Membership in a Local Church


Membership and the Local Church

I love Christ’s church. I have given most of my life to it. It defines so much of what I do and who I am. But candidly, the church is not central for the average Christian. In fact, it is almost an afterthought for some. Frankly this is disturbing. Other Christian organizations frequently take priority. So, I am acutely aware that campaigning for formal membership in a local church is practically irrelevant in today’s Christian culture. None-the-less, I advocate the centrality of the local church in the life of the believer and also argue for a formal relationship to such a local church.

The early church is first described in Acts.

NAU Acts 2:41 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. 42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. 44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Verse 41 is a summary of that day – belief, baptism, addition. “Belief” - they “received” Peter’s message; that is they repented and were saved. “Baptism” - again, they did what Peter directed. Apparently an un-baptized believer was atypical. “Addition” – they were included in an already existing group. Verses 42-47 are a description of subsequent daily life in the church.

Perhaps a brief statement regarding the church universal and the church local would be helpful. The church universal (sometimes referred to as mystical or invisible) encompasses all believers regardless of geography. Believers are baptized into this church at conversion. On the other hand, the church local (also called visible) refers to those members of the universal church gathered together in a certain geographic locality. The usage of the term church in the New Testament overwhelmingly refers to the church local. In fact, it may be said that the only expression of life in the universal church is through life in the local church. Spirit baptism is entrance into the universal church (Acts 1:5) while water baptism is entrance into the local church (Acts 2:41).

Now, it is possible that the “added” phrase of v 41 is merely a summary of the fact that on that day 3000 people believed and were baptized. It seems more likely however, that this phrase describes people being added in connection with belief and baptism. So, we might ask to what were they added and what was the nature of this addition.

I believe this is a statement that they were added to the infant church at Jerusalem, rather than to the church universal without reference to a locality. This may be a moot point in some cases, however, because some of these converts returned to their home areas and planted local churches as indicated in Acts 2: 5-13. (many languages and localities were represented at Pentecost)

Let’s be clear up front. The New Testament does not command “every believer shall enter into a formal relationship with a local church.” But it does assume that all believers will have such a relationship. The New Testament unmistakably implies that when an individual was converted he or she also formally united with a local church. Here at our church we choose to call this “membership.” But regardless of the terminology, we mean that there exists a formal binding together of persons in a local congregation. The manner in which this takes place is not the issue of concern in this presentation. The point is that certain people “belong” while others do not. And it is easy to know who belongs. These persons can collectively be called a “church.” Even most churches that claim not to have membership, do in fact maintain lists of people designed to distinguish various relationships to the church.

So, to be blunt, in the same way that the New Testament does not envision any un-baptized Christians neither does it envision any “at large” Christians under normal circumstances. Here are three broad reasons why a genuine Christian, ought to be a formal member of a local church.

Being a Member

  1. Corporate practices in local churches could not have transpired as described in the New Testament without a formal membership system.
    1. Officers were selected by the church.

Acts 6:2-6 describes what many believe to be the first deacons; some prefer to call them “The Seven”. Regardless, the seven men were chosen “from among you” (v 3) and then formally commissioned by the apostles. So here is the question: if no formal organization of members existed, then how was it decided who participated in this selection process? And how was the pool of possible candidates identified?

    1. The early church engaged in organized endeavors which are better understood from the perspective of a formally connected group.

The church received and spent money (2 Corinthians 8:1-6; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4). Who were these “approved” individuals charged with dispersing the funds and how were they chosen? Who decided what the expenditures would be? We also learn that elders were paid generously (1 Timothy 5:17-18). Who decided the formula for pay?

The church sent out missionaries (Acts 13:1-4; 14:23-28). Who decided whom to send? The fact that Paul and Barnabas were sent by the church in Antioch but also reported back to the church shows that early believers ministered through and were accountable to a local church. They were not lone rangers. Thus I agree that, “Every ministry must be connected to and under the oversight of a church or churches, if it is to be truly biblical.” (Earl Blackburn, Why Should You Join A Church p 4)

The church in Antioch sent representatives to speak on its behalf at the famous Jerusalem counsel (Acts 15:1-3). Who made this decision?

    1. The church exercised discipline.

It is clear in 1 Corinthians 5 that at an early date (the letter was written approximately AD 55-56) local churches like the one at Corinth were expected to implement the general teaching of the Lord given in Matthew 18: 15-17. So the question is obvious - who are the proper subjects of discipline by the local congregation? The answer must be “the members.” What authority does a congregation have over someone who is not formally a part of it or who has not somehow agreed to be subject to its authority? There must be some way of determining who “belongs” to the church and who does not. Paul captured this by referring to those “within” the church in contrast to those ‘outside” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). If formal membership is assumed, then identifying over whom the church has authority is clear. Elders were also subject to the discipline of the church (1Timothy 5:19-20). Who decides?

Unfortunately many people are merely attendees and not members. Consequently, some churches that practice church discipline, are now dealing with these attendees by means of a public notice that regular attendees are subject to the discipline and authority of the church. Of course, this is cloudy and loaded with difficulty in application. Membership is not only clear, it is Biblical.

