by Matt Slick
There is nothing in the Bible that talks about church membership in the modern sense of taking classes, affirming the church's doctrinal position, and signing a type of agreement. But that doesn't mean the church cannot have a procedure by which members join the local body. In many denominations, church membership has become a kind of traditional necessity. Some even go so far as to say a true Christian should belong to a local church after having gone through membership classes.
I do not see this as a requirement in Scripture.
Nevertheless, church membership requirements generally include studying the doctrinal position and particular issues related to that denomination, or local body, and then, upon the affirmation of those doctrines and particulars, a person agrees to be an official member of that local body. He also agrees to be subject to the eldership therein. There are advantages to church membership in that such a person has officially submitted himself to the leadership of that church and thereby accepts disciplinary actions if need be. There are legal benefits as well, which are sometimes necessary in our modern litigious society. There have been cases where people have been disciplined by the church according to biblical principles and then have sued the church. But if they have signed a document stating they subject themselves to disciplinary measures from the church then they have no grounds for complaint. But we must understand that practical necessity does not make biblical doctrine.
Though I do not see church membership, in the modern sense, as a requirement, since it is not stated in Scripture, I conclude that if a church desires church membership as part of its ecclesiastical structure, then that is up at the church. However, I would say that no church has the moral, biblical right to say that other churches ought to have official church membership procedures.
Verses used to support church membership
A lot of people try and weave modern church membership practices and requirements into biblical passages. Some of those passages are as follows:
- Hebrews 13:17, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you."
- 1 Peter 5:1–3, "Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, 2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; 3 nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock."
- 1 Timothy 5:17, "The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching."
If you read each set of scriptures, you will see that nothing is mentioned about church membership. But people sometimes read into these texts and say that you can't obey your leaders without church membership (Hebrews 13:17), or that an elder cannot shepherd the flock without church membership (1 Peter 5:2), or that the elders who rule best are able to do so only in church membership parameters (1 Timothy 5:17). Such reasoning is not sound. Any Christian who attends a local body is automatically a member of that church by the fact he is a Christian. Anyone who has trusted in Christ is a member of the church, and a true local church is merely a particular manifestation of the universal church. True believers will subject themselves to their leaders so that they can be shepherded and ruled over by the elders.
Those who resist such submission to the authority that God has established in the church need to be taught from Scripture the true nature of humble submission before God and before man. Loving and patient instruction should be sufficient, and if such a person were to reject it, then that person would be noted as being recalcitrant, and the elders would act accordingly, perhaps with more caution if the person is not willing to receive proper biblical instruction.
Member and Membership
The word "membership" does not occur in the New Testament, but the word "member" does. It occurs in reference to being a member of the household (Matthew 10:25, 36; Luke 12:52), a member of the Council (Mark 15:43), parts of your physical body (Romans 6:13, 19), carnal self (Romans 7:5, 23; Colossians 3:5; James 3:6), and members of the Christian church as a whole (Romans 12:4-5, 15; 1 Corinthians 12:12, 14, 18-27; Ephesians 3:6; James 4:1). Local membership requirements are never stated in Scripture.
The Bible doesn't say anything about church membership, at least not in the modern style, but that does not mean a church must avoid it. There are advantages to it but, biblically speaking, there is no requirement to have it.