Is Church Membership Biblical?

In my spare time, I have recently begun to compose a membership packet for the church. Obviously, this has caused me to starting thinking deeply about the entire concept of church membership, so I decided to initiate the membership packet by answering the question of whether or not church membership is biblical (which is what I am sharing here). The following is slightly adapted to make it more suitable for being on a blog, and I owe much of the following thoughts to Jonathan Leeman and his book, Church Membership (which is certainly worth reading).

All of that said, here are some of my thoughts on the basic idea of church membership.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

John 13:34-35

Have you ever seriously considered the idea of church membership?

I mean, the concept is mentioned nowhere in the Bible. You have the church, the body of Christ, discussed in terms of a family, a nation, and even a flock of sheep. Never, though, is it spoken of in terms of membership.

This is because our cultural presuppositions tell us that memberships belong with clubs and organizations, and while the church is in some sense an organization, the Bible never condenses the weight of being a part of Christ’s body into the terms of merely joining a social group. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we do the biblical idea of the church a severe injustice by simplifying it down to social-organizational terms.

Look no further than the four descriptions that Peter gives of followers of Christ: we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession.”[1] As new creations in Christ, Peter calls us a chosen race, a new breed of humanity that is being remade in the image of Jesus. We are also now citizens of a heavenly kingdom, a nation within the nations of the earth. The apostles, likewise, use familial terms for believers throughout their letters. The idea of Christians living among a tightly-bound community of other Christians is outlined by our Lord Himself in the verses listed above: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” To be clear, one of the primary goals of following Christ is to let the world know that we follow Him and how they too can know Him. Thus, loving one another is intricately tied into the very core of being a Christian. Biblically, you simply cannot be a Christian if you have no love for other Christians.

If we, therefore, begin to think of church membership more in terms of a citizenship or becoming a member of a family, we then have a very biblical idea on our hands, an idea that is present throughout Scripture. This is the concept of church membership that I want to emphasize.

Furthermore, if you seek membership, the church ought to not ask that you join the church but that you submit to the church. Note that in saying this, we must remember that the local church is a collective body of followers of Christ. Thus, in doing so, we are obeying Paul’s call for each of us to submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ.”[2] With this comes “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom”[3], but it also involves serving each other: “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave”.[4] As being a part of Jesus’ church, we also obey our “leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”[5]

I, therefore, urge you to submit to your church, not simply join it. By doing this, you become a servant to the rest of the body of Christ, a brother or sister in Jesus’ family, a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

Does this mean a Christian must become a member of a local church before truly being saved?

Absolutely not! In one sense, every believer upon salvation becomes a part of the universal Church, which encompasses all followers of Christ. But I would also argue that if you are saved, you will long to become a part of a local church of Jesus followers.

You will crave to have other brothers and sisters in Christ to live life with, to teach and help one another.

You will desire to be under leadership, whom God has placed to watch over your soul and to serve as a model of how to follow Christ.

Ultimately, if we are followers of Christ, we will love one another, just as Jesus loved us, so that the world might know that we are His disciples.

If we are then to have church membership, let us strive to do so by emphasizing all of the weight and depth that the Bible gives to being a member of Christ’s body.

[1] 1 Peter 2:9

[2] Ephesians 5:21

[3] Colossians 3:16

[4] Matthew 20:26-27

[5] Hebrews 13:17


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