John Piper states the matter clearly,

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 is 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….How is this possible if the person is not considered a member of something from which he can be excluded? (John Piper, “Fresh Words Edition” website Oct 12, 2005).

  1. The role of leaders in the local church assures that there were identifiable members of those churches.
    1. Believers are expected to submit to their leaders.

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.” (See also1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, those “who have charge over you”and 1 Timothy 5:17 those “who rule.”)Just how does this practically work out? If I am a Christian at large, who is my leader? How do I know whom to obey? Do I submit to a televangelist, a well known Bible teacher, or any “pastor”? Does this change from day to day? Confusion reigns! I must understand that this concept of submission only works if I have entered into an agreement with the leader. And that’s precisely what formal membership in a local church does! The New Testament assumes that a believer knows who his/her leaders are!

Again, John Piper’s remarks state it well, “How is this leadership and this submission to function where there is no membership defining who has made the commitment to be led and who has been chosen as leaders? If we downplay the importance of membership, it is difficult to see how we could take these commands seriously and practically.” (John Piper, Fresh Words Edition website Oct 12, 2005)

    1. An elder is expected to care for the people entrusted to him.

Acts 20:28"Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” (See also 1 Pet 5:2-3) Furthermore, the elder will give an account to God for how he discharges his duty (Hebrews 13:17)!This gets my attention! Make no mistake; I want to know for whom God is holding me accountable! Some sort of formal relationship with the church is essential.

We can also conclude that elders are responsible only for those who have submitted to their care and authority – members. Of course, they are not prohibited from extending pastoral oversight to others, but that is not their primary responsibility. Here is a sticky question. Should someone who refuses to submit himself to the care and oversight of a given local church receive the benefit of pastoral oversight of that church? Does membership have its privileges?

  1. The unambiguous language used to describe the populace of the early churches suggests preciseness about who was in the church.
    1. Following Pentecost, the first converts became part of a local church

The Acts 2 record states that the 3000 who believed were baptized and added to the church (the 120 followers). This is clearly the local church. The universal church can not do what is described in these verses.

    1. Identifying a group by numbering may indicate some sort of formal arrangement

Acts 1:15 speaks of 120 brothers. Acts 2:41 identifies 3000 converts. Acts 4:4 indicates that 5000 men believed. How did they know whom to count? The existence of a formal connection helps explain this dilemma.

    1. Special roles were kept in the early church

1 Timothy 5:9, “Let a widow be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man.”Apparently, widows were among the members in the church at Ephesus. Certain of these widows, who met very specific qualifications, were placed on a special care list, probably for financial assistance. So, this indicates that there was a list system in place in the earliest days of the church (1Timothy was written approximately AD 60-63, about 30 years following Pentecost).

    1. Those in the church are called “members” of the body

The term is used nine times in I Corinthians 12:12-27 - vs 12, 14, 18, 19, 20, 23, 25, 26, and 27. This certainly refers to the fact that all in Christ are members of the body of Christ, the universal church. It is also possible that this passage is referring to being members of a local church as well. The letter was written to the local congregation at Corinth (1:2). In chapter 12, Paul instructs believers regarding how they should function in life of that local church. In other words, membership in the universal church can only be properly expressed as functioning members of a local church.

Being a member means intimate identification with or being part of another entity (note the vivid use in 1 Corinthians 6:15). In I Corinthians 12, the teaching is that each member of the body of Christ has a specific function in the same fashion that each part of a physical body has a specific function. Christians are never seen as functioning in isolation. They are always viewed as part of the whole. They are redeemed as individuals; however they are then amalgamated together with other redeemed individuals into a family. Individualism and absolute privacy are foreign to the life of a New Testament believer.


C.S. Lewis is purported to have said,

The New Testament does not picture solitary religion; some kind of regular assembly for worship and instruction is everywhere taken for granted in the Epistles. So we must be regular practicing members of the church. Of course we differ in temperament. Some (like you and me) find it more natural to approach God in solitude; but we must go to church as well. For the church is not a human society of people united by their natural affinities, but the body of Christ, in which all members, however different (and he rejoices in their differences and by no means wishes to iron them out) must share the common life, complementing and helping one another precisely by their differences (source unknown).

So we must be clear about this issue. I value membership. I believe it is the teaching of the New Testament. Again, I agree with John Piper, “it is not a matter of indifference, therefore, when a person chooses to attend a church’s functions but not to make the commitment to become a covenant member.” (John Piper, Fresh Words Edition website, Oct 12, 2005)

Do you love Christ? To profess love for Christ without corresponding love for his church is inconsistent. Timothy Dwight penned the hymn “I Love Thy Kingdom Lord.”Can you sing it with passion?

I love Thy kingdom, Lord,
The house of Thine abode,
The Church our blest Redeemer bought
With His own precious blood.

I love the Church, O God!
Her walls before Thee stand,
Dear as the apple of Thine eye
And graven on Thy hand.

For her my tears shall fall,
For her my prayers ascend;
To her my cares and toils be given
Till toils and cares shall end.

Beyond my highest joy
I prize her heavenly ways,
Her sweet communion, solemn vows,
Her hymns of love and praise.

Sure as Thy truth shall last,
To Zion shall be given
The brightest glories earth can yield,
And brighter bliss of heaven.

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.