As we continue our exploration of church membership, it’s crucial to delve into the biblical foundations that supposedly underpin this concept. While the term “church membership” may not explicitly be found in the Bible, Scripture provides principles and examples that churches have used to form the basis for organized and committed community life within the body of Christ.
To be fair, everyone has their own biases and presuppositions when interpreting Scripture, so some of the following passages may present obvious evidence for church membership for some people, but others may strongly disagree.
I want to provide an objective look at Bible passages that are traditionally used to support church membership, but you are free to agree or disagree with the conclusions.
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? (this article)
Community and Cooperation
Romans 12:4-5: “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.”
The metaphor of the body used by Paul emphasizes the interconnectedness and interdependence of believers within the community of faith. Each member contributes to the well-being and function of the whole. Church membership, as seen through this lens, involves a commitment to participate actively and contribute to the communal life of the body.
Members used in this sense is the English word that describes the various limbs and organs of the body. It would also be appropriate to use the word parts so as not to imply that our understanding of church membership is biblical simply because we find the word members in Romans 12:4-5.
I would like to emphasize that body parts do not choose which body they are attached to, nor do bodies choose which body parts they want to have (bodies can, however, choose which parts they don’t want to have).
This passage is used, therefore, to show that believers should participate in the body of Christ because that is just the natural thing for body parts to do. 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 is another passage with a similar theme.
Spiritual Leadership and Accountability
Hebrews 13:17: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”
This passage is often interpreted by Christians as an allusion to spiritual leaders within the church, especially pastors. The Bible recognizes the role of spiritual leaders within the church who provide guidance, oversight, and accountability.
Church membership involves a willingness to submit to the leadership’s authority, recognizing the importance of spiritual oversight for individual and collective growth. Those who choose not to become members are viewed as people who do not want to submit to authority.
Admittedly, this verse in Hebrews could also be taken to the extreme and interpreted in such a way that pastor-dictators would be allowed to run their churches in an unhealthy way.
Correction and Discipline
Matthew 18:15-17: “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”
If indeed the early church practiced a system of church membership, that framework would have helped them implement the biblical principles of accountability, discipline, and restoration within the community found in Matthew 18. Church membership would have established a context in which accountability and correction could take place, with the goal of reconciliation and restoration.
Proponents of church membership often say that church discipline cannot take place outside of some type of membership structure. For example, parents do not discipline kids that are not members of their families.
The question then becomes, “Why would I want to become a member if it means that it will be more convenient for you to discipline me if I sin?”
But the point is that church membership would help a person avoid ever coming to that point. By committing to a church family and “submitting to one another in the fear of God” (Ephesians 5:21), Christians invite other believers to help them walk in the light of Christ and avoid the darkness of sin.
The Scripture passages above suggest a commitment to a local body of believers for shared community and cooperation, spiritual leadership and accountability, and correction and discipline of one another. Different denominations and churches may have various practices related to formalizing membership, but these practices are often built upon these biblical principles.
The essence of committed and organized community life within the body of Christ aligns with the overarching biblical narrative of interconnectedness, accountability, and mutual support.
In the next article, we will consider alternative perspectives and biblical reasons that challenge the conventional understanding of church membership.
Do you think these biblical passages provide support for our contemporary understanding of church membership, or do you think they describe something different?