I’ve been a Christian, a Baptist, and a Southern Baptist for almost 40 years and one of the recent trends I have witnessed in various local churches concerns church membership. The attitude of some Christians concerning church membership simply puzzle me for two primary reasons: (1) their attitude is inconsistent with church history and (2) their attitude flies in the face of God’s Word.
So, what exactly is this attitude, this trend concerning church membership which disturbs me? Simply put, it is the reluctance or outright refusal to join a local church fellowship.
One of the ways I have heard this reluctance or refusal expressed is as follows:
Churches in the New Testament did not have membership lists. “Joining” a church is a man-made procedure. So, as long as I attend church, that’s good enough. Besides, I come to church services more frequently than some of the so-called members of the church.(1)
This perspective has been shared with me by several folks over the past ten years or so. Unfortunately, those holding such a perspective do not understand the teaching of the Scripture on the nature of the church.
The most frequent word rendered “church” in the New Testament is “ekklesia”, meaning “the called out ones”. Certainly every true believer has been called out of the darkness of sin into the light of Christ (1 Peter 2:9). It is Christ, through the working of the Holy Spirit, who gives us life to our spiritual dead being and calls us to follow Him.
In that sense, every true believer of Christ is part of the “ekklesia”, the church. Theologically, this concept is referred to as the “Universal Church”, the “Invisible Church”, or the “Church Triumphant”. It includes those who have already gone to be with the Lord as well as those true saints who are presently serving Christ. It is this universal church to which Paul was referring when he wrote:
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...” (Ephesians 5:25).
However, the overwhelming majority of New Testament texts are not speaking about the universal church. For example,
“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: grace to you and peace.” (1 Thessalonians 1:1)
Clearly this reference is of a specific body gathered together in Thessalonica. This is one of many assemblies of professing believers meeting in specific locations. When compared to the universal church, this is the “Local Church”, the “Visible Church”, or the “Church Militant”. As Dr. Richard Land has said, the local church is a “colony of heaven”. The local church serves as a visible representation of the universal church.
“Joining” such a local congregation implies a level of commitment beyond simple worship attendance. Since the local church is a visible representative of the universal, invisible church, we would expect such a commitment. To be a part of God’s universal church there must be a commitment to Christ, a trust in him which distinguishes the universal church member from those who do not believe. Therefore, there should be a similar level of commitment or trust to be a part of a local church.
But, more importantly, what do the Scriptures say? Does God’s Word say anything about the concept of joining, becoming a member of a local church? The answer is YES!
1. Consider the local church in Jerusalem.
Acts chapter 5 tells the sad story of Ananias and Sapphira . These two professing believers in the Jerusalem church lied and were slain by God. Verse 11 states “and great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.”
Note the contrast between the hearers listed in that verse. You have the “whole church” and “upon all who heard of these things.” Continuing in chapter 5, we read:
“None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.” (Acts 5:13-14)
Some were “added to the Lord” but not all. Nevertheless, because of their fear over events such as the slaying of Ananias and Sapphira, “none of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.” The word translated “join” is “kollaomai” meaning “to unite oneself with”, “join”, “stick to”. As the great Baptist Greek scholar A. T. Robertson said, this verb means “to cleave to like glue”. Clearly this local church in Jerusalem consisted of believers who were joined or glued to one another. The Jerusalem church was not a casual gathering of professing believers. It was not a mere collection of people who came and worshiped together on Sundays. No, it was a committed, devoted, “glued together” group.
2. Consider the matter of discipline in the local church.
Jesus was well aware the local church would have problems never experienced by the universal church. For example, it is possible an unbeliever may profess to be a believer and become part of a local church. But unbelievers can never be a part of the universal church. And, when you mix believers and unbelievers in one body, problems are going to arise. So, Jesus provided instruction to local churches on how to address such difficulties.
“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. 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. 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.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
Note the involvement of the local church in the matter. The church is to confront the sinner and, if he refuses to listen to the church, then he is to be treated as a Gentile and tax collector, in other words, as an unbeliever.
These words have absolutely nothing to do with the universal church. No one is being removed from that body. No, these are instructions to local congregations. If the individual in sin refuses to repent throughout this entire process, he is to be treated as an unbeliever.
The New Testament provides an example of this procedure being put into action. The church at Corinth had a member practicing sexual immorality with his father’s wife. Paul writes to the church and instructs them to pursue disciplinary action.
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:1-2)
“Removed” translates a word meaning “to lift up”, “to set aside” and “from among you” literally reads “out of your midst”. Clearly Paul is instructing the Corinthians to exercise the church discipline described in Matthew 18 and remove this man from their body.
Paul doesn’t mean never to allow that man to attend services with them or to hear the preaching of the Gospel. He continues this discussion as follows:
“When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5)
Paul indicates the intention of their action, namely the removal of the man from their fellowship, is a step in reaching him for the Lord. He is not a believer and, therefore, not to be part of the church. Yet, the church’s action, hopefully, will be a step to winning him to Christ. The implication is this man is welcome to attend the church’s meetings and hear the Gospel. So, his removal “out of their midst” is not referring to physical removal, rather, it is his removal from his union (i.e., membership) with the church. The unique blessings, fellowship, and opportunities he has as a member joined to this body is to be severed. Instead of treating him as a fellow worker in Christ, the believers in Corinth are to give him the Gospel.
