Is Church Membership in the Bible?

At King’s Cross, we believe church membership is an important, and ordinary, expression of church life. While you will never be pressured to officially join the church, you should know that we will occasionally talk about it.
The practice of church membership seems to have been assumed in the life of the New Testament church, even though it is not explicitly taught in the pages in the Bible. Many practices in the first century church are like this. When churches began to spread under the missionary endeavors of Paul and the original disciples, helped along by persecution and relocation, many routine habits of the church were simply not recorded in Acts or the letters of the New Testament. While covering other material, the writers neglected to provide tight instruction on church government, Sunday school, parenting, worship style, church architecture, staffing policy, national politics, vocational discernment, marital challenges, and many more. The Bible is not silent, but certainly neither is it as explicit as a Handbook on Church Management. We need to acquire the skill of drawing inferences. As one seventeenth Protestant statement puts it, “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6).
The Bible is not silent, but certainly neither is it as explicit as a Handbook on Church Management. We need to acquire the skill of drawing inferences.
Church membership is one of those practical habits of the New Testament church that must be deduced from Scripture. Here are ten clusters of Scripture that arm the argument that church membership was a routine practice in the life of the church.

Counting. The apostles were not ashamed to count people, enrolling the names of approved widows (1 Tim. 5:9ff, Acts 2:41). In fact, it would seem that God counts people in that the Book of Life is clearly a collection of names (Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27, but also Phil. 4:3). Perhaps those names that are “sealed” is another example of this (see Rev. 7:4)

Simple organization. New converts were “added to their number” (Ac. 2:42-47). In this expression is an inference that someone was keeping track. Of course, new converts would require new church plants. This notation of additions seems to inform Paul’s timing to deliberately appoint elders to lead distinct congregations of these new converts (Ac. 14:23).

Practical life decisions. We tend to neglect the practices necessary to make easy tasks possible. Like today, the church community was a mixed-bag every Sunday morning. Not everyone in attendance were believers; some were, but some were not. Distinguishing between the two was actually quite practical. Commands about marriage (2 Cor. 6:14) and divorce (1 Cor. 7:15; 2 Cor. 5:17) require that the whole body could distinguish between believers and nonbelievers.

Unity in a murky context. Related to the above, because Sunday morning was such a mixed-bag, the church body needed clear warning about how to behave toward believers (e.g. Col. 3:13) and how to behave towards non-believers, like the “sexually immoral of this world” (1 Cor. 5:9-13). Both could be present Sunday morning. Wouldn’t church membership be a help for this?

Associations. Paul says not to associate with sexually immoral people who “bear the name of brother” (1 Cor. 5:9-13). The sexually immoral would have surrounded the community of Corinth, and nonbelievers were always welcomed at Sunday worship (1 Cor. 14:22-25). How would one know if a particular immoral person claimed to be a believer? Church membership would help identify those who “bear the name brother (1 Cor. 5:11),” even in the presence of nonbelievers.

Church discipline. Jesus says that if a person being admonished for behavior displeasing to God “refuses to listen,” they should “be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Mt. 18:17). This is church excommunication, affirming that this person is not a believer. And yet, all Gentiles and tax collectors are welcomed to Sunday morning worship. How do you excommunicate someone, while still inviting them to Sunday morning worship? Excommunication is the loss of church membership.

Who is my elder? Again, we tend to neglect the practices necessary to make easy tasks possible. Those who attend church are told to submit not to just any elder, but their own elders (1 Thes. 5:12-13; also Heb. 13:7, 17). An elder in one congregation does not automatically have the right to exercise authority in every church in the world. A defined membership marks who their elder is.

Who is my flock? Like the above, an elder must know his congregation as his own household, blood-relatives or not (1 Tim. 3:5.). He must pay careful attention to them (Ac. 20:28). Church membership marks a defined flock of people for the elder, the “them” of his flock.

Glued together. Ananias and Sapphira illustrate a terrifying picture of New Testament church life. They are a part of the Jerusalem church, but punished by death. People in Jerusalem heard about it. There were some who already had connections with the church, maybe attended a Sunday or two, and when they heard about the punishment, were suddenly not quite ready to “join,” or be glued to, the church body (Acts 5:13). This only makes sense if joining refers to church membership.

A parting warning. Church membership is far from a photocopy of the Book of Life. Any understanding of church membership must be aware that assessments made by the church on earth (the visible church) do not always match assessments made by God Himself (the invisible church). Judas would have been a trusted church member, and the thief on the cross would not have. But the visible church got it wrong. Church membership is not perfect.

These are ten clusters of Scripture that seem to assume church membership. From these we can deduce church membership as a very practical tool in the life of the church. There are other reasons why we practice church membership at King’s Cross. Take a look at the approaches of Kevin DeYoung, in 6 Reasons Why Membership Matters and also Michael Osborne, in Why Church Membership? If you are interested in learning more about church membership at King’s Cross, visit here.
Picture of John F. Jones

John F. Jones

King's Cross Senior Pastor