Mark #6 Biblical Church Membership

Continuing with posting the notes from our 9 Marks of a Healthy church series…I have revised these a bit from my original teaching. I have had the benefit of recently reading a book by Wayne Mack, To Be Or Not To Be A Church Member, which I recommend for all. Some of the changes are indebted to him.

“John Stott’s assessment of evangelism in the book of Acts is right: The Lord ‘didn’t add them to the church without saving them, and he didn’t save them without adding them to the church. Salvation and church membership went together; they still do.”[1]

9 Biblical Reasons for Formal Local Church Membership. 

1)      Fulfillment of “one another” commands. Christians are called to follow the commandments of love for God and neighbor [Matt 22:34-40]. Love for neighbor should especially include having mutual love with and care for all other Christians in the body (i.e. the “one another” commands of the NT) (Mk. 9:50; John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17; Rom. 12:10, 16; 13:8; 14:19; 15:5, 7, 14; 16:16; 1 Cor. 11:33; 12:25; 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; Gal. 5:13; 6:2, 10; Eph. 4:2, 25, 32; 5:19; 21; Phil. 2:3; Col. 3:9, 13, 16; 1 Thess. 3:12; 4:9, 18; 5:11, 13, 15; 2 Thess. 1:3; Heb. 3:13; 10:24, 25; Jam. 4:11; 5:9, 16; 1 Pet. 1:22; 4:8, 9, 10; 5:5, 14; 1 John 1:7; 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11, 12; 2 John 1:5). There is a total of 58 “one another” commands in Scripture such as the command to “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Rom. 12:10). It is difficult to be devoted to one another if you are not willing to formally commit to one another in the church. Church members need to know who they have this primary responsibility for (1 Pet. 4:9-10).

2)      New Testament church had a clear line drawn between it and the world. They knew who was in and they knew who was out (“outsider” Col. 4:5; 1 Cor. 5:9-13). “A church is a local congregation of Christians committed to Christ and to each other.”[2] It is not just whoever shows up for church on Sunday morning or Wednesday evening. In Corinth, there were people who gathered with the church that were not part of the church (NASB, “outsider” 1 Cor. 14:16, 23, 24). The New Testament church kept a running tally of who was in (Acts 2:41-47; 5:14).

3)      Biblical church discipline can only happen when there is biblical church membership. If there is no identifiable church, who is to be involved in church discipline? Who is subject to discipline and who is involved in administering it? Jesus said “tell it to the church.” The church is then called to exercise loving accountability to the offender. So who is the church? Practically speaking, who do we tell if there is no formal church membership? Anyone who shows up that day? Furthermore, when a person who repents is welcomed back in, what are they welcomed back into if there is no formal church membership? Excommunication from the church isn’t about removing them from a building. Neither is bringing them back in. It is all about personal relationships.

4)      Divine election vs. personal selection. In 1 Cor. 12 -25-26 it tells us that the members of a church should “have the same care for one another.” It doesn’t matter if a person is a foot or a finger, a hand or an arm, if they are a member of the body, we should care for them all equally. Church membership recognizes this responsibility is towards and all those that God places in the body. Those who refuse church membership are left to make arbitrary decisions about who they should fulfill these commands towards. They can’t possibly have equal concern for every Christian in the world. Limited time and resources won’t allow them to minister equally to everyone, so they make personal subjective choices about who they want to care for rather than depend on God’s choice. 

5)      Submission to church leadership. Being in willing relationship with, and under authority of, the leaders of congregation (Heb. 13:17; cf. v. 7) is a command of Scripture. This principle is mirrored in a marriage relationship (Eph. 5:22ff.). Women aren’t called to submit generally to all men. Specific wives are called to submit to their specific husbands. In the same way, all Christians are not called to submit to all pastors. Specific congregations are called to submit to their specific leaders. How can a person who refuses to be formally identified with a particular church say they are living in submission to the leadership of that church?

6)      Specific church leaders have been given responsibility for specific Christians. Paul tells the Thessalonians to esteem those elders who “labor among you” and “have charge over you.” (1 Thess. 5:12-13). These leaders have an identifiable flock that they labor among and have charge over. This flock has identifiable leaders that lead them and labor for them. Again, Peter says specific pastors were given a certain defined group to shepherd: those “among you” (1 Pet. 5:2) and “in your charge” (1 Pet. 5:3). It is this group that pastors will particularly have “to give an account” for (Heb. 13:17). If Christians want to hang out with a flock but refuse to formally identify with a flock, how can the biblical relationship described here continue to exist in the church?

7)      Faithful stewardship of time and energy for elders depends on formal church membership. A shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep but elders are called to be wise in expending themselves for the Lord’s sheep. Biblical church membership allows them to prioritize properly.

8)      Faithful stewardship of resources by deacons depends on formal church membership. Deacons are called to be discerning in the distribution of the financial resources of the church. They are to make sure that the church is cared for before ministering outside the church. How can they fulfill their calling without church membership?

9)      Church membership is a public proclamation of the gospel. The church is a living testimony of the truth and power of the gospel. Unbelievers are convicted, believers are edified, and God is glorified by this visible representation of gospel realities. When a person is saved, they are spiritually baptized into Jesus and into the church (1 Cor. 12:12-13). In a similar way, formal church membership is first entered through baptism after conversion and then maintained by the Lord’s Supper. These are spiritual symbols that testify to spiritual realities. Rejecting formal church membership compartmentalizes a person’s faith and confuses the unseen reality that the symbols are designed to point to.

[1] Kevin DeYoung & Ted Kluck, Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion, p. 164; quoting John Stott, The Living Church, p. 32.

[2] Mark E. Dever, A Display of God’s Glory, 2nd ed., p. 48.


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