Church membership is out of fashion today. Sometimes this is for understandable reasons—previously living under incompetent or abusive church leadership. Sometimes this is for less understandable reasons—”I can do it better on my own.” In either case, it is now necessary to make a biblical case for church membership. Why should Christians be members of a local church? And more importantly, does the Bible have anything to say on the subject?
Let’s briefly consider three passages that speak to the issue of church membership.
1. Matthew 18:15-20, “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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Notice in verse 17 that after the sinful brother has refused you, and after he has refused the evidence of two or three witnesses, then “tell it to the church.” There is a body of people who have been called out by God living under the authority of leaders who have the authority to bind and loose. This is a description of a local church. You can’t “tell it to the church” if there is no localized representation of the church to which you belong. The way to obey Jesus’ teaching regarding the sinful brother is to be a member of a local church.
2. Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Some might think they can attend one church or another on any given Sunday, and in so doing fulfill the command to “meet together.” Or perhaps they worship in their living room on Sunday morning, with no one but their own family and a few friends. The problem is that verse 25 implies something significantly more familiar than church-hopping or the modern house church movement. It becomes significantly harder to “stir up one another to love and good works” and to encourage “one another” if you are not committed to a local church that is under the lawful authority of a plurality of elders. These verses are a description of a local church. And that local church wouldn’t exist apart from members (As an aside, the reason the church uses the word “member” is that 1 Cor. 12.12-31 uses the word “member” in saying that Christians are members of the body of Christ).
3. Hebrews 13:17, “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.”
This passage describes the role of the people and the “leaders.” The people are told to obey and submit to the leaders. Without membership at a local church, there is no one to obey and submit to. The “leaders” are told to “watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” This is an eternally weighty task. “Leaders” need to know exactly who it is they will have to give an account for. This involves counting those souls who are under their care.
There is something else that is going on in the anti-membership trend. Many Christians who are disillusioned with the church, sometimes for legitimate reasons and sometimes not, resist membership because they don’t wish to submit to someone outside of themselves. In this way, their lives look more like the secular culture around them than like the pattern prescribed by God. The unbelieving world lives with a crisis of authority, and this crisis spills into the church prominently when professing believers refuse to submit to any spiritual authority outside of themselves.
Church membership is more than putting your name on a list. It is more than just showing up at the same church most every Sunday. Church membership is a commitment that says you are committed to a local body of believers, a group of people who submit themselves to the preaching of the Word, who participate in the sacraments Jesus gave to his church, and a people who together obey the “one another” commands.
It is for these reasons that every responsible Christian should venture to be a member of a local church.
Jason Cherry is a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.