This individual in Corinth has been moved from position of “one of the brethren” to “Gentile” (unbeliever) in accordance with Matthew 18. There must have been some means in Corinth to distinguish between those who were “one of the brethren” and those who were not. Is this not one purpose for a membership list?
3. Consider some of the other terminology used to illustrate the church.
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-3)
Peter speaks to those whom God has called to be the leaders of His local churches. In so doing, he uses the three titles given in Scripture for this one office: “elder”, “overseer”, and “shepherd” (elder, bishop, pastor).
Baptists have traditionally used the title “pastor” (meaning shepherd) for the name of their local church leader. Not only is the term Biblical, as we see above, but it also communicates a great picture of the local church: those in the church are the sheep forming the local flock and the pastor is the shepherd, appointed by God, to guide and care for this flock.
I have never cared for physical sheep but I do know that a shepherd has responsibility for specific sheep, namely, the sheep assigned to his care. The shepherd KNOWS his sheep. He is not responsible for every sheep wandering in the fields. Sheep belong to a specific flock. While there are many sheep (believers in Christ) in St. Charles, this shepherd (me) is not responsible for every one of them. Rather, God has appointed me over a specific flock, i.e., Bethesda Baptist Church.
Now, who makes up my flock? Is it every believer who walks through the church’s front door? Does it include even believers who are simply visiting on a given Lord’s Day? Does my flock consist of those sheep who regularly attend our morning worship service on Sunday? Am I, as the shepherd of this local flock, responsible for every sheep coming my way? No, I am not. A distinction must be made between the sheep which comprise my flock and other sheep. How does a shepherd make this distinction? How does he know his flock?
This same situation would have existed in the first century. When Peter tells the elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among” them, those shepherds must have had a means of distinguishing which sheep were truly part of their flock. Again, I ask, is this not one purpose for a membership list?
There is a specific flock known as Bethesda Baptist Church. It is comprised of those sheep (professing believers) who have been called by God to covenant together to form a specific flock (Bethesda Baptist Church). These sheep, not all sheep, have “glued” themselves together (by “joining” the church) with the other sheep in the sheepfold to form this flock. They are the ones I am to shepherd. You may be a sheep who frequently gathers with my flock on Sunday mornings but that does not necessarily make you part of my flock. To you I am a shepherd but not your shepherd.
Consider another illustration of God’s church found in the Bible:
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” 1 Corinthians 12:37
Again Paul is addressing the local church at Corinth. He calls them the “body of Christ”. So the local church is here pictured as Christ’s body. Furthermore, each individual member of that local church is viewed as a member of Christ’s body.
Often I have sat with my grandchildren on my lap and had them place their hand on mine to demonstrate our similarities and differences. When I look at those hands, I KNOW which of those fingers I am looking at are mine and which ones are not. Mine are connected, they are JOINED to my body. They contribute to my body’s function, have responsibilities within my body, and receive benefit from my body as a whole. Now my grandchildren’s fingers are as much real fingers as mine. But they are not a part of my body!
Therefore, just because you are a real “finger” of God (i.e., a true believer), that does not necessarily mean you are a member of the local body of Christ. Do you contribute to the local body’s function? Do you have responsibilities within the local body? Or, do you simply receive some benefit from the local body by meeting with them once a week?
4. Consider the meaning of the “whole church” at Corinth.
“If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (1 Corinthians 14:23)
How do you know if the WHOLE church has come together if you do not have some type of list indicating who is part of the Corinthian church (and, by implication, who is not)? In other words, there is some type of membership list. Corinth practiced local church membership. An individual was required to do something to be added to this list.
I close, first, with a return to my original thoughts on the nature of the church. The church consists of the “called out ones”, those whom God has called out of darkness into His light. All true believers are called out ones, members of the great universal, invisible church. We testify to the world that God has called us out by professing our faith in Christ and committing our lives to Him. Should we not do likewise when it comes to the local church, the visible model of the universal church? Being part of a local body goes far beyond simple attendance. Rather, it involves a level of commitment (i.e., “joining”) as well as a profession of that commitment (“I am a member of Bethesda Baptist Church”).
Finally, since Christ not only gave us the universal church but also the local church, shouldn’t every true believer be committed to a local church body? If you remain a non-member of a local church, what are you communicating to those outside the church? Aren’t you telling them by your actions that the local church, a creation of Christ himself, is of little or no consequence? How can you call yourself a committed follower of our Lord Jesus Christ if you will not become a committed follower of an institution He created?
If you are not a member of a local church then I exhort you to find a church in which God’s Word is preached and commit your life to serving Christ as a member of that church body.
(1) There are several good books and articles on the subject of joining a local church. Most of them address the matter much the way I have endeavored to do so here. The arguments for church membership in most of these works are the same (why wouldn’t they be since each writer uses the same Scripture to explain and defend the practice of joining a church?). The best work I have ever read on the subject (and one of the most readable) is found in Chapter 3 of Don Whitney’s book, “Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church”, published by Moody in 1996. This specific chapter is currently available online here if you wish to read it. If what I have written does not convince you to join a church then I pray you do take the time and read his thoughts.