What Does Church Membership Mean?
The word “membership” has a distinctly American sound. It either conjures up ideas of a country club or a corporate boardroom. But the Bible was using the word “member” to describe individual Christians and their relationship to the church long before polo shirts and three piece suits were invented.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor 12:12, 27)
So when we say “church member” we aren’t thinking about a club or a business. We’re thinking about a body. A body that needs each member and a body to which each member is accountable.
There is a second sense in which Christians are members of their church. Most churches are legal entities so that they can purchase insurance, pay staff, and sign a lease. The church-as-a-legal-entity is typically organized so that its membership has a vote in decisions like budgets and amending bylaws.
So we are members of the church in two ways. Biblically, we are members of the body of Christ - the church. Legally, we are members of a religious organization. Both give us privileges and responsibilities.
Is Local Church Membership Biblical?
So far we’ve seen that the idea of being members in the church is biblical. But does that mean we need to be members of a local church?
The Bible doesn’t explicitly answer that question. There’s no verse that says, “You should sign a church membership covenant and get your name on the church membership rolls.” But there are verses that indirectly indicate that membership in a local church is God’s plan for his people.
Whose Souls Are Elders Responsible For?
Several passages in the New Testament that indicate the elders in a church are responsible for shepherding specific individuals. For instance, church elders will have to give an account to God for the souls they watch over:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. (Heb 13:17)
When Peter gives instructions to elders he is clear that there are particular individuals in their charge:
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet 5:2–3)
Here we see that the elders of the church “will have to give an account” of the souls “in their charge.” This is a huge responsibility and it’s important that the elders have an accurate understanding of whose souls they will have to give an account for. We can reasonably infer that God wouldn’t give elders so weighty a task without allowing them a clear understanding of which souls were in their charge and for which they will give an account.
Church Discipline Can’t Work Without Membership
NOTE: We include church discipline in our discussion of church membership not because we are eager to “crack the whip.” But properly understood, church discipline is a great good for the church. It also indirectly teaches us a lesson about what it means to be part of the local church.
Church discipline is treating an individual who is demonstrating through his/her actions that they are very likely unrepentant and unregenerate as if they are not a Christian. This means they are not to celebrate the Lord’s Table and the whole church is called to share the gospel with them. God designed church discipline as a ministry of restoration. It shows the rebellious person just how serious his/her sin is and calls them to repentance and salvation.
I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor 5:11–13)
This exclusion indicates there are people who can clearly be identified as “in the church” or “outside the church.” If there were no such thing as local church membership it is difficult to see how church discipline could actually be accomplished.
Church Discipline Can’t Happen Without Church Members
Who enacts church discipline? The membership of the local church:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matt 18:15–17)
John Piper explains why this requires church membership:
If there is no church membership, how can you define the group that will take up this sensitive and weighty matter of exhorting the unrepentant person and finally rendering a judgment about his standing in the community? It’s hard to believe that just anyone who showed up claiming to be a Christian could be a part of that gathering. Surely, “the church” must be a definable group to handle such a weighty matter. You know who you mean when you “take it to the church.”
If God wants us to take matters of church discipline “to the church” we need to know who exactly “the church” is.
Privileges & Responsibilities of Church Membership
Church membership is a public declaration that we are members of the body of Christ. It is affirmed by a local expression of the universal body of Christ. It confers on us both privilege and responsibility.
The first benefit of church membership is church membership itself - the public declaration by a body of believers that you belong to Jesus. That isn’t what makes you a Christian but it is a powerful testimony to that truth and an encouragement to you.
Second, you have the blessing of the local church. Membership unifies a group of believers in purpose and mutual love, and calls them to action. This is the primary place where the many “one another” instructions are acted out for the peace, growth, and health of Christians. It also multiplies our ministry. Groups of Christians committed to each other can accomplish much more together than they can without such strong ties.
Third, you have the officers of the church. We’ve already seen here how seriously God takes their role in the life of the believer. Church membership affords you a clearly-defined relationship with the elders where they are responsible to shepherd you, encourage you, rebuke you, and point you towards Christ in all things. This is a wonderful blessing to your soul. Take advantage of it!
Fourth, there is legal privilege. You are a voting member of a non-profit organization and can help the church wisely direct its course.
The first responsibility of church membership is to Christ. Being a member of his body sets us under his Word - believing all it promises and obeying all it requires.
The second responsibility of church membership is to the church. Every member is responsible to build one another up and to participate in the life of the church.
The third responsibility of church membership is to the elders. They have been appointed to lead the church and have watch over each of the souls in their care. The Bible instructs us: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Heb 13:17) This does not mean that the elders are dictators (See 1 Pet 5:1-3), but it means that God has appointed certain men to lead his church and we should support their efforts to faithfully shepherd the church.
The fourth responsibility of church membership is responsible participation in the legal body. It is critical that each member attends congregational meetings, educates him/herself on any issues coming up for a vote, and votes in the best interest of the whole body.
What If I Disagree?
We recognize that not all Christians hold our position on local church membership. Does that mean you’re unwelcome at Shoreline if you don’t want to become a member? Not at all! Everyone is welcome to participate in the life of our church. If you believe differently about church membership we still want to worship and serve Christ with you.
But what about the privileges and responsibilities of church membership?
Biblically: If you communicate to Shoreline that you are committed long-term to this church body but your beliefs don’t allow you to become a formal member we still want to include you in the life of the church. We want to invest in you as shepherds. We want to get you fully involved with the one-another ministry of the congregation. And that means we are going to encourage you towards your biblical responsibilities to Christ and his church.
Legally: If your beliefs don’t allow you to become a formal member of Shoreline you will not be able to participate in legal actions like voting with the congregation in accordance with our constitution. You are still welcome at congregational meetings but won’t be able to participate in decisions such as the budget.
Our heart is this: We want to include God’s people as much as we can in the life of Shoreline.