Every Christian should be a member of a local church. That is to say, every Christian should attend, love, serve, and submit to a local church. But is it really necessary to be a member of a church? Do churches have to offer formal membership? Is church membership biblical?
I believe church membership is found in the Bible, but perhaps not in the way you might think. There are clear implications of church membership in the Bible, and the following is a brief overview of those implications.
Christians belonged to churches from the beginning
In the book of Acts, every time someone was called to God through the preaching of the gospel, they were also called to a church. After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, the believers functioned as one church in Jerusalem. They devoted themselves to God’s word and fellowship, and God added to their number, increasing from over three thousand to five thousand (Acts 2:41-47, 4:4). They held meetings as a church (Acts 5:11-12, 6:2-5). Even when the church in Jerusalem scattered across Samaria and Syria due to persecution, the Christians continued to gather in churches, as more were added to the Lord (Acts 11:19-26).
As the apostle Paul preached the gospel on his first missionary journey, churches were being planted (Acts 14:20-23). On his second and third missionary journeys, he planted churches further west, in places like Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and Ephesus, and he strengthened the churches and the elders he could revisit (Acts 16:5, 20:28).
All of Paul’s epistles were written to churches or men serving in a local church context. He wrote letters to churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae. He also wrote letters to Timothy, who was serving the church in Ephesus, Titus, who was serving the church in Crete, and Philemon, who was hosting a church in Colossae. John’s epistles were probably intended for the church in Ephesus, and churches in the surrounding area. John explicitly addresses Revelation to the seven churches in the province of Asia. In other words, a majority of the New Testament is addressed to Christians located in the local church, where they belong.
The biblical pattern is when one belongs to Christ, he or she also belongs to the people of Christ, and this is evident in how a Christian is tied to a particular body of believers—the local church.
Christians are led by their church elders
Implications of church membership are often found in the descriptions of an elder’s role in the local church. Elders are called to shepherd God’s people (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-2), have charge over them (1 Thessalonians 5:12, 1 Timothy 5:17, 1 Peter 5:3), and watch over their souls (Hebrews 13:17). God will hold elders accountable for those under their care (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:3-4).
The question then arises, given that elders are to shepherd the flock, who is their flock? Who do they have charge over? Which souls do they watch over? For whom are elders held accountable? Is it for every Christian they come into contact with? This can’t be the case. It benefits the elders to know, through some form of church membership, who is and isn’t under their care. Without formal church membership, much of an elder’s calling would be more burdensome than God ever intended.
It also benefits individual Christians to know, through their membership in a local church, who their shepherds are. They need to know who to submit to. Without formal church membership, it would be difficult for congregations to be obedient to Hebrews 13:17, which says to “Obey your leaders and submit to them.”
Christians know and serve their church
Much of the language we find in the New Testament suggests some form of church membership with well-defined boundaries. People always knew who belonged to a local church and who did not. For example, consider 1 Corinthians 14:23:
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?
This verse assumes the Corinthians would know when the whole church comes together, and who is outside of the congregation.
It’s important that Christians know who belongs to the church so that they know who to serve and how to serve them, to the glory of God. Scripture calls Christians to love one another, show hospitality to one another, serve one another, and gather together (1 Peter 4:8-11, Hebrews 10:24-25). Christians are called to rejoice with one another and weep with one another (Romans 12:15). They are to forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32). This is all meant to be done in the context of a local church.
Another way to serve God and one another is through church discipline. The purposes of church discipline include revealing the seriousness of sin and protecting the gospel of Jesus Christ. The final stage of church discipline is putting someone outside the church. (See Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13.) This implies churches must have some form of church membership to help each other know who belongs to the church. You can’t put someone outside the church unless you know who is inside the church.
In summary, any time God joins someone to Christ, God joins them to the body of Christ—the church. As a member of the body, they are to love and serve the other members in a local church, gather together, submit to their elders, and discipline those who do not appear to belong to the body. This would all be difficult to do (and confusing) without formal church membership.
While there is no explicit command in the Bible to formally join a local church, the implications of church membership throughout Scripture are compelling. For that reason, it would be unwise for a believer to neglect membership to a local church.