and koinonia (fellowship) underscore the communal essence of early Christian assemblies.

Ekklesia goes beyond a mere physical gathering; it carries a spiritual and theological weight. In the New Testament context, it is not just any assembly but a community called out by God, a group of believers who have responded to the call of Christ. The emphasis is on the people, not the building or the structure.

Koinonia is derived from koinos, meaning “common” or “shared.” The term implies a deep, intimate sharing and participation in something held in common. Going beyond mere social interaction, it conveys a profound sense of shared life, participation, and mutual support among believers.

Together, ekklesia and koinonia emphasize the unity and interconnectedness of the early Christian church, a community bound by a shared faith.

Challenges of Unity and Diversity

The challenge of maintaining unity amid diversity is evident in the early church. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses the metaphor of the body to describe the diverse gifts and roles within the community. The emphasis is on unity in diversity, where each member contributes to the health and function of the whole.

Paul reiterates this concept in Romans (in case you did not know, Romans was written after 1 Corinthians): “For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:4-5).

Yes, there was diversity in the early church, but that diversity was celebrated and viewed as a reason to join together rather than a reason to exist apart.

Covenants and Shared Commitments

While the New Testament doesn’t explicitly outline formalized membership practices, there are glimpses of shared covenants and commitments.

In 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Paul recounts the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, creating a communal remembrance. The shared participation in the Lord’s Supper signifies a covenantal bond among believers.

Acts 4:32-35 demonstrates that believers were not only of one heart and mind but also cared for one another by sharing possessions. The result was a community where no one was in need, and the distribution of resources was carried out in a way that reflected a genuine concern for the well-being of every member.


In the first-century Christian assemblies, belonging was intrinsic to the shared life of faith, rather than a formalized structure. People automatically became part of the local Christian community because of their shared bond in the family of God.

The early church was organic and relational in nature. Do we see a description or a commandment of formal, structured church membership? No.

Do we see believers looking for a church home and deciding whether or not to attend church services with other believers? No.

We see people who believed, were baptized, and became part of the church immediately. Shared ministry and care for one another was a natural result.

Perhaps most significantly, notice how people joined the church, according to Acts 2:47: “The Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

In other words, when a person was saved, he didn’t have a choice one way or another. He wasn’t added to a membership list upon request. Nor was he accepted by the church on account of his attendance, service, and giving.

God simply added him to the church. Therefore, joining the church was only voluntary insomuch as believing in Jesus Christ was voluntary.


What are your thoughts on the first-century church and how it functioned?